When Did Posters From A Defeated Murderous Dictatorship Become Pop Art?
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's choices in home decor raise an interesting question.
Over the weekend, the Internet had some fun with the photos that appear in a new profile of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and his wife, ABC News reporter Claire Shipman, in the new issue of Washingtonian Mom. In addition to the photo with the ridiculously huge Jenga set and the mock press conference in front of a set of photoshopped bookshelves, the profile also includes the above photograph of Shipman and the Carney children in what I assume is the kitchen of their home. Leaving aside the levitating egg, the absurd amount of food sitting out on the counter, and the looks on their faces, more than a few people noticed the fact that there are two posters in the Carney kitchen that just happen to be Soviet era propaganda posters. You can see the posters in better detail in this enhanced photo at The Week.
Here’s one of the posters, which is essentially a recruitment poster for the Red Army since it asks, in Russian of course, “Have You Enlisted?”
The second is a World War II era poster about factory workers:
The other poster features a female factory worker. According to this eBay seller, who is offering one for $1,660, the poster was printed on June 26, 1941, days after Russia began fighting the Axis powers in World War II. It encourages women take jobs vacated by men who have gone to fight. The woman in the poster is switching out a tag with a man’s name to one with hers and the text says: “Women! Learn production, replace workers who went to the front! The stronger the hinterland – the stronger the front!”
Given that Carney and Shipman met while the two of them were younger reporters covering what end up being the final years of the Soviet Union’s existence, it’s not surprising that we’d see some reminders of that country in their home. In addition to the posters, for example the photograph of the bookcase noted above seems to include what may or may not be a Mikhail Gorbachev bobble head doll. Given that you can find posters like these, and others representing designs from the Soviet era, on sale on eBay suggests, though, that Carney and Shipman aren’t the only ones who have things like this in their home and that these propaganda posters from the era of Lenin and Stalin have become some kind of kitsch pop art akin to Che Guevara t-shirts and prints of Andy Warhol’s famous painting of Mao Zedong. Except for wingnuts on the right, nobody is going to seriously suggest that the fact that Carney and Shipman, or anyone else, have posters like these in their homes means that they are in fact Communists or some such thing. Obviously, they’re just posters. The question is, how this came to be and why propaganda from a regime that murdered tens of millions of people over the course of its existence is now seen as little more than a cute addition to kitchen decor.
For example, if someone had propaganda posters from Nazi Germany hanging in their home we would, quite rightly, consider that to be beyond the pale. If that person was a government official like Carney, they’d no doubt be forced to resign from office in the wake of the media uproar. The reaction would likely be the same if it were something from North Korea, or the apartheid regime in South Africa, or the Jim Crow south. The Soviet Union, however, was just as bad as all of these regimes, if not worse, so I find myself honestly puzzled as to why it is that propaganda from that regime is considered pop art rather than offensive representation of a regime that was thankfully sent to the dustbin of history.
I agree completely. I just had this same argument with a cigar company that added a free “hammer and sickle” brand cigar to my shipment. They kicked it over to the manufacturer who had worked out a laughably bogus rationalization.
Just because the swastika was arguably worse, that does not somehow clean the blood off the hammer and sickle. Being only 95% as bad as the Nazis does not make you acceptable in polite company.
The weird thing is, I know the difference, but I could never articulate it, and I can perfectly understand why someone would be offended by this.
I have noticed the Guevara shirts. Someone needs to educate and set them straight about Che’s murderous record. Sounds like the schools could do a better job in these areas too.Maybe they can get that in the Common Core stuff that schools have to use now.
Probably because the USSR wasn’t just Stalin, but a whole lot of other stuff as well that chugged on pretty well until gravity took a look at their economy with the expected results. Are we supposed to ignore what the USSR did manage to accomplish? A lot of Russians are still very proud of what they did. Some Soviet scientists were tops in the world–if you’re a physicist you will most likely have studied from the L&L series of textbooks. Absolutely brilliant to learn from.
I collect Soviet space memorabilia. Are you saying I shouldn’t have a cigarette case showing a profile of Yuri Gagarin on it?
P.S. We certainly have enough people running around the U.S. with the Stars and Bars slapped on everything and that was an even MORE thuggish and morally decayed culture. But heaven forfend we complain about Southerners and their own Nazi-like symbols….
I complain about them all the time. Confederate displays equivalent to this are racist. But two or even three wrongs do not make a right.
Someone needs to educate and set them straight about Che’s murderous record.
I have, and I do.
Yea the Confederate flag also comes to mind
FWIW, I have complained about it, including several posts over the years here and at my personal blog about Virginia’s bizarre holiday marking the birthdays of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as the practice that Governors used to follow declaring April “Confederate History Month,” which didn’t end until Bob McDonnell stopped doing it.
I have a bunch of space race era Soviet stamps featuring various aspects of their space program, also have similar US stamps. They are sitting in a drawer right now, but one of these days I will get around to having them mounted and framed. I never gave any thought at all to any political implications when I bought them, they are just souvenirs of a fascinating period in history. Some of the artwork is very good.
