This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

The Long 1950’s … Behind the Iron Curtain

Yuri Pimenov, "A Wedding on Tomorrow's Street" (1962)As someone who grew up in a totalitarian Communist state, nothing infuriates me more than the incessant conservative droning-on about progressives being “communist”, “socialist” and “Stalinist”. People who say these things use such words as mere slurs, not much different than calling someone an asswipe, and of course, they betray both a profound ignorance of history and a great deal of contempt for it. But more than that, they’ve got it completely backwards. Truth is, American conservatives have remarkably a lot in common with Russian communists: the same obsession with ideological purity, the same irrational intolerance towards loyal dissent, the same prioritizing of ideology over practicality, the same preparedness to sacrifice liberties, human dignity and lives for the sake of ideological totems, the same clash-of-civilizations thinking, the same pretensions at worldwide cultural and political hegemony. And of course, the modern American conservative and the Russian communist of the bygone era share a deep and abiding dislike of people having unauthorized sex in pursuit of “instant gratification”.

Enter Congress’ resident comedian, Rep. Louie Gohmert, because of course he doth enter, for how could he not? After all, it’s only been a few hours since the last eruption of stupid from the right-wingers, and we haven’t heard from Gohmert in, like, days. With a name that sounds like a practical joke and every word coming out of his mouth worthy of an Onion editorial, he provides an endless parade of stupidity and ignorance, which is probably why he was elected in the first place. His latest installment revolves around the idea that teaching school children about human biology and reproductive health would turn us into the USSR.

From the horse’s mouth:

Let the kids be innocent. Let them dream. Let them play. Let them enjoy their life. You don’t have to force this sexuality stuff into their life at such a point. It was never intended to be that way. They’ll find out soon enough. And, in fact, … mankind has existed for a pretty long time without anyone ever having to give a sex-ed lesson to anybody. And now we feel like, oh gosh, people are too stupid to unless we force them to sit and listen to instructions. It’s just incredible.

First, a little history lesson: mankind existed for a pretty long time without anyone having access to modern medicine, or clean water, or reliable transportation. Mankind existed for a pretty long time with infant mortality rates of over 50%, and literacy rates in the single digits. What does any of this have to do with anything? I don’t care how mankind existed in the past. We today don’t live in ancient Mesopotamia. Let me see Gohmert-Gohmert give up his running water and electricity, live in a mud hut for a while (without AC), and ride a mule to work, and then maybe I’ll take his statements about how mankind used to exist as a little less hypocritical (though still very quaint). After all, it’s no more fair to force the Gohmerts to enjoy the luxuries of modern life than it is to force Poor Innocent Children to (gasp!) get some evidence-based education about their bodies.

And speaking of mud huts: most of mankind existed for a pretty long time without Mommy and Daddy having their own bedroom with reasonably sound-muffling walls. For most of history, most families lived in a single room, usually sharing that room with their animals, and usually with only one bed (if that). Close relatives always stayed together. And that means, of course, that children learned about sex by watching Mom and Dad go at it regularly, because Mom and Dad regularly did it in front of them. Sure, there was some measure of decorum, such as making reasonably sure everyone was asleep and the room was dark, but let’s be realistic. With a married couple having sex at least what, a couple of times a week, almost completely lacking privacy, with numerous children (supposedly) sleeping in the same room, and younger children sleeping on the same bed with the parents only inches away, you know, you know, most children got a pretty graphic demonstration early on in life. And let’s not forget, those animals, who lived in the same one-room dwellings with humans, occasionally did it too without caring who saw it. And let’s also not forget many pre-Christian cultures did not purposely shield children from observing or being aware of the details of sexual activity.

Did Gohmert say something about “innocence”?

And there is a natural law that parents should be involved in education, they should know about, they should be part of the training – that’s a law of nature; Alan Keyes was just talking about it this weekend when we were together. That is such an important part of nature and yet that is the very thing that some of these liberals want to take away.

