Archive | Russia

HIAS Event Launching a Book of Memoirs of Soviet Jewish Immigrants

This Sunday from 3 to 5 PM, I will be at an event sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York City, for the launch of a book of memoirs of immigration by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The book includes contributions by thirty different immigrants, including a short version of my own immigration memoir. Among the speakers at the event are several authors of chapters in the book, and Gal Beckerman, author of an important recent work on Jewish emigration from the USSR that I commented on here. The location is the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) New York, NY 10011. You can get tickets at the door or here. [...]

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Russian Authorities Ban Toy Protest Because Toys “Are Not Even People”

Officials in the Siberian city of Barnaul recently banned an anti-government protest using toys on the specious justification that “toys, especially imported toys, are not only not citizens of Russia but they are not even people” [HT: Julie Ershadi]:

There hadn’t been many – indeed any – rallies like it before in Russia. Last month saw dozens of toys, from teddy bears to Lego figurines, standing out in the snow of a Siberian city with banners complaining about corruption and electoral malpractice.

At the time, Russian authorities in Barnaul declared the protest “an unsanctioned public event”.

Now a petition to hold another protest featuring 100 Kinder Surprise toys, 100 Lego people, 20 model soldiers, 15 soft toys and 10 toy cars has been rejected because the toys have been deemed not to be “citizens of Russia”.

“As you understand, toys, especially imported toys, are not only not citizens of Russia but they are not even people,” Andrei Lyapunov, a spokesman for Barnaul, told local media.

It’s easy to see the flaw in Lyapunov’s reasoning. Yes, toys are not people. But owners of toys are. The toy protest is an exercise of the owners’ rights to freedom of expression, not the rights of the toys themselves. Banning a toy protest because toys are not people is much like banning the publication of antigovernment articles in a newspaper on the grounds that newspapers are not people.

Unfortunately, such dubious justifications for restricting political speech are not limited to Russia. Right here in the United States, many claim that the government should have a free hand in restricting political speech by corporations because corporations aren’t people. As I explained here, they are making exactly the same mistake as Lyapunov.

UPDATE: Some commenters are confusing the “corporations are not people” argument [...]

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The 20th Anniversary of the End of the Soviet Union

In addition to being the last day of the year, today is also the twentieth anniversary of the official end of the Soviet Union, when the last Soviet government institutions shut down. Today’s quasi-authoritarian Russia is far from admirable. But, despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s lame and self-serving claims to the contrary, it is still a vast improvement over the USSR. In addition to the benefits for Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, the fall of the USSR also created important benefits for the rest of the world. I covered the many advantages of the end of the USSR in more detail in this post.

With the demise of the USSR, we were spared a regime that slaughtered millions both within and outside its borders, inflicted numerous other human rights violations, and created a threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over the entire world. Compared to that, the very real dangers of the post-Cold War world seem minor by comparison. I recognize, of course, that the USSR in the last years of Gorbachev’s reign was much less dangerous and oppressive than it had been previously. But had the regime survived, it is far from clear that Gorby’s reforms would not have been reversed. Previous episodes of Soviet liberalization in the 1920s and 1956-64 had been followed by waves of repression at home and expansionism abroad. Moreover, Gorbachev himself was not as much of a liberal democrat as he is often portrayed in the West. He used force to try to suppress the independence movement in the Baltics, and otherwise sought to preserve the Soviet regime, not end it. He was certainly much less ruthless and repressive than his predecessors. But that is judging him by a very low standard of comparison. Nonetheless, it is fortunate [...]

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George Orwell on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Bryan Caplan has a interesting post on George Orwell’s portrayal of democracy in his classic work Animal Farm. As Bryan notes, the initially egalitarian and democratic regime established by the animals gets subverted in large part because of political ignorance. Like Bryan, I would be interested to know more about Orwell’s view of real-world democracy. Did he believe that the problem of political ignorance could be overcome by education or some other means? Or perhaps he thought that the problem of ignorance was irremediable, but democracy was still the best form of government. Given that he remained a socialist to the end of his life, Orwell obviously could not adopt my and Bryan’s preferred solution of limiting and decentralizing government in order to mitigate the problem.