I have a few other space race collectables, but don’t have a lot of budget for it. My real collecting interest is mid twentieth century posters, albeit of the non-Soviet variety. Mostly French gallery posters and rock & roll stuff.
Are we worried about apostasy here? If we find value in art — even commercial art — created by cultures of which we don’t approve, are we siding with the enemy?
Clearly the reason we don’t waste our breath condemning this is context. No one hanging a Soviet poster — and these are two of the least interesting I’ve ever seen, but that’s my taste — is doing it to spread the propaganda, anymore than a theater showing Triumph of the Will is advocating the Final Solution. I don’t have a problem with anyone collecting and displaying the artifacts of defeated enemies — even the Nazis were capable of producing some spectacular images.
The difference between this and hanging the Confederate flag is entirely one of intent — most people who hang the stars’n’bars are actually celebrating the Confederacy. So what we’re objecting to is not the object but the meaning.
These posters and — and for God’s sake, lighten up — even Che shirts are not being displayed for propaganda purposes. They are graphic images stripped of meaning. And once we start deciding which old images are too dangerous to possess, we’re traveling down the road that led the Taliban to blow up the giant Buddhas because other people’s art is too dangerous to let exist.
As Doug noted, the amount of food in the photo is borderline bizarre. Perhaps the Carney family should put in some time working in a soup kitchen and get a better idea about the value of food, and why gluttony is a bad thing.
@anjin-san: I get the feeling that this is some kind of pastiche of a Norman Rockwell image — which is enough right there to make me happy I’ve never come across the article. But is this really a photograph? I thought it was a painting, or at least a photo treated to look like one…
@michael reynolds: So what are we supposed to do? Throw out half of solid-state physics because Landau and other Soviets were so prevalent in developing the field? (Landau received a Nobel for his work, by the way.) Rewrite history books so we can pretend that Yuri Gagarin wasn’t the first man in space?
I would also think going by this logic, we shouldn’t boast too much about our own achievements, either. After all, the United States of America managed to do a pretty good dent in the Amerindian population on these shores and herded the rest into reservations. Remember what happened to the Cherokees?
And I guess considering what the Brits did to the Irish during the Potato Famine any Victorian Art should be off the wall as well. So that’s no, no Alma-Tadema, no Pre-Raphaelites….I supposed we should get rid of Rule Brittanica! as well…..
@anjin-san: I’ve got quite a few Soviet cigarette cases with different space motifs. You can pick them up for not too much on Ebay.
My prize possession is a book (in Russian) covering the Soviet space program with autographs on many of the cosmonaut portraits. Found it in a used book store near Cleveland many years ago.
Both of these posters are related to the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany, at a time when the Soviets were our allies. I think that puts them in a different category than posters glorifying Lenin or Stalin or calling for the overfulfillment of the latest five-year plan.
@grumpy realist: If you’re getting rid of your Alma-Tademas, I’ll take them!
Just think, back in the 70s the pre-Raphaelites were so out of style you could pick up their paintings for a hundred bucks. Then Andrew Lloyd Weber started collecting them…
Just a thought …maybe we need to know a lot more about this to make a judgement.
My brother has a bunch of confederate war bonds…not because he’s a racist…but because he’s a finance guy.
@William Burns: Upon seeing the posters in question, that was my first thought as well.
If the second poster were hanging in a display along with Rosie the Riveter, would it even raise an eyebrow?
Well…the old Soviet tourist posters are a hoot. Check em’ out.
I am most impressed with the color-coordinated pajamas.
My husband has had the “have you enlisted” poster hanging in his office for years. Of course, he is a military historian, and it is part of a group of posters of pointing dudes urging you to enlist or buy war bonds or whatever in various languages. (I asked him which one was saying “stop playing World at War and finish your thesis,” but he didn’t tell me.)
In part they’re there because the consistency with which they mimic the Kitchener original is funny. But they’re also there because they are beautiful examples of graphic art. (Or, the case of one French Canadian war bond poster, I’m pretty sure homoerotic art.) And they’re a reminder that very, very different regimes all pedal the same messages to their people in much the same way. If you don’t appreciate the beauty, insisting on seeing evil in only cartoonish black and white terms, you won’t remember how seductive it can be.
Of course, that’s all a bit heavy for breakfast, so I wouldn’t have put it in the kitchen.
So I guess I should toss out my Doestoyetsky because he was a fervent Russian nationalist … and stop listening to “Ride of the Valkyries” because Wagner was an anti-Semite … And shun Rudyard Kipling because he loved the British Empire.
The problem with all of this is you could end up rejecting a hell of a lot of art because you don’t agree with that artist’s politics.
The Confederate flag is different because it’s a lIve political issue for a hell of a lot of people who do support the Confederacy’s white supremacy agenda.
The actual Washingtonian Mom article is more ridiculous than this picture, and this picture isn’t the worst in the spread.
