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30 review for Human Rights in the Soviet Union: Including Comparisons with the U.S.A.

  1. 5 out of 5

    T

    "There seems to be a sincere ambivalence towards the Soviet Union at the heart of contemporary Soviet studies. The USSR's considerable accomplishments are now generally recognized by most careful Western students of that society, but very few draw the general, logical conclusions from the corpus of their work, instead preferring the privileges traditional to the practitioners of their field. The present author is deeply indebted to the integrity of their detailed scholarship, but being less caut "There seems to be a sincere ambivalence towards the Soviet Union at the heart of contemporary Soviet studies. The USSR's considerable accomplishments are now generally recognized by most careful Western students of that society, but very few draw the general, logical conclusions from the corpus of their work, instead preferring the privileges traditional to the practitioners of their field. The present author is deeply indebted to the integrity of their detailed scholarship, but being less cautious, draws the conclusions lying just below the surface of the corpus of their work." (31) Preface and Introduction – Albert Szymanski outlines his methodology and drive for writing the book. Similar to Is the Red Flag Flying?: The Political Economy of the Soviet Union, Szymanski wants to defend the USSR against accusations of totalitarianism, racism, social imperialism and mass inequality. For his defensive position Szymanski relies on Western Sovietology, with few exceptions. Szymanski' reasoning is clear, “Since any claims made in pro-Soviet sources can be easily discredited as mere propaganda (and can, in fact, be expected generally to exaggerate the level of rights in the USSR, and play down any failings in Soviet rights) these are not relied upon.” (30). Szymanski then provides an extended discussion the sociology of rights discourse, and relies heavily on Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's work. Chapter 2 –The Asian Nationalities in the USSR deals with Soviet Asia. Szymanski defends the USSR against the accusation that the USSR simply used its Asian republics as an imperialist tool, draining it of its resources and allowing Russians and Soviet Europeans to take the high paying managerial roles. Szymanski finds that wages in the Asian Republics were "only 7% below the all-Soviet average, while Estonia, the Republic with the highest overall wage, has only 11% higher than average wages." (38). Similarly, Szymanski finds that the economic, cultural and living standards rose dramatically through incorporation into the USSR. In fact, reading this, one would leave the book feeling that Soviet Asia took the most benefits of Soviet incorporation, compared to many other countries under Soviet rule, and the system appears to have a great deal of support from those living within the system in Asia. However, where there is evidence of non-Asians being slightly overrepresented in managerial and well-paying roles, Szymanski explains that this was due to the relatively low level of cultural and educational capital in those countries, hence requiring help from skilled labourers outside of Asia. Chapter 3 – The European Nationalities in the USSR examines the Eastern Bloc countries, Jews and the general treatment of both. Whilst the Eastern Bloc were on the whole less enthusiastic about Soviet Communism, there wasn't a mass exodus of people from Eastern Europe once the Soviet tanks rolled in. For example only 6% of Estonians left, something Szymanski notes is "hard to document", but blames largely on the influence of Nazism or fascism, with a similar case noted in Lithuania, who largely supported Mussolini (81). Whilst Szymanski is correct that much of the vocal resistance to the Sovietisation of Europe was from Nazis, fascists and other reactionary forces, he can occasionally dismiss of any resistance coming from groups outside of these forces. He later moves on to celebrate the USSR acting as a safe haven for a quarter of a million Jews leaving Poland. However, despite this, Szymanski's documenting of the Soviet struggle against Zionism, does occasionally seem to have been tinged with antiSemitism (hence a huge emigration of Jews to Israel in 60s, albeit not a majority) which Szymanski does a poor job of assessing. This occured following the period when Yiddish culture was repressed under Stalin, only to to have those restriction relaxed in 1948. However, despite the easing of restrictions, Yiddish culture never got back its vibrancy (91). Chapter 4 - Women in USSR examines the attempt by the Soviets to abolish patriarchy, allow for easier divorces, legalisation of abortion (Szymanski is of course silent about Albania here), legal equality between sexes, egalitarian education and housework. Szymanski here can be perhaps most celebratory, championing the Soviets for having a more egalitarian gender split in STEM fields, and socialised childcare. "The labour force participation rate for women (the percentage of all women who worked) in the USSR in 1975 was 83.1% for womenl6-54 (compared to 62.7% in 1960). This compares with a 55.7% labour-force participation rate for US women in the same age group at the same time." (112). As well as this, the USSR banned many of the patriarchal acts associated with the traditionalist Islamic ideology of many countries in Soviet Asia. Despite all of these leaps towards progress, Szymanski does note that women still tended to work in lower paying occupations (pink jobs, like childcare and nursing), despite the gender pay