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Authors: Victor Sebestyen

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The Party had to protect itself from the people. In 1917 the first thing Lenin did was to set up a secret police force, the Cheka. Upon Soviet ‘liberation’ after World War Two, each of the new Communist regimes had established within weeks similar organisations, all carbon copies of the Soviet model. By the end of 1945 in Budapest there were already hundreds of full-time officers of the hated Államvédelmí Osztály (AVO, the State Security Authority) before work had begun on rebuilding even
one
of the bridges across the Danube blown up in the war. The Stasi in East Germany was called the ‘sword and shield of the Party’. Erich Honecker was fond of telling its senior officers later: ‘We did not seize power in order to give it up.’ Over time the methods of all these agencies became less violent. Torture chambers were turned into filing rooms. The task was still essentially the same, though: to ensure the supremacy of the Party. But there were subtle differences. For the most part, the secret police and their political masters ceased to think they could make people believe in communism. All citizens had to do was pretend they believed and outwardly conform. It became increasingly a spiritless charade.
 
In the early 1970s the Polish regime hushed up the results of a research project conducted by some government economists. It is easy to see why the information was kept secret. The survey found that the average female Polish worker got up at 5 a.m., spent more than two hours a day travelling to and from work, fifty-three minutes queuing for food, nine hours a day working, an hour and a half a day cooking and on housework and less than six and a half hours a day sleeping. After more than a quarter of a century of socialism, the system was evidently failing. Unlike most religions, which offered rewards in heaven to come, communism promised earthly relief from miseries here and now. It was not delivering.
In the 1950s, after the recovery from war, and the early 1960s there had been spectacular growth throughout Europe, East and West. The socialist countries kept pace with the West. Some of them, such as Czechoslovakia and East Germany, did well. But then began a long slide backwards. Growth peaked at 4.9 per cent between 1970 and 1975, dropping to 2 per cent in 1975-1980 and then continued to fall. In the West, surging inflation and mass unemployment posed problems which more flexible economies managed to deal with effectively. Prosperity returned - on a scale and in a way unimaginable under the Soviet system. The Soviet model was rigid. It was directed for political rather than economic ends, according to a centrally calculated Plan that bore no relation to the market. Prices and wages quickly turned out to be unrealistic, but no matter. They couldn’t be changed because they were in the Plan, approved by the bureaucrats in the Party. It led to absurdities big and small. For example, there were no hairpins made in Poland throughout most of the 1970s. The Plan had of course been produced by men and no mention in it anywhere was made of hairpins, so there were none produced. Some women in the Economics Ministry pointed this out but were told it was too cumbersome a matter to change the Plan for such a relatively minor item. Hence - no Polish hairpins. In liberal democracies, and under market capitalism, businesses respond to consumers if they want to stay afloat and politicians respond to voters’ demands for better standards of living if they want to stay in power. In one-party states that operate command economies none of these pressures apply.
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For a couple of decades communism managed to provide the basics in most parts of Eastern Europe, though in some places only just. But even the showplace countries were never effective at providing consumer goods, which as time went on was what people wanted. From the mid-1960s the gap with the West began to widen, then grew further rapidly. From the start, the new Communist rulers made catastrophic mistakes. The worst was to try to turn light industrial and agricultural economies almost overnight into ‘nations of iron and steel’. They did so because that is what Stalin had done in the USSR and the Soviet experience was dogma in all things.
A prime example was the construction from the early 1950s of Dunaújváros (originally Sztálinváros), a vast steel plant and new town on the Danube fifty kilometres south-east of Budapest. It required large amounts of coke and iron ore, neither of which existed in Hungary and had to be imported thousands of kilometres at vast expense from Soviet Central Asia. Of course it made the plant hopelessly uneconomic and a drain on scarce resources. But such practical considerations did not concern the regime. Dunaújváros had to be built, because the Plan said it would be built. Anyone who pointed out the craziness of these grandiose ventures was branded a ‘saboteur’. Theory held that the system was perfect, the planners at the centre were omniscient and therefore if anything went wrong it had to be the fault of someone or some group - enemies of the state, terrorists, imperialist agents. The obsession with heavy industry lasted throughout the Communist years. For most of them, the value of the natural resources mined and exported was considerably more than the finished goods produced in East European factories. Many manufactured products were made at a phenomenal loss.