As for the Che t-shirts, maybe you could argue that the image is divorced from the man himself – but only if you’d never talked to the people who wear them.
As for the Confederate flag, there’s no comparison in terms of death toll. More important, we talk about how people were oppressed by Southern racism legally up until fifty years ago, but there are teenagers whose older brothers and sisters lived through this stuff in the Soviet Union.
@Fausta: Thanks, and that is a great service you are doing.
I regard the display of the Confederate Stars and Bars as a deliberate insult to a large chunk of your neighbors. Give me one worth 1600 bucks, I’ll proudly display it as antique artwork.
And am I to not shop at Macy’s because of the big red star?
@William Burns: Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany
A cynic might even say that’s why right-wingers are so angry. Well, that & their general shallow superficiality, where the lack of a flag pin is tantamount to treason.
In general, we might note that the posters are historical artifacts from 70 yrs. ago, & time heals all wounds. And yes to the Rosie the Riveter comparison. Here again cynics could think that the right may be irritated by, in this case, feminism.
@Pinky: there’s no comparison in terms of death toll
See above about “shallow superficiality.” Sheesh.
I’ve talked to them and most of them are clueless. They may know he was some kind of revolutionary, but beyond that almost nothing.
Over 600,000 Americans dead and millions held as chattel with an uncounted death toll, because they were considered animals (or 3/5s men to make slave state votes count more). That is every bit as bad as Soviet Era atrocities. Regarding the recent make of the atrocities, the vast majority of the Soviet atrocities were in the early purge years, so saying teenagers siblings lived through it is rather off the mark. Either way we are talking about brutally oppressive regimes. If I were a black man in the 1950s and had to choose between living in Moscow or Birmingham it wouldn’t be an easy decision.
@Grewgills: “If I were a black man in the 1950s and had to choose between living in Moscow or Birmingham it wouldn’t be an easy decision.”
There’s that problem, too.
As a Brazilian, I know lots of people that idolizes Che Guevara. They simply idolize a Che Guevara that did not exist. That´s make them naive, not bad people.
My husband grew up in communist Bulgaria and is really, really glad that he finally lives in the West and has some horrible memories of the East. His parents were borderline dissidents and suffered professionally for it (though they were never actually jailed or anything). He has absolutely no romanticism for Communism and can’t stand to watch Western plays or cinema from the 20th century that are at all sympathetic to Soviet Communism.
And yet, he has some of these exact same posters in his office at work. He finds them so ridiculous that they’re amusing.
These things are complicated.
@anjin-san: i agree, he seems like a shill who’ll do anything for money. the soviet propaganda posters and his position are quite ironic.
i can see carney writing a tell all book somewhere down the road- unless he’s paid not to.
Actually, that was to make slave state votes count less. The South had originally wanted slaves to count the same as free men in their population estimates, despite slaves having no vote, while the North didn’t want slaves to count at all for that reasonl. The 3/5 was a compromise.
Well yes, that was the point. It counted 3/5 of a person more than was allowed to vote. The only time their humanity was conceded to any degree was when it came time to apportion congressmen. People tend to minimize the sins of their ancestors and magnify the sins of others, thus it is anathema to compare Johnny Reb to a Nazi soldier.
As a person who has a 60’s era Chinese propaganda poster framed on my wall I guess I can ask what is the big deal? My poster has Mao as the sun and militants of all races taking up arms and pushing forward. The text in characters paraphrased reads ” Reject the American and Russian Imperialists.” Was the communist regime under Mao awful? The answer is most undoubtedly yes. Is this art I can appreciate and takes me back to the years I spent living in China? Yes to that too.
My real question I guess to Doug is when will you abandon the idea that America is the city upon a hill that Winthrop described almost 400 years ago? America not only never had moral authority over other nations, it most certainly lost any standing it had in the past 20 years, if it even had any after chattel slavery and Jim Crow. How bad is it that Jesse Owens could eat in whatever restaurant he wanted while being belittled by Hitler, but couldn’t do the same in America? This is not to give a free pass to the immense preventable loss of life under all these terrible regimes but America has committed atrocities as well. For over 200 years with slavery and then Jim Crow lynchings, to the sanctioned genocide of the American Indians and the later “benevolent” idea of cultural genocide through Indian Schools, and finally to the massive civilian casualties in all of our wars since the Spanish American War (excluding WWI since we weren’t there long enough to do monsterous things.) Basically what this post reads as a prolonged slow leak of atrocities is better and more acceptable than a short period of a burst pipe. Both leak the same amount but the slow and steady leak is somehow preferable because we can blind ourselves to the amount lost? I guess would people in other countries ask the same thing if they saw a WWII American propaganda poster on the wall of one of their leaders? Is there any real difference? Is propaganda art just art to the majority of people displaying it? I would venture most of the people with propaganda posters communist, American or British do so because of the art and not because of the message.
