Monday, August 22, 2011

The Russians

Hedrick Smith
Hedrick Smith completed "The Russians" in the 1976 when he was the NY Times foreign correspondent to Moscow. It came to me in a stack of free-bees being given away by a guy who had gone digital and downloaded to disc the three thousand plus books he had stored in his living room.

Obviously a voracious reader, the owner was ready with a synopsis for any volume that caught my eye.  I would have browsed his shelves longer but the smell of animal urine in the apartment was overpowering. The upholstered chairs were covered with sheets and they were piled high with every imaginable piece of junk that had come this fellow's way in the previous thirty years.  His landlord was in the processes of legally evicting him and as pay-back he intended to abandon everything that could not given away or loaded into his Ford Fiesta. I  sensed an angry hoarder going cold turkey.

"The Russians" turned out to be a fascinating read.  Smith's portrait of this profoundly conflicted yet endearing culture unmasked and humanized the Darth Vader of the Cold War.  It was surprising and somewhat disheartening to learn how ingrained Western material appetites had become for affluent Russians by the mid 1970's. "Non-conspicuous consumption" was the term Smith choose  to describe these in-the-closet consumers.  He recalls meeting a Russian engineer who observed, "What Marx had predicted for capitalist society--increasing concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands and a widening gap between the elite and the masses--seemed to be happening in the Soviet Union today." Regulation of capitalist endeavors, though limited, has been key in preserving our democratic way of life.  Still, as the corporate paradigm funnels wealth away from the many to the few, large political campaign contributions ensure election of representatives sympathetic to the profit strategies of companies that often appear in conflict with social and environmental concerns.   

Not long ago I visited with my local Republican State Representative and she defended corporate underwriting of candidates.  "How can the media complain about cooperate contributions to political campaigns, they are the ones who benefit from advertising dollars."  I assume what she referred to was the smoke screen exhaled by the  monopolized media and its ruse of impartiality.  The circuitous route of contributions to political candidates who invest in advertising and then reward their underwriters with legislative favors is a well-worn. Owners of corporations that provide these dollars often share the same goals as the monied elite controlling these media conglomerates.  This incestuous closed circuit of wealth seems to have been the catalyst in the USSR's demise.

The socio-economic preluded to the dissolution of USSR described in "The Russians" is strikingly similar to the shifting concentration of wealth in America today.  It certainly leaves the reader wondering if a similar fate lies in store for the United States.  Democracy and communism have both been nobel experiments in social re-ordering.   As evidenced by the USSR's dismemberment, government serving the needs of the majority is a fragile  and needs continual maintenance to sustain.

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