sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

March 6, 2017

The Day of March The 8th

After seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly embarked on a program of societal transformation. An integral part of their cathartic agenda was a replacement of traditional pagan and Christian holidays like Christmas or Maslenitsa with newly created socialist rites.  Arguably the most successful of the newly introduced “red calendar days”, the one that the country celebrated in earnest, was International Women’s Day, colloquially known by its temporal marking as the Day of March the 8th.  Not so coincidentally, March 8 was the most subversive of all socialist holidays, and by “subversive” I don’t mean “commie pinko”.

The origins of International Women’s Day are shrouded in mystery.  It first popped up in New York City in 1909 when women workers may or may not have held a strike on that date. In the coming years lady socialists around the Western world led their own strikes on or around March 8th.  One such demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1917 quickly escalated into the overthrow of the tsarist regime.  It is no surprise then that shortly after the October revolution the Soviets canonized the women’s solidarity day. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the USSR made it into a major holiday giving workers the day off.

The early driving force behind the establishment of the Soviet holiday was a comrade of Vladimir Lenin named Alexandra Kolontai. Here is Ms. Kolontai explaining the meaning of the new socialist observance in a 1920 speech:

Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women. […]

Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The “Working Woman’s Day” turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!

One can celebrate many things — harvest, liberation from slavery, birthdays of people, countries and extraordinary historical and religious figures, but how does one mark the occasion of “struggle […] for the victory of communism” on behalf of the fair sex?

In 1965, when the Soviet subjects were allowed a day off to mark the occasion of female solidarity, Soviet women were obliged to work government jobs collecting government wages.  With professional opportunities being bleak and stay-at-home motherhood not an option, women were torn between not particularly satisfying jobs and not always appreciating families.  Without the free market working its magic to meet the needs of working families, this was a particularly difficult undertaking. American women justly complain about the double shift, but try working a double shift when you can’t drive up to a supermarket at 10:54 on Sunday night and buy everything you need to feed your family for a week.

There was also a problem with Russian men (and by “Russian” I mean the culturally Russian).  It’s not just that they generally believed women to be all around inferior, which they did and still do, but with the male/female ratio notoriously askew, there wasn’t (and there isn’t) enough of them.  And it’s not that there were so few of them, but that the ones who manages to survive wars and purges are often plagued by problems like sloth and alcoholism.  Women had to step up and do the men’s jobs, be strong when their men were weak.  Ladies were frequently seen on Soviet streets lifting and towing heavy objects, which was understood to be a problem, not a giant leap for womankind.  Those were not perky coeds who thought it would be cool to compete with men or be on equal terms with them, because they weren’t like their men at all.

Add to it the tragic but not frequently discussed at the time issue of abortion as birth control.  The exact number of abortions performed in the USSR is difficult to estimate because many of were done underground, but it’s not a stretch to say that all culturally Russian sexually active women capable of conception had more than one and often more than ten. This all took place against the background of high rate of alcohol consumption and other untreated mental illnesses.


I’m not sure who took this picture and when, but it appears to be from my birth city of Kharkov , and it is exactly how I remember the Kharkov’s dreary side.  It has the quintessential Russian feel — sure, the girl is hot, but look at the surroundings


In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was growing up, Kolontai’s talk of the overthrow of capitalism was absolutely alien to Soviet reality.  But oh, did we hear about the inevitable victory of socialist labor and other related topics!  Communist ideology was inescapable: pinned to the outer walls of highrises, spewed at politinformation meetings at work and schools, saturated on airwaves — virtually anywhere and everywhere, except for our apartments and especially our kitchens.  What Russian society craved at the time was an escape from the officialdom into a private world, interpersonal relationships, inner feelings.  Personal, not political, because personal was interesting and tangible, and political was gibberish.

I when I set out to write this post, I tried to look up the quote I picked up in one of my seminars that went along the lines that the anti-Soviet was Soviet too.  I couldn’t trace it, unfortunately.  It could be attributed to a well-known dissident for all I know, it could be late Soviet folklore.  The idea here is that everything political is deeply flawed, that the Soviet system wrapped its subjects in the blanket of politics and that politics became inescapable, and that even to resist Soviet reality with a different kind of politics, like the dissidents, was to give into the Soviet system.  Living a private life unbothered by the powers that be was, from that perspective, a true act of radicalism.