Marxists argued that the absence of private property would abolish corruption. The opposite happened. In economies dominated by shortage, the only way to obtain a vast range of basic goods was through connections. A sophisticated system of barter and favours operated. If a doctor’s family needed the fridge repaired an electrician, moonlighting almost certainly illegally from his normal work, would do the job in return for, say, a hospital appointment. A new part was needed for the fridge and there was only one place that could come from. Theft from the workplace was common. An acute observer who knew many of the East European Party leaders thought that one of the worst aspects of communism was a new amorality. ‘Many people believed embezzling from the state, from big frauds to petty larceny, was OK. It was argued it was even a way of fighting back, of resistance.’
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Eastern Europe was an environmental disaster zone. The great Czech writer Ivan Klíma began one of his finest stories, ‘A Christmas Conspiracy’, with a description of stepping out into the streets of his beloved Prague. ‘The dark, cold, mist smelled of smoke, sulphur, and irritability.’ The state was the big polluter. The People’s Democracies did not care about the people’s environment. In Slovakia, according to the government’s own figures, 45 per cent of the country’s 3,500 kilometres of river were ‘dangerously polluted’ in 1980 and 80 per cent of the well water was unusable for human consumption. The fertiliser in the collective farms ‘was over-used and poisoned the soil’. Bohemia had the worst air pollution in Europe - the cheap local coal had a dangerously high sulphur content. More than a third of all Czech woods and forests were already dead or dying. In East Germany the authorities banned the publication of pollution levels after some brave journalists found that in the Leipzig and Lausitz regions skin cancers, respiratory ailments and skin diseases were well above the national average and many times higher than the worst levels recorded across the border in West Germany.
 
The subject people in the People’s Democracies hated communism. They hated their own rulers. But they hated the Soviet occupiers most. Russian influence was everywhere and burned as a profound national grievance in proud countries that cherished their independence. The Soviets displayed their power in numberless ways, small as well as big. Naturally the major decisions about war and peace and the deployment of sensitive military hardware were the prerogative of the Soviets. That would have been so in any empire. But even the loyal satraps imposed by Moscow were occasionally offended by the brusque insensitivity with which they could be treated by their masters. The Czechoslovak Foreign Minister in the early 1980s, Bohuslav Chnoupek, was surprised he was not even told when a new range of nuclear missiles was based on his country’s soil. ‘We got a note from the Soviet Embassy, containing no more than 50 words, saying that medium range nuclear missiles were . . . deployed on the territory of Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic. I called the Prime Minister Lubomír Strougal to ask if he knew anything about it. He said “No, that’s the first I’ve heard of it.” I called Berlin and an official confirmed that the same message had been received there. The deployment had not been discussed with us.’
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The Russians seemed unconcerned about trampling over delicate national feelings and symbols. National flags were changed, always with Communist hammer and sickle or steel and hammer emblems replacing old, traditional ones which had existed before. Public holidays conformed with those in the USSR. Children were taught Russian at school as the only foreign language offered. A new constitution in Hungary was introduced, with gross insensitivity, on 20 August 1949 - the traditional Feast Day of St Stephen honouring the country’s first king and patron saint. The first line of the constitution contained profuse thanks to ‘the glorious Soviet Union for its historic role in liberating our country’. All these slights rankled deeply.
The Russians understood this not only from the major acts of rebellion that would explode every few years when people would declare en masse that they had had enough - Budapest 1956, or Prague 1968. But there was an undercurrent of resentment that seethed daily. The KGB was intensely aware of this hatred. Usually, its permanent spies based in Eastern bloc countries - called ‘residents’ - wrote reports that their bosses wanted to hear, containing flattering accounts of local reactions. Occasionally, the Soviets sent spies on short fact-finding missions throughout their territories designed to gauge the truth. They would produce a far more accurate picture, filled with small but telling details. A KGB officer in supposedly ‘friendly’ Bulgaria, where it was said the people liked the Russians, commented that ‘Anti-Sovietism flourishes on Bulgarian TV . . . though it is not expressed.’ How could he tell, when it wasn’t expressed? Most nights on Bulgarian television there were short films about life in the USSR , but the local electricity authorities told him that the power supply was massively increased suddenly, at exactly the time these were broadcast, when the public switched off their sets.
