Edward Tesler lived in the USSR until he moved to the United States in 1980. —Eds.
“I love boxing. You are sitting in a comfortable chair, looking at the ring, and somebody else gets hit in the face.” This joke sounds apolitical, but it too reflects big politics.
Everybody knows about the centralized planning of the Soviet economy. The famous Soviet “five-year plans” were adopted since 1927 and, to the glory of Communism, never failed. But something strange happened there. The first two of them were adopted to lift the economy of a very backward country. The postwar one had to do the same in a country whose economy was ruined by the war. In both cases, the starting level was very low, and it was quite possible to increase the output by 10 or even 15 percent in one year. The planned communist economy had nothing to do with it: Germany achieved such growth after World War I and so did West Germany and Japan after World War II. They were called “economic miracles,” but in fact there was nothing miraculous in any of these cases. If you are carrying thirty pounds, you would probably be able to double the load; however, to double again from sixty would not be an easy task. The output increased eventually to its regular level, and miracles occurred no longer. Annual growth of about 3 percent became rather the norm. Except in the Soviet Union, it continued to be about three times as much. Was it a miracle, or triumph of communist economy, or something else? An insider look at these plans will provide the truthful answer.
It is common knowledge that each five-year plan was an expertly developed product of the State Planning Commission, or Gosplan. Well, in reality it was not exactly so. Each new plan began with “Central Committee’s Control Figures,” a masterpiece of science-less fiction: increase output by 50 percent, increase productivity by 45 percent, and so on. It was said mockingly that they took these figures “from the ceiling,” but in fact they did have a very reliable source: the fulfillment report of the previous plan. Indeed: if we did it in the sixth five-year period, why not in the seventh one? The miracle was thus perpetuated, at least on paper.
Next, these crazy figures were handed down to Gosplan. To make even a remotely realistic plan out of them was humanly impossible, but bureaucrats cherished their comfortable chairs: let somebody else be hit in the face. That’s where Shadow Gosplan came into play.
Each ministry selected a bunch of guys and gals who could not lose comfortable chairs because they did not have any. But they did have decent brains, and the bosses fed them real (as opposed to propaganda) information. Knowing the actual capacity of every plant or factory, we sketched more or less manageable plans for the first four years. With some accounting tricks, these could be reported as fulfilled. If new plants were planned to be built, and/or existing ones modernized, we moved these events closer to the fifth year, and the remaining non-manageable idiocy was dumped into there too. Construction delays were common, which justified applying “corrections” to the fifth-year plan. With these, it became manageable too and could be reported as fulfilled. Because each of the five-year periods was successful, so, obviously, was the entire five-year plan. The rulers’ wisdom was thus proved, and they could now use the same “control figures” for the next one. Nobody ever compared the actual output with “control figures.” Don’t ask; don’t tell. We used other gimmicks too, but I do not want to reveal them all lest I turn my readers into tricksters.
Anyway, our masterpieces of trickery were then reprinted on good paper, made their way up within the Ministry, were adorned with required signatures, and eventually came to the high offices of Gosplan, which combined them with similar ones from other ministries and prepared a final document named officially The Law of the Five-Year Plan. That name too had a special meaning. Stalin once ridiculed Western economies because they do not plan. They guess and make prognoses. “Our” plans, on the other hand, have the full strength of laws; hence, the “law” name. And, naturally, laws must be obeyed. The consequences of not fulfilling the plan might be unpleasant. Directors unable to report fulfillment were often fired, and ministers protected themselves by reporting that the culprits were punished.
But deceit did not stop there. On every plant, workers’ meetings were called to adopt “oncoming plans.” As the joke goes, a husband explained to his wife the exact meaning of these plans: “Say, you are planning to make love twice this night, and I adopt an oncoming plan—do it three times, when both of us know perfectly well that all too often we cannot do it even once.”
And even that was not enough. The output was deliberately planned to make deceit easier. Rolled steel production, for example, was planned in tons. For many purposes, high-grade steel and steel alloys were required, but nulyovka, or zero-ranked steel—basically, junk—was produced instead. It was much easier to make it and then report a success: a ton is a ton. China did the same during its “Great Leap Forward” and was ridiculed in the Soviet press. How could the Old Square [where the Central Committee was located] remain so ignorant? Of course, they were not. They, and the military, got what they needed, and for the rest they simply did not care.