Soviet kitsch: postcard cuties bring early spring flowers to their love interests

And those, on this day Russian men give their women flowers, perfume and chocolates and children surprise their mothers with handmade crafts.  Wives and mothers spend the A.M. hours in the kitchen toiling on the labor-intensive mayo-based salads for the holiday feast to be spent with family and close friends.

The irony of the situation was quickly noted: on the supposed women’s day off it was women who busted their butts while, in best case scenarios, men relaxed in front of the television sets. (Worst case scenario? They were drinking someplace.). To offer help with housework this one day a year was considered an act of a true chivalry, but I’m not sure it ever happened, or, if help was offered, it was accepted (because who can trust dad to boil the carrots, right?) or if the offer extended beyond the manlier tasks like vacuuming the rug.


More Soviet kitsch: Serenading mom on March 8. Note the apron on the dad

The men watched tv, first national channel mostly — the other two channels unwatchable–skipping the Supreme Soviets session honoring some proletarian femmes, perhaps noting a program that bemoaned the way women are treated in everyday life and always enjoying the operetta.  Lots of it was aired that day, with the aria of Boni from Imre Kalman’s Silva deemed particularly good fit for the occasion:

“One cannot live without women in this world, oh no,” croons  Boni. “As the poet said, they are our happiness.”  Organizers of #DayWithoutWomen please take note.

When the Soviet empire came crumbling down, some socialist holidays were disposed of, but there was broad consensus that the New Year’s Eve, which still remains the most important holiday throughout the Russian cultural space, and Women’s Day are worth keeping.  It remains a deeply ingrained part of post-Soviet tradition.  Ukraine’s controversial Institute for Historical Memory proposed abolishing this vestige of Communism a month ago this year, but that fell of deaf ears; March 8 is genuinely popular in this set in its ways country.

In Russia and its former holdings the holiday  continues to functions as a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day, but with a Russian twist.  It’s perfectly normal for a Russian publication to make a list of hottest female politicians in the country, just to celebrate the womankind.  A more western-oriented feminists in That part of the world, both of them, look at March 8 traditions with suspicion these days, but they are marginal creatures.  There might be a different way to authentically commemorate a women’s day, but, not unlike the real communism, it hasn’t been tried yet.

America doesn’t need International Women’s Day because our consumer-oriented, individualist society developed different, better ways of showing appreciation of women. When Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day are true people’s holidays, March 8 was an occasion celected by the state that Soviet society made its own.  And yet there is something that we, feminists especially, can learn from this Soviet holiday, namely the idea that private life is worth living for its own sake, that at the end personal happiness is all that matters and that it shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of second wave feminism.

I want to leave you with a song by Alla Pugacheva, a spirited redhead with clear, powerful voice, who, in the 70’s and 80’s became the embodiment of personal, not political turn in the Soviet psyche.  She sang of feelings and relationships, love and artists, childhood and motherhood, and it resonated.  I didn’t appreciate Soviet pop at the time, but now, looking back, I get the phenomenon.  So here is One Million Scarlet Roses, her mid-80’s megahit we expected to hear on the first national channel at prime time on International Women’s Day.


September 7, 2013

Shame and Loathing in Kharkov

Filed under: education, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 3:30 pm

This Monday was Labor Day in the US, but our number one geo-political enemy celebrated the Day of Knowledge.  Before the Soviet Union croaked and it became necessary to spruce up the old Soviet holidays, the occasion wasn’t known as the Day of Knowledge.  It was simply September 1, the first day of the new school year, celebrated on the first weekday of September.  It was, and it still is, a huge deal for the entire country.  The high point of the day is the quaintly sexist assembly during which the tallest and the strongest Senior boy carries the cutest littlest first grade girl on his shoulder in front of fellow schoolmates, parents and teachers lined up around the perimeter of the school yard, and the girl, outfitted in holiday uniform and giant white bows, rings a bell.

Somewhere in Russia in 2011. Imagine perfect childhood

There is much to say about this holiday, which, on balance, was not bad, and I’ll post about it one day.  What got me reminiscing is an Instapundit link to an essay on culture shock by a student from India.  This is how he chose to start:

  • Nobody talks about grades here.
  • Everyone is highly private about their accomplishments and failures. Someone’s performance in any field is their performance alone. This is different compared to India where people flaunt their riches and share their accomplishments with everybody else.
Of all things American he singled out that, and oh, how I understand him.  When I was growing up in Kharkov, Soviet Union, we had no notion of grade privacy.  It’s not just that inquiring about a classmate’s grades wasn’t bad form, we didn’t’ need to.  Our grades were announced in front of the whole class or posted next to our names in a hallway.  Students who did well were often praised in front of the collective, while those at the bottom were shamed.
All teachers, including the nice ones, discussed our grades — such was the custom; most shamed students, and some did so with gusto.  I recall my 8th grade Russian lit teacher taking entire class hour to belittle a student for using words and expressions she didn’t understand.  The girl survived the humiliation, and, being a happily average girl, kept pulling average grades through high school.  The teacher, I’m pretty sure, was KGB because a) somebody in our school had to be KGB and b) her husband was a general, and they spent several years in Cuba.
(Not all abuse in my school was strictly emotional.  Most of the spanking went to troubled kids, about which I didn’t feel particularly bad then, and don’t feel particularly bad now, even though I realize in a long term this kind of discipline was probably useless.  But once my elementary school teacher hit a quiet, lonely girl for not following directions.  That episode remained ingrained in my mind because I didn’t understand why the teacher hurt her.  In retrospect I realize that the girl was autistic, and the teacher, who had 37 of us in her classroom, lost her temper.)
Before the onset of puberty, shaming discouraged failure in certain cases and prompted many middle of the road students to improve their grades.  What kid wants to be called a “fool” and a “cretin” in front of his friends?  Even those of us who were pretty sure we wouldn’t be singled out, set trembling as our elementary school teacher, a stunningly attractive woman with hourglass body, announced test marks.  Now she’s going through the bundle of 5’s (out of 5, that is), and now 4’s, and then 3’s.  We’d rather hear a 4 than a 3.
An unintended effect of shaming was discouragement of achievement.  Once we grew up a bit and got more introspective, we started talking of rather having a 2, the failing grade, than a 3.  A 2 looks like we didn’t care, but 3 made it seem like we tried, but didn’t get very far.
And think of it from the perspective of the student who regularly flunks a tests: he, a 7-year-old son of an alcoholic mother and no known dad, already resigned himself to be the whipping post of the teacher whom he hates, fears and admires at the same time.  But as soon as she’s done with him, some smarty pants kid, the one who gets a yummy sandwich out of his briefcase every afternoon at lunchtime, gets praise.  What, he thinks he’s better than everyone else?  Guess what, the delinquent also needs an outlet.
I, for one, allied myself with not too bright girls who were on good terms with the hooligans, and allowed them to copy my tests just so that they could put in a good word for me.  I also made sure to get a few 4’s each quarter.
In grade school, we were already well on our way of embracing mediocrity, disliking being both on top and on the bottom.  It’s not just that the Soviet economic system disincentivized achievement, and political system punished it, the entire culture was driven by envy and at odds with anything or anybody who dares to be extraordinary.
Add to it the ethnic dimension.  Not all Jews were nerds and there was no shortage of uber-brainy Russians or Ukrainians, but often, and stereotypically, the kid with exemplary grades had dark curls and sad eyes and his tormenters were Slavs.  And even if an otlichnik (a straight A student) was not himself a yid, at least not to his knowledge, it was no guarantee that racial epithets won’t fly when the hooligans give him what was coming.  Any questions about  the Soviet brain drain?
There is much not to like about American schools, particularly the insidious self-respect movement that treats students as fragile little things who need to be showered with praise.  Well, at least I can reasonably expect that teachers will respect my children’s humanity.

July 8, 2012

Soviet City Youth in Kolkhoz

Filed under: Russia, Soviet Union — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:07 am

In the mid-19th century, about half of the peasants in the Russian Empire were serfs.  After the 1861 emancipation, former serfs gained control of half the land they cultivated.  In the late 1920s-early 30a, Joseph Stalin implemented collectivization, confiscating privately owned land, animals and grain and killing and exiling wealthy or unwilling peasants.  The resulting famine claimed the lives of anywhere from 6 to 8 million people country-wide, with an overwhelming majority of deaths occurring in Ukraine.  The famine bares the Ukrainian name Holodomor, literally “hunger kill”.

As a result of collectivization, agricultural production immediately plummeted.  Peasants burnt their warehouses and slaughtered their livestock rather than surrender them to the government.  Once herded into kolkhozes, they responded with theft, sabotage and a deliberately slow pace of work.  And yet posters with smiling peasants graced the walls of government buildings and stories of record harvests made yearly headlines in Pravda.  One of the common themes of the socialist realist art was women and ample harvest, especially grain. While the best examples of the genre were masterfully drawn and poignant, they had nothing to do with reality.


