The fall of the Soviet Empire was an event of historical significance no less than the collapse of the Roman Empire. But in contrast to ancient Rome that struggled to survive for over three centuries, the Soviet Union that had tyrannized nearly forty hostage nations and murdered close to a hundred million victims withered away within a few short years. Also, as Russia crashed, Communist China rose to second place in the global hierarchy. How did all this happen?
The Power of Lishmoh
Rav Shimon Schwab once gave a succinct answer to this question, explaining that the immense power of Communism that crushed most of the world’s population under its heel came from the fact that its revolutions were rooted in lishmoh. Corrupt as Communism was, its founders sincerely believed that creating a Robin Hood society that stole from the rich to give to the poor would create a better world. And what destroyed them, explained Rav Schwab,. were the Russian Jews who turned to Torah lishmoh in the 80s, studying and keeping mitzvos for no worldly compensation and at great risk to their lives, families, and jobs.
This spiritual explanation of Russia’s downfall may also explain why China is still going strong. China harbors relatively few Jews, and no one was available to attack its spiritual foundations.
This article will focus on the material rationales for Russia’s collapse. In 1984, the German professor, Alexander Demant, published a collection of 210 different theories for the fall of Rome, and likewise, the exact explanation of the Soviet collapse is still open to the jury. But inIn short,, it may be claimed that the people of Soviet Russia lost faith in Communism for the simple reason that it was not delivering the goods.
We can expand this ideaed with the possibly apocryphal story of Rav Menashe of Ilya, a great talmid of the Vilna Gaon, who is said to have proposed to Rav Chaim of Volozhin that all the leaders of world Jewry should get together and divide Jewish wealth evenly among the masses. Jewish poverty would then be destroyed with one stroke. To this proposal, Rav Chaim reportedly replied that while he would be willing to persuade the poor to receive money from the common pot, he would leave the job of persuading the rich to be relieved from their wealth to Rav Menashe!
Russia and China faced the opposite problem in the eighth decade of the twentieth century. For them, brutally robbing the rich had come easy; satisfying the poor was the problem.
This future problem of Communism was already pointed out in 1885 when Communism was in its nascence. At that time, a Polish Jew Eliezer Zweifel wrote a book titled Sanegor “to defend the Jewish people and their Torah from their detractors,” and in a long discussion about the exact definition of the term am ha’aretz which some people found offensive (page 164), he explained that Communism would never work for the simple reason that it was foolish am ha’aratzus:
“The prominent Rav, Rav Yosef Chaim Kara, Av Beis Din of Walazlawik, may Hashem lengthen his days, told me that in his opinion Chazal named the sect of Communists am ha’aratzim. These are the people who say that everyone should have one wallet and that everyone should labor for the good of all. Just as our government now
adays hnds that the people of this sect are destroyers of national peace and are tearing apart the fabric of society, so Chazal disparaged this dangerous sect. In his opinion, this theory of the meaning of an am ha’aretz is clearly stated in the words of Chazal where they say in Pirkei Avos, ‘[A person who says that] what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine is an am ha’aratz.’ We see that they encapsulated this entire system in a few short words.”
In short, so far as Rav Kara was concerned, the all for one and one for all system of Communism was dangerous and foolish.
Now, Rav Kara’s claim that Communism is discussed by Chazal is astounding, taking into account that Karl Marx, the father of Communism, was born in 1818 and only produced his Communist manifesto, Das Kapital, in 1867. Where did Chazal find Communists to label as am ha’aratzim? The truth is that Communists have been around for quite a while. Even the Greek philosopher Plato broached the idea of Communism, describing it as the total banishment of the individual to the extent that all men feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions.
And who were among the first to put Communist ideas into practice? Jews, of course! Indeed, Rav Kara may well be referring to a Jewish society that ran on communal lines in Mishnaic times, namely, the Essenes who were famous both for their abstention from worldly pleasures, prohibition against marriage and for the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in their lost colony of Qumran near the Dead Sea. The Jewish Encyclopedia cites a source that describes their lifestyle in clearly Communistic terms:
“No one possesses a house absolutely his own, one which does not at the same time belong to all, for in addition to living together in companies their houses are open also to their adherents coming from other quarters. They have one storehouse for all, and the same diet, their garments belong to all in common, and their meals are taken in common. . . . Whatever they receive for their wages after having worked the whole day they do not keep as their own, but bring into the common treasury for the use of all; nor do they ne-
gleet the sick who are unable to contribute their share, as they have in their treasury ample means to offer relief to those in need.”