In his famous fiction book 1984, George Orwell wrote, among other things, about “newspeak,” in which every word meant exactly the opposite: for armed forces, there was Ministry of Peace; for propaganda, Ministry of Truth; and so on. Actually, he might call it a documentary, not a fiction. Decades before Orwell, “newspeak” was fully ingrained into Soviet life. In all fairness, he should have his royalties shared with Lenin, who defined freedom as “realized necessity.” Translation: you can be forced to obey, or you can obey because you realize that obedience is unavoidable. The choice is yours. But in any case, obey you will.
Stalin, Lenin’s faithful disciple, added colorful details. When the Soviet constitution was discussed, he ridiculed other countries’ bourgeois constitutions: how can a hungry, jobless worker enjoy all these rights and freedoms? “Ours,” on the other hand, establishes first of all the fundamental right to work. Its real meaning, however, was explained in Stalin’s next phrase: that right was also a duty; whoever did not rush to exercise it was punished—under Stalin by jail and under Brezhnev by administrative deportation.
And then, there was also the right to free education. Once again, exercise it as ordered—or “realize” and do it anyway. Workers, tired after a day of labor, were pushed into evening schools, because plant directors were ordered to report the growing level of workers’ education. My wife taught then in one of such schools and, instead of useless French lessons, helped them to get high-school diplomas. These were equally useless, but at least the worker who had one could go after the workday to his family instead of being pushed into evening classes.
But even on that background of lies, the election system was unsurpassed. Voting was the citizens’ right—and also, naturally, their duty. We had to be proud, because our election campaigns, unlike those of bourgeois countries, were free of scandals and corruption. They began with the Party deciding who should be placed where. No anarchy could be allowed here: the Party always knew better. Next, workers’ or peasants’ meetings were called, and trusted people were given preprinted lists for “spontaneous” nomination. The names of Central Committee members were on the top of each list; the name of the person actually scheduled for that position followed. The lists were reported as unanimously voted for, and the appointees officially became candidates from the “block of the Communists and the party-less people.” A little later, Central Committee members published a thank-you letter: because they could be elected in one district only, each of them agreed to one “in accordance with the Party will” and was asking all others to remove them. The remaining nominee thus became the “choice” of one.
Because the voters did not rush to “fulfill their citizens’ duty,” an institute of agitators was established to drag them to vote. More often than not, voting precincts were arranged on Sundays in schools; my wife, among other teachers, was invariably assigned that honor. Officially, her task was to explain the virtues of candidates and persuade voters to elect them. In reality, it was to pester people at their homes until they understood that it was better to waste an hour on voting than to have their entire Sunday ruined. As an additional bait, the exit door from the voting room opened to a buffet, where some food not available in stores sometimes could be found.
Jokes were plenty. One of them made yet another reference to Peter the Great. He exiled a lady of Russian nobility to Siberia; a well-known painting showed her, shackled and cursing, on a sledge. Jokers referred to it as Boyaress Morosova Is Traveling to Voting Precinct.
That was not always the truth. In Stalin’s era, people formed long lines in the precincts where his name was on the ballot—to happily vote for our vozhd. But he died, and faith died with him. This is the inconvenience of a mortal god.
The vote was secret—with a twist. To vote “for,” one could simply drop the ballot into a sealed urn nearby. Most did exactly that; not bothering even to look at it and with their names in the voters’ list checked, they then hurried away. So those who actually entered the voting booth were immediately suspected of doing something improper: voting “against,” writing somebody in, or even adding words of their own. Very few did it, because, secrecy of vote notwithstanding, they could be charged with hooliganism.
After the voting place was closed, the officials in charge threw unused ballots into the urn, unsealed it, and, after quick counting (or without it), wrote official reports based mostly on the level of their imagination. Those without any—or those in whose voting places Central Committee members were on the ballot—simply wrote 100 percent. Those with imagination wrote something like attendance 98 percent, of whom 96.5 percent voted “for.” The ballots were then forwarded for safekeeping, the apparatchiks were seated where planned, and the “democratic” farce was forgotten until the next elections.
This excerpt is reprinted from The Land of Victorious Socialism with permission by the author.
Edward Tesler lived in the USSR until he moved to the United States in 1980. —Eds. “I love boxing. You are sitting in a comfortable chair, looking at the ring, and somebody else gets hit in the face.” This joke sounds apolitical, but it too reflects big politics. Everybody knows about the centralized planning of …