“Bread” by Tetyana Yablonska, painted in 1949, is a pretty good example of the genre. I remember it from my grade school textbooks.  Ukrainian peasant women,sunburned, stout and hardworking, are gathering grain against the backdrop of modern agricultural machinery.  The woman in the center of composition must be pointing at the bright communist future


“Bread” by Ilya Isupov, 2010

Collectivization restricted the movement of peasants who had to obtain permission of the kolkhoz leadership in order to move.  But when regulations were relaxed, people, particularly the youth, flocked to the cities.  Soviet country life offered few educational and vocational opportunities.  If there was little money to be made by the residents of Russian villages, there was also little to buy because the government preferred to prop up big cities with material goods.  Although they like to deny it, Russians are materialistic people — not that there is anything wrong with that — so they like to live in places with good shopping.  Living conditions in the countryside were (and still are) deplorable.  In the late 1950s, my mother was stationed in a village with no electricity.  Never mind that according to the official story, all of the Soviet Union was supplied with electricity in the 20s.  Running water and indoor bathrooms were a luxury.


This babushkas pictures you see on The People’s Cube shows the aging and heavily female population of countryside devoid of amenities

In the cities, peasant youth usually settled in nearly identical soulless suburbs.  Many newcomers filled the ranks of manual laborers and single mothers.

To the City for Education

M. Kugach “To the City for Education”, 1965.  This hard-working girl from a nice village must be a budding intellectual. It’s amazing that a painting with so much humanity can be totally divorced from reality

Because of the shortage of people willing and able to work the land, city dwellers were directed to help the kolhozes.  Since we weren’t trusted with heavy machinery or the cattle, we ended up picking vegetables or working at the warehouses.  A few times a year my parents, both engineers, were sent to kolkhoz warehouses (na kohaty).  They always fretted both because they didn’t want to spend the whole day away from home and family and because it was hard to see how menial agricultural work was a good application of their skills. I once asked my mom how come she just didn’t blow them off.

“Somebody has to do this work.” She replied. “Otherwise we will have nothing to eat.”

There were more immediate reasons to go, though.  She usually came back with bags full of fresh vegetables for family and friends.  Technically that was theft, but in the country with a vast black market economy it was expected, and collective farm administrators looked the other way.

High school and university students, too, were ordered to the countryside where unlike the married older subjects we could spend long stretches of time.  I suppose we could get out if we’d put our mind to it, the way young men get out of mandatory military service, but as a rule we wanted to go.  My one and only time at kolkhoz was in about 1988.  It was during Perestroika, and some boys in my class had the nerve to ask to be paid.  From what I remember, it was explained that our earnings will cover room and board.  You see, we went for the whole month and were stationed in a dormitory near a lake.  In the mornings we were supposed to pull weeds out on a strawberry field, but the rest of the day was spent sunbathing, swimming and socializing.  In other words, it was a camp.

Harrison of Capitol Commentary mentioned that a friend of his remembers young women getting pregnant working in kolkhoz.  It’s easy to see how something like that would happen.  In our case, we were 15 and most of us still reasonably innocent.  We were housed in a dormitory with large rooms; I think there were four rooms for nearly 40 of us, and we were chaperoned by a teacher called class leader (klassnii rukovoditel).  We were begging for a disco, and it did happen, but only on the last weekend of our stay.  Mysteriously, one girl was sent home early.  But if anyone got pregnant, she didn’t carry pregnancy to term.  My mom, however, who went to kolkhoz multiple times in her youth, had all-girls assignments.

We thought we scored with that strawberry field, but when we arrived on location, we found that the field was so overgrown with weeds, there were no strawberries to save.  We kind of pretended to work, with our class leader watching over us.  Once we walked into the sunflower field nearby where were shocked to discover sunbathing semi-nude peasant women with their ugly white bras around their waists.  On the last day of our stay, a kolkhoz tractor drove through the field and cut down the weeds.

There was a saying in the Soviet Union “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”, but that particular strawberry field was a surreal example of non-exercise in futility of not-so-forced non-labor.  One of those things that makes you wonder why the Soviet Union fell.

student labor

City youth at a collective farm, “working”.  Judging by his sweater, this picture was probably taken in the 80s

In the 1990s, old Ukrainian collective farms were re-registered as corporate farms.  The land was not redistributed, and the management practices didn’t change.  Forced student labor persists in the former republics, like Belarus and Uzbekistan.  They harvest cotton in the later.  Ring any bells?

