With all the crazy stuff in the news these days, the Cold War and the Soviet Union may seem like ancient history. In the midst of lockdowns, civil unrest, and hyperpolarization, the fact is that just under 30 years ago in 1991, a bitter competition between Capitalism and Communism was won. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in his famous book The End of History and the Last Man the triumph of liberal democracy, as the Soviet Union collapsed. The system exemplified by the United States of America, one of individual liberty, limited government, and free enterprise was crowned the heavyweight champion over the incompetent, lumbering tyranny of Communism.
This seemingly hyperbolic and nationalistic statement is by no means an exaggeration of the significance of that contest between Capitalism and Communism and is captured in vivid detail in the late G. Warren Nutter’s book The Strange World of Ivan Ivanov. In his book, he challenges and dispels the myths surrounding the Soviet Union peddled by propagandists and apologists alike. He shines a light exposing the shortcomings of Socialism in action, shattering perceived notions of prosperity while pointing out the tyrannical actions of the Soviet regime. Sadly, much like Nutter’s legacy has drifted into obscurity, so too have the lessons and warnings in his book.
The Free Press
Nutter uses the name Ivan Ivanov in contrast to the American equivalent name of John Doe to describe the daily life of the Soviet citizen and how drastically it differed from the average American’s. The first thing he goes after is the notion of a free press. The Soviets and their sympathizers contend that in the United States, our information is controlled by the capitalists in power. We are held captive by large companies that dominate the airwaves whereas in a Socialist country like the Soviet Union, the government is the custodian of the interests of the people, completely responsive to their wishes. This of course is a blatant lie as well as a failure to understand the way the press works in America.
Nutter explains that
“In the Soviet Union, the constitutional guarantee of a free press is a mere figment. Every printing establishment employing labor must be owned by the state, and every private firm consisting solely of the owner is specifically forbidden to operate any equipment designed for reproduction, even the simplest duplicating machine.”
There is no such thing as different types of free speech; either you are free to express yourself or you’re not. When the government, a single body with a monopoly on force, has total control over what can and cannot be said, that is not a free press. Every single tyrannical government seeks to control the press because at the end of the day if you control people’s ideas you control their destiny.
Nutter contrasts this with the United States, where while we certainly have our problems,
“John Doe has at his disposal enormously varied sources of news and opinions if he exerts even the slightest effort. He need not be the captive of his local newspaper. There are always others available, some with nationwide and others with regional distribution.”
This is even more true today than it was in the 20th century as information accessible via the internet and smartphones has improved exponentially. Although there is certainly a mainstream media that tends to forward common narratives, if one really wanted to they could just as easily access anything from anti-Western propaganda on Chinese state media to far-right conspiracy theories. Whereas in the Soviet Union and contemporary Communist regimes, handing out foreign literature is a seditious activity.
Nutter also points out that the Soviet Union
“Until recent years was sealed off from the outside world by an almost impenetrable electronic as well as paper curtain. Virtually all broadcasts except music were obliterated by an elaborate jamming network. Now the jamming is less extensive but it is still used to prevent objectionable programs from reaching Russian ears.”
We can see smaller variations of such behavior here in the United States as people in the private and public sectors attempt to control the narrative and information available for consumption. That is because such lust for domination and control is inherent to human nature. That is why adversarial restrictions on power such as the 1st Amendment are so important.
The Rule of Law
Another important topic Nutter touches on is the legal systems in the Soviet Union and the United States. They cannot be more different as he writes
“The contrast between the two legal systems is clear. Ours is designed to protect the innocent individual against the threat of the state. The Soviet System is designed to protect the state against the threat, potential as well as actual, of the individual. The one system is based on pluralistic individualism, the other on authoritarian collectivism.”
These are two fundamentally different views on the role of government. The Soviet Union’s laws exist to protect those in power and its citizens are mere subjects to be ruled. The United States with its elaborate network of checks on power and due process rights aims to protect free citizens. That is the entire premise of the American founding, which is to institute a government that exists primarily to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. A government by the people and for the people. This may sound like overly patriotic civic nationalism but when put in context with what has been the norm not just in the Soviet Union but all authoritarian states these sentiments cannot be more genuine.
Nutter points out that Soviet prisons and concentration camps held no less than one out of every ten people in the country and at some points one in five. He explains that
“Soviet Communism implies, by its very nature, a system of arbitrary government. The will of an elite, determined to perpetuate itself in power, cannot be reduced to a set of impersonal and impartial laws governing relations among subjects. Convinced of their infallibility, the self-chosen rulers see no reason to tolerate disagreement or disobedience.”
