Most of us look at the years of our youth with nostalgia, but my mother had some especially good reasons to miss hers. She told me all about it when I was a kid: the songs, and the movies, and the books.
The Soviet Union had a mini baby boom a few years after World War Two. Soviet women figured out that with so many men perished in fighting, marriage was not in the cards, and opted to at least have an out of wedlock child. In the late 50’s-early 60’s, a new, larger generation was coming of age in the USSR, and that brought some sense of youthful optimism.
More importantly, my mother’s youth fell on Khrushchev’s Thaw. In 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced the former boss in a speech to the Party Congress, inaugurating a period of relative political, and cultural openness.
The term Thaw was coined by the writer, and journalist, Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg traveled to Europe before the Bolshevik Revolution, and was later sent to the West on assignments. His memoirs about the European art scene became required reading for Soviet intelligentsia for decades to come.
Permitting Freedoms In Pieces
Although the Iron Curtain was firmly in place, a limited amount of cultural exchange between the USSR and the West took place at the time and gave birth to an avant guard arts scene in the former. Pre-revolutionary poets, like then still alive Anna Akhmatova were published, and, in keeping with his speech on Stalin’s cult of personality, Khrushchev permitted the printing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich that depicted the life in a Soviet concentration camp.
“So much was permitted!” My mom reminisced.
Permitted. The life behind the Iron Curtain was always fraught with restrictions, but compare to the period it followed, and the one that came after, it was a jolt of spring fever. In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev dismissed Khrushchev in a coup, and the permission, such as it was, was revoked.
All because Soviet people never had freedom of expression to begin with. The state took our rights, occasionally allowing some amount of public information exchange — sometimes more, sometimes less. Even in the Brezhnev era it left some outlets for popular discontent, such as the once in a while TV program Around Laughter, starring the recently deceased comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky. An ordinary person wouldn’t dream of publicly challenging the regime, but some arguably lucky individuals received a tenuous go-ahead to make jokes on a semi-regular basis, understanding that one day they may pay for it dearly.
Virtually everyone who knows unfreedom is familiar with this piecemeal liberty phenomena. For instance, a Persian-American friend of mine described how the ayatollahs toy with women, maybe allowing them to reveal another half inch of hair from under the head scarf, for which many of her compatriots felt grateful. Yet true emancipation is never an option.
Freedom Is The Exception, Not the Norm
Unfreedom is very normal, and very common pretty much everywhere through history. It is, thankfully, at odds with the founding principles of our nation:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Our rights, the Founders observed, are God-given. For nearly 250 years Americans managed to hold on to our exceptional national idea. Yet at the onset of the Wuhan Virus pandemic, frightened public surrendered its liberty in exchange for a fleeting sense of security. Today, the government is doling it out back to us on a piecemeal basis, just like it’s done pretty much everywhere else on this planet.
To control the virus we were first commandeered indoors. Then we were allowed to come out, but only if we agreed to stay away from each other, and cover our faces. Local government meetings went to Zoom, inhibiting the meaningful functioning of civil society, the building block of self-rule.
While most red states returned to normal quickly, the autonomy of blue state Americans is constantly in flux, subject to Byzantine calculations that laypeople can’t possibly understand, so most of us put their trust into the all-knowing expert sect. Our decisions, from the most mundane (waving at the neighbor’s baby) to extremely consequential (how to secure an election), are now firmly in the hands of government bureaucracies. The State of California has proven that even after the relative easing of restrictions it’s possible to reestablish most elements of the lockdown under dubious pretenses, like the Delta virus in the overwhelmingly vaccinated population, and to impose an all mail-in election.
Our New Relationship With the State
A new relationship with the state is taking shape before our eyes. Earlier this year, a New York Times OpEd recommended that we accept Chinese subjects’ approach to “freedom”. Its author, Li Yuan, contends that “Chinese don’t have freedom of speech, freedom of worship or freedom from fear, but they have the freedom to move around and lead a normal day-to-day life.”
What, however, is that freedom to “lead a normal day-to-day life” in the absence of constitutional rights? As tempting as superficial normality might look in the society that trains toddlers to wear cloth over their faces, the ChiCom option is no freedom at all, but a government-issued permission to exercise limited autonomy.
A man can’t be half-free. He either decides his destiny, or he doesn’t. He can be made to feel half free by the state that allows him to make certain choices. Like Khrushchev’s Thaw was a bright spot in the lives of Soviet subject, Chinese people feel elated to be able to get around. Because this capacity can be taken away from them on dubious pretexts, they are never free.
The Communist Party keeps the Chinese population on a tight digital social credit leash, following every move of every person. It sometimes allows more leeway on that leash, but it never lets go of it. It gets interesting when American libertarians fall in line with ChiCom ideologies in the name of convenience. Senior Editor of the Reason Magazine Robbie Soave recently sparked controversy when he posted:
“I would much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much rather be required to show proof of vaccination than be required to wear a mask. And I suspect I'm not alone.”
He is, of course, is not alone. Liberty is, and has always been, rare, and beautiful. Our most important mission as Americans is not to self-isolate to protect the vulnerable, but to cherish our heritage, and to pass our ideals of individual rights to our children.
The decision to impose masking, and vaccination passports (the latter can be easily transformed into full-fledged social credit) is the prerogative of the state. The best an ordinary person can hope for is to affect this decision by appealing to the state, and by displaying good behavior, by staying indoors, taking regular booster shots, and otherwise following government guidelines. For the group obedience we may be rewarded with easy-to-use vaccine pass and no mask mandate.
Choice Does Not Equate to Actual Freedom
The choice between vaccine passport, and a mask is an illusion. Like the choice between going barefaced, and using inside spaces, or the choice between getting jabbed, and losing your job. The parameters of the decision are artificially determined by the expert class, and enforced by both the state, and the roused-up collective. No individual is free to return to the formerly unrestricted places, and activities. The illusion of choice contingent on the behavior of subjects is how our betters control us.
What happened to Soviet Union the good tzar Nikita could not have possibly foreseen. The last Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed glasnost, or freedom of speech. “Thick” literary journals published books banned through the entirety of Soviet history. Ehrenburg, who served as the lifeline to the West for previous generations was displaced by tabloids.
Ehrenburg was a man of his time. He believed what he believed, took considerable risks navigating the torrent waters of Stalinism, and gave his readers something extra when he could. This is the absolute best artistic-creative types can hope for under the circumstances.
“Nobody needs him now. You can read much more about Picasso from the Soviet press,” my mom quipped. Anyone could write about Picasso. Or Akhmatova. The genie was out of the bottle, and in a few years the country ceased to exist. For the time being Russians were liberated, and freedom was on the march.
Three decades later, it’s in retreat. It’s not just that under the pretext of COVID facial recognition technology popped up all over Moscow, or the United States, like the USSR in the 80’s, gave up on Afghanistan. American God-given liberties are usurped by the sovereign, and are now doled out to subjects in some random manner. A neo-feudal state, flanked by experts, touting faith in what they call “science,” is turning neighbors against each other. Social credit is looming. The world looks to be a very dark place.
Photo Credit: Tom Kisken | The Star