I've been doing quite a bit of reading about the Soviet Union lately as research for a literary project about the Cold War and its leaders.
Much of what I've read has horrified me, such as the ruthlessness of dictator Joseph Stalin, in whose name so many millions of his own citizens died that historians can only guess at the number. Estimates range between three and 30 million. An additional 50 million people or so died in the Soviet Union during World War II.
Famine and disease killed millions more. The freedoms guaranteed to United States citizens – of speech, of religion, of assembly – didn't exist in the USSR except on paper. The leader of the nation's police force under Stalin himself was a serial rapist.
It's hard to say very many good things about most of the methods exercised by the Soviet government during its 74 years of existence. But the Soviets also provided free health care, education and had an almost nonexistent unemployment and illiteracy rate.
In my research, I have read extensively about Nikita S. Khrushchev, the leader of the nation from shortly after Stalin's death in 1953 until a coup deposed him in late 1964. Khrushchev is a colorful, earthy, often profane individual to study, not an unsympathetic character at all.
He was among the few of those complicit in Stalin's crimes to express any remorse at all about the mass murders carried out. And, under his leadership, the nation emerged as a world leader in science and technology. It was under his leadership that censorship and repression began to ease.
He was born a peasant and worked as a sheepherder, miner and steelworker before entering politics and becoming one of the world's most powerful figures. If not for the restraint that John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev showed during the Cold War's most dangerous moment, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, we might well today still be recovering from a massive nuclear war.
So despite his flaws, Khrushchev's life and deeds deserve attention and, at the very minimum, a grudging respect. And I've found quite a bit of truth that still applies today in many of his statements.
Such as: "I worked at a factory owned by Germans, at coal pits owned by Frenchmen, and at a chemical plant owned by Belgians. There I discovered something about capitalists. They are all alike, whatever the nationality. All they wanted from me was the most work for the least money that kept me alive."
Who among us who works for a living has not felt that way at the end of a stressful week on the job? Has capitalism served us so well that there is no need to question its godlike status in our lives?
Ronald Reagan was as devoted to the cause of unbridled capitalism as Khrushchev was to communism. But look at what Reagan's version of capitalism has produced: untold economic misery, periodic wars to feed the military-industrial complex's need for cash and a system that produces poorly educated and poorly trained workers while creating a narrow group of billionaires.
The United States was right to oppose the Soviet state's tendencies to repress its people and expand its empire. At the same time, the imposition of capitalism into Russia has created exactly what America has: a few billionaires, massive crime and unemployment and a sense of having little upward mobility no matter how hard you try.
Reagan's stated policies of smashing trade unions, reducing government oversight of key industries and of rewarding the wealthiest 1 percent among us has led us to a catastrophe that is nearly as bad, economically speaking, as the Soviet Union's plight.
The Tea Party Republicans of today want to build upon Reagan's legacy and go even further, virtually guaranteeing a perpetuation of inequality and social injustice for as many generations into the future as one can envision.
Given a choice, I would take Khrushchev's view of the world over theirs. Khrushchev was at least honest enough to admit he was in favor of certain kinds of repression. Modern-day conservatives want to engage in repression as well, except they cloak it in the guise of freedom.
Reaganism and its modern-day theories are as faulty, as inefficient and, to not mince words, as evil as anything the Soviet Union proposed economically. Both systems have failed.
Which is why, when it comes down to it, I support our president and his efforts to find a third way forward. Pure communism and pure capitalism have failed. And it's why I fear a right-wing revolution, because it looks to me as menacing as Stalin and his hangmen must have looked to Russians of the 1930s.