Book Review: Ussr: The Corrupt Society by Konstantin M. Simis
JUNE 01, 1983 by BETTINA BIEN GREAVES
(Simon and Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 1952 • 316 pages • $14.95 cloth
Scarcity exists everywhere in the world. However, flexible prices and the efforts of entrepreneurs keep serious bottlenecks and shortages to a minimum in a market economy. Flexible prices reflect market supply and demand. Entrepreneurs who are alert to shifts in demand and supply make determined efforts to offer more of those items for which demand is rising. If they succeed, they will make profits and consumers will be better satisfied.
In Russia, however, it is a very different story. There the state seeks to monopolize all production and distribution. Prices do not reflect supply and demand. Private enterprise is illegal. Because private entrepreneurial efforts are prohibited, production bottlenecks are everywhere and almost all the things people want are shoddily produced and in short supply. Yet people in urgent need of some good or service that the state does not provide to suit them—meat or flowers for a special occasion, toilet paper, plumbing repairs, prompt dry cleaning service, or considerate medical attention—will use any means necessary, even illegal means, to obtain the things they want. No amount of government control, not even the threat of severe sentences, will keep people from trying to satisfy their wants and needs; it only makes it risky and expensive. The corruption that results when peaceful private pursuits are thwarted is the subject of Konstan-tin Simis’ book.
The first draft of this book had been smuggled out of the country to the United States where Mr. Simis expected to have it published under a pseudonym. However, in November 1976, when the final revised version was in his Moscow apartment, he was arrested, his apartment searched, his manuscript confiscated and both he and his wife taken in for questioning. They were allowed to return home that night and their daily lives continued—under constant surveillance and subject to frequent interrogations—until May 1977 when he was expelled from his job. A month later his wife lost her job too. Then abruptly in the fall of 1977, they were given the choice of going on trial for the book and being sentenced to the camps, or of applying for “permission to emigrate” and leave the country within ten days. The Simises chose exile, eventually reaching the United States and, in spite of KGB threats, went ahead with his book’s publication.
We hear frequently how much the Russians depend on the food produced on private farm plots, representing only about 3 per cent of the country’s arable land. However, much less is heard about the dependence of all production on private, often illegal, activities of producers and speculators in all areas of the economy. Many goods and services are available only from black-market “speculators.” Others are available only in exchange for “gifts” or bribes of some kind. Even official state enterprises must pay tribute of some kind to obtain the materials they need to fulfill their production quotas and to keep production moving.
Mr. Simis writes about widespread buying and selling of merchandise by private entrepreneurs. Such “speculation” is a criminal offense in the Soviet Union and the speculator who is caught faces a court trial and severe penalties. Yet the people themselves consider speculators as “a useful and necessary part of daily life . . . . Speculation has become part and parcel of the life in the Soviet Union because it supplies people with daily needs.” Mr. Simis writes of several private entrepreneurs who succeeded so well in serving their customers that they amassed millions in gold coins, gems, valuable paintings and historic relics. Yet their success was at serious risk and some were sentenced to many years in the camps.
Mr. Simis writes also about “freelance” production, i.e., work done outside working hours, outside the system, and of “left-hand” or illegal, enterprises. Some private “factories” exist within state factories, often “employing” state employees on the side and using materials stolen from the state.
The people think nothing of cheating and stealing from the government or a state enterprise. Corruption and bribery are part of every ordinary person’s daily life—from the cradle to the grave. To receive adequate care at childbirth, a mother bribes the doctor. Kindergarten tots soon learn that the teacher must be “remembered” on her birthday if the child is not to be held up to ridicule before the class. By the time a student enters the university, he knows that every aspect of schooling has its “price”—so much for admission to a prestigious institution, so much to pass an exam, and so on. Frequent bribes or “gifts” are called for simply in the course of daily living. And after death, bodies are stripped by crematorium employees of gold teeth, crowns and clothing, which soon find their way to the black market.
The system of tribute and gifts is everywhere in Russia. Everyone is on the take—the police, the KGB, high officials, as well as ordinary persons struggling to survive. The Soviet citizen sees nothing immoral in cheating or stealing from government. “Usually,” Mr. Simis writes, “he understands perfectly well that he is breaking the law, but he does not consider his actions immoral . . . . But in private dealings this same citizen will conduct himself in accord with the precepts of common human morality.” Thus, Mr. Simis has deep respect for the Russian people personally. However, he is pessimistic about the future of his native country. The ruling apparatus is “completely infected by corruption,” he writes. “The Soviet government, Soviet society, cannot rid itself of corruption as long as it remains Soviet.” And to expect the Soviet government to change its nature is almost as unlikely as to expect the leopard to change his spots.