We have that exact same challenge here in the USA. Of course our naively idolized historical figure was this Reagan fellow… Have you heard of him?
1. Mountain out of Molehill.
2. To the extent I feel the need to actually care about this at all, it occurs to me that WWII Soviet propoganda aimed at defeating the Nazis, our common foe, isn’t exactly the same as other bits of Soviet propoganda. You really cannot make the same point about, say, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
3. That photograph is ridiculous for reasons other than the poster.
Purely hypothetically, should one also ditch her vintage Mausers, Lugers, Arisakas, Berettas, and Makarovs?
If you were a black man in the 1790s, having been captured by black African slavers to sell, and you had to chose between traveling west to the Western Hemisphere rather than northeast to the Islamic North African nations, it would be an easy decision, even more so if your destination was the United States rather than one of the French-controlled territories such as Martinique or Santa Domingo (Haiti)i.
Slavery is terrible but even being worked to death by the French had to be preferable to the low survival rate for transport to the Islamic countries to be a castrated slave or if a woman to have your babies killed at birth to prevent the black populations growth.
As for Che, well, he’s well on his way to being “the guy in the beret who makes t-shirts for angry youth”. A fitting ending if obscurity wasn’t in the cards.
@wr: Sorry, no Alma-Tademas (outside from a large coffee-table book on his art). Isn’t he great?
I’ve got a signed Erte, if that helps….
Given the amount of photoshopping in this image as well as others of these people, it would be amusing to discover that the posters are all that were unphotoshopped.
There are people being tortured and killed today by Communist regimes that the Soviets helped set up. People have no rights there. They’re not second-class citizens; they’re subjects at best. Their lives are more like the pre-1860’s US than the pre-1960’s US. A former KGB officer just invaded a region of 2 million people without provocation.
I understand the impulse toward humility and away from a delusional nationalism. I think it’s great that we fight against white-washing our history (even though it seems like Northerners do delight in tales of the terrible South). But communism is oppressive and totalitarian and worse than anything we’ve ever had on American soil.
For “White” Americans, perhaps.
I can think about a lot of Native Americans, non-white “Immigrant” classes, not to mention millions of US slaves, who would significantly disagree with this assertion.
[Clarification: I’m using “White” as a cultural category here. Remember that the definition of who qualified as “White” – i.e. more or less a full citizen — has not always corresponded to the color of their skin]
@Pinky: I think I would have preferred to be a woman in 1960s Soviet Russia rather than one in 1880s US.
Read up on “couverture” and the loss of rights that women undertook when they were married. They became legal non-entities.
Then come back and tell me how horrible Soviet Russia was. At least I would have been able to own property and work. And vote.
@Pinky: There are people being “tortured and killed” by regimes the US helped set up. So I wouldn’t go waving the “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” flag too much, dearie.
I’m going to go out on a limb on three items:
(1) I’m guessing that Carney, Shipman, and their kids all have ZERO knowledge of Russian.
(2) None of the aforementioned people have enlisted in the Red Army
(3) To them that poster says “California uber alles”
@JKB: Slaves in cotton production had a relatively nice living. The real horror of slavery in the Western Hemisphere happened in SUGAR production, that required really tough labor, extremely high mortality rates and daily use of torture. I visited once as a child a farm that used to held slaves, they had several instruments of torture there.
In some squares in Brazil one can still find the “Pelourinhos”, areas where slaves and criminals were tortured. One can argue that there were very few Sugar cane plantation in the United States, but slavery in the Caribbean and in South America had a horrible life.
Few slaves in the Ottoman Empire faced similar conditions.
@Pinky: You’re absolutely right about the silliness of the article, by the way. It’s the fluff-piece to end all fluff pieces, and is boring as well. Is there some unwritten rule about women’s articles that they now have to be written for those with zero brain cells?
There’s been more actual meat in our comment thread than in that article.
Given a choice, would you prefer to be (a) a worker at an automotive factory in 1950s Magnitogorsk, or (b) a slave on a cotton plantation in 1820s Alabama?
@grumpy realist: Between the article and the pictures, I didn’t want to call if “fluff”, because pillows actually serve a purpose. That article was like reading air.
Slavery wasn’t oppressive and totalitarian?
Oooh, your limb has fallen off. As James notes in his post, Carney and Shipman were both journalists who covered the Soviet Union.
@al-Ameda: I believe that the couple met when they were both journalists working in Russia.
A dozen years ago, a US President invaded a sovereign nation of 30 million people without provocation.
True, but Id be willing to bet that they could not read the Russian on that poster.
Other than that, I’m busted.
I still wonder if they could translate the Russian. I think the graphic is what compelled them to get the poster – nothing else.
Most people I know who’ve spent any time in Russia have a working knowledge of the Cyrilic alphabet. You have to to get around.
Many war posters are excellent pieces of graphic designs. That includes posters from Nazi Germany and from Communist Regimes.
