Norms and Values
The Soviet Union in Retrospect: Late 20th Century America’s Favorite Villain

The Soviet Union had a special resonance in the American psyche, which had for centuries been fertile ground for millenarian doomsayers warning about the Antichrist, the Book of Revelations and the end times. It seemed that not only had the Marxist-Leninists attempted to destroy both God and individual liberty, but they could also bring about the end of the world, if pushed, writes Travis Jonesa Moscow-based emerging markets analyst.

This December 30th marks the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s establishment in 1922 following the end of the Russian civil war. Despite the dispossession of the wealthier classes that accompanied the revolution and the terror which we’ve come to associate with Stalinism, the Soviet Union is commonly credited with an array of accomplishments, from victory in WWII to the assistance it offered the countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa in gaining independence, as well as the industrialization of the former Russian Empire and pioneering work in nuclear engineering and space exploration. However, throughout the 20th century, American attitudes towards the Soviet Union were overwhelmingly negative. 

Reagan wasn’t just speaking for himself when, in 1983, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” A National Opinion Research Center poll conducted in March 1982 asked, “Thinking about the different kinds of governments in the world today, which of these statements comes closest to how you feel about Communism as a form of government?” A full 61% replied “It’s the worst kind of all,” up from 44.2% in March 1973. Only 12.2% percent replied that it’s alright for some countries and 1.5% replied that it was a good form of government. Perhaps more surprisingly, a Gallup poll conducted decades beforehand, in September 1954, found that a meagre 0.4% of Americans had a favourable opinion of Soviet Russia, with 91.1% having an unfavourable opinion.

What If the USSR Hadn’t Collapsed…
Oleg Barabanov
If we put aside the Soviet values that are still impacting ideological policy in Russia and ask, “What if the USSR hadn’t collapsed?” we will have to come up with certain historical reconstructions and consider them from the point of view of current policies.


To the mid-20th century American, the Soviet Union was synonymous with communist rule – the nuances of communist vs. socialist styles of government were largely lost on the general public. It was common among the academic left to confuse socialism with Social Democracy – the style of government popular in Canada or the Scandinavian countries, whereas the nations of the Eastern Bloc, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were considered communist, as their leaders espoused a Marxist-Leninist ideology or some derivation thereof. 

This is noteworthy, given the United States’ extensive experience with truly communist utopian communities in the 19th century. These ranged from the secular, communitarian experiments launched by Robert Owen in the 1820s to religious sects such as the Shakers and the perfectionist “Bible communist” Oneida community. Even John Roebling, the German-born American civil engineer who designed and died building the Brooklyn Bridge, having invented both the steel cable and caissons used in its construction, had arrived in the United States with the intention of starting such a utopian community. These groups were far from the only ones, although it can be said that the Owenites were the only secular utopians; most were Christian or some derivative thereof and were tied to the personality cult of a charismatic leader.

So how did the US go from welcoming, or at least ignoring communism to placing it on par with fascism or worse? It certainly can’t be said that the Oneida community, for example, didn’t represent a wild departure from existing social norms: they maintained a “complex marriage” system, entailing an “open and equal sexual union” between all men and women in the community. However, unlike Marx, none of these early American communists were interested in wresting the means of production from the industrialists or forcibly redistributing wealth at large. The celibate Shakers and the polyamorous Bible Christians alike took with zeal to industry. When the Oneidans were forced by locals to break up the party and embrace monogamous family norms at the local level, the silverware factory they established lived on; their web site today advertises “Oneida creates the perfect flatware for your home and table.”

While anti-communist sentiment in the late 1910s was significant, it was mostly intertwined with late 19th century anti-anarchist sentiment, as the anarchists were seen as terrorists, especially after a bomb detonation sparked the Haymarket Square Riot in 1886, President McKinely was shot and killed by an anarchist in 1901, and a series of package bombs in 1919 led to the first Red Scare. 

It was the second Red Scare, however, which established the Soviet Union as America’s greatest foe. In late 1940s and early 1950s America, Soviet rule was synonymous with Stalin. While the Nazis saw everyone who wasn’t German as inferior, the Soviets sought to undermine not only American democracy, but Christianity as well. As Joseph McCarthy said in 1950, “Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity”; he went on to quote both Lenin and Stalin as condemning the notion of coexistence between communism and Christianity

Amid the anti-Soviet fervour of McCarthyism, the nation’s public school system took to weeding out anyone with Soviet sympathies.
The state governments introduced “loyalty oaths” compelling teachers to take oaths condemning communism – those who refused were routinely dismissed.

While communism was always feared in the form of ideological infiltration, the first Sputnik satellite signalled to Americans that they were ultimately not safe from what came to be known as inter-continental ballistic missiles. In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King wrote that this event in 1957 was his personal introduction to “real horror.”

Anti-Soviet sentiment persisted during the Khrushchev Thaw partly because many Stalinist crimes were not brought to light in the West until later on. As a result, these grim revelations post-dated the first Soviet nuclear tests. This gave the Soviet Union a special resonance in the American psyche, which had for centuries been fertile ground for millenarian doomsayers warning about the Antichrist, the Book of Revelations and the end times. It seemed that not only had the Marxist-Leninists attempted to destroy both God and individual liberty, but they could also bring about the end of the world, if pushed. 

American vilification of the Soviet Union had a few exceptions – such as during WWII and the Suez Crisis, when the US and USSR compelled the British, French and Israelis to accept Egypt’s sovereignty over the canal. Unfortunately, the US was never above turning to undemocratic leaders in places like Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa to forestall Soviet-aligned governments, often at the cost of countless lives. Pro-Soviet socialist governments were given far too little credit in places like Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, which led to disastrous consequences following the so-called “End of History” in the 1990s. 

Not only did these persistent biases doom the Soviet Union to spend a whopping amount on defence, the absence of truly constructive criticism prevented the Eastern Bloc countries from taking steps to address infrastructural problems. Ironically, because communism was ‘defeated’ in the early 1990s, the West was free to invest in the industrialization of China, making it the world’s industrial powerhouse. Still, while perusing “Urbex” photos of abandoned Soviet pioneer camps, Yugoslav Olympic facilities, or Abkhaz factories on Instagram, it’s hard to avoid asking, “was it really all that bad?”

Norms and Values
The Centenary of the USSR
Oleg Barabanov
In current geopolitical conditions, the centenary of the USSR ceases to be just an academic date. It makes one wonder about such things as historical predestination, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.