The Last Delegation

Posted: March 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Arbart

For over twenty years I’ve wanted to write an account of my trip to the Soviet Union. When I returned to Australia in 1990, after visiting Russia and Ukraine, many of the people I knew didn’t want to hear about my experiences in detail. For them, my reports seemed only to confirm that capitalism had won and we’d reached ‘the end of history’. So, I learnt to be quiet about what I saw, heard, experienced and what I thought was coming next. As I write now, 1990 seems such a long time ago, and my memory isn’t the best. Luckily I still have most of the letters I sent home every few days and some good photos. As you will appreciate, after reading this, there are things about my visit I cannot forget.

Maybe I wanna see the wheatfields,
Over Kiev and down to the sea,
(The Call-Up, The Clash)

You, who will rise up out of the flood in which we have gone under think too when you speak of our weaknesses of the dark time from which you have escaped.
(The Dead are Many, Frank Hardy)

The first delegation

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Australian Socialist Party (ASP) and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) both sought recognition from the Moscow based Communist International (Comintern) as its Australian section. In 1921, the Comintern invited the “Australian Communist Party” to send a delegate to its Third Congress. Both parties sent delegates and both were given voting rights to the Congress, where they were instructed to form a united communist party. In 1922, despite ASP objections, the Comintern informed the CPA that they’d been recognised as the Australian section of the Communist International. Thus began regular delegations to the Soviet Union from the CPA, as the fraternal party of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

My grandmother and both of my parents were Communist Party members and I joined the Young Communist Movement (YCM) in my early teens. I became a member of the CPA after leaving school at sixteen and began working fulltime for the Party in Wollongong, running the Party’s offset press and performing other cadre work. I thought of the Party as both my extended family and the most advanced section of the working class. However, by the late 1980s the CPA was in the process of liquidating itself, officially disbanding in 1991. At the time, I still thought that all good communists should be members of a communist party, and keen to be involved with a Marxist/Leninist party I joined the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1988. By then the SPA was the CPSU’s fraternal party in Australia and every year would send a delegation to the Soviet Union. After being employed for a couple of years as a journalist on the SPA’s weekly newspaper, The Guardian, I was chosen to represent the Party on its 1990 delegation. This delegation consisted of Ray Berbling, a psychiatric nurse from the SPA’s Victorian Executive, and me.

Whereas the initial delegations of Australian communists to post-revolutionary Russia went to see how revolution and socialism had been successful, our delegation was an exploration of why socialism had failed. However, I shall not be analysing the Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution seeking answers to ‘why they failed?’, although I did a great deal of this analysis leading up to, during, and after ‘the last delegation’. In fact, many of my Soviet friends became quite concerned as I regularly paced up and down with a copy of Lenin’s The State and Revolution, while they tried to convince me to relax and enjoy my holiday. Today, I appreciate more fully that the states and parties calling themselves communist are generally manifestations of state capitalism rather than of communism. But, although communism will remain associated with many of the horrors of the last century, I still use the term as a name for proletarian revolution and global liberation.

Meltdown

In the years leading up to our visit, the Soviet Union had been rapidly transformed and President Mikhail Gorbachev was being widely hailed around the world for his attempts at détente and ‘socialist renewal’. In 1986, the CPSU launched the sweeping perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness) reforms to ‘try and revive the economy and society’. In the same year, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred. The meltdown at the Chernobyl reactor released many times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The resulting contamination of the air, water and land spread across much of the globe.

In 1988, Gorbachev announced a new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, ‘to introduce greater democracy’ into the Soviet system. The Congress replaced the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet as the highest organ of state power, with about 88 percent of its elected deputies CPSU members. The following year, Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing helped to stoke the ‘Tiananmen democracy protests’. Meanwhile, the Berlin wall and socialist regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania all fell. The German Democratic Republic would cease to exist on October 3rd 1990. A few months before this momentous event, as we prepared for ‘the last delegation’, article six of the USSR constitution (which gave the CPSU supremacy over all institutions in society) was repealed. By the time of the 28th Congress of the CPSU, in July 1990, the Party was in disarray and had split into opposing factions in fifteen of the Soviet republics. These were just a few of the key events in one of the most dramatic and turbulent periods of modern history.

