Life Under Socialism



Originally Capitalist, Russia Became Socialist

By Lev D. Zilbermints

This article is the first in a series of articles that will focus on what life under socialism in Russia was like during the years 1917 - 1991. The series, proposed by “Local Talk” founder Dhiren Shah, will focus on different aspects of socialism: education, economy, politics, emigration, military, society and religion. Sources for the series will include interviews with people who lived under socialism, as well as books, websites, and other information. The first article will focus on what socialism is, and how it is different from the Czarist, capitalist system.

According to Friedrich August von Hayek, an Anglo-Austrian economist, all forms of collectivism, even those theoretically based on voluntary cooperation, could only be maintained by a central authority of some kind. In his book, The Road to Serfdom (1944) and other published works, Hayek made the argument that socialism required central economic planning and that this in turn led to totalitarianism.

According to the famous historian and sociologist Ludwig von Mises, the government should not intervene in the economy, the way socialism did. Rational economic activity is impossible in a socialist commonwealth, wrote Mises.

At its heart, socialism is all about controlling every aspect of human life, from the cradle to the grave. Economy, education, emigration, politics; everything is controlled by the government. There is no private enterprise, and religion is persecuted. All the decent qualities of the human race, such as honesty, kindness, honor, compassion, truthfulness, and hard work are all washed out by the socialist monster which tries to mold everybody in the same form.

Consider the differences between Communist Russia and Imperial Russia. Under the Czars, Russia had a capitalist system. People worked hard, earned money and moved up and down the social ladder. If someone had no job, that person was not arrested or called a parasite on society, as under Communism. The Czarist system had many flaws, but it could in no way compare to the evils of the socialist/communist system that came in 1917.

One key difference between the Czarist system and the socialist system was how the economy was viewed. Under the Czar, private ownership was the staple of the capitalist system. Competition among different producers and manufacturers meant that high quality was maintained. The economy operated on a free-market principle. Unlike under socialism, the economy was not planned or highly centralized.

Under socialism, the economy was highly centralized. There was no private ownership. Everything belonged to the state Since there was no competition among manufacturers and producers, the quality of goods being made suffered. Compared to goods made outside the Soviet Union, Soviet goods were of an inferior quality. The reason for this lay in the state, not free market, imposing economic controls and standards!

Let me give an example of private ownership. Under the Czar, Russians could own houses, apartments, horses, etc. No one cared if a man owned one cow or a hundred. A man could own property and not worry that someone would take it. The Czarist regime encouraged private ownership. In fact, if a man were successful, he could move up the social ladder. The pre-Revolutionary Table of Ranks, first passed by Peter the Great in the 1700s, was made of fourteen different social ranks. Thus, a person could, by way of hard work, move from a lower rank to a higher rank.

Under socialism, the main owner is the state and its bureaucrats. Everything is tightly controlled, from birth to death. A man is not his own master under socialism. Instead, the state and its bureaucracy, the ruling elite, control the individuals.

Under socialism, anyone who works hard, makes a profit and owns a business is called an exploiter of the proletariat. The socialist system believes that everyone should own everything. Thus, in the Soviet Union there existed the kolkhoz, a collective ownership. In a village, there was one or two tractors for 150 people; 15 cows for 300 people. Everyone used the cows and the tractors, and other attributes. There was no private ownership.

When my mother, Raisa Silver, was a young girl, she had two dresses. My father, David Zilbermints, had two pairs of suits. When I got sick, he had to sell one suit for my treatment.

Under the Soviet regime, there was no such thing as private property. Everything was, in theory, owned by the state. It was called collective ownership. For example, a woman could have owned a seven-room apartment before the 1917 Revolutions. The apartment belonged to her family alone. After the 1917 Revolution, the apartment was taken over by the communists. This meant that an entire family would be settled in one room, which had the size of 20 square feet. Thus, a seven-room apartment had 3-35 people lining there, four or five or even six people to a room. Thus, there was no longer any private ownership or even privacy.

Another example is cited by the famous Russian singer Galina Vishnevskaya (1926 - 2012) in her memoirs. Vishnevskaya writes about how people lived in communal apartments. There was only one bathroom, with 35 people waiting in line to use it. Men had to ride to work on an overcrowded train or bus while their wives waited three or four hours in line to buy food for the family. Meanwhile, Communist party bosses rode to work in limousines, had their own special stores to buy food, and elite cafeterias to eat in. Ordinary Russians were forbidden to use the same stores and cafeterias that were used by the elite.

Under the Czar, people could buy food without waiting in line for hours. It was not until World War I (1914 - 1918) that Russians began standing in line for food.

According to Vishnevskaya, things became difficult when it was time to go to a sanatorium for vacation. In order to get a pass to make the trip down south, the potential traveler had to have the right connections. He had to spend a lot of time running around making arrangements for the trip. If this was not possible, the traveler had to hitchhike on his own. 

Then, after spending a day in the hot sun, the traveler finally rents a bed in a small room with several other hitchhikers. In the morning, the traveler ran quickly to the beach in order to obtain 1.5 meters of space. When hungry, the traveler stood for hours in line to a restaurant, just to eat once a day. And when he needed to use the beach restroom, the traveler had to squeeze his nose, jumping around piles of excrement left by others. There was a long line of people ahead of him!

Full disclosure: Lev D. Zilbermints lived in Soviet Russia from 1967-1975. His family came to the United States in 1975.