Yes, it was an evil empire

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021

Yes, it was an evil empire, Cathy Young reminds us:

It was the summer of 1983, and I, a Soviet émigré and an American in the making, was chatting with the pleasant middle-aged woman sitting next to me on a bus from Asbury Park, New Jersey, to Cherry Hill. Eventually our conversation got to the fact that I was from the Soviet Union, having arrived in the U.S. with my family three years earlier at age 17. “Oh, really?” said my seatmate. “You must have been pretty offended when our president called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’! Wasn’t that ridiculous?” But her merriment at the supposed absurdity of President Ronald Reagan’s recent speech was cut short when I somewhat sheepishly informed her that I thought he was entirely on point.


The woman on the bus in 1983 did not surprise me. By then, I had already met many Americans for whom “anti-Soviet” was almost as much of a pejorative as it had been in the pages of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party. My favorite was a man in the café at the Rutgers Student Center who shrugged off the victims of the gulag camps by pointing out that capitalism kills people too — with cigarettes, for example. When I recovered from shock, I told him that smoking was far more ubiquitous in the Soviet Union, and anti-smoking campaigns far less developed. That momentarily stumped him.

My mother was also at Rutgers at the time as a piano instructor. She once got into a heated argument over lunch with a colleague and friend after he lamented America’s appalling treatment of the old and the sick. She ventured that, from her ex-Soviet vantage point, it didn’t seem that bad. “Are you telling me that it’s just as bad in the Soviet Union?” her colleague retorted, only to be dumbstruck when my mother clarified that, actually, she meant it was much worse. She tried to illustrate her point by telling him about my grandmother’s sojourn in an overcrowded Soviet hospital ward: More than once, when the woman in the next bed rolled over in her sleep, her arm flopped across my grandma’s body. Half-decent care required bribing a nurse, and half-decent food had to be brought from home. My mother’s normally warm and gracious colleague shocked her by replying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you.” Her perceptions, he told her, were obviously colored by antipathy toward the Soviet regime. Eventually, he relented enough to allow that perhaps my grandmother did have a very bad experience in a Soviet hospital — but surely projecting it onto all of Soviet medicine was uncalled for.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    Like with Fidel and Cuba. The great health care system. The great educational system. The great ballet company too. Etc.

    Then later it is shown to be all a farce.

  2. Szopen says:

    Yeah. Great system, where in exchange for losing your basic freedoms you gained lacks of toilet paper, as one economists quipped. I was shocked too when I was talking to one Polish youngster, who was trying to convince me that we are now much worse off under capitalism than we used to be. After much effort in bringing back basic statistics I just gave up. I assume he probably was one of the nomenklatura.

  3. Faze says:

    Some Russian and Ukrainian young people born after 1991 express a certain, “It couldn’t have been THAT bad,” attitude, and are nostalgic for their parents’ world and its certainties. This could be amplified by their struggles in the real world as they grow older, and may be expressed as a political preference in years to come.

  4. ETat says:

    I have any number of my own personal anecdotes along the author’s lines, for instance:

    A former coworker, Syrian-American, was ranting in a group of others how he has it on a most trustworthy authority that everyone in the USSR had a car “given free” by the government, as well as the usual canards about free medical care and education. I wouldn’t have engaged if not for the car claim. I told him only the select few could have the funds, much less access, to purchase a car, let alone a foreign car, and about the decades-long lists for those who wished, and how much in percentage to an average salary it cost, and non-existent autobody repair system, and state of the roads, and eligibility to build a garage, etc.

    His response:

    It doesn’t matter that you lived there, what you say is a lie. I know better, because I believe my sources, not you.


    When evaluating my Master’s diploma (industrial engineering) in the 1990s for applying for a course at CUNY in a related design field, all my mandatory political courses from a Soviet university were credited as “History” — “Scientific Communism”, “Socialist Political Economy”, “History of the KPSS” — while Manual Drafting and 3D Geometry, perversely, were not…

  5. Bile Jones says:

    Come the revolution all the Che-/Castro-/generic commie-lovers should meet the new guillotine, the woodchipper.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    The biggest Western problem is and has been Journalism

  7. Altitude Zero says:

    Yes, the thing that typified most believers in the Soviet experiment was not any actual knowledge of conditions in the USSR, or even any understanding of theoretical Marxism, but a burning need to believe, obviously a surrogate for religious belief. And now I’m seeing it again – sweet young things explaining to me that all that stuff about Stalin mass murdering people is just CIA propaganda, or that Mao, or Ho, or Fidel, or whoever, would not have turned to communism if the evil US reactionaries had not somehow pushed them into it, even if they had been communists years before the Cold War even started. People learn nothing from history – which I suppose is one of the reasons that we are in the mess we’re in.

  8. Harry Jones says:

    People learn nothing from history because people don’t trust history. It’s news from the grave, and nobody trusts the news.

    Basically, it’s gossip from the grave. Nobody knows for a fact what happened before he was born, or what’s happening right now on the other side of the planet. There are no qualia there.

    Anyone can make up anything, prior to the age of audio-visual recording. And deceptive editing has always been a thing. Now we’ve got deepfakes.

    This is why I’m a radical empiricist, bordering on solipsist. If you tell me the sky is blue, I’ll look up and check. Especially on a cloudy day or at night.

    If life extension ever makes it possible for people to live a thousand years, then reasonable people will feel certain of what happened a thousand years previous – because they’ll have seen it and remember it. There is no other reliable basis for truth claims about the past, except perhaps archaeology.

  9. Sam J. says:

    “There is no other reliable basis for truth claims about the past, except perhaps archaeology.”

    40,000 year ago, Korg and Og sit around fire drinking copious amounts of fermented lager of some sort. Korg messes around with clay making a big fat girl effigy and says, “Hey! Look at this fat girl I made”. Korg and and Og laugh uproariously, and Korg throws clay fat girl in fire. Wakes up with huge hangover next day, forgets about clay fat girl.

    Archaeologist find clay fat girl. Declare, “This object was used in or an object of worship.”

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