Moscow

In mid-July 1990, as the last ever Congress of the CPSU was winding up, we flew to Russia for the first leg of our five week stay. Aeroflot had a poor reputation for comfort and safety and had only recently begun direct flights from Sydney to Moscow. For such a long trip our plane was relatively small. However, more concerning was that the whole front seating section of the plane was crammed full of white goods being transported back to Russia by the crew.

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When we arrived at Moscow airport, we were escorted past all of the queuing passengers and straight through customs, without any checks, not even a glance, or a stamp, in our passports. So, when we returned to Australia, it appeared we had been nowhere for the past five weeks. At the airport we were met by our Communist Party driver and a large black Party car (made available to us throughout our time in the City). We were then driven to the CPSU’s flashy Oktyabrskya Hotel in the city centre. Seeking to showcase the best of the Soviet Union, this was where the Party accommodated delegations from fraternal parties and governments. The hotel was also full of IMF, World Bank and other western economic advisors. They were clearly discernible in their expensive suits, carrying briefcases full of plans for the redevelopment of Russia and the Republics, striding around with a determined glint in their eyes and a hint of drool.

As I learnt from the glossy magazine Business in the USSR (a joint Soviet and French publishing venture), provided in my hotel room, business people visiting the Soviet Union were advised that a pistol and mace gas canisters were now “business essentials” and these could be easily purchased on the black market. For the reader’s convenience, Business in the USSR also listed their black market prices.

‘The mafia’

With the CPSU falling apart an alternative power was on the rise, popularly known as ‘the mafia’. ‘The mafia’ generally included black marketeers, many of those involved in private cooperatives, speculators, corrupt officials and traditional criminal elements. As the Soviet Union reeled from crisis to crisis, those able to were enriching themselves. The black market ‘mafia’ were making off with whatever they could get their hands on, while cunning members of the CPSU elite (known as the nomenklatura) were using their Party privileges to become richer and secure their futures. There were growing numbers of dollar millionaires in Moscow, most of them Party leaders, and future oligarchs were emerging as well-connected entrepreneurs, getting rich through connections to Soviet power structures and the monetary funds of the Communist Party.

It was generally understood that ‘the mafia’ was responsible for many of the shortages of supplies and even the government had to admit that half of all consumer goods now reached their buyers through the black market. In Moscow this ‘free market’ was coming out into the open and included money exchange and sales of all types of goods, including weapons. Due to the growing militarisation of criminal gangs and ‘the mafia’s’ infiltration of the police, the army was being regularly deployed to fight crime. But, even they were often outgunned, due to soldiers peddling arms and communication equipment stolen from their depots. During our trip, I was constantly warned of the threat of violence and the danger of being robbed in public places, or in taxis.

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Traditional crime areas, such as illegal drugs, gambling and prostitution, were thriving. As we discovered, many women, including a number of white collar professionals we met, were keen to sell sexual favours for hard currency (any currency other than rubles – preferably US dollars or German marks). Prostitution was seen by many, including some of the Party interpreters, Party functionaries and Komsomol (Young Communist League) leaders I spoke to, as the most sought after job for women, because it offered relatively high pay, often in hard currency, and access to western consumer goods.

During our stay, it became increasingly clear that the CPSU was no longer in control of anything. As the thin veneer of the Soviet Union peeled away before our eyes, we could see a major storm was brewing, with chaos and mass violence just below the surface. My favourite image from our time in Moscow (since lost) was one I thought illustrated well the reality of the situation. It was a photo of a life-size cardboard cut-out image of President Gorbachev, for tourists to get their picture taken with. I requested to have my photo taken with ‘Gorby’ from the side, in order to show the illusion.