In other words, this society was an ancient echo of Soviet Russia where officially at least, every person was supposed to work according to his ability and receive according to his need.
Who were the Essenes? While Josephus divides the Jews of his time into the three categories of Perushim (those who were faithful to Chazal), Tzadukim, and Essenes, Chazal never mention the Essenes at all, perhaps regarding them as amei ha’aretz and beneath their notice. If this explanation is correct, it may give a new slant to Chazal’s statement in Pirkei Avos that an am ha’aretz cannot be a chossid.
People Want Money
Returning to the fall of Soviet Russia, there was always good reason to suspect that Communism could never work since, except for a few idealists, the majority of people would not be happy with the idea of investing a grueling day’s work and having to share the take with someone else who invested half the effort. This is simply against human nature. Even Lenin had to partially dismantle orthodox Communist theory in 1921 only four years after his takeover in 1917, when he discovered that the strict abolition of the market economy in the Soviet Union was dragging the economy from bad to worse. Limited commercialism was essential to keep Russia afloat.
By the 1980s after decades of struggle, the Soviet Union was falling ever further behind the West thanks to the strangle grip of party-state planning and to make things worse, subject states were straining to break loose from Russia’s bear hug. After Mikhael Gorbachev became Communist Party General Secretary in 1985, he determined to save the Soviet Union with the twin tactics of perestroika (restructuring the economy) and glastnost (openness). Repudiating the Communist concept of keeping subject countries under brute force, he announced in 1989 that countries of the Warsaw pact were free to forge their own futures.
This led to freefall. Countries broke away from the Union, the Berlin Wall was demolished in 1989, and in August 1990 when Communist hardliners tried to turn the clock back by besieging the Moscow parliament building with tanks, their coup petered out with a whimper after the liberal President Boris Yeltsin emerged and delivered a speech from the roof of a tank.
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and the flag of the new Russian Federation rose up to take its place.
The canny Chinese saved themselves from a similar disaster by realizing that the nearest road to a man’s heart is his stomach. Look after a country’s economy and politics looks after itself. Concentrating solely on turning their economy
closer to capitalism and ignoring luxuries like freedom and democracy, the Chinese dictators successfully turned their country into a super power while retaining the old Communist style stranglehold on its populace. The last major attempt to remonstrate against China’s oppressive policies ended on June 4, 1989, when tanks ruthlessly cleared protesters from Tiananmen Square.
No Nuremburg Trials
It goes without saying that the decline of the Soviet Union held great implications for the world. As the Cold War thawed, the USA and the USSR jointly cosponsored the Madrid Conference of 1991 in the first international attempt to create a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
With the end of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, the country’s Communist government was taken over by the Mujahideen leading to the radicalization of terrorism into Jihad and the Twin Tower tragedy of September 11, 2001.
On the upside, loosening up the Russian economy allowed the Jewish sector to prosper to the extent that two years ago, Moscow’s Chief Rabbi claimed that “there are more Jewish billionaires in Moscow than there are in New York.”
Depite the Soviet Union’s collapse, most of Communism’s criminals are yet to be brought to justice. While the Black Book of Communism published by a group of intellectuals in 1977 estimates that 94 million people lost their lives through execution, conflict, and famine
under Communist regimes, 20 million of them in the Soviet Union alone, former dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky complained in 1992 that justice still lay in the future:
“Having failed to finish off conclusively the Communist system, we are now in danger of integrating the resulting monster into our world. It may not be called Communism anymore, but it retained many of its dangerous characteristics… Until the Nuremberg-style tribunal passes its judgment on all the crimes committed by Communism, it is not dead and the war is not over.”
Eight years later, it seems unlikely that this will ever happen.
(Sources: two citations are from an article, “The Rabbis and Communism,” by Marc B. Shapiro.)