disparity being lower than the US (112-113). Chapter 5 - Economic Rights is perhaps the most interesting and enlightening chapter. Szymanski, citing the Production Yearbook, notes that calorie intake was higher in the USSR than West Germany, Sweden and the UK, but was slightly behind the US and Italy (129). Animal protein consumption was much lower in the USSR than in the US, but was still ahead of Italy, and only 3grams behind the UK. This is also contextualised within the fact that the USSR's agriculture was much more vulnerable from bad weather much more than the US', and the increasing cattle and animal production in the USSR. In addition to this, "housing, medicine, transport and insurance account for an average of 15% of a Soviet family's income, compared to 50% in the US" (128). Also, as to the critique of the USSR as being debt-ridden, Szymanski responds that "Soviet debt to the West increased from $0.6 billion in 1971 to $11 billion in 1978. In proportion to its national product the Soviet debt is minimal, representing only 0.9% of GNP. In contrast, in 1978, South Korea owed $12.0 billion (26.1% of GNP); Algeria owed $13.1 (52.6%); Mexico owed S25.8 (28.7%); Brazil owed $28.8 (15.6%); Pakistan owed $7.6 (40.8%); Indonesia owed $13.1 (27.6%); and Egypt owed $9.9 (71 ,5%)." (134). Another set of interesting facts is that 50% of labour disputes were in favour of workers (139), wage negotiations were set nationally (140), social parasitism was banned (e.g. living off rent) (139), apartments were 1/3 the size of American apartments and 35 square metres smaller than Western Europe (50 vs 85 sqM) (135), and the USSR had the highest ratio of doctors to patients (136). Chapter 6 - Land of the Free explores repression the US, noting how repression often increases at certain periods (e.g. the 50s Red Scare, the founding of the US etc). This chapter can be interpreted as whataboutism, or a comparative study of why nations become "totalitarian" and authoritarian once they are establishing or reasserting themselves. Szymanski lists off the active surveillance, repression, and criminalisation of American leftists and communists throughout periods in the US. Szymanski is great at pointing out where the US failed at upholding its human rights. Chapter 7 - Toleration and Repression in the USSR then acts as a comparative for the prior chapter. Whilst Szymanski explains repression in "materialist terms" (205), he does lapse into apologism for the Great Purges. Sure, repression is comparable to the US, but this does not excuse it. There are ways of selecting facts such as the huge disparities in reported death rates between folks like J. Arch Getty versus Robert Conquest, but Szymanski could be a little more critical here. For example, Szymanski, quoting Getty, argues that "The Ezhovshchina . . . was not the result of a petrified bureaucracy stamping out dissent and annihilating the old radical revolutionaries. In fact, it may have been just the opposite. It is not inconsistent with the evidence to argue that the Ezhovshchina was rather a radical, even hysterical reaction to bureaucracy." (234). This seems to be a little flowery to me. Chapter 8 – Tolerance and Repression in the Soviet Union: 1965-82. This chapter continues the same themes and discussions in the prior chapter. Szymanski here, again, “According to Bloch[…] between 1962 and 1977 a total of approximately 600 individuals (about 40 a year) were sentenced to labour camps for one or another type of dissident activity.” (284). This reveals a much smaller figure than received wisdom would have, and also signals a softening of the regime in the post-Stalin era. Szymanski also goes on to examine dissidents being labelled as mentally ill, something he awkwardly skirts around in a strange manner. Conclusion – Much like Szymanski’s other work, this volume ends with an optimistic note, predicting increasing nationalism and capitalist crises, against a growing and dominant socialist world. I often wonder when reading his work if the oncoming collapse of the USSR was what lead to his suicide, I feel that his misplaced optimism may have pushed up hard against the reality that the USSR was crumbling in the late 1980s. In summary, I will quote Vernon Van Dyke's review of the book. "It is interesting to contrast Szymanski's book with Richard Pipes, Survival is Not Enough: Soviet Realities and America's Future. The two authors disagree more in their selection of subject matter and in their interpretations than in their facts. Pipes accentuates the negative. Those teaching courses on the Soviet Union might find it interesting to assign both books, for they provide antidotes to each other and illustrate that scholarship is not always uninfluenced by the ideological predispositions of the scholar." I largely agree with Dyke's view here, namely that Szymanski's work shouldn't be where the historian, sociologists or person freakishly interested in the USSR should stop. Whilst Szymanski's work is great in its scope, interpretation and sourcing, Szymanski's biases do occasionally prevent his book from being as great as it could be. This book is insightful for offering a sympathetic view of the USSR, which was rare in the Anglophone world of Soviet Studies. However, Szymanski loses some credibility with his excusing or overlooking of negative aspects of the subject he ist studying. For example, his chapters on Jews in the USSR has clear blind spots, and Szymanski does clearly ignore instances of anti-Semitism, such as the restrictive nature of the dual passport system for ethnic minorities (Farber, 1986) and Hyman, 1984)).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Martinez