Hard currency

On our first full day in Russia, we went looking for a place to exchange our dollars, asking people across the road from the Party hotel where the closest place to do so was. It soon became apparent this was a mistake. No-one in the USSR wanted rubles and everyone wanted to get their hands on hard currency. As soon as we mentioned money exchange, people’s eyes lit up and you could sense their desperation. Having just arrived in the country, with too little understanding of the situation, but quickly realising we had made an error, we gave up on the idea and returned to the Hotel.

Here we met up with Bella our interpreter and Villeri the head of the CPSU’s International Department for our region. It was the International Department’s job to organise and receive international delegations from communist and left groups. Bella and Villeri took us to the GUM department store on Red Square where, hidden behind a curtain, was a special section for the Party elite. We already knew that members of the nomenklatura enjoyed perks such as shopping at well-stocked stores and access to foreign merchandise. But we were surprised when both Bella and Villeri handed us money and asked us to buy them some supplies (handbag, clothes, film, etc.) because they were unable to shop there. While Bella took this in her stride, it was obviously humiliating for Villeri, a government department head, to be asking me to buy him a shirt. Party bureaucrats, known as apparatchiks, had until recently lived fairly well – now their privileges were under threat. When I asked Villeri about the general situation in Russia he described it as “anarchy”.

As we soon found out, we could buy most of the things we wanted at the hard currency shops exclusively for foreigners. In Russia these Beriozka shops stocked beer, vodka, cigarettes, souvenirs, chocolate, toilet paper and many basic goods that were often unavailable in Russian shops, or which inflation was taking out of most people’s reach. We went into a range of state shops to see what was available. Lots of goods were in very short supply, others were obviously unwanted and pretty tacky. We saw queues at some shops that did have things worth buying and occasionally people would set up small stalls, tables, or just laid goods out on the pavement and a queue would quickly form to grab whatever was on offer.

At one point, I mentioned to Bella that I wished to take a Russian toy home for my daughter. She immediately took me to the main toy shop in Moscow, where there was a long queue, strode to the frLast delegation 3ont, spoke to the shop assistants, flashed her card, pointed to me, and was instantly given a stuffed bear. No money changed hands. As she passed the line of annoyed people waiting in the queue, to present me with my prize, I wanted to melt away.

One of the more interesting queues I saw was outside the first ever Russian McDonald’s, opened only a few months before. It was so popular that customers had to eat in twenty minute shifts. A bell would ring, the ‘restaurant’ would empty out and those queuing would shuffle forward to fill it up again. If you didn’t want to wait in line you could pay a ‘young entrepreneur’ to do the waiting for you.

Lenin’s tomb

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While in Moscow, we visited Lenin’s Tomb, Red Square, Gorky Park, the Kremlin, Moscow University and the Arbat. The Arbat was a pleasant pedestrian mall with many artists selling their works, as well as paper and book sellers, ranging from Christians to anarchists selling ‘Black Flag’. Along either side of the road were street preachers, lecturers, philosophers and some poets, one of whom was speaking about the power of love and another criticising Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. We also visited Gorky, just outside Moscow, where Lenin was sent due to deteriorating health, leading up to his death. Here there was a Lenin museum and study centre. Nestled in the woods were the buildings, seized from a wealthy family after the Revolution, where Lenin and his family spent his final years. These housed many of his personal effects such as books and clothes, as well as his death mask. In the garage there was a Rolls Royce on skis which allowed Lenin to be driven through snowdrifts to Moscow.

One morning, during our stay in the Party hotel, we had breakfast with Vladimir Ivashko, Deputy General Secretary of the CPSU and leader of Ukraine’s Communist Party. He was staying in the hotel because the Moscow City Council, now controlled by anti-CPSU forces, refused to provide him with an apartment. It didn’t take long for us to realise that anti-CPSU sentiment was running very high. Fear of, or respect for, the Party was quickly being replaced by unconcealed contempt. At times our Party cars were spat at and we would often receive icy stares or curses when we arrived somewhere. Although I was used to being hassled, put down and even attacked for being a communist, this was very different. I had never before felt so ashamed of it.

