issue 167 - January 1987
The Red Threat
The USSR has been described by Ronald Reagan as an 'evil empire'.
His phrase evokes the nightmare of Stalin's labour camps and Russian tanks
grinding into Budapest and Prague. This rhetoric about Soviet imperialism
and the export of communism is compared with reality by Lynne
Attwood, who has recently returned from the Soviet Union.
Having some knowledge of Russian can be a source of frustration if you're on holiday in Czechoslovakia. I soon gave up on Czech phrase-book phonetics, and in any case everyone there learns Russian at school. As I lined up at a Prague fruit stall, it seemed to me that the best way of asking for what I wanted was in Russian. I was wrong. At first the stall-holder ignored me, almost leaning over me to serve the others in the queue. Then suddenly wheeling round, she demanded in irate German: 'Don't you know any other language?'
Hostility towards the Soviet Union virtually oozes out of Czechoslovakians. Ask the person-on-the-street if the USSR is an imperialist country, and the answer - if it's not just a laugh - will invariably be 'yes'. If they ever had any doubts these vanished in 1968, when Czechoslovakia's attempt to establish 'socialism with a human face' resulted in Russian tanks rolling into the country and never rolling out again. This view is not confined to East Europeans. When I asked the same question in England, most people, regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum, looked at me with astonishment, 'Of course it is imperialist', they said - 'what else would you call gaining and controlling 'allies' with bayonets and bullets?' To me, the answer does not seem so simple.
Imperialism is, unfortunately, one of those words which defies precise definition. However all definitions of imperialism seem to have two things in common: it consists of colonial expansion - 'a furious hunt for the treasures and the big markets of the globe'1. It also involves the economic exploitation of one or several countries by another, mainly via the extraction of the colonized country's raw materials and the off-loading in return of manufactured goods. To find out if the Soviet Union is imperialist I have looked to see whether it falls into these patterns.
There are three different relationships which need looking at. The first is between the Soviet Union and the other East European socialist states. Another is the Soviet relationship with so-called 'friendly nations' in the non-European world, countries to which the Western press has accused her of 'exporting revolution'. The third is often ignored in the confusion between the terms Russia and the Soviet Union: it is the relationship between Russia and the other 14 republics which comprise the Soviet Union. Together, they occupy virtually the same territory as the pre-revolutionary Russian empire and contain 23 major nationalities (a 'major nationality' is one which has more than a million people) and speak more than 100 languages. Lenin, despite opposition from Stalin, insisted on the legal equality of each of these republics, and this is still enshrined in the Constitution. But what happens in real life? Does the Soviet Union practice imperialism within its own borders, with Russia exploiting the other republics?
Most of the Soviet Union's European allies were gained in the wake of the Second World War when the Red Army marched through Europe evicting the Nazis. Despite the slogan coined by Stalin 'socialism in one country' (a response to the failure of the rest of Europe to have successful revolutions) Stalin's actions in Eastern Europe look like expansionism. 'Liberation' from the Nazis turned out to mean a government closely resembling the one in Moscow, and a home-grown Stalin in the seat of power. After Stalin's death the Soviet Union has proved just as determined to keep a tight hold on Eastern Europe, as the suppression of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings show.
Does this military and ideological control go hand in hand with economic exploitation? A classic imperialist pattern would be a division between East European countries producing raw materials for the Soviet Union to manufacture. Or the satellite states to be confined to light industry and the Soviet Union to heavy. This is not the case. Cynics might say this was due to simple lack of opportunity. Imperialist powers are nearly always more technologically advanced than their colonies, but the reverse was true when the Soviet Union marched into Eastern Europe. The level of industrial output in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, for example, was so much greater that by 1955 salaries were 40 per cent higher in these countries than in the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union is much richer in raw materials. This means that the usual colonial relationship has been turned on its head: the Soviet Union provides Eastern Europe with raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods, rather than the other way round. The Soviet Union also pays above world market prices for her imported goods, and takes less than the world prices for her exports. Prices vary according to the extent of a country's political allegiance or how strategic a military position it has. This looks like a way of buying, or rewarding, political and military co-operation.
Evidently the relationship between the Soviet Union and her East European allies exists for reasons not of money, but of security. The price of security is sometimes too high, though. This is why the Soviet Union has not dealt with Poland in the same way as Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Poles have been particularly hostile to Soviet control, and major concessions have had to be made - the continued independence of the Church, for example. If the Soviet Union had tried to tame Solidarity with troops it would have provoked civil war. Soviet relations with the rest of the world would have suffered, and even if Poland was brought under control, this would have had disastrous economic consequences for the Soviet Union: it would have landed her with Poland's bankrupt economy. Embroiled in the occupation of Afghanistan, this was more than she could take on.
Does the Soviet Union exercise a cultural imperialism in Eastern Europe? This does not seem to be the case. On the contrary, just as Moscow had to admit defeat in its attempt to quell the spirit of Polish Catholicism, it has refrained from repressing the tradition of heavy drinking in Czechoslovakia: my questions about the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign had Czechs chortling into their beer mugs. All aspects of local culture seemed to me to be alive and kicking.
What of the Soviet Union's relationship with her non-European allies - the states of 'socialist orientation' in the developing world? Here the Soviet Union has been charged with blatant expansionism, of 'exporting communism'.
