Typically when I read a book that is relevant to the interests of this blog, I simply write a brief mini-review in the “Reading List” section and call it a day. But this book was so fascinating to me that I thought it deserved a post of its own. It should be required reading for anyone who is interested in communism generally or the Soviet Union specifically.
The book is essentially a collection of the observations and musings of John Scott, an American of socialist leanings who, in the 1930s, confronted with the great depression in America and hearing so much about the wonderful revolution taking place in Russia, decided to learn a trade (welding) and emigrate to the Soviet Union. He ended up assigned to Magnitogorsk, formerly a barren wasteland hardly suited to grazing the animals of nomadic tribes, destined to be converted to a center of production and industry by sheer force of brute manpower due to Stalin’s desire to have industrial production located far away from the western border (so that invading armies wouldn’t be able to disrupt industry).
What makes the story particularly interesting is how refreshingly honest and objective it is. Scott obviously supports the ideals of socialism, and even seems to have a certain fondness for Stalin himself. And yet, this doesn’t prevent him from describing the situation exactly as it was. He details the astoundingly low standard of living faced by most of the workers. He acknowledges how unfair and counterproductive it was for the communists to disenfranchise the kulaks (formerly wealthy peasants who were stripped of their possessions and treated essentially as prisoners following the revolution). He details the chilling effect of the political purges of the late 1930s and the overall callous disregard for the value of human life.
But following these descriptions, there is usually something of an afterthought. A hint of justification for the crimes and misdeeds of the Soviet regime. Scott discusses how despite all of the hardship, there was a certain sense of accomplishment and camaraderie among the workers. He describes returning to America and being astounded by the significantly higher standard of living, but still feeling a bit sad for his friends and family who seemed to fear losing it all at a moment’s notice (as opposed to the Russian worker, who had little to fear because they had already been through so much hardship). While my instinct is to castigate the author whenever he goes in to one of his “Yes it was bad, but think of the difficulty of what they had to accomplish!” sections, I hesitate to do so, because I think his story and his analysis speak to a deeper part of the human psyche that is often left unexplored.
Generally speaking, I believe that human beings are incredibly flexible and mentally adaptable to their circumstances. Despite how most of us read of various terrible historical scenarios and say to ourselves, “I could never stand something like that!” I’m quite certain that if we were forced into such an environment, the vast majority of us would eventually adapt and get along well enough. We would accept our circumstances for what they are, and learn to do the best we could within them, finding success and happiness where we can, savoring the “little things” in life, etc. This adaptability of the human spirit has potentially broad significance towards political theory in terms of just how much the government can get away with. The Soviet experiment (along with other oppressive regimes around the globe) was a giant test of exactly this sort of theory. Even though their daily life included things that to us seem like unimaginable hardships, the average Russian was essentially a normal person, just wanting to work, make some money, raise a family, and enjoy life. Scott’s book goes a long way towards emphasizing and reminding us of the universal humanity we all possess.