Many Soviet people considered the CPSU and the socialist system as a series of jokes, known as anekdots. They openly ridiculed the shortages, the lack of choice, the corruption, elections, leaders, etc. One day we were being driven back from the Moscow Exhibition of Economic Achievements. The Exhibition Centre consisted of eighty pavilions dedicated to particular industries or fields. There were some grand displays and impressive collections from important eras of Soviet history, but many of the exhibitions were looking dated and run down. We hadn’t had time to see all of the pavilions and on our way back to the hotel asked our Party driver whether there were any displays of the achievements of the perestroika period. Without hesitation he pointed to a car crash wreck on the side of the road, exclaiming; “There it is!”

Yalta: ‘The Pearl of Crimea’

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In the later part of July we left Moscow and flew to Yalta, a resort city situated in the Crimea region of Ukraine, on the north coast of the Black Sea. Arriving on a hot sunny day, Yalta was alive with a multitude of summer holiday activities. Artists lined the promenade sketching or painting people’s portraits, musicians busked, people flocked into a fairground, an entertainment centre and parks, thousands packed the stony beaches and swam in the sea, surrounded by paddle boats and ships of all shapes and sizes, including large passenger liners, docked along the sea wall. The water sparkled in the sun, looking cool and inviting. That is, if you forgot that the Pripyat River, which ran through Chernobyl into the Dnieper River and from there to the Black Sea, was the main water source in the Crimea. Due to continuing radiation fears, water consumption was being restricted to two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Staying out of the sea was also strongly recommended.

Our accommodation in Yalta was the CPSU’s provocatively named Russia sanatorium. Here CPSU Central Committee members, government and trade union leaders, academics, international delegations and a few specially selected worker ‘heroes of labour’ spent the summer. Russia was situated on the west coast of Yalta bay, just outside the city centre, set in a beautiful landscaped park which sloped down to the sanatorium’s private beach. The resort also had a concert room, its own cinema, and boasted a wide range of medical facilities combining ‘luxurious rest with preventative medical treatment procedures’. On arrival all guests were given a full medical check-up and doctors filled out a booklet outlining the therapies to undertake during your stay. So, each morning I went to various laboratories, mainly to treat my irritated sinuses, which were probably upset due to the heavy smog that engulfed the region.

A few days into our stay at Russia, we had a good idea of who amongst the sanatorium’s guests was only interested in having a holiday and those who wanted to talk about what was happening around them. The other foreign delegations were keen to discuss the state of the world and we had quite a few interesting talks, and at times, heated arguments. I also became friends with a number of the Soviet people who were there, including an academic researcher, a few of the interpreters, a group of young people, a District Party Secretary, his daughter, and two young men named Vladimir.

‘Much blood will flow’

While staying at Russia, I visited some of the local places of interest and did actually spend a bit of time relaxing on the beach. Being an SPA journalist, I also interviewed many people about what they thought of the current situation. One day I interviewed a bodyguard for the President of Afghanistan about the fighting between government troops and the mujahidin. I believe he was killed by the Taliban six years later when they tortured and murdered his employer, Mohammad Najibullah. I later spoke to the bodyguard’s Party interpreter. He was quite open about his membership of Pamyat, an anti-Semitic, neo-fascist, Russian nationalist group. It was common knowledge the group had growing support amongst many Russians and sections of the Party/state apparatus, including the police. I made a complaint to our interpreter and although we didn’t see the young man again, it disturbed me that he was confident enough to let us know of his Pamyat membership and seek to promote their policies. As he smilingly told us of ‘Russia’s bright future’, inter-ethnic violence and pogroms were occurring in many parts of the Soviet Union and thousands of Jews were fleeing to Israel. In Moscow, we had seen long lines of people outside the Israeli embassy trying to get out. Reading the writing on the wall, around 100,000 Jews emigrated in 1990 alone.