It’s also interesting to note that Orwell’s portrayal of democracy at Animal Farm was actually far more positive than the Soviet history he based the novel on. Unlike Animal Farm, the USSR was a brutal totalitarian state from the start and was never democratic. Opposition parties (including even left-wing socialist ones) were suppressed from the beginning, and there were never any free elections or any direct democracy of the kind Orwell depicts.

I’m not sure whether Orwell deviated from Soviet history on this point in order to make a statement about democracy or because he was in thrall to the view (common among anti-Stalinist Western leftists in his day) that the Soviet experiment only went awry under Stalin. His modestly favorable portrayal of Snowball – the pig who serves as an analogue to Trotsky – is compatible with the latter idea, though Snowball is not a completely positive figure in the novel. Some degree of rot is evident even in the “pre-Stalinist” era at Animal Farm, though the animals are described as [...]

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Vladimir Putin and the 22nd Amendment

Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he intends to return to the presidency after the 2012 election has been rightly denounced as a deepening of authoritarianism in Russia. Having effectively repressed Russia’s opposition parties and media, Putin is now consolidating his position as a dictator. Barring some sort of sudden collapse of his regime (which is by no means impossible), he can now rule into the 2020s with little or no effective opposition.

It’s worth remembering that Putin had to leave the presidency in the first place because Russia’s 1993 Constitution bans presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Therefore, he turned the office over to his handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev, who will now become prime minister after Putin’s nearly inevitable victory in the 2012 election, from which most opposition parties are effectively excluded from participating. Putin’s return to the presidency cuts off any hope that the Russian government will continue Medvedev’s moves towards modest political and economic liberalization.

The whole sorry situation highlights the wisdom of the US Constitution’s 22nd Amendment, which not only bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms, but also forbids two-term presidents from ever holding the office again in the future. That prevents American presidents from pulling off the trick that Putin used with Medvedev – leaving a loyal flunky in power for four years and then returning to office. It thereby makes it much harder for any one man to consolidate dictatorial dominance.

Obviously, there are many other differences between the US and Russian political systems that make authoritarianism a lesser danger in the former. Nonetheless, the power of the modern presidency is great enough that a popular leader who could serve indefinitely might consolidate enormous power and gradually undermine democracy. At the state level, term-limited governors who are [...]

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The 50th Anniversary of the Erection of the Berlin Wall

Today is the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall. In November 2009, I wrote a post on the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s destruction. What I said then is also appropriate to today’s less happy anniversary:

In several ways, the Wall and its collapse are fitting symbols of communism. They demonstrate several truths about that system that we would be wise not to lose sight of.

First and foremost, Cold War-era Berlin was the most visible demonstration of the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Despite the fact that East Germany had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc, it had to build a wall to keep its people from fleeing to the capitalist West. By contrast, West Germans and other westerners were free to move to the communist world anytime they wanted. Yet only a tiny handful ever did so. Decisions to “vote with your feet” are often even better indicators of peoples’ true preferences than ballot box voting, since foot voters have better incentives to become well-informed about the alternatives before them. Even more powerful evidence is the reality that many East Germans and others fled from communism even when doing so meant risking their lives.

Second, the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the way in which communist governments violated the human right to freedom of movement, one of the most important attributes of a free society. If people are forcibly trapped under the rule of the government in whose territory they happen to be born, they are not truly free; rather, they are hostages of their rulers.

Finally, the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly demonstrated the extent to which communist totalitarianism relied on coercion to maintain its rule. Some

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Yelena Bonner, RIP

Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov, and a prominent dissident in her own right has passed away:

Yelena Bonner, a rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, has died, her daughter said Sunday. She was 88….