UPDATE: many thanks to Professor Jacobson for linking.

November 8, 2011

A Soviet Romance

Filed under: Soviet Union — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:21 pm

My great uncle and his wife recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.  At the anniversary party they shared their love stories with friends and family.

They both lived in communal apartments before they met.  A communal apartment is the kind where the government sends you a roommate.  They were typically overcrowded.  This kind of living arrangement was pretty common throughout Soviet history.  After WW2 in particular single family apartments were rare because so many housing units were destroyed.  Even though shoddily made high-rises nicknamed khrushchevkas were slapped on Soviet cities in the Khrushchev era, the housing problem wasn’t solved.


A khrushchevka in Saint Petersburg. Could be anywhere from Ulan Bator to East Berlin.

When I was leaving the country in the late 80s, many still lived in communal apartments with random roommates.  Think of your first college roommate.  Well, it’s kind of similar, but you had not even your choice of school in common, and weren’t necessarily young and adventurous.  Add poverty to it and the fact that the roommate is there to stay.  Here is a joke (not a very funny one) that I heard from my auntie:

A young woman is  taking a shower in her communal bathroom.  Once she’s done, she drys herself with a towel and gets dressed.  But when she opens the door, she sees that her 5 roommates were watching her through the keyhole.

“How could you!” She blushes and screams.

“Like we need you,” they answer. “We were watching whose soap you were using.”

So the relationships in communal apartments were strained.  My great-aunt’s roommate was spreading rumors that she was plotting to kill Stalin.  Luckily the roommate didn’t go to the authorities with that one.

My great aunt didn’t have a lot of amenities.  She didn’t have a refrigerator, and those were rationed.  She had to go to the government office and fill out a card for them to notify her when refrigerators arrive.  She went there, stood in line and filled out her card.  When she was done, a man standing right behind her asked her to fill out the card for him.  She filled it out as they talked.  She put his name and address on the card, they finished talking and the man left.  My great aunt looked at him walking away and thought that he’s dressed rather neatly.

A few years later my great aunt, then married to my great uncle, receives not one but two refrigerator cards, both in her handwriting.  My great aunt and great uncle looked at each other and said:

“So that was you!”

Being an astute student of economics and an astute student of history (all self-taught, mind you) DH wanted to know if my great uncle and his wife sold their extra refrigerator card.  Although the answer to this question is unknown, I’m pretty sure they did.  There is something about scarcity that brings up the practical side in people.

October 25, 2011

“Free” Education and “Right to Work”, Soviet Style

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:23 pm

Political Junkie Mom suggests that I share my family’s experience with free education and a guaranteed job, which happens to be one of the top #Occupy demands.  These demands are very Communist in nature; in fact, Soviet Constitution promised both.  So here’s a few anecdotes.

My great-grandfather Tsali was a successful dressmaker.  He owned a dress factory in Ukraine and another one in Poland.  Then the Bolsheviks came and took everything.   Although the government gave people jobs, Tsali swore he’d never work for the Soviets.  So he worked under the table, making clothes, doing what he did best.  Tsali believed that “the thieves” wouldn’t last long.  Well, they outlasted him.  He was still at the sewing machine when he was already in his 80s because, since he never worked for the government, he did not qualify for a pension.  Makes sense: if the government is also the employer, why should it pay for the retirement of competitors?  So much for the safety net.

Starting in 1918 Soviet subjects had their work history recorded in the Employment Record Books.  Upon retirement the benefits were calculated based on this document.  For the most part of Soviet history the government owned most of the means of production and trained workers.  While black market work was frequently a necessity, this kind of employment was often prosecuted, not to mention that it went unrecorded.  So only official government work counted towards retirement.

In the Soviet Union government work was not just a right, but a duty.  From time to time subjects were legally not allowed to be unemployed.  My grandmother Vera was a nurse, educated in Imperial Russia.  She married my grandfather and decided to be a homemaker.  From time to time, when this kind of arrangement was illegal, she had to return to government work.

Soviet propaganda

The plate features a page from an Employment Record Book with inscription above "Those who don't work, don't eat". Soviets attributed this Biblical proverb to Lenin. Vigorous propaganda campaigns urged citizens to work for the government.

My uncle was a straight A student, graduating from high school with “gold medal”.  That was an equivalent of American valedictorian.  He aced his college entrance exams.  Unfortunately, he wanted to study nuclear engineering, and Jews were not wanted in that field.  He had to chose a different major.  Racial discrimination is what happens when free market forces are not in place to assure that the most qualified individuals will rise to the top.  When the government owns schools and places of employment, bureaucrats’ (and Politburo’s) prejudices reign.