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People queuing for visas outside the Israeli Embassy in Moscow.

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Komsomol members from Uzbekistan.

When I interviewed a group of Komsomol members from Uzbekistan they assured me their future was in ‘the mafia’. While a number of other people I spoke to believed Komsomol was already run by ‘the mafia’. The young Uzbek men also told me their slogan was; “Much blood will flow”. And it already was. On top of riots and pogroms, there were regular and growing incidents of vicious property crimes, protection rackets, kidnappings, assassinations and disappearances.

One night, I managed to smuggle some of my Soviet friends into the Intourist hotel, Yalta’s large foreigners only hotel, by providing them with English speaking cover. Here I spoke to the hotel’s entertainment manager who said he’d had to cancel all summer performances after ‘the mafia’ killed their star singer for “refusing to cooperate”.

Many of Yalta’s shops were virtually empty. There were limited supplies of any food stuffs, apart from bread, butter and sometimes milk. People were angry; they couldn’t buy clothing and meat, not even sausages, unless they had hard currency or were willing to pay high prices at the private enterprise cooperatives. Paper, soap, tea, coffee and cigarettes were difficult to find. Throughout the Crimea, petrol was unavailable to the public and the streets were lined with cars and trucks that had been abandoned. In some areas, the harvest couldn’t be started because there was no fuel. Meanwhile, Ukrainian coal miners had gone on strike because they couldn’t wash themselves with soap at the end of their shifts, as there wasn’t any available. Elsewhere police had broken up a large demonstration when rumours spread that cigarettes had arrived but had not appeared in the shops. A number of private cooperatives had been torched.

Despite nightly offerings, I only saw one movie in the sanatorium’s cinema. The film was Déjà vu, a Polish-Soviet black comedy that takes place in Odessa (not far from Yalta) in 1925. Set in the New Economic Policy (NEP) period, it was about a Chicago mobster who flees to Russia and is eventually put in a lunatic asylum after accurately describing the contradictions of the post-Revolutionary situation. Although set in the past, it was an insightful commentary on the current period. During the screening I laughed a lot and afterwards a number of the audience members approached me for the first time. One of them was the head of the CPSU School in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Over coffee, he explained that a ‘State of Emergency’ had been declared in the Republic with Moscow sending in troops, tanks and gunships to end a local rebellion which was supported by the Azerbaijan Communist Party, resulting in hundreds of deaths. He wanted me to get word out.

On a glorious summer evening, a group of my young friends took me into town to an outdoor dance pavilion. We hit the starlit dance floor to classic hits of the 70s and 80s, with much of the dancing being of the traditional cheek to cheek variety. I had heard that young people were becoming especially angry and the police were very toey whenever youth got together in large numbers, at concerts, football matches and dances. Yet, although the pavilion was crowded, all of the young dancers were well-behaved, happy and friendly, intent on enjoying their summer holidays. As the dance ended, we strolled outside to be greeted by lines of police brandishing riot sticks. I was surprised to see the cops had the same type of batons used in America and commented on this to my friends. “Yes” they said. “They’ve recently been imported from there. We call them democratisers!”

Nearly everyone I met in Yalta either wanted to leave the Soviet Union, or at least get their children out. “We can come to Australia?” “Well, it’s not that easy.” “Yes – we are free now. We can come.” “Yes you can come. But you probably can’t stay.” “Why not – is Australia not a free country?” “Well, no, it isn’t.” I thought they were naïve about the West. They thought I was naïve about the Soviet Union. Sure, they knew that the West’s ‘democracy’ was a sham – the rich ruled. But their home was disintegrating, the Government was ‘delusional’, ‘a mad hatter’s tea party’, and the whole place was a tinderbox. People were angry, desperate, and scared. It was time to get out. And, while most of the people we met couldn’t afford to get out, we could. After a couple of weeks, as our experiences became increasingly distressing and draining, we longed to return to Australia.

