Is the collapse of the Soviet Union a reasonable analogy for what may happen in Iran? There are certain parallels, including repressive regimes bent on imposing ideology to perpetuate their own rule. In each case, it is hard to imagine how the repression could end, since the regime has support from economic and political constituencies which benefit from perpetuation of the regime. Powerful and violent elites never give up power easily.
I visited Russia back in the day and I’ve now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I’ve ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I’ll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public–it could easily be misinterpreted and then he’d be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.
Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America.
Joe Klein doesn’t know what he is talking about. While Klein may have visited the Soviet Union with a translator, my extensive experience in the Soviet Union differed sharply.
As a student in the 1970s and 1980s, I studied Russian language, including at a Russian language institute in Moscow. I didn’t need a translator, which may explain why I saw a different Soviet Union than Klein. I travelled extensively throughout the country on three different trips (including not only the Russian Republic, but also the Soviet Republics in Central Asia, the Caucuses, and the Baltics). On the last of my trips I travelled without a tour guide, which was permitted by the government subject to sticking to a predetermined itinerary, although almost no one took advantage of the opportunity.
I was not in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when Perestroika took hold, and there was an opening to the West. I was there during the height of the Cold War. On one of my trips in 1980, I shared the last Aeroflot flight out of the U.S. with the staff of the Soviet Consulate in New York, who were being ejected in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The plane was only half-full with people, with the remaining seats stocked high with televisions, record players and other western electronics the diplomats were taking back to Moscow.
Being in the Soviet Union during the start of the Soviet Afghan war and when the U.S. announced its boycott of the Moscow Olympics, I would have witnessed the fear of which Klein writes. But fear did not exist to the extent Klein supposes. A fear to smile on the street? Maybe in the 1930s, but not in the late 1970s and 1980s. Klein either received bogus information, which he believed, or he is exaggerating.
There was fear in the Soviet Union, and foreigners were followed. But the fear was subverted by the normal human desire for knowledge and freedom, not any particular piece of information technology. I commented then (yes, I have witnesses!) that I could not see how the Soviet Union could survive, although intellectually it was hard to see how it could fall apart given the military and Communist Party rule.
What surprised me most is how informed people were in the Soviet Union. While I met people who bought the party line hook, line and sinker, I met far more people who understood that the official line was a lie. They may not have known precisely what the lie was, but they knew the regime lied.
There was no internet or Twitter or e-mail in the Soviet Union, or anywhere else for that matter. But there were the short-wave broadcasts of Voice of America and the BBC World Service. Short-wave radio, while unidirectional, was the internet of the 1970s and 1980s for people behind the Iron Curtain (wow, I haven’t mentioned that phrase in a long time).
Perhaps my most striking memory of the Soviet Union is the absolutely warm welcome from people who never had met a foreigner, much less an American, before. The welcome from ordinary citizens stood in stark contrast to the official hostility from the government. People came up to me and other students on the street or in a restaurant to strike up a conversation, to ask if we had western magazines, and to find out what we thought about the world. More than anything, people expressed a lust for knowledge.
From the various blog accounts I read from people who have travelled to Iran, the contrast between the warmth of the people versus the hostility of the government appears strikingly similar to what I witnessed first hand in the Soviet Union several decades ago. The policy question is whether we will support the Iranian people without equivocation, as we did for the people of the Soviet Union, or will we help perpetuate the regime. While we were negogiating nuclear arms treaties with the Soviet leadership, we were undermining their rule through an unyielding refusal to accept communist rule as inevitable or justified.
Was there fear in the Soviet Union, and is there fear in Iran now? Of course. But fear did not suppress the desire of people in the Soviet Union to be free. And fear will not work forever in Iran. Not because of modern technology, but because of human nature.