    A relatively obscure book describing a political phenomenon that no longer even exists - ie the Soviet Union - but nonetheless hugely valuable for its historical insight and as an example of how to conduct a thorough and credible sociological investigation. Too many books defending socialism are elaborate flag-flying exercises; this on the other hand is a meticulous academic work, relying on verifiable sources, that discusses the meanings of 'freedom' and 'human rights' and explores the extent t A relatively obscure book describing a political phenomenon that no longer even exists - ie the Soviet Union - but nonetheless hugely valuable for its historical insight and as an example of how to conduct a thorough and credible sociological investigation. Too many books defending socialism are elaborate flag-flying exercises; this on the other hand is a meticulous academic work, relying on verifiable sources, that discusses the meanings of 'freedom' and 'human rights' and explores the extent to which they are (were) on offer in the USSR (and, by comparison, in the US). If nothing else, much of the method can be applied in relation to the socialist countries that still exist today.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kelbaenor (Dan)

    The sections on repression in the USSR are a bit hamstrung by having to rely on Khrushchev Era sources which obscure some of the details, but other than that this book is fantastic. An excellent, thorough investigation of the status of rights in the USSR versus the narrative presented by the western ideological state apparatus. Obviously many of his predictions are outdated, but a vital reference work for any Marxist today.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Annika Lee

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mac Kenzie

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Maher

  7. 5 out of 5

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  8. 4 out of 5

    Mackenzie Morris

  9. 4 out of 5

    Taylor

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kirk

  11. 4 out of 5

    Abel B

  12. 4 out of 5

    Adam

  13. 5 out of 5

    Pj Blair

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mat Kline

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tadici

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jay Allen

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sylvia

  18. 4 out of 5

    aparajita

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sean Mulligan

  20. 5 out of 5

    Skramzisnice

  21. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  22. 4 out of 5

    Xavier

  23. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  24. 5 out of 5

    Peter Miller

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jø E

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gradesky

  27. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    slightly flawed but absolutely essential reading for all marxists imo

  28. 4 out of 5

    Phillip

  29. 5 out of 5

    Avery

  30. 5 out of 5

    Don C

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