‘If you don’t drink you’re not one of us’

I became good friends with both of the Vladimirs I met at the sanatorium. One was a People’s Deputy from Moscow whose repeated invitations to drink alcohol I tried to refuse, having given up drinking many years before due to my inability to control it. Along with many of my new Soviet friends, Vladimir insisted he’d be deeply insulted if I didn’t share in the toasts made to me and Australia. Worn down by their friendliness, and my increasing sadness, I relented. However, despite his best efforts, Vladimir couldn’t get Stolichnaya vodka, not even off the local taxi drivers who were usually able to supply such goods. Although I felt guilty and embarrassed about my privilege, and considered myself in danger from some of those who eyed me with obvious jealousy, I regularly made my way down to the local hard currency shop, known in Yalta as Kashtan, to buy supplies of Stolichnaya, chocolate, and more basic goods to share with my new friends.

In 1985, the Soviet Government had drastically cut vodka production and didn’t allow it to be sold before lunch-time. As anybody with basic knowledge of U.S. history could have predicted, these restrictions led to growing protests and a thriving black market, pouring millions of rubles into the coffers of ‘the mafia’. None-the-less, alcoholism was a major problem. In Yalta queues quickly formed for the irregular arrival of beer tankers. These would pull over near the beachfront and men, women and even children would line up with whatever container they could muster, which were then filled from a tap at the back of the vehicle. When well-known alcoholic Boris Yeltsin took over from Gorbachev ‘the market’ was ‘set free’, people started drinking more, and the overall death rates in young men more than doubled. Today, the average life expectancy for Russian males is only 64 years, with increased numbers dying from alcohol poisoning and alcohol related violence, suicide, liver disease, car and general accidents.

On our return to Moscow, we went to meet Vladimir at the Congress of People’s Deputies where he attempted to hail a taxi to take us to see some of the sights. Every cab that stopped asked if he had hard currency. He didn’t, and he refused to accept my offer to pay. As time passed, and Vladimir got more and more frustrated, private cars began stopping. He would have a short conversation with the drivers and then they would speed off. It turned out they were offering to give us a ride, but again only for hard currency.

The other Vladimir I befriended in Yalta, was one of the first nuclear clean-up workers sent into Chernobyl after the meltdown. These workers were known as ‘liquidators’. The initial wave, of at least a quarter of a million people sent in to deal with the disaster, was mainly made up of civil defence troops. Obeying orders from above, Vladimir was choppered into the plant with little idea of what was going on. Those in charge withheld information about the life-threatening hazards, which included exposure not only to radiation, but also to poisonous materials used to contain the destroyed building. Unprotected, Vladimir and his co-workers laboured intensively on removal of contaminated materials and deactivation of the reactor. Many of these workers are estimated to have reached lifetime limits of radiation exposure within a matter of a few hours. When I met Vladimir four years after his exposure, he was dying of a rare form of cancer. As I departed the Crimea, he gave me a small gift and asked me to remember him. A few months later, his wife was widowed and his young child left fatherless.

‘I help you help me’

Most of the Soviet people I met were extremely friendly and keen to share whatever they had. This was partially because most people are friendly, and partially because this is how Soviet people commonly survived their hardships. I have written elsewhere about what I term ‘disaster communism’ – the generosity that arises amid disasters like the Queensland floods, the September 11 attacks in America and Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and ensuing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Disasters expose social solidarities, ‘moral’ and ‘gift’ economies, the sharing of work, money, goods, emotional and psychological support provided by the on-going organisation of non-capitalist exchanges. In the face of disaster, we see more clearly that we cannot rely on capital, governments and bureaucrats, and in response many of us turn to each other for support. In the Soviet Union, this type of communism was very popular, and had been honed over many decades of disasters, as people became more and more reliant on forms of communal welfare.