Whoa, epic logic fail. The fact that children get an education at a public school doesn’t prevent the parents from being involved in their education. However, I now understand the rationale (if it may be called that) behind conservatives’ hatred of schools and the academics: because apparently, if you a school teaches your child timetables, that prevents YOU from ever teaching him any math. Brilliant thinking.

And it reminds me so much of the summer that I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union back in the Seventies and I was shocked when they were saying ‘no, the children don’t belong to parents, they belong to the state.’ And if any parent said anything in front of their children negative about the wonderful Soviet Union, then we will take their children away and give them to somebody more deserving. And I just thought how horribly shocking that was, that of course parents were the ones who love the children, not the state. And I thought thank God that we don’t have that in our country.

First of all, children belong to neither the parents, nor the state. Children are not commodities for possession. Saying that children belong to the parents is just as messed up as saying they belong to the state. Rather, both the parents and the larger society have responsibilities to children. And sure, “society” may not actually love a child the way his parents do, but it is in society’s interest to do its part in giving the child every opportunity to grow up to be a healthy, knowledgeable, productive individual.

Second, although it is true that the Soviet Union exercised a tremendous degree of power over its citizens, and it was known to take children away from parents who were deemed Enemies of the People (though this mostly happened during the Great Purges of the 1930’s), no one actually said that “children belong to the state”, much less in front of a bunch of Americans. That is just a straight-up lie. You know how I know that? Because Soviet ideology was very, very heavily into what American conservatives call “traditional family values”.

But to back up: for most of USSR’s history, there was no such thing as “sex ed” in that country. The upper class high school curriculum included a subject titled “Ethics and Psychology of Family Life”, but that involved only occasional and oblique references to sex, which in any event boiled down to abstinence until marriage, or you’ll get an incurable disease, be punished with infertility, and have your soul drain out of you — which is precisely the kind of message people like Gohmert claim sex ed should consist of. What “Ethics and Psychology of Family Life” did stress, however, was the centrality of the nuclear family model, and the idea that any life that did not involve a traditional marriage with children was basically a waste.

In fact, the Soviet establishment’s attitude towards sex was so conservative, it would make Victorians seem almost randy by comparison. For most of the USSR’s existence, there was virtually no public discussion of sex in any context whatsoever — and inasmuch as the state controlled all means of mass communication, this literally meant there was virtually no public discussion of sex in any context whatsoever. There was some sense that rape sometimes happened, and that was bad, and that some really bad girls got pregnant out of wedlock — but there was no discussion (except in the privacy of one’s family) of what rape actually is, or how pregnancy occurs. Discussions of sexual health were minimal to non-existent, except, again, between doctors and patients.

The stigma of unwed motherhood was deep and intractable. An unwed mother had virtually no chance of ever getting married (it was considered emasculating to raise another man’s child, especially a child born illegitimate), and lifelong harassment and ostracism were assured. After I befriended a very nice little girl who lived in the same apartment complex, my father forbade me to play with her because her mother had her out of wedlock. This was also the reason why no other kids played with her, and she was always alone.

“Her mother is a prostitute, and she services Africans. In her home!” my father said.

This was patently untrue, at least the part about African clients coming to the woman’s apartment. Black people were so rarely seen in Russia, if one came to visit in our apartment complex, it would be a sensation. Everyone would come out and stare. And since Russia had a strong courtyard culture, with children and elderly apartment tenants hanging outside their buildings at all hours of the day, this isn’t something that could go unnoticed. And a regular stream of multiple black men? Forget about it. I would have at least heard something. What my father was saying was a pure invention, and I knew it then. But it was the standard way that unwed mothers were treated, and they were considered deserving of the most fantastical and obviously contrived accusations. Society did not recognize any moral obligation towards a woman who had a child out of wedlock, least of all any duty to be fair to her and not to make stuff up.

Soviet movies were, almost until the end of the regime, quaintly chaste. It was not until the late 1970’s that scenes with French kissing appeared, and even then, they were usually shot at funny angles, blocking the view of actors’ mouths. At that time, movies also began to make timid hints at premarital sex, most of which were censored, anyway. The 1988 film Little Vera caused a wild sensation because it was the very first Russian movie to contain a scene with simulated intercourse in it. (To make matters even more controversial, the characters weren’t married, which really gave a lot of people the heebie-jeebies.)