Christ, the way things are going, some poor bastard in Moscow’s gonna have a visit from the man for having this piece on his wall. (I’m pretty sure the “Have You Enlisted” poster is a blatant ripoff — the commie rats.)
@Rafer Janders: “@Pinky:
A former KGB officer just invaded a region of 2 million people without provocation.
A dozen years ago, a US President invaded a sovereign nation of 30 million people without provocation.”
Actually, a better parallel construction would be “The former part-owner of a baseball team invaded…”
@ Rafer Janders
I’m thinking that a lot of people who lived in the Soviet Union also had better lives than a Native American walking the Trial of Tears.
Certainly in terms of crimes against humanity, the Soviet Union has much to answer for. That being said, it would not hurt for Americans to be more honest about our own history. How many peasants did we slaughter in Viet Nam defending a democracy that did not exist?
Please support this statement. What has Carney done that makes you think this?
Well, he is a paid spokesperson for a politician…:)
A slave in Alabama (as I’ve already indicated).
@ Rick Almeida
Which makes him no better or worse than any other press secretary in history.
You’re puzzled? … a strong contingent of reds in our schools and media is the reason this propaganda is culturally “the rage.”
WOW! Do you know what it was to be a slave? You could be worked to death, your wife raped at will, your children taken from you and sold, all without provocation and if you objected you would be tortured or killed, but to wait in line for bread and toilet tissue, now that is inhumane.
How is that relevant?
@Grewgills: WOW! Do you know what it was to be behind the Iron Curtain? You could be worked to death, your wife raped at will, your children taken from you, all without provocation and if you objected you would be tortured or killed, and had to wait in line for bread and toilet tissue.
One out of three, in any meaningful sense.
You’re puzzled? … a strong contingent of reds in our schools and media is the reason this propaganda is culturally “the rage.”
Thanks Senator McCarthy. You can go back to your time now.
Like I said – I’m busted.
By the way, I do get around – I spent about 3 years in Japan and I had a working knowledge of hiragana and about 800-1000 kanji characters, however I would not have told anyone that I could read Japanese.
L O L!
@wr: You actually make good points here, though I do have one question: with regards to the guys flying the Confederate flags, is it necessarily true about their intent? Maybe it is in the South, but I see this kind of stuff in the north and it seems like it’s just an alternate US flag to people.
But that may just be because people are dumb.
@Pinky: I think you should read up on what it was like to be a slave in the Deep South. And what it was like to be a factory worker in Russia.
And if you’re talking about “having your wife raped with no recourse”, that happens all the time everywhere when you have a powerful group of people in control over some non-powerful people. You talk about Russia, and I’ll counter with almost every town in the US even now. How many sports stars and other powerful males have been let off the hook by “oh, boys will be boys”, or “she’s just making a fuss to try to get money”, or “she’s a slut and was asking for it.”?
I see people in Brazil with the Confederate Battle Flag sticker in their cars. And, no, they are not from Americana or Santa barbara do Oeste(Cities that received Immigrants from Alabama after the Civil war).
@Jeremy: I’m actually with you on the “people are dumb” front. So I should revise my comment: SOME of those with Confederate flags are deliberately making a political or cultural statement. And plenty of others just have it because it’s cool, or because Daddy flew one, or because they know it pisses off Northerners…
I guess the difference is not so much the intent of the displayer as that the confederate flag is still considered (by many on both sides) an active political symbol, while the Soviet propaganda generally is not.
Yep, the first thing I thought of when reading this post was the logo for the Peacekeepers, one of the groups of bad guys on the cult science fiction show “Farscape”.
Compare the logo to El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”.
So far, the only key thing driving your argument seems that what makes Russia especially bad is that all this could actually happen to White People.
Because, again, that’s the situation minorities, Native Americans, and non-White-White folks have faced throughout different points in the history of the US.
@grumpy realist: So you’re saying that it’s no big deal that women were raped in the Soviet Union because women were raped in the United States and some people said that it was no big deal? I don’t think you mean that, but reading your comment, I don’t see any other conclusion to draw.
@Matt Bernius: That comment is indecent. Shame on you.
My comment was not meant as an enumeration of everything bad that happened under slavery, or under Soviet communist rule. It was a direct response to someone else’s comment. I think I’ve stated my position clearly, and whether you agree with it or not, it’s terrible that you’d depict me as a racist for it.
@Pinky: You really need to read a book about slavery. As a slave your wife could and was raped at will and you and her and your children would be beaten at will but also you, your wife or children could be sold off at any time. Read the slave testimonials about having to stand on the side of the road as your 6 year old is shipped off to a new owner crying and begging you to help them.
Let’s just say that is has been noted on OTB that you don’t appear to be too concerned about the problems black folks face as a result of racism.
To be clear, I wasn’t attempting to call you a racist. I’m sorry that you read it in that fashion.
I am simply pointing out that you took the position that:
We countered with examples of how things that have historically occurred on American Soil have been equally atrocious (slavery, defacto-genocide campaigns against native peoples, the treatment of non-white immigrants).