That Soviet universities didn’t charge tuition doesn’t mean that they were free.  To guarantee admission to many prestigious schools, prospective student’s parents had to bribe somebody.  This typically excluded engineering schools because towards the end of the Soviet era engineering lost its luster.  Engineers who often worked in large collectives and for the government clients were not in a position to take bribes.  The profession was still popular among more proud, modest and intellectually-minded people, in part because the hard facts of math and physics remained unaffected by the Party decree.  And so my parents were engineers.

In the 70s and 80s some engineering majors started playing rock-n-roll, and were summarily kicked out of their government-guaranteed jobs.  A few others found that they’d rather — the horror! — be janitors and watchmen and play rock-n-roll in their spare time than be stuck at the drafting board because that was the kind of clean desk job they were allotted.  I wouldn’t call it funemployment.  Here is Boris Grebenshchikov, the lead singer of the seminal Russian rock band Akvarium who himself was kicked out of work with “Generation of Janitors”:

Of course, the government use the threat of unemployment to control behavior in many other ways.   For instance, my uncle who was denied admission to the school of his choice for being Jewish, also lost his job after applying for an exit visa.  He found another job, to be sure, just not the kind of job he’d want.

It’s worth noting that in the past two decades many Soviet-educated engineers did very well for themselves, finding employment abroad.

If a society is going to try to guarantee employment and free education, it has to surrender control of both employment and education to the government.  In the Soviet Union, bureaucrats and party hawks had undue power over college admission and job placement, and government-guaranteed right to work often morphed into mandated government work.  All in all, the Soviet Union wasn’t the kind of society where one gets to play all day just because the government provides.  Most of the #Occupy types are exactly the kind of people Communist society has no use for.

August 16, 2011

Russia in Afghanistan

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:02 am

That Afghanistan is a grave of empires is one of those endlessly recycled cliches with Russian experience sited as an example.

Soviet involvement in Afghanistan lasted from 1979 to 1988; during this period 14,453 Soviet troops were killed, or about 1,500 a year.  What’s 15,000 men for a country like Russia?  For comparison, the Soviet Union lost almost 27,000,000 soldiers and civilians in four years of the Russian involvement in World War II, with 80,000 dead in the final battle of the war alone.  Of course, that was under very different circumstances, the country was attacked, and the German onslaught stopped only on the outskirts of Moscow.  That’s true.  But imagine the mentality of people weaned on stories of the Great Patriotic war and the many millions lost.  While the Afghan war was unpopular, the 15,000 figure did not weigh too heavily on the Russian psyche, and in any event, even during Perestroika,  the Soviet Union was not a Western-style democracy, we didn’t have a large-scale anti-war movement, and there was a draft.  If the Politburo wanted to stay in Afghanistan, they would.

In any event, the Soviet empire fell apart a few years after the withdrawal from Afghanistan for domestic political and economic reasons.  Russia lost such prized possessions as Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia and the Early Medieval Russian capital of Kiev.  Because of alcoholism, 25% of Russian men today are expected to die before age 55.  So, again, what’s 1,500 war dead a year?  I’m not even mentioning the Chechen wars.  OK, I just mentioned them.

One among many Russian Afghan War memorials, this one in Yekaterinburg.

Certainly, the war wasn’t free, but the cost of the Afghan war should be looked at in the context of the stagnant economy.  To make things worse, in the second half of the 1980s revenue fell as Gorbachev launched his anti-alcoholism campaign, significantly reducing the monies collected from vodka taxes.  Incredibly, vodka taxes constituted a quarter of Soviet budget.  All that as the Soviet Union was also trying to keep up with the arms race.  Withdrawal from Afghanistan didn’t save the Soviet economy.

Not to say that the Soviet Union wasn’t overstretched.  Afghanistan is a land-locked country, and by the time you get there you know you are overstretched.  One of the reasons Afghanistan is not much of a nation today is because no foreign power really bothered to do much nation-building there.

Today, American war dead are a different story.  We mourn each and every hero, like the 31 killed in the recent helicopter crash.  But if we don’t fight wars for treasure, what exactly is our end game in that land-locked country, and how are we going to achieve it?  Certainly the US is not obligated to do any nation building there just because we helped the Afghans to kick out the Soviets.  Can we trust the current occupant of the White House to achieve anything at all in Central Asia?

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