How Much Personal Freedom in Russia?

This is the question that really interests us most of all about Russia’s political system. In comparing our way of life with that of Russia, we should remember what things were like there before the Soviet government came to power. In 1917 the majority of the peasants and industrial workers had had relatively little experience with the freedoms familiar to us. The peasants had been serfs until 1861. Before 1914 only a small number owned enough land to enjoy a sense of economic freedom.

We should also recognize, however, that under the czarist regime the educated and relatively prosperous minority of the population—the aristocracy, the landowners, and the merchants, professional men, and intellectuals of the small middle class—did have certain limited freedoms. They had freedom of religious belief and worship—although there was severe discrimination against sects which broke away from the Russian Orthodox church and against the Jews. The latter were often subjected to organized massacres, called pogroms. There was some freedom of the press, and those who opposed the government could present their views from time to time to the minority of people who could read and write. But again and again government censorship interfered with this freedom.

The imperial Duma, or parliament, established in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War and the revolution it precipitated, provided an opportunity for political organization. True, the vote for members of the Duma was weighted in favor of the propertied classes in town and country. But a real beginning had been made toward representation of more than one group or party in the state. Under this weighted franchise, the revolutionary parties in Russia—the Social Revolutionaries and the two Social Democratic groups, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks—succeeded in having members elected to the Duma, where they expressed criticism of the government.

Russians lack our civil liberties

If we want to look at Russia realistically, we must admit that the civil liberties familiar to the United States and Britain have never existed in full in Russia—and do not now. The Communist Party is the only legal party and the right of political association is forbidden to other groups. The printed word is controlled by the government, which also regulates education and all means of communication—telephone, telegraph, and radio. News going out to foreign countries is subject to censorship.

Yet, in spite of strict government control over all forms of expression, the Russians have made notable progress under the Soviet regime in technical fields and in science. They have also done much in the promotion of health, education, and modern agricultural methods among a hitherto predominantly backward and illiterate population. They have not made equal progress in literature and the arts (music and the theater excepted). The explanation for this may lie in the fact that they have been living in a turbulent period, and have until recently tended to fit their creative efforts into the rigid Marxist mold.

While political freedoms and personal liberties are very clearly limited in Russia, the Russian people have been given considerable scope for initiative and what is known as “self-criticism” in the economic sphere. The Soviet press, for in-stance, never questions the government’s political decisions or the general theory and practice of socialism. It does, however, carry daily comments on the inadequacy of coal production, delays in the manufacture of electric bulbs, and a thousand and one other items affecting details of the country’s economic development. Such criticisms, on details and on economic means rather than ends, are not only permitted but encouraged.