The “Czar Cannon,” cast in 1586, stands in the Kremlin. Former U.S. and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev provide perspective on its size.
Here, from my personal recollection, is an interesting footnote to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 38 years ago this month (Dec. 24, 1979). It illustrates the overarching principle governing Soviet domestic and foreign policy, which can be summed up in three words: “Guns, not butter.”*
When, as a Foreign Service Officer, I was posted (1976–78) to the U.S. Consulate-General in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s hometown) I was usually present at formal receptions in the consul general’s residence. At such events, the Soviet guests were invariably officials and Communist Party members whom the Soviet authorities considered politically reliable enough to be allowed to mingle with Americans. (Ordinary Soviet citizens could not get past the Soviet police post at the door, whose main function was simply to keep everyday Soviet citizens out.) Most Soviet guests were people I’d never previously met.
On two of these occasions, I recall chatting with people who, when we introduced ourselves, said they worked at the Leningrad branch of the Institute of Oriental [Eastern] Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (Институт востоковедения Академии Наук СССР). At least one of these people, as I recall, told me his specialty was Dari – a dialect of Persian (Farsi) that is the standard language of government in Afghanistan.
On Christmas Eve 1979, a year and a half after I left Leningrad, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. One of the things I recall reading or hearing in the news reports about this event was that hard on the heels of the invading Soviet troops, a planeload of Dari-speaking Soviet experts had landed in Kabul and that these people were being assigned to various government ministries to “advise” officials of the puppet regime the USSR was setting up.
That resolved my earlier puzzlement at there being a whole institute devoted to such an exotic (it seemed to me) region of the world.
It also fit nicely into my broader observations of the Soviet environment, which, in a nutshell, were as follows: For most Soviet citizens, life was a series of privations. But there seemed to be plenty of resources for the military and the organs of control – the police and the KGB.
Butter and other consumer goods were none-too-plentiful in the USSR, sacrificed on the altar of military power and “state security”
The general scarcity and poor quality of consumer goods – and the awful state of housing – in the USSR are well known, so I won’t elaborate here. Less well known is that when walking down the street of any Soviet city, an astonishing proportion of the people you’d pass would be wearing a military uniform of some kind – I’d guess one out of every five or six men you’d see on the street. That’s no exaggeration.
As for the “organs” (as Russians commonly referred to the KGB, i.e., the secret police, the Soviet counterpart of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo,** and their many stool pigeons), suffice it to say that ordinary Soviets I knew considered them ubiquitous. One never knew whom to trust, or who among one’s acquaintances might later report to the authorities what one had said or with whom one had been seen. It takes astonishing man- and womanpower to maintain such a pervasive network of spies.
Not once, when visiting the homes of Soviet friends, did I fail to see one of the following actions: the host/hostess placing a pillow over the phone in an effort to muffle the sound of conversation; the host rushing to close a window or pointing to the wall (in clear reference to bugging devices) or putting an ear to the apartment door to try to detect the presence of someone furtively listening on the other side.
At home and in the office, I could easily tell from noises on my phone that it was bugged, and, once, someone inadvertently left the door of the neighboring apartment open and when I walked past, I saw a bare room with only a chair and table in the center – with electronic devices and wires all over the place. Clearly, the KGB was trying to listen to every word we spoke at home. All that snooping had to suck up a tremendous proportion of a nation’s resources.
And then there was something I saw every day, but did not stop to think about till a colleague pointed it out to me. Not only were there very few private cars, there was no such thing as a pickup truck, minivan or station wagon. Every truck I ever saw in the USSR was a big one. If a factory, office or construction project needed to pick up or deliver even a small item, it would do it with a large truck, something big enough to be repurposed, in time of war, to carry a squad of soldiers or a heavy load.
The USSR, in other words, was a country on perpetual war footing. Ready not only to defend itself, but also – as my encounter with Dari speakers in Leningrad seemed to indicate – to invade another country and hit the ground running in administering it. I’ve always wondered how many thousands of experts, proficient in other exotic languages, the USSR had ready to put on a plane and send to some other potential invasion target.
In other words, Soviet life was not simply the result of what happens when guns win out over butter. It was the product of butter vs. guns + ubiquitous secret police + planeloads of experts prepared to administer invaded countries.
* Guns vs. butter is a classic metaphor for the political and economic choices governments make in allocating resources to military vs. civil/social purposes.
** At the Yalta Conference (February 1945), Stalin introduced Beria to Roosevelt and Churchill as “our Himmler.” (Himmler headed the Gestapo; Beria headed the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which was the predecessor to the KGB, the Committee on State Security.)