You then followed it up by discussing what could happen in the USSR to all it’s citizens. The weakness of that argument is that through history, subsections of US citizens and residents have faced the exact same treatment you described.
The entire point I was trying to make is that your reading of American history, and Russian atrocities, is colored by what (at least to me) reads as a lens of “white” privilege (white is in quotes there because I’m using it as a cultural distinction, more than simply “race”).
Being blind to one’s own privileged perspective, is IMHO, something that’s inherently different than racism.
Either that or I don’t understand the point that you were trying to make (which is always possible).
There is an interesting game we play in this country. We pay a lot of attention to the horrible, awful things that happen in other lands, and not so much to the horrible, awful things that happen here.
If a woman is stoned in a Muslim country, well that proves that they are barbarians.
Meanwhile, we seem, as a society, to have accepted things like the Newtown slaughter. And small children dying in drive by shootings. Yes, there is shock and sorrow when it happens, but have we done ANYTHING to prevent further such tragedies? Do we accept that this carnage shows us to be barbaric – a label we would quickly apply if the same tragedy took place in a country we see as an adversary.
Putting what I just wrote in a more succinct way, the only two major difference I can see between the Soviet Union and the US (and they are both important):
1. In the Soviet Union, all citizens and residents were potentially subject to widespread and violent state abuse. In the US, where those same types of abuses occurred, they happened to subsets of the population.
2. Unlike the Soviet Union, the US had a framework for developing and (eventually) extending protections against violent state abuse to all of it’s citizens and residents. While this is still a work in progress, the fact is that things have obviously improved (though perhaps not as much as many people believe).
The problem that I had with your statements is that you are attempting to argue that “atrocities” were worse in the Soviet Union. The weakness with that argument is that the only way it works is to look at who could be *tortured* in the USSR that couldn’t be *tortured* at any point in US history. That invariably leads us to a discussion of White privilege.
What you should have focused on instead was that, ultimately, the peoples of the USSR had no recourse to change their situation. In the US that wasn’t the case.
As always, our high ground (to the degree we have it) doesn’t come from “we were never as bad as they were” — it comes from “we changed and have done our best to improve.”
@Pinky: I’m saying don’t be so cocky about the “bad things” happening only in the USSR to the point where you’re saying it’s much worse than anything that ever happened in the U.S.
(The Soviets got rid of serfdom, by the way. Something you might not have noticed in your learning of history.)
Serfdom in Russia was abolished in 1861 by Czar Alexander II.
@grumpy realist: No. Alexander II did that.
Edited to add: Darn it, Tim, I googled it to make sure I got the right tsar, and you jumped in front of me!
I think this can be summed up as “People tend to collect things… sometimes strange things.”
I have a collection of stuff from WWII, both American and German. I’m a WWII history nut. I have a framed copy of the front page of the Des Moines Register announcing the death of FDR hanging in my dining room. It starts some interesting conversations even if it is a bit morbid.
I also have flags from each of the major combatant nations (reproductions unfortunately), including both the USSR and Nazi Germany. My parents used to own an antique shop so I sort of combined my interest with WWII with their antique sales and it kind of went from there.
I also have a large collection of stamps from the USSR.
It seems you either don’t understand the relative scale of the rape and breaking up of families between those two situations. I know several people who lived behind the iron curtain and I know people whose grandparents were slaves. My great grandmother was raised in rural Alabama in the immediate aftermath of the civil war. I have read about the conditions in both and have met the children or grandchildren of survivors of both. The kindest way to put it is that your equivalence is absurd.
Further, as has been noted, the genocide and forced relocation of native americans tops anything the Soviets did.
@michael reynolds: One note about the Swastika… it was a religious symbol in India long before it was used by the Nazi’s.In fact, it’s still used today there.
@Vast Variety: I’ve seen it used here in the United States by those of Indian descent, it was etched on the bottom door frame of a guy’s house here in the U.S.
While I am VERY attuned to the unconscionable history of US/Native American “relations”, I think statements like these are problematic for the same reasons as Pinky’s earlier ones.
The USSR also waged war against the indigenous peoples (or rather the indigenous/non-Russian peoples) of many of the Asian Soviet States in ways that rivaled what we did to our indigenous populations in severity, if not ultimately scale.
Trying to play “who did worse things in the past” is a loser’s game on either side.
Scale is what made our sin worse, though it is slightly more shrouded in time.
Factory workers in 19th century America had it every bit as bad as factory workers in the Soviet Union. The difference between us isn’t so much about the scale and severity of our abuses, but what we have done and are doing to limit such abuses going forward. Currently social justice is on an upward swing in the US. The same cannot be said for Russia.
Tell it to the White Russians, the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Finns…
@Grewgills: “Further, as has been noted, the genocide and forced relocation of native americans tops anything the Soviets did.”
Except in Ukraine and surrounding areas, where they deliberately starved millions of people to death in the years before World War 2… which is why so many Ukranians welcomed the Nazis… at first.
