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Friday, June 19, 2009

The Soviet Analogy and Iran

Is the collapse of the Soviet Union a reasonable analogy for what may happen in Iran? There are certain parallels, including repressive regimes bent on imposing ideology to perpetuate their own rule. In each case, it is hard to imagine how the repression could end, since the regime has support from economic and political constituencies which benefit from perpetuation of the regime. Powerful and violent elites never give up power easily.

Joe Klein writes at Swampland (h/t Peter Wehner) that analogies between Iran in 2009 and the Soviet Union in the 1980s are "completely ridiculous":
I visited Russia back in the day and I've now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I've ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I'll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public--it could easily be misinterpreted and then he'd be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.

Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America.

Joe Klein doesn't know what he is talking about. While Klein may have visited the Soviet Union with a translator, my extensive experience in the Soviet Union differed sharply.

As a student in the 1970s and 1980s, I studied Russian language, including at a Russian language institute in Moscow. I didn't need a translator, which may explain why I saw a different Soviet Union than Klein. I travelled extensively throughout the country on three different trips (including not only the Russian Republic, but also the Soviet Republics in Central Asia, the Caucuses, and the Baltics). On the last of my trips I travelled without a tour guide, which was permitted by the government subject to sticking to a predetermined itinerary, although almost no one took advantage of the opportunity.

I was not in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when Perestroika took hold, and there was an opening to the West. I was there during the height of the Cold War. On one of my trips in 1980, I shared the last Aeroflot flight out of the U.S. with the staff of the Soviet Consulate in New York, who were being ejected in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The plane was only half-full with people, with the remaining seats stocked high with televisions, record players and other western electronics the diplomats were taking back to Moscow.

Being in the Soviet Union during the start of the Soviet Afghan war and when the U.S. announced its boycott of the Moscow Olympics, I would have witnessed the fear of which Klein writes. But fear did not exist to the extent Klein supposes. A fear to smile on the street? Maybe in the 1930s, but not in the late 1970s and 1980s. Klein either received bogus information, which he believed, or he is exaggerating.

There was fear in the Soviet Union, and foreigners were followed. But the fear was subverted by the normal human desire for knowledge and freedom, not any particular piece of information technology. I commented then (yes, I have witnesses!) that I could not see how the Soviet Union could survive, although intellectually it was hard to see how it could fall apart given the military and Communist Party rule.

What surprised me most is how informed people were in the Soviet Union. While I met people who bought the party line hook, line and sinker, I met far more people who understood that the official line was a lie. They may not have known precisely what the lie was, but they knew the regime lied.

There was no internet or Twitter or e-mail in the Soviet Union, or anywhere else for that matter. But there were the short-wave broadcasts of Voice of America and the BBC World Service. Short-wave radio, while unidirectional, was the internet of the 1970s and 1980s for people behind the Iron Curtain (wow, I haven't mentioned that phrase in a long time).

Perhaps my most striking memory of the Soviet Union is the absolutely warm welcome from people who never had met a foreigner, much less an American, before. The welcome from ordinary citizens stood in stark contrast to the official hostility from the government. People came up to me and other students on the street or in a restaurant to strike up a conversation, to ask if we had western magazines, and to find out what we thought about the world. More than anything, people expressed a lust for knowledge.

From the various blog accounts I read from people who have travelled to Iran, the contrast between the warmth of the people versus the hostility of the government appears strikingly similar to what I witnessed first hand in the Soviet Union several decades ago. The policy question is whether we will support the Iranian people without equivocation, as we did for the people of the Soviet Union, or will we help perpetuate the regime. While we were negogiating nuclear arms treaties with the Soviet leadership, we were undermining their rule through an unyielding refusal to accept communist rule as inevitable or justified.

Was there fear in the Soviet Union, and is there fear in Iran now? Of course. But fear did not suppress the desire of people in the Soviet Union to be free. And fear will not work forever in Iran. Not because of modern technology, but because of human nature.

Related Posts:
Why Are Iranians Using English On Protest Signs?
He Who Cannot Stop Talking, Is Silent On Iran

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  1. What history does teach us is this. nothing is inevitable. and great turns in history often hinge on the smallest of things. imagine, for instance, if America didn't have George Washington but instead had a Napoleon or a Cromwell? imagine how different the world would be if we descended into dictatorship. imagine if Thomas Jefferson hadn't written that all men were created equal and with a stroke of the pen struck a death blow to slavery. But even then slavery could have recovered. Maybe we wouldn't have had the great Abraham Lincoln as president. Or Stonewall Jackson might not have been shot by his own men. Or Lee might not have been fool enough to attack the yankees on the high ground in Gettysburg. The 20th Maine might have broken when they ran out of ammo at little round top (they didn't--they heroically charged with their bayonets and won). Or perhaps Lincoln wouldn't have issued the emancipation proclamation until it was too late to have a real military impact. Or maybe Lincoln would never have found a Grant or Sherman.

    Or to pick more recent examples, how history could have turned out differently if we stopped Germany at the first violation of the armistace? Or if Japan choose not to attack pearl harbor delaying our entry into the war by years? Or if the RAF had not been able to overcome such incredible odds and stave off the invasion of britain? Or if we didn't kick Saddam out of Kuwait or if Isreal hadn't bombed that iraqi nuclear plant? (hint: in both cases we probably would have had a nuclear iraq to contend with.) Or imagine what might have happened if all those hints and leads that something big was coming was followed up on before September 10, 2001?

    Big events hinge on little moments and however much iran might look like this country or not all that gives us is what it might become. who can guess what will happen.

    Btw, Isaac Asimov had an interesting series of books built around the concept of "psychohistory." the idea was that history could be predicted by very complex mathematical formulae. But it required 3 rules. 1) there can be no massive and uneven shifts in technology, 2) we have to be talking about massive population (think trillions of people over many planets), and 3) no one can know the formula (outside of the scientists making the predictions). And if that doesn't sound like it would work, well, Asimov actually agrees with you on that too. in the novels, known as the foundation series, a scientist uses the formula to manage the collapse of the galactic empire and to found a new one, and everything is going perfectly for long time, and then one day it becomes clear that the scientist's plan is failing.

    On another note, i want to say that your commentary is very sharp and if i seem very critical, that is because usually when i agree, i don't comment at all, so my comments are disproportionately negative on every site.

  2. Further to translator's story, what his parents (likely born in 30s or 40s) may have taught him as a child did not necessarily apply by the late 70s or 80s. It was likely an anachronism.

  3. Klein is an idiot. In any case, what he's missing is that the relative freedom in Iran over the past decade or so has pumped people up for the real deal. This is very much like the gradual relaxation of police-state controls in the USSR and East Europe that proceded with fits and starts from at least the early 70s. By the mid 80s, many more Soviet citizens had travelled abroad, most knew how backward their country was, Jews were emigrating to the US and Israel as fast as they could get permission to leave, and the sharp challenges to Soviet power from East Europe, particularly Poland, had given everyone the feeling that more freedom was possible, maybe even inevitable. Glasnost and pestrioika did not happen because Gorbachev was a raving liberal but because he sensed that he had no choice. What he did not anticipate was how fast and slippery the slope was.

    One more thing: new technologies did play a part in changing popular expectations and enabling reformist organization. The "new technology" of the era was the cassette player by which information from the West could be easily smuggled in and news about boat-rocking smuggled out. The worldwide organizations devoted to helping Soviet Jews emigrate and to support the political dissidents used this vehicle heavily.

    And the Helsinki Accords turned out to be an unwise agreement for the Soviets to embrace.