However, historians have pointed out that once the consolidation of the East European buffer zone had been achieved, there was little genuine effort to spread communism. Revolutions have happened in other countries, and the Soviet Union has been involved. But it has reacted to events rather than initiated them. Soviet policy in Africa and Asia has been described as surprisingly cautious, aimed at preserving the status quo.2 The enormous arms deals with Third World countries are more likely an attempt to bolster foreign currency reserves rather than to spread revolution.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seems harder to explain, an aberration from a policy which generally seeks not to rock the boat But even this has been seen as a defensive rather than an offensive move. In their book The Soviet Threat, Garrison and Shivpuri argue that the Soviet Union was perfectly happy to leave Afghanistan to her own devices while she was non-aligned and in the hands of a stable monarchy. The threat to the USSR emerged when the Afghan monarchy collapsed and the US wanted to consolidate its control of the area
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the culmination of a series of bungled attempts to stabilize the new government and, in the light of US moves to destroy Soviet influence in the Middle East, to ensure that this government was friendly. The Soviet embroilment in Afghanistan was a reaction, albeit an over-reaction, to events not of its making. The US has, furthermore, done its utmost to perpetuate the Soviet presence in Afghanistan through ensuring that Afghani rebels have enough arms to keep them going, but not enough to actually oust the Soviets. In this way the US can sustain the conflict as an example of Soviet expansionism to wave around the Middle East3
What about the question of economic exploitation? The Soviet Union is harsh in its attack on the trade dealings of Western countries with the developing world: it accuses them of restricting the level of development in the Third World, gearing it exclusively to their own interests and those of the local elites and enmeshing the latter in 'a thick net of dependence'.4 But unlike empires of the past, the Soviet Union has not tried to strangle technological or industrial development in other countries. On the contrary, she has supplied her Third World allies with industrial equipment on generous terms of credit, sent Soviet specialists to them and received their students free of charge in Soviet universities. As with Eastern Europe, terms and prices are better for countries which offer political allegiance, which suggests that this assistance is not provided selflessly. All the same it is this kind of aid - unlike instant injections of cash and food - which as Isaac Deutscher put it, ultimately 'helps the underdeveloped nations to help themselves'.5
Cuba provides a good example of the difference in American and Soviet forms of 'imperialism', having moved from one orbit of influence to the other.
Between 1976 and 1981, 132 new export products were launched. With Soviet assistance there has been considerable industrial development. And most revealing of all, Cuba is the only country in Latin America which has had sustained economic growth since the early 1970s.6
Finally, what of the relationship between Russia and the other Soviet republics? Last year I visited seven of them, in a journey which began in Moscow and ended in Dushanbe (in the Central Asian republic of Tadjikistan).
The Russian language is spoken everywhere, unlike in Eastern Europe. Even the smallest children have mastered its rudiments and explained to us that they were taught it at home at the same time as their own language. When I complimented a hotel maid in Armenia on fluency she said 'We have to know Russian. I wouldn't have got this job without it'.
The formal independence of the republics is largely a fiction. Yet all of them, to varying degrees, have an awareness of national identity. The Soviet leaders have to take this into consideration, to avoid inflaming local sensitivities which could lead to dangerous political eruptions. Consequently local traditions and culture are still much in evidence. Religion is one of the best examples. Despite the Communist Party's promotion of atheism, people outside of Russia rarely hide their religious convictions. While in Russia the few working churches are visited mainly by old women, in Tbilisi there is a working church on every street corner, and each one is full of people of both sexes and all ages.
In the Moslem republics of Soviet Central Asia there has been more of an effort to prise people away from their faith. This is not surprising, since much of it is in direct contradiction with the aims and ideals of Marxist-Leninism. Most of the mosques in the cities we visited have become museums or even cafes, and there is only one madras, or Islamic seminary, of the hundreds built in Central Asia, which still provides theological training.
It would seem then, that if the Soviet Union is an imperialist country, such imperialism differs from the conventional model. It is not expansionist The Soviet Union is determined to cling on to her buffer zone, but beyond this her foreign policy is marked by caution and a desire to preserve the status quo. Flagrant economic exploitation of her partners is not apparent. On the contrary, trade subsidies to friendly nations are a considerable economic burden for her. This might change. An American economist has suggested that a decline in the rate of Soviet economic growth, combined with the dubious political results she has sometimes got for her money, has led to discussion about the need to look less at the political and more at the economic benefits to be derived from trade.7 However, until this happens it is possible to say that as a country of considerable (and justifiable) paranoia, she has been more concerned with political support than economic gain, and with preserving a balance of influence between East and West which allows her a sense of personal security.
Lynne Attwood is researching sex-role socialisation in the Soviet Union and is a freelance joumalist.
1 J G Orlault. quoted by V I Lenin, 'Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism' in Selected Works Progress, Moscow, 1977.
2 D Nelson Moscow puts realism before revolution in the Third world' Gemini News Service No.572.
3 Garrison and Shivpuri, The Soviet Threat Gateway, 1983. pp 87-94.
4 Izvestia, 12 November 1984, p5.
5 I Deutecher, The Great conquest, oup London 1976.
6 Brundenhuis C, and Zimbalist A, Recent Studies on Cuban economic growth a review' in comparative Economic Studies vol. xxvii No 1. Spring 1985.
7 Wolf, T A 'An empirical analysis of Soviet economic relations with developing countries' in Soviet Economy vol. 1, July-September 1985.