The Russian word Blat commonly meant a friend helping out a friend, a way of compensating for the scarcity of consumer goods. As well as taking normal friendship sharing to its extreme, people would also buy whatever was on sale, even if they didn’t need or want what was on offer. They could then give what they had to a family member, friend or neighbour, or trade it for something they did want. If the shops didn’t have what you needed, or you couldn’t afford it, you may also be able to get stuff from work, either by taking it yourself or by giving a present to someone who could get it for you. Those who worked in offices, shops and factories would often steal what they could, to use, share, barter or sell. A widespread rejection of the mythical role of Soviet workers was encapsulated in the popular slogan: ‘They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work!’ And stealing from ‘the state’ was widely considered a form of wealth redistribution, a way of rorting a system set-up to the advantage of the nomenklatura/‘mafia’.

Last delegation 8However, blat on a larger scale was also playing a crucial role in the rise of what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’. Here blat described business or political networks, where people did a favour in exchange for another favour as part of large scale corruption and the ‘free market’ economy. These ‘favours’ were often exchanged for money. For instance, masses of goods were being diverted from state factories to ‘the mafia’. While many people earned a living, and got hold of supplies, by unloading goods carriages late at night, for black marketeers, when trains ‘happened to stop’ just outside the railway yards. This type of blat was a major part of the Soviet state capitalist economy, the functioning of political organisations, and the flourishing black market. The poster shown here, which I brought back from my trip, was openly on sale in Moscow. It reads; ‘Shadowy economics, corruption and criminality – woven in an organised manner. We have to organise to squash and untangle them and pull them out by the roots!’

In Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine she details the expansion of corruption in Russia and how, as the Soviet system collapsed, neo-liberalism took advantage of people’s disorientation to ‘free the market’ by pushing through unpopular economic measures, known as ‘shock therapy’. These vicious policies, violently imposed by the post-socialist elite, were based on the ‘Chilean fascist experiment’ under General Pinochet. If you want more details about how horrific the economics, corruption and brutality of this ‘disaster capitalism’ was/is I recommend The Shock Doctrine.

The ‘New World Order’

During our stay at the sanatorium, we also visited the Livadia Palace where the famous Yalta conference was held in 1945, bringing together Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganisation. The table where they negotiated, and much of its surrounds, had been preserved from that time and we took special notice of a big map on the wall showing the Soviet Army advancing across Europe. Our guide explained how the western powers were forced to come to Yalta at Stalin’s request, as the Red Army continued to defeat the Nazis. Looking at the map, you couldn’t help thinking about the new situations in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany’s collapse, the future of Europe, the USSR and the world.

A few days later, on August 2nd, our minds were again concentrated on the global implications of what was happening around us, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. After giving the green light for the invasion to their ‘former’ ally, Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government watched Kuwait fall in two days. On September 11, President George Bush (senior) made his “Toward a New World Order” speech to a joint session of Congress. He outlined the changing relationship with the USSR and the U.S.A’s determination to force Iraq out of Kuwait. Despite talk of cooperation, the ‘New World Order’ was the United States’ declaration of a unipolar world, with its military unconstrained for the first time since the end of World War II. Feeling incredibly vulnerable, under mounting pressure, and with Iraq only a thousand kilometres from Yalta, the Soviets began to scramble their defences. A few days after the invasion of Kuwait, a large military radar ship was stationed just off the coast near where we were staying and at night searchlights began to pierce the dark skies around us.

On one of our trips around Yalta, we saw massed troops hiding down some of the city’s side streets, armed with machine guns and with their troop carriers at the ready. We thought they were Interior Ministry soldiers and guessed they were mobilising due to concerns over Ukraine’s moves to declare independence. As evidenced by recent events, the tension between Russia and Ukraine is long-running. While we were staying in Yalta, the Ukrainian parliament declared that its laws now had primacy over the laws of the Soviet Union and announced the creation of the Republic’s own army. The Supreme Soviet in Moscow quickly passed a resolution demanding the disarming of any ‘unlawful’ forces and said if local authorities refused to cooperate, the Red Army would be sent in to carry out its orders.

