Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Millenials who prefer socialism ignore the lessons of history

Jon Rust after working to renovate an Othodox church in Russia in 1990.

During my college years, I studied, worked and traveled in what was then the last days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Personal lessons and observations from those two years abound. Among them: the glaringly stark failure of socialism.

Food was so scarce that citizens received ration coupons -- "talony" -- to buy basic staples like butter. Bananas were so exotic that few people knew how to eat them; when I brought some to friends from a hard currency store (available primarily to foreigners, who could buy items in dollars), they promptly tried to peel and eat them green.

When I was a student in Moscow, my relatively new dormitory building was crumbling, as were hundreds of other buildings I walked by, because they were originally constructed with too little cement. Government building construction quotas had to be met, so the cement was diluted. As a result, after a few years of standing in the harsh weather, huge swaths of gray, monotonous concrete buildings would simply sheer off.

Consumer items were rare in stores, and to attain them required luck or a network of friends and influence, called "blat." Prices were government controlled to be ridiculously cheap. Almost anyone could afford anything, theoretically; there just wasn't anything to buy. When a shipment of laundry detergent -- or something luxurious like boots from Czechoslovakia or nylons from East Germany -- arrived, workers at a shop would call their friends to immediately come and queue in line and together they would buy as much as they could. These goods would then be hoarded in closets to barter with others.

Indeed, it was not unusual for me to come across a line on the street and ask what was the reason, and for the people not to know. The rule was, if there's a line, get in, because whatever people were lining up for could eventually be traded for something desired. Everyone carried a small shopping bag -- "setka" -- in their purse or tucked in a jacket, just in case.

For those outside the country -- especially at U.S. colleges -- many were seduced by Soviet Socialist propaganda. In Russia, it was said, prices were cheap (true, but meaningless), women were equal (constitutionally correct but in practice a lie), class divisions were erased (true in the sense that almost everyone in the cities led dreary lives, but false in the sense that stratification still existed, only, it was based on party status instead). If you were a Communist leader, you had access to luxury goods, dachas and vacation spots.

Several times due to my working with a particular American group, I was placed in a Communist party hotel, and the luxuries there were mindboggling compared to what was available on the streets or at regular Russian hotels. Of course, my room was also bugged for recording purposes (as was my dorm room as a student).

One summer I spent several weeks with a group called Volunteers for Peace in a small village helping to rebuild a Russian Orthodox Church. After the Revolution, which criminalized religion, the church had been turned into a library for a few decades and then allowed to decay. Elderly women still walked the village with small icons of the Messiah in their purses, sharing tales with me of how their grandmothers had carefully smuggled the art out when the church was originally closed. Rehabilitating the church was backbreaking but rewarding work, though probably not healthy. The first week was spent shoveling pigeon dung and hauling out refuse. Who knows what I inhaled?

But while in this village I made friends with a farmer who had three pleasant daughters around my age. They would invite me to dinner, and he would tell me about their life, which was clean and wholesome and with few things we would call luxuries but which were better than those around him. He was unique in the village, because he had left the collective farm to strike out on his own at a time when the government was beginning to allow private property. One of the first things he did was buy three broken down tractors and cannibalize their parts to rebuild one that would work.

After a year of farming, his first crop came in with bounty. He was promptly arrested for stealing. No one would have sold him a working tractor, the authorities told him, so clearly he stole it. In lieu of prison, he made a deal to provide some of his crop to help the collective farm meet its Socialist quota. When I asked if he resented that, he shrugged and said, "What else to do?" If he didn't pay, it was either prison or, like striking a match, he flicked the thumb and index finger of one hand against his other palm, they'd burn him down.

As the farmer continued to have more success each year, reaching yields 14 times and more the collective farm's -- something he credited to not overusing pesticides and rotating his crops -- along with simply working harder and taking pride in everything he did, his deal with the authorities continued to change. Not only was he providing for the collective farm when I met him, he was also providing for the hospital and orphanage.

Overall, it was clear he was happy, because he was "free" to do what he wanted on his own farm. His biggest pride: his house, which he had constructed himself from photos shown in an American "Better Homes and Garden" magazine from 20 years prior. He was confident his daughters would have a better life than him -- two of their boyfriends were already working with him -- and he was willing to work hard for that promise.

I tell these stories now because recent polls show young Americans increasingly prefer the idea of life in a socialist country. This sentiment is boosted by media glamorization of socialist politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who portray government control as an effective, egalitarian force to solve all ills.

The lesson of history, though, is that all-powerful government is never egalitarian, nor is it effective. It is also easily corrupted. And for the uninformed -- like A.O.C. -- who say, what about the Nordic states? Do your research. Their success -- economic production -- has been driven by capitalism, though their social safety nets are generous. But without capitalism, the safety nets would not be possible.

In this debate, on one side is the capitalist farmer, my long-ago friend in Russia, responsible for himself, caring for his family and harvesting the rewards, which benefit many: orphanage and hospital, the town, the ecology, the nation. On the other side, people who merely go through the motions, following whatever government plan is devised, not responsible for the results, whether it leads to crumbling buildings, barren store shelves or pesticide-saturated farmland. And if you disagree with these people who control the all-powerful government? Better not. Or you might meet, two fingers of one hand flicked against the other palm: Your home and livelihood burned down.

Or worse.

Please don't be seduced by the false promises and misinformed prophets of socialism.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.