communism seemed attractive -- 5/3/16

Today's selection -- from Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild. In the 1930s, from the deep despair of the Depression where millions were out of work, developments in the Soviet Union appeared hopeful. Jobs seemed plentiful, and even the prisons seemed like places of joy:

"By comparison [to the starvation, riots, and despair during the Depression in the U.S. and parts of Europe], events in the Soviet Union sounded promising. In these apocalyptic times, it became a place onto which millions of peo­ple projected their hopes. There were no strikes -- at least none that anyone in the United States heard of -- and whatever other problems the new society might have, unemployment was not one of them. The Soviet economy appeared to be booming, enough so that Joseph Stalin ordered 75,000 Model A sedans from Henry Ford.

1931: "Come to us on the collective farm, comrade!"

"More than that: the Russians were hiring. When the government posted job openings for American engineers and technicians, in an eight-month period more than 100,000 applied. Thousands more headed for the country on tourist visas hoping to find work when they got there -- enough American and British newcomers so that the weekly English-language Moscow News went daily. Two brothers who would later become major labor leaders, Walter and Victor Reuther, were among the tens of thousands of foreigners who found jobs in Russia, working in an auto factory in the city of Gorky. A book origi­nally written for Soviet schoolchildren, New Russia's Primer: The Story of the Five-Year Plan, spent seven months on the American bestseller list. 'In the great financial storm that has burst on us your own ship is sinking,' the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw told American radio listeners after returning from a visit to the USSR, 'and the Rus­sian ship is the only big one that is not rolling heavily and tapping out SOS on its wireless.' ...

"Communism seemed to be magically sweeping a backward country into the industrial age. Like many creeds, this one had its living prophet. Accompanying an American delegation in 1927, [journalist Louis] Fischer spent the better part of a day in the company of Joseph Stalin, whose soft-spoken, simple-soldier manner charmed many a foreign visitor. 'As he talked to us hour after hour my respect for his strength, will and faith grew. ... His calm voice reflected inner power.' ...

"Foreigners searching in the Soviet Union for a future that worked, in the journalist Lincoln Steffens's famous phrase, usually found it. Fischer was no exception. The Soviet secret police, he wrote in a 1935 book, 'is not merely an intelligence service and militia. It is a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution' operat­ing, among other things, the Dynamo Athletic Club of Moscow, to which it generously gave outsiders access. The camps it maintained across the country were efforts to reform criminals through healthy outdoor work. In the same book, he devoted a rapturous chapter to Bolshevo, a bucolic Potemkin-village penal colony near Moscow where hundreds of foreign visitors were shown how Soviet criminals were generously provided with sports facilities, a movie theater, an art studio, and courses of study. The inmates were treated so well, Fischer wrote, that 'many of them have told me that they love the place too much to give it up.' ...

"In reality, of course, [the Soviet Union was in the middle of] one of history's most catastrophic man-made famines. It had happened in the winter of 1932-33, two years before the Merrimans' arrival, and was sparked by the forced collectivization of agriculture. Better-off farmers saw their land confiscated and, under the eyes of troops with machine guns, were deported in freight cars to distant parts of the vast country. Other peasants were moved off their tiny in­dividual plots and onto large collective farms -- which the authorities were confident would rapidly increase the production of food for the nation's fast-growing cities. They didn't. Peasants slaughtered and ate more than 70 million cattle and sheep rather than see them go to the new collectives.

"That winter and spring, starvation claimed at least five million lives. Snow drifted over the bodies of those who dropped from hun­ger on village streets or rural roads. As usually happens in famines, the birth rate plummeted too. When preliminary census returns later found 15 million fewer people in the Soviet Union than expected, Stalin ordered some census officials shot. The next round of statistics proved far brighter."


Adam Hochschild


Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2016 by Adam Hochschild


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