And that pretty much explains the split in the country now. Half of them are descended from people horribly mistreated under Stalin and rescued by the Germans; the other half are descended from people who did okay under the Soviets and were horribly mistreated by Hitler…
Explain to me how exactly that was worse than what we did to the Native Americans.
Tell it to the Cherokee, the Creek, the Seminoles, the Dineh, etc.
The Finns, Poles, and most Ukrainians now have the bulk of their ancestral homelands. There are a greater number and a greater percentage of all of the ethnic groups you mentioned still alive today and generally doing better now than are the Native American tribes we relocated and killed. Do you have any concept of scale?
To be clear, I am *not* talking about factory workers here. I’m talking about the countless ethnic groups in the Soviet states (like the Crimean Tartars) that were forcefully relocated in ways that matched what we did to Native American groups.
The only thing that makes these efforts *marginally* less bad was that there was better transportation infrastructure (so no “Trail of Tears”).
Again, trying to play the game of “our atrocities” are better/worse than yours misses a larger point.
For the record, I excuse nothing that the US or the European colonists did before them. I think that the haleography of figures like Columbus and the fact that no time is spent discussing his crucial role in *beginning* the North Atlantic Slave trade and the enslavement and effective genocide of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is … I can’t come up with a word strong enough to describe it.
If I did, I wouldn’t have taken Pinky to task. But, adjusting for history, I don’t think the Soviet scale is *so much less* than what happened since the establishment of the US government to make one nation’s crime’s worse than the other.
Now if you were to say the cross-nation mega-decimation of North American indigenous people by European settlers… that I would agree with you on.
Without a doubt, the long reaching historical effects of the actions of Americans on Native peoples are profound.
But I think you are underestimating the effects of “Russian Occupation” (which it was) on the residents of the Asiatic Russian states. Yes they still — in theory — live on their own land. But there cultures have been decimated in similar ways.
And, btw, I’m not just representing my opinion, I am trying to integrate the perspective of colleagues and friends from both regions.
It’s a little silly to argue which oppressed group suffered the most. The point is that America has engage in its share of oppression and barbarism, and that we are not very good about owning it.
You know, many of us here had close friends and relatives who actually lived behind the Iron Curtain, myself included. We know what it was like.
As bad as it was — and it wasn’t great — it was absolutely no comparison to the nightmare horror of daily life that was American slavery, and you should be ashamed of yourself for pretending otherwise.
I was not so much trying to play the our atrocities are worse game as responding to Pinky’s comment that the Soviet sins were so much greater in scale and severity that there is no real comparison. His further implication that the Poles or the Finns suffered more than the Cherokee or the Creek is ridiculous on its face. The plight of aboriginal peoples in the Asiatic states is a closer comparison. Ultimately trying to tally the toll of the horrific acts of our ancestors vs their ancestors does little good. Pretty much every group on earth that ever held power abused it, often in ways that we find abhorrent today. It just riles me when people put on blinders when looking at their own (or their forbears) sins and put on a magnifying glass when looking at the sins of others.
Well said, and we both were trying to come to the same point — albeit through different paths.
@Pinky: God damn, this statement is just profoundly ignorant. One could make the case that in the 1930s, that could possibly be true, but by the 1950s, purges stopped, and the automobile worker, presuming that he, like 99.9% of his peers, was not a dissident, enjoyed the quality of life of a Henry Ford employee in the 1920s. There was nothing great or luxurious about that, but comparing it to a slave-farm in Alabama is just surreal.
@Pinky: That was true in the Soviet Union until 1938, and to a lesser extent until 1953. From 1953 forward, the average Soviet citizen, presuming he did not engage in politics, was in no such danger. In other words, a post-1953 Soviet Union was not any worse than Franco’s Spain of the Shah’s Iran, both staunch American allies.
Speaking of Russian propaganda, anyone see Edward Snowden ask Vladmir Putin a question about state surveillance on live Russian TV?
I don’t know how in the world this discussion about Soviet era posters and collectibles could turn to the subject of slavery and Nazi Germany. But let me put in my 3¢ worth. Living in the south for all of my life, I was witness to a lot of racism as a child: separate water fountains, restrooms, segregated schools, and many facilities being off limits to black people. I also was aware that most people of the time had opinions and feelings that most would today label as “racist”. I did not agree with and act like they did because my parents had raised me to feel differently, because they felt differently. That did not cause me to reject and condemn our southern heritage, which some people, especially certain news media, are always trying to criticise. I always acknowledge that mistakes were made. But I am proud of our southern heritage of honor, courage, leadership, and culture. Many of the generals in the southern army had graduated from West Point and other military schools. They served in the US Army and many fought in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War; fought with great honor and distinction. I am aware also aware of the exaggerations, myths, and propaganda that the media dishes out about the south, as if everyone down here lived on a plantation that had 800 slaves. The people of the south, by and large, have openly admitted their mistakes and resolved to do better . This is the south of today, still a place of honor and accomplishment, a great place to live.
