My childhood was spent in Ethiopia, a country which turned towards Socialism after the Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown. I saw the steady decline of the powers of the Soviet Union and its protectorates from the early nineteen eighties! A common joke I shared with my friends was that the Eastern Bloc countries had to renounce Socialism because the people wanted Coca-Cola, Macdonald’s Burger and a pair of Wrangler Jeans. I remember that friends from the Soviet Union were crazy about Coca Cola, Wrangler Jeans, and all electronics from Japan!
It became clear moreover that people in the Soviet Union had become fed up with the rather obsolete Lada, which was a copy of the Fiat 124, the Volga, and the Moskvitch! In the GDR, (German Democratic Republic) there was a long wait for the Trabant, a rather quaint two-stroke car which gave trouble from the time it was brought home! The IFA truck from the GDR had a high centre of gravity, and the UAZ jeep from the Soviet Union overturned! The Riva, another jeep, although more refined was not very efficient!
We used to joke that if a product made in the Soviet Union did not work, you only had to hit it with a hammer, and it would start working! There was a story about how Japan bought a large number of tractors from the Soviet Union, only to melt them down to make cars! My friends from the Soviet Union often complained about the long lines of people who turned up early in the morning to buy bread and provisions from the People’s distribution stores only to learn with disappointment, when their turn came that the store had run out of essential items! Another standard joke shared by my Ethiopian friends who had returned from the Soviet Union after studies was that you could win the loyalty of a girl in the USSR by gifting her a pair of Jeans!
Taken seriously, it becomes apparent that the steady decline of Socialism started from the era of Stalin itself! Stalwarts like Leonid Brezhnev were already aware that socialism was in its last stage. In those days, the Rouble was artificially inflated. Aeroflot was the cheapest airlines, although most flights were routed through Moscow. I read a recent article about what brought about the fall of the Great Wall of Berlin, and wondered if it was not perhaps because the people of East Germany were not jealous of the good life that their cousins in West Germany were enjoying! The constrictions of a Socialist regime meant that there were spies all around, and you couldn’t be sure about even your closest friends and relatives! An atmosphere of paranoia pervaded the societies in the Eastern Bloc countries.
It is clear that Socialism in the Eastern Bloc countries failed among other reasons, because of a closed market policy, lack of liberalisation, curtailment of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the general right to dissent! Unfortunately, while the common man had to face hardships, the members of the Polit-bureau lived in comparative luxury! They even had stores which provided them the luxuries of the Western countries! The Co-Operative farms, and the communes began to yield lesser and lesser yield! Ultimately, it was the common man who rebelled against the strictures of Socialism! The common man wanted the freedoms enjoyed by his western counterparts. He wanted Coca-Cola, and he wanted to wear Wrangler Jeans, and he wanted to have a Macdonald’s Burger! Strictures against going to church, and following a religion made the common man fed up! The common man wanted to go to Church, but unfortunately anyone professing a religion other than Socialism was denounced and his party membership was taken away! Communist Party ideology denounced religion as being the opium of the poor! People who returned from abroad told their relatives about Coca-Cola and the Macdonald’s Burger, and the “good life” in the West, and this added to the discontent of the people residing in the USSR and the GDR!
Ultimately, the expense of supporting so many countries in terms of military hardware and other infra-structure lead to the downfall of Socialism in the erstwhile USSR, and GDR. Things came to head in the time of Gorbachov who introduced the policy of Glasnost, or openness, or, in today’s terms, transparency. The introduction of Glasnost spelled another death-knell for Socialism! The period under Boris Yeltsin brought about further change! Finally, it was the people who finally decided to break down the Berlin wall and turn towards the western philosophy of life because they were fed up of an oppressive regime which did not provide them true freedom, and the freedom to purchase what they wanted without having to stand in long queues! People had the money, but then there were no goods to be bought in the shops. People didn’t want to wait for months for a Trabant car that refused to start!