It was around the same time, during Perestroika, that Soviet people learned for the first time that there was such a thing as “sex ed” out in the sexually loose West. That left most people bewildered, due to the mores prevailing at the time: sex simply wasn’t an appropriate subject for public discussion, especially with children, are you kidding me?? And when newly-baked activists began to push for sex ed in Soviet schools, calling it essential for long-term reproductive and mental health, the public’s reaction was overwhelmingly one of deep outrage.

Bottom line, sexual education was always considered the responsibility of the parents and something to be discussed in the strict privacy of the child’s family. Moreover, parents maintained a tremendous level of authority over teenaged children, up to and including giving up babies born to them out of wedlock to orphanages without the consent of the mother, no matter how close the mother was to the age of majority. In this context, at least, children really did belong to their parents (except out-of-wedlock children didn’t belong to their teenaged parents), and that was disgusting. These were actual Soviet policies on the subject. Why you being so pro-Soviet, Gohmert?

But people are people, and teenagers are horny, and all these highly restrictive Soviet policies did little to help children maintain their “innocence”. The chasm between public discussion and private behavior was enormous. Despite the strenuous abstinence-only message and the lack of privacy due to an acute shortage of cars and housing, teenagers still managed to have sex a lot. The combination of extremely conservative social mores and wild youthful hormones sometimes led to situations that were not only tragic, but truly bizarre as well. I recall one particular case being reported during Glasnost, of an eighth-grader who hanged himself after his first-ever sexual experience with a girl who turned out not to have been a virgin. He left behind a note saying that the disappointment of having lost his virginity to someone who was less “pure” than he was so profound, he didn’t want to live.

My mother, who entered college in the late 1960’s, recounted that admission for girls was contingent on a mandatory test for virginity, and girls who failed it could be rejected on “bad moral character” grounds, especially if they were not from socially prominent families. Moreover, Soviet doctors in that era still clung to the medieval notion that if a girl bears a resemblance to Dolly Parton, she must be promiscuous (breast size and hip-to-waist ratio being strictly correlated with one’s number of past sexual partners), and that meant that even girls who had intact hymens got turned away simply for having voluptuous bodies. And yet, despite these draconian restrictions, everyone was having sex. One of my mother’s acquaintances, a medical student, moonlighted by performing abortions on her desk, in her rented room in an apartment occupied by a family; and toilets in women’s dormitories routinely backed up as a result of newborns and aborted fetuses being flushed down the drain.

The main consequence of the Soviet ideology with regard to sex was the pervasive notion that all sex was dirty, shameful and criminal — though also unavoidable. The sad result of that being the prevailing social value became evident as soon as the Soviet rule began to fall apart and its grip on people’s everyday behavior loosened. Immediately, the country became awash in violent porn, rapes, human trafficking and grim, joyless promiscuity. Those problems certainly exist in the West, sure — but the Russian society embraced those vices on a scale that defies description. And I submit the reason for this is that generation after generation of Russians were raised without any frank, reasonable discussion of the differences between healthy sexuality and harmful, compulsive behaviors. When it comes to sex, they simply weren’t given much of a choice between good and bad. Rather, people internalized it that sex is irresistible, and yet, it’s always a bad thing — so you might as well go all hog.

But what of all that? It’s only history. Certainly, no one has ever been able to accuse poor Gohmert of relying on facts of all things.

And now I’ve seen this coming with a lady from MSNBC saying “hey, children belong to the state” … and it just sent chills because it took me back to the Seventies when that’s what the Soviet Union used to say and we know how well that worked out.

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29 thoughts on “The Long 1950’s … Behind the Iron Curtain

  1. frasersherman on said:

    I’ve noticed the resemblance between conservative and Soviet authoritarians for a long time (living in a virulently red state has that effect). I hadn’t thought about the sex (didn’t know that much about Soviet attitudes) but you pegged it.
    Gohmert is a few years older than me which means he grew up when “communist” was still a generic charge to fling at anyone for anything (and of course, still being used the same way today by lots of people), so it’s not surprising he invokes them as supposedly conclusive proof Sex Ed is Evil. Fortunately I don’t think this line of argument really persuades anyone outside the right wing any more.