Bonner grew famous through her marriage to Sakharov, the Soviet Union’s leading dissident, but she carved out her own reputation as a tireless human rights campaigner in the face of relentless hostility from Soviet authorities….

Both suffered constant harassment, and Soviet officialdom regularly made caustic, personal attacks against Bonner, accusing her of being a foreign agent who bullied her husband, the father of the Soviet atomic bomb [actually hydrogen bomb – IS], into turning against his country.

But the attacks only seemed to strengthen their resolve, and neither ever stopped calling for greater personal freedom for Soviet citizens despite the huge personal cost.,,,

After Sakharov died in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later, Bonner continued to champion human rights, but was less and less visible, and her health began to deteriorate…..

Nonetheless, she edited her husband’s memoirs, which were released in 1997, and still occasionally spoke out against President Boris Yeltsin’s government, denouncing Russia’s bungled war in Chechnya and the shortcomings of the country’s young democracy.

In recent years, Bonner lent the weight of her voice to those opposing the leadership of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has restored many of the Soviet-era powers of the security services. In March 2010, hers was the first signature on a petition calling for Putin to go.

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Debate on Libya and the War Powers Act

Featuring British NGO representative Leslie Vinjamuri (pro-intervention, sees no legal problem), American peace activist Robert Naiman (anti-intervention, considers the intervention unconstitutional), and me (pro-intervention, but opposed to Obama doing it in violation of the Constitution and the War Powers Act). On the RT (formerly, “Russia Today”) television program “Crosstalk.” 27 minutes. [...]

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Tyler Cowen on the Political Attitudes of Russian Jewish Immigrants

In this post, Tyler Cowen asks why Russian Jewish immigrants tend to overwhelmingly support the GOP rather than the Democrats. The reasons are actually no mystery. As I have previously explained here and here, Russian Jews are hawkish on foreign policy and their experience with communism leads them to be suspicious of domestic policies that seem socialistic. Also, they dislike the Democratic Party because it was relatively dovish during the Cold War. Immigrants from other communist countries, such as the Cubans and Vietnamese, tend to be Republican for much the same reasons. So Russian Jews are not unusual in this regard. They only seem so by comparison with native-born American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats.

Tyler asks why Russian Jews tend to be opposed to affirmative action and gay marriage. But the vast majority of all white Americans are opposed to affirmative action (64% in this 2009 poll). So Russian immigrant attitudes on this issue are not surprising. They only seem so by comparison with native-born American Jews, who are the only white ethnic group that tends to support affirmative action.

As for gay rights, Russian Jews are indeed far more opposed to them, on average, than native-born whites. The reason, unfortunately, is probably simple homophobia. Anti-gay prejudice is widespread in Russia, with 74% of Russians endorsing the view that gays and lesbians are “morally dissolute or mentally defective persons,” according to a 2010 poll. At least in my experience, Russian Jews are no exception to this general tendency, though younger, more assimilated immigrants are less likely to be anti-gay than those who were older when they arrived. Homophobia aside, most Russian Jews are not socially conservative generally. For example, the vast majority are secular and pro-choice.

Tyler is probably wrong to suggest that [...]

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Why the World is Better Off Without the USSR

There are some great historical events where it’s difficult to tell whether their net effect was positive or not. Contra Brian Leiter, the fall of the Soviet Union isn’t one of them.

The fall of the USSR led to the establishment of numerous successful liberal democracies, including Poland, the the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, and others. Some of these were established before the USSR fully collapsed. But communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not have fallen were not the USSR itself already close to collapse, as it was in 1989-90.

Even the more authoritarian post-communist successor states are all far freer than their communist predecessors were. For example, all of them have vastly greater freedom of speech, freedom of religion, protection for property rights, and freedom of internal and external mobility (nearly all communist governments forbade emigration for most of its citizens, and most also severely restricted internal movement). I am no fan of the quasi-authoritarian government of ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, but it’s a lot less repressive than the USSR was by any conceivable measure. For example, my relatives living in Russia feel free to openly criticize the government and vote for opposition parties. Even under Gorbachev, public criticism of the government was severely circumscribed and opposition parties were banned until just before the regime fell.

