By Eric Lee
Last month I sent out a mailing to LabourStart's 75,000 subscribers asking people to support the struggles of striking oil workers in Kazakhstan and at a steel company in Georgia. As these were both former Soviet republics, I gave the message the subject of line “Back in the USSR?”.
I was quoting the Beatles song, of course, but I also wanted to point out that the increasing repression of independent trade unions in the post-Soviet era was a throwback to the dark days of Stalinism.
The last thing I expected was to become the target of a wave of angry emails from unrepentant Stalinists.
One writer told me, “Your picture labelled ‘Back in the USSR’ is the opposite of what it was — free education, health, cheap clothing and food. They were building a Utopia until they were sold out.”
Another said, “Contrarily to what you say... growingly the proletariat and the Soviet People want the return to the Soviet Union with the orientation of Lenin and Stalin (1917-1953).”
A third added, “This... is, frankly un-called for and out-dated Cold War bullshit… The standard of living has gone down drastically since the fall of the USSR and workers’ rights have eroded.”
There were dozens more like this. I didn’t take the time to answer them — life is too short — but I shared them with some of the senior correspondents at LabourStart. One of them, who was born and raised in the USSR, wrote that he had no nostalgia for those days.
“Workers had no rights,” he said, “beside the right to demonstrate how much they liked the Politburo on May Day and enjoyed CPSU propaganda.
“Today the elites of all those former USSR countries want to deprive our rights again. In this sense ‘back to the USSR’ is a correct description of what’s going on in Kazakhstan and Georgia. As well as in Russia, Ukraine, etc.”
Now this will be obvious to the readers of this newspaper, but apparently there are people out there, active in our unions, who believe that a Utopia was being built in the USSR until 1991, that workers had more rights under totalitarianism than they have now, and that there is a desperate craving to go back to the old system.
Who are these people? Obviously some will be old Stalinists who never understood what life was really like back in the USSR. George Galloway is probably in this category and said back in 2002, “I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.”
But others, I fear, may be younger people who have no idea what the Soviet Union was like and who are being exposed to a kind of revisionist history that assumes that whatever preceded today’s rotten gangster capitalism in Russia must have been much better.
One is tempted to dismiss all this as the ranting of some cranks, which in some cases it obviously is, but nostalgia for the USSR is part of the poison on the left that also leads to uncritical support for the Castro dictatorship and the Chavez regime — support that goes largely unchallenged in British unions.
We can talk all we want about what’s wrong with Cuba and Venezuela, but so long as large numbers of people in the labour movement are delusional about the Soviet Union, our work will be much harder.
Knowledge that many of us take for granted — such as the complete ban on independent trade unions and strikes in the Stalinist countries — must be shared with a new generation of activists.
And this is true not least because we cannot support our comrades on the front lines in Georgia and Kazakhstan if we have illusions about the regime that was — thankfully — overthrown there two decades ago.