  2. uglicoyote on said:

    Reblogged this on HardRider and commented:
    Very good analysis from someone who knows first hand. Most of these religion party morons would know a communist or a stalinist if one walked up and spit in their ey.e.

  3. Lol, one look at that picture brought back memories :) Those construction sites with pipes and ditches made for awesome playgrounds :)

  4. “Ethics and Psychology of Family Life”, o God… Long live standard curriculum for entire USSR…

  5. I may be American, but will never understand the puritanical direction this country went. We were set up to be able to have freedom, but conservatives want to rule our lives. I envy the way other countries are so far advanced on personal rights and care for their citizens than what exists here .

  6. “Rather, people internalized it that sex is irresistible, and yet, it’s always a bad thing — so you might as well go all hog.”

    I’ve thought this a long time even about the US and our own attitudes, especially among women. The right wing seems to think, “Sex is always degrading and objectifying for women, so the best you can do is find a monied man who won’t degrade you too badly and keep him happy.” The left wing? “Sex is degrading and objectifying for women, but it’s sooooo sexyyyyyy and with-it, and for $39.95 we’ll sell you some reaaallly cooool leather handcuffs and give you a pole-dancing class!”

    Come on, people. This is the best we can do?

  7. Being from a a communist country myself (originally)…this was an interesting read!

  8. Very interesting point of view. I can’t imagine the conservatives taking this point of view on board, but I can see that you’ve defended your position well. Both parties can be paternalistic and misogynistic at times. It’s interesting that the more sex is repressed and taboo culturally, the more women are demeaned and subjugated thereafter (as you pointed out in Russia). Yet, the more open and free people are about sex, the more women are objectified by fashion and the media (as happens daily here). Women seem to come in last no matter what the political system, but at least we can have a dialogue and move toward change if we can talk about it.

  9. Pingback: Signal Boost: The Cold War With Real Communism | herlander-walking

  10. I believe the reason that American ultraconservatives have a lot in common with Russian communists – the same obsession with ideological purity, the same intolerance towards dissent, the same preparedness to sacrifice other people’s liberties, the same clash-of-civilizations thinking, and the same longing for worldwide cultural and political hegemony – is because they are the same type of people. The beliefs and behaviours you describe are characteristic of people with dangerous personality disorders – a small proportion of the population in any society but one which wields enormous influence. The ideology is secondary, it’s power over others that really matters to them.

    • frasersherman on said:

      Robert Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians makes that specific comparison. Both hardline Soviet believers and hardline right-wingers have the same faith in their leaders (provided they’re a “good” leader like Bush and not someone like Clinton), and support ruthless repression of dissenters, nonconformists and rebels.

  11. You’re a hell of a writer. Thanks for posting this.

    You just made me a little better, too.

  12. The bogey man is always an invention, isn’t it? and Gohmert’s revisionist history lesson is priceless and frightening in equal measures. Goddess spare us!

  13. Just wanted to let you know that I am at least one avowed conservative who believes NONE of the things you ascribe to us in your opening paragraph – and I happen to agree with almost everything else you said, including the cartoon that is Gohmert.

  14. As many article as I have read, this one hits the nail on the head!

    “American conservatives have remarkably a lot in common with Russian communists: the same obsession with ideological purity, the same irrational intolerance towards loyal dissent, the same prioritizing of ideology over practicality, the same preparedness to sacrifice liberties, human dignity and lives for the sake of ideological totems, the same clash-of-civilizations thinking, the same pretensions at worldwide cultural and political hegemony.”