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After Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, the defeated Czech leader, Alexander Dubcek, whose dream was to give communism a human face, was summoned to Moscow at gunpoint and given a lesson in great-power politics. The Red Tsar in the Kremlin, Leonid Brezhnev, explained that idealism was irrelevant.
Your country lies on territory where the Soviet soldier trod in the Great Patriotic War. We bought that territory at the cost of enormous sacrifices and we will never leave it. The borders of your country are our borders as well. Because you do not listen to us, we feel threatened. In the name . . . of the dead who laid down their lives for your freedom too, we are therefore fully entitled and justified in sending our soldiers into your country, so that we may feel secure in our common borders. It is immaterial if anyone is actually threatening us or not. It is a matter of principle. And that is the way it will be - until eternity.
It was from this lecture that the Brezhnev Doctrine came to be developed. Although nobody stated it as a ‘doctrine’, everybody in Eastern Europe understood its force and what it meant. The Russians would not relax their grip in any of their domains. A threat to the political system in any of the socialist countries would be seen as a threat to the security of the empire as a whole.
The Soviets controlled everything of importance in their territories. But on the other hand it was an extremely curious empire, perhaps unique in history. The imperial power was far poorer than many of its colonial possessions. Soviet soldiers based near Berlin, Prague or Budapest could not help noticing that from their provincial homes in the USSR they were considerably worse-off than their East German, Czech or Hungarian ‘hosts’. In traditional European empires, the colonial powers bought, or took, raw materials from the colonies in exchange for manufactured goods. Under the Soviet system - which operated under a trade agreement imposed on the satellites known as COMECON (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) - the reverse happened. The Soviet Union supplied large amounts of oil, gas and other raw materials in return for engineering products, consumer goods and food. This caused resentment the other way, as Soviet citizens believed the colonies were getting the best of the deal. When the future Party leader of Hungary Károly Grósz met the Soviet Communist Boris Yeltsin - then a senior Kremlin apparatchik - in Moscow, he recalls: ‘I remember visiting Yeltsin . . . We had a quarrel - in the literal sense of the word - because in . . . a blunt, ill-mannered way . . . he told me that the Hungarians should no longer treat them as a milch cow, living off them.’
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Of course, there were jokes about Soviet colonialism - a Russian agronomist boasted that in the Soviet Union ‘we have five crops a year’. Impossible, he was told. ‘Not at all. Here we have one in Russia, one from Poland, one from Hungary, one from Czechoslovakia . . .’ But it was no laughing matter.
The Russians were able to keep communism in place in this ill-assorted half-dozen countries only as long as they showed readiness to use force. But each separate ‘police action’ demanded greater effort while yielding fewer satisfactory results. Nowhere were the results as poor as in Poland, the largest of their satellites, with nearly forty million people bitter at the poverty around them and the slave status their old traditional enemy imposed on them.
TWO
A MESSAGE OF HOPE
The Kremlin, Monday 16 October 1978
 
IT WAS LATE in the afternoon Moscow time that the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, was first told the name of the new Pope. White smoke above the Sistine Chapel had signalled the election of Karol Wojtyła, who had adopted the papal title John Paul II. The Soviet spy chief realised immediately the importance of the news. In a sombre mood he began calling his fellow magnates in the Kremlin and repeated to each a prophetic warning: ‘Wojtyła represents a menace to Soviet security’. Angrily, that evening, he phoned Boris Aristov, the Soviet Ambassador in Warsaw, and demanded an explanation of ‘how could this have happened? How could you possibly have allowed the election of a citizen of a socialist country as Pope?’ He said again that the new Pope was ‘dangerous for us’. Aristov blamed ‘politics in the Vatican’ for Wojtyła’s elevation, but Andropov was not mollified. He ordered a full and urgent report into how ‘this disaster for Soviet interests’ had occurred.
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BOOK: Revolution 1989
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