The elaborate set of rights and due process that exists today in the United States have an important purpose. This country has seen its fair share of wannabe dictators that have held offices from the presidency to local offices. Without the extensive restrictions on government and due process, this country’s history would look very different.
Nutter explains that in the Soviet Union,
“To eradicate actual and incipient resistance to authority, the Soviet state naturally and intentionally employs capricious and unpredictable punishments. Better that the citizen does not know the law. Let him beware the state. Let him obey absolutely, doing what he is told and not what he believes he can get away with.”
An informed and litigious citizenry is absolutely essential for the maintenance of a free society. Adversarial citizens who guard their liberty jealously with partisan sentiments are what guarantee that governments are kept in check. In the Soviet Union, such roadblocks are swept away in the name of “efficiency” and “getting things done”. Many in the United States may complain of constant partisan gridlock and arduous processes. However, such barriers exist to protect our freedom. They prevent tyranny from the few as well as the majority.
Capitalism vs Socialism
One of the book’s most important contributions to the study of the Soviet Union is dispelling the myths surrounding the power of the Soviet economy. Many believed that there was a true competition between the power of Capitalism and Communism to provide for the general welfare as if they were two comparable systems under examination. Many were concerned that the Soviet economy would overtake the US economy and many today still live under the impression that the Soviet economy was quite powerful.
However, Nutter points out that the supposed competitive performance was essentially propaganda and deceptive data collection. Basic economics tells us that central planning is a terrible way to run an economy, being outperformed by free markets in every category.
In the book, Nutter not only lists some of the deceptive practices the Soviets used to fool its rivals but illustrates the horrendous living conditions its citizens were subject to. One of the main tactics the Soviets used to give the impression of strength was to concentrate most of its resources into certain areas while abusing everything else. Therefore a casual observer could look at the strength of its military, its advanced space program, or the living standards of its elite and assume that the rest of the country must be doing equally well.
“The fact is that almost no outsider really knows how the average man lives in Russia. The visitor is likely, in the first place, to see only the big cities where the living standard is the highest…Moreover, he has virtually no way of making contact with ordinary people, since official policy strongly discourages mixing with foreigners.”
While an observer is shown segments of the Soviet population that have good living standards they miss that
“Around 90 percent of the urban population was supplied with electricity, 34 percent with running water, 31 percent with plumbing, 22 percent with central heating, 16 percent with gas, 9 percent with a bath, and two percent with hot water.”
In the United States, all of these would be considered basic amenities, and we rightly criticize ourselves for not being able to provide access to the small minority of those who are not able to afford such services. In the Soviet Union it was considered an accomplishment to even provide them. A similar dynamic is shown in the way employment is measured. The Soviets were concerned with the percentage of citizens employed whereas in the United States we are concerned with the percentage of citizens who are unemployed.
When it comes to the average citizen, those in the US not only thrive on higher earnings but things are also cheaper because of the efficiencies generated by Capitalism as compared to the incompetency inherent in Socialist planning.
Nutter points out that
“To purchase a basket of food intermediate between the United States and Soviet standards, a wage earner in Moscow must work about 8 times as long as one in New York City…The normal American family is so accustomed to its vast array of personal capital goods, yielding so many services in the household, that it can hardly imagine how poor Ivan is in this respect…In the Soviet Union, the number of privately owned automobiles is about 2 per thousand inhabitants or one for every 135 families. In the United States, the figure is 400 per thousand or 1.4 per family.”
There is a reason for this and the reason is clear: free markets and limited government have done more for the betterment of humanity than any other system ever devised. No civilization is immune to the laws that govern basic economics.
Although the book was originally published in 1969, it has largely been forgotten much like the Soviet Union. AIER’s republication of the book is very much akin to recirculating a set of great texts that tell a timeless lesson. The book is as educational as it is entertaining as the reader is taken on a journey of the Soviet Union, an empire with a drastically different way of life and an equally important place in history. Alongside the historical account of the horrendous Communist regime are important lessons about economics, law, and individual freedom.
It reminds us why such principles are so important and highlight the drastic extremes humans are capable of. The extent of which we are capable of creating a society characterized by freedom and prosperity or arbitrary domination and despair. In times like these, with freedom under siege from every angle, a book like this is badly needed. If not to remind us of where authoritarianism will take us, to show us how precious our liberty is.