    Nice job! Amazing article…

  15. Yes! Yes! Thank you. They’re a bunch of ridiculous twats that still think Ike is president. Love your style :)

  16. A same that Louie Gohmert probably isn’t capable of comprehending this article.

  17. I was schooled in Soviet system and even i caught some of the stuff your mother mentions… (in mid 80ies, mind you) I wrote about it too, yet it’s hard to believe for those who didn’t live it (and it’s still not 100% gone.) At this point of time, i just say to myself ‘it’s just the way it is in some parts of the globe – and in some religious cults” ( i noticed certain resemblance between these draconian rules of the time, with the systems of certain fundamental religious cults… and if you think who were the leaders at the time, and the orthodox surroundings they grew up within, it all somehow starts to make sense – to me at least. ;))

  18. Barbara Backer-Gray on said:

    Refreshing! So often immigrants from the former USSR are even more conservative than Limbaugh. Great to finally see some facts about the similarities between the Soviet Union and the social conservatism that people like Gohmert want to impose. I’m going to follow you. Write on!

  19. Barbara Backer-Gray on said:

    Reblogged this on Resident Alien — Being Dutch in America and commented:
    In light of the restrictive abortion law the Texas Republicans are going to get passed, and considering the reckless manner in which many conservatives throw around terms like “communist” and “socialist”, this post by someone from Russia is a must-read. The number of times she uses the word “stupid” n the first few paragraphs may be off-putting, but she gets it out of her system and gets going with the real meat!

  20. Absolutely fascinating. I have often thought of the parallels that you have discussed. This was really informative and great to hear it from a primary source.

  21. multiheaded on said:

    Oh, you’re Russian too? Yeah… I can pretty much confirm; this is the residual cultural attitude towards sex that we have to live with. It does suck shit.

    The USSR really was pretty great at gender equality, mind, but the awful messed-up state of sexuality in Russian culture is certainly partly the fault of Soviet ideology.

  22. This is an excellent post, but you lost me at the mandatory virginity testing part. None of my female relatives have ever mentioned this, and we’re a VERY liberal family, with a lot of fist-shaking at Ye Olde Regime going on all the time, so I’m certain they would’ve brought it up if it had ever happened to them. I don’t doubt your story, I’m just curious to know where this happened – my family’s from St. Petersburg, which was always a little bit different, so that might have something to do with it.

    Even during the short-lived liberal Russian renaissance of the late 90s, when I had the pleasure of attending high school over there, the lack of sex ed was SHOCKING, and I attended what was considered to be the best school in St. Petersburg. Our “valedictorian” graduated with an STD because she didn’t know you could catch anything on your first try. Condoms were considered to be something sleazy drunken men bought from outdoor kiosks (ridiculous, I know). It took one of my friends to get to college to discover how the female anatomy is structured, and that was after we all had to take biology! Now with the Orthodox Communist Church Party having basically taken over, biology will probably be replaced with “Foundations of Orthodox Culture”, which will only make it worse. Kind of like here in the Bible Belt ;)

    • Hi, Nom Whine Prance: My mother initially went to college in Krasnodar. As almost everywhere else, the provinces were almost certainly more conservative than the capitals, and I am sure policies like this were less likely to be enforced in St. Petersburg than out in the sticks (especially since college students in St. Petersburg were more likely to have important connections than their more provincial counterparts). I know the policy of virginity testing (for unmarried girls, that is) continued in the 1980’s, because one of my grandmothers, who worked as a nurse at a Moscow tekhnikum, mentioned it. Although in her case, there was a tacit agreement between her and the in-house doctor never to perform the test; the corresponding column in the medical papers was either marked “not sexually active” or left blank.

  23. Excellent post! The parallels you bring up are interesting and I see your point. I was a conservative in the past and I have heard many arguments where Russia is used as an example of how the “freedom” in the U.S. creates prosperity. I agree with you that the irony is the conservative vision is very similar to what they are condemning at the same time. I disagree with you though about children not belonging to their parents or to the state. I would say that children belong to both the parents and the state. Where Gohmert is wrong is he, for some philosophic, ethical, and idealistic reason, thinks that children belong to the state in Russia while not here in the U.S.. I actually just posted my latest about this if you want to check it out. Would love to get your opinions proving me wrong.

  24. Great topic! Kudos to you dude!

  25. thanks for sharing! great blog!

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