@Matt Bernius: This question is a little bit more complicated than that. There is a lot of arguments among historians of the region regarding Soviet policy there, but as long as I am anonymous and not peer reviewed, I’d suggest that the general picture is that 1. Soviets did attack savagely local ways of life, which in the 1930s and 1940s came close to genocide. 2. Later on, they forced a monoculture of cotton on the area, which cuased serious ecological damage (they also used large parts of Kazakhstan for nuclear experiments). However, 3) they did make serious efforts to ease the plight of women, to extend education and healthcare to everyone and even engaged in pretty ambitious “affirmative action” programs for natives (anyone reading archival materials from the 1950s onward willfind many complaints from Russians living in Central Asia that less competent locals were promoted ahead of them). As it was always the case in Soviet history, the Soviet regime was monstrous for rural people who wanted to maintian their way of life, but was pretty beneficial for people who didnt’ mind being moved to the cities and lose their religion and folk customs.
Sooo… Soviet History Scholar? I’d never threaten to peer review anything on a comment thread (provided that I trust you can actually source your facts if asked to).
The two folks who have most informed my opinions on these issues are native Kazakhstani and Ojibwe friends/scholars (who both study their own cultures).
I agree with all you are saying. Though I would note that there are interesting parallels with the treatment of Native Americans and in particular efforts, beginning in the early 20th century, to “save” native children by forcing them into schools with the hopes of eliminating their religions and folk customs.
Generally speaking, you see similar patterns with any colonial project (not matter where its happening).
So you dismiss slavery as a “mistake”, then wax poetic about the south’s military tradition.
I have a news flash for you bubba. It’s true not everyone was a plantation owner. It’s also sure as shit that not everyone was Robert E. Lee.
@Pinky: “As for the Confederate flag, there’s no comparison in terms of death toll. More important, we talk about how people were oppressed by Southern racism legally up until fifty years ago, but there are teenagers whose older brothers and sisters lived through this stuff in the Soviet Union.”
Up until fifty years ago? More like ‘even now’.
Say that for the Circassians. Or even the Tatars.
*Sigh* I can’t please anyone today.
I agree that to have been the most accurate I should have written “Many still — in theory — live on their own land…”
That said, to be intellectually consistent, I need to note that the Circassians were exiled under the Tsars, not the Soviets. In the case of the US, I tried to section out the terrible actions taken under the auspices of the US Government against Native Americans, from the many atrocities carried out prior to the formation of the US by the first generations of European Colonists.
The Tatars were definitely exiled under the Soviets. That said many were able to eventually begin return, to at least Crimea, under the Soviets in the 1980’s. That said many still live in diaspora.
These details are not particularly critical to the larger thrust of my argument. When it comes to f’ing over their own vulnerable populations, I don’t think, historically speaking, the US or the Soviets can be said to be “worse” or “better”. The key difference remains that the US had/has stronger systems in place for working to (eventually) protect the vulnerable and attempt to undo some of the damages that it caused in the first place.*
I’m not an expert of the Soviets, but my general understanding is that parallel protections didn’t develop in the same ways in the USSR.
* – to be fair your milage on the fixes often depends on who you are. As my good friend often reminds me, at least on Reservations, the US still holds all the land “in trust” for Native Americans who live there. As he puts it, perhaps some day the US Government will think that he and his tribesmen are “grown up” enough that they could actually take ownership of their own land.
@Grewgills: At the point when a government is deliberately murdering millions of people for their own political or economic gain, I don’t think it’s appropriate to debate which is “better” or “worse,” and that’s not what I meant to do.
I’ve been working on a project about the Nazi occupation of Ukraine and have been constantly horrified by the ease of the comparison with our treatment of the Indians, so you don’t have to convince me.
In that case, I think the reason history treats the two cases differently is because we won and the Nazis lost.
BTW, as someone with more than a passing interest in Graphic Design and the Arts, I reject the idea that having those posters is somehow expressing support for the Soviet regime.
@Matt Bernius: “perhaps some day the US Government will think that he and his tribesmen are “grown up” enough that they could actually take ownership of their own land.”
Unless, that is, an oil company decides they want to mine uranium there, then it’s goodbye Navaho all over again…
@wr, point taken.
Though that case, they (the Corporation in question and the Government) didn’t force the the Navaho off the land (as I don’t believe the find wasn’t on the reservation). The corporation just hired them and no one bothered to tell them about the effects of radiation. Or, in the case of the Feds, help clean up after a toxic slurry from the mine spilled over and floated down onto the reservation.
And people don’t get why, 9 times out of 10, native peoples just want to be left alone.
That is particularly true for all aboriginal people. It’s not like we’re rushing to move the Cherokee home.
@Matt Bernius: Yes, the historical context–the WW2 Allied effort and Soviet alliance with the Allied powers–is key. Were they posters from another era of Soviet power, I might take issue with them, but these? Context is important.