Later, I considered whether the troops we saw that day were taking part in a rehearsal for the world-changing events of the following summer. Just down the road from where we were staying, President Gorbachev was on his summer holidays in a dacha specially built for his family. Passing by one day, we saw him out at sea fishing, guarded by two Soviet navy patrol boats. On his next summer holiday, Gorbachev would be taken prisoner there by a ‘delegation of coup plotters’ sent from Moscow by the ‘State Committee for the State of Emergency’ made up of the KGB chief, the Defence Minister, the Prime Minister, the Vice President and other Party leaders. His phone lines were cut and he was given an ultimatum: either support the ‘state of emergency’ or step down. He refused. While the world was told President Gorbachev was too ill to rule, a ‘state of emergency’ was declared across the USSR. However, the declaration was resisted from within the Party, the Government and the military, while Komsomol publicly urged people to oppose the takeover. With little support, the coup collapsed in just two days and Gorbachev returned to Moscow, where he was asked to address the Russian Parliament. His speech was televised across the nation and culminated with the banning of the Communist Party. On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as President of the USSR and dissolved the Soviet Union.

‘Keep the red flag flying’

One night, towards the end of our stay in Yalta, a group of us made our way down, through the sweet smell of conifers and magnolia, to the resort’s beach. We opened the gate, to let a few friends with supplies in from outside, and laid out a selection of food and drink, we’d brought to share, on the pebbly shore. Discussing our plans, hopes, and fears for the future, we proceeded to get drunk, while watching the searchlights dance across the Bay. As we got drunker, people began to sing songs in their various languages, with others attempting to translate, if not the words, then the sentiments. After a while, we considered which songs we could sing together and The Internationale and The Red Flag were quickly suggested.

I was familiar with some of The Internationale

Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We’ll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.

Many of my new friends could sing every verse. So, I sat and listened, as they brought this old tune to life in a heartfelt rendition, via a multitude of tongues. To my surprise some other people, workers on their way home, made their way through the open gate and down the beach to join us, and began singing along. Although not everyone knew all of the words, the rendition of The Internationale went for some time, finishing with a raucous round of applause. Next it was time for The Red Flag, which I’m more familiar with

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

As our communion swelled, the song carried further, along the beachfront and out over the dark waves. Our voices a chorus of hope, pain, loss and sorrow, we sat together in the moonlight and wept.

‘The dead are many’

Much of the history of the Soviet Union and the CPSU is a tragedy played out in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Yet, tens of millions of Soviet citizens lived and died for the Revolution, trying to act according to the best of communist traditions, seeking to build a world without war, where no-one would be abused or exploited. None-the-less, most of the Soviet people we met were tired of socialism and thought the existing system had to be swept aside. After civil war, invasions by seventeen armies from fourteen countries, being isolated and encircled, surviving mass starvation and Stalinist repression, halting the Nazi advance, defeating the rampant fascist forces, and losing 30 million dead during World War Two, the achievements of the Soviet people were considerable. But ‘the dead were many’, the suffering was long, and there was no end in sight.

The most difficult revelation from our trip was not that the situation for the majority of people was terrible, but that it was going to get so much worse. All around us, the fictional past was quickly being buried, the hidden past was being exhumed, a mythical future was being promised and a nightmare scenario was clearly imminent – a combination of the worst bloodletting of ‘two’ failed systems.

Although I was scarred for life by ‘the last delegation’, and my heart remains wounded, I’m glad I visited the Soviet Union. I learnt a great deal, met some wonderful people and was considerably changed by the experience. Despite my trepidation about sharing such a melancholy story, I’ve written this recollection because the past and the dead must speak and we should hear them. For a spectre is haunting the world – the spectre of ‘Communism’.

Nick Southall

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Comments
  1. […] well worth looking at is Nick Southall’s The Last Delegation. Nick is a 21st century Marxist – that is, he isn’t always what we have thought a Marxist to […]

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