On the economic front, after a difficult transition in the mid-1990s, there have been massive increases in incomes and standards of living. For example, per capita GDP in Eastern Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) rose from 33% of Western European levels in 1992 to 45% in 2008. Those countries that adopted free market policies most rapidly and completely (e.g. – Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic) had the highest growth rates and least painful transitions. These figures greatly understate the true [...]

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Hollywood’s First Gulag Movie

The Way Back, Hollywood’s first-ever movie about the Gulag system, recently opened in theaters. Anne Applebaum, author of the excellent history Gulag, has an informative column on the movie in the Washington Post. Applebaum served as a consultant on the film. As she explains, the escape story is at least partly fictional. However, the portrayal of conditions in the Gulag system itself is very accurate. The BBC has an interesting article about the making of the movie.

The fact that it took Hollywood 70 years to make its first Gulag movie is itself a telling indication of our longstanding neglect of communist crimes. After all, the Gulag system was an episode of mass murder that took as many lives as the Holocaust and possibly even more. And we are still waiting for the first Hollywood movie about the even larger Soviet mass murder of the forced famines of the 1930s, to say nothing of the Chinese communists’ repetition of this atrocity, probably the biggest mass murder in all of world history. Scott Johnson of Powerline notes two previous Gulag films. But one of them was a little-known 1970 Swedish film, and another a low-budget 1980s HBO TV movie. For obvious reasons, neither had anywhere near the impact that a full-scale Hollywood production might have.

Interestingly, one of the three main characters in the film is an American Gulag prisoner. Quite possibly, he was included in order to give American filmgoers a character they could identify with. However, it is in fact true that several thousand Americans were imprisoned in the Gulag system, most of them dying there. These people were skilled workers lured in by the Soviet government in the early 1930s with promises of high wages, along with some leftists who [...]

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Political Attitudes of Russian Jewish Immigrants

In a comment on my last post on Russian Jewish immigration, University of North Carolina law professor and blogger Eric Muller writes:

Again and again I find myself wondering to what extent it’s true that Jewish refugees/emigres from Soviet totalitarianism (and their offspring) tend to have a libertarian and/or conservative political orientation. Does anyone know whether this has been studied? Are Eugene, Sasha, and Ilya typical in this regard, or atypical?

There is actually survey data on this, which reveals that some 75% of Russian Jewish immigrants vote Republican, as compared to only about 20% of native-born American Jews. The same pattern is evident among other refugees from communism, such as Cubans and Vietnamese. The reasons are not hard to figure out. The experience of living under communism makes these refugee groups hostile to anything that smacks of socialism and also to those political parties and ideologies that they perceive (with some justice) as having been soft on communism during the latter part of the Cold War. This in turn leads them to be more “right-wing” than they might have been otherwise. As I discuss in my immigration memoir, I probably would have become a liberal or leftist had I been born in the US and had the same interests and personality.

The overwhelming majority of Russian Jews in legal and social science academia tend to be conservative or libertarian (more often the latter), which is in sharp contrast to the generally left-wing orientation of the vast majority of other US academics. My impression is that rank and file Russian Jewish immigrants also tend to be on the right, more libertarian-leaning than conservative (e.g. – most are pro-choice and favor fairly strong separation of church and state). Obviously, most are not nearly as self-conscious or consistent [...]

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The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and Jewish Emigration from the USSR

I agree with most of what co-blogger Sasha Volokh says in his post on Gal Beckerman’s important new book on the political struggle over Jewish emigration from the USSR.

For example, it is indeed true (and in retrospect, very interesting) that the campaign united many ideologically disparate groups in the US. When I worked for Action for Soviet Jewry in the late 1980s, we had important assistance from political leaders as disparate as Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. It is also true, and and already well-known, that Henry Kissinger was negative about the whole deal, as he was about human rights in general. Recent Nixon tapes revelations about Kissinger’s attitude confirm that.

At the same time, I do have a few disagreements with Sasha and Beckerman’s analysis. Sasha is correct to suggest that much of the more severe repression described in the book “might not have applied to Soviet Jews who kept their heads low and didn’t try to leave.” But of course such people still had to endure the serious ordinary oppression of life in the USSR, including (but far from limited to) widespread official anti-Semitism. I briefly described some of this in the first part of my own immigration memoir. The most important weakness of Beckerman’s book is that he gives very little description of the lives of ordinary Soviet Jews who were not activists or dissidents, and therefore doesn’t clearly explain why so many wanted to leave. The increased repression of the late Brezhnev and Andropov periods had a ripple effect on non-dissidents as well, since they had to be even more careful to avoid offending the authorities than before.

I also have some reservations about Sasha’s and Beckerman’s discussion of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It is true that the amendment was never waived until 1990. [...]

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Did Joseph Stalin Commit Genocide?

In his excellent recent book Stalin’s Genocides, Stanford historian Norman Naimark argues that Joseph Stalin committed genocide and not “merely” mass murder. Few any longer deny that Stalin’s regime slaughtered millions of innocent people. But the Russian government and some Western writers continue to argue that these murders were not genocidal, and that Stalin therefore cannot be classed in a category with Adolf Hitler and others who slaughtered entire racial, ethnic, or religious groups.

Back in 2008, I blogged about the debate over the question of whether the Soviet terror famine of the early 1930s (in which some 6 to 10 million people died) was a case of genocide or mass murder (see here and here). Many Ukrainians and some Western scholars argue that this was a case of genocide because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin specifically targeted Ukrainian peasants for extermination. By contrast, the Russian government claims that Stalin was an equal opportunity mass murderer. The distinction matters because international law defines mass murder as genocide only if it was the result of an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” It also matters because of the ongoing debate over whether communist mass murders deserve as much opprobrium as those of the Nazis.

Naimark concludes that both the terror famine and various other Stalinist atrocities qualify as genocide. His book is the most thorough and compelling study of the subject so far. In the end, however, I am not so much persuaded that Stalin committed genocide as reaffirmed in my view that the genocide-mass murder distinction isn’t a morally meaningful one. Moreover, Naimark overstates Stalin’s personal role in the mass murders committed by his regime and understates the impact of the communist system.

I. Was it Genocide [...]

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A Chinese Parallel to My Soviet-Era Emigration Experience

In response to my memoir about emigrating from the Soviet Union, a Chinese-American reader e-mailed me the following [posted with permission of the author]:

Thank you for posting your memoir. I really enjoyed reading it. I can completely identify with your experiences, as my family also had to make its escape from a Communist country, China. My parents are professors who came to this country with nothing, and worked their way up by taking 2-3 menial labor jobs. Your anecdote about how adults never criticized the government in front of you had me nodding my head; my mother told me one of the big reasons why she wanted to leave the country was the ever-present tension between telling me the truth and risk me getting into trouble in school and not saying anything and watching me be brainwashed.

My parents have made similar statements to me, noting that telling me the truth in the USSR was even more dangerous than with most other children because I was never one to keep my opinions to myself.

This, of course, is not the first time that people have noticed parallels between the Russian and Chinese experiences with communism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the same comparison many years ago, as did various others. The two regimes adopted very similar policies and institutions: a one party state, government ownership of the economy, a vast network of secret police, collectivization of agriculture, and stultifying censorship and political repression, among others.

At the macro level, this led to massive death and suffering, with Mao Zedong possibly exceeding the world record for mass murder previously set by Stalin. At the micro level the similarity is reflected in stories like the above. Two small incidents from my own family history further illustrate the point:

In the 1950s, [...]

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