I’ve only recently watched the HBO mini-serie on Chernobyl and I can’t but recommend it too highly. The cast is superb and the series is quite effective in conveying a sense of what happened in those terrible days. It is also a commentary on the Soviet regime, and a rather effective one. The main point it raises is that the Soviet Union was an inextricable web of lies. It is not only that those responsible for the nuclear disaster were lying about what they did or did not do: that would be understandable and I suppose it would happen almost anywhere. When faced with the possibility of a life sentence, your relationship with the truth becomes all of a sudden more flexible.
The series does not pretend that human beings were different under the Soviet regime than they are under Putin, or Biden, or Mario Draghi. In fact, the series is a catalog of remarkable and brave individuals, who put their own lives in jeopardy for the sake of saving others’ lives.
Yet the system is begotten by lies. It is not only that, in a bureaucracy, incentives for career advancement are such that people become overtly “flexible” with the truth, reporting only the good things and avoiding responsibility for the others. Once again, something similar may happen in non-socialist regimes too- think about life in a big corporation.
The system’s most striking feature is the existence of an “official truth”, which everybody knows has little resemblance with the actual truth and yet it is there, and it influences peoples’ behavior. Once the official truth is in the book, it cannot be openly challenged. Once some information is erased from the books, no decision can be taken on its basis.
The KGB enforces lie upon lie, for the sake of national greatness. This comes even to the point of censoring scientific papers, making it impossible to the scientific community to work as it should.
In the ongoing discussion on meritocracy, we sometimes are tempted to see the USSR as a meritocracy. In a sense, it was. Think about sports or arts: only the promising people could practice them (an essential element of a free society is that people can try to pursue what they want, even if they’re not particularly good at it). On paper, a bureaucracy is a meritocratic system, particularly when it accords such an important role to research, science and technology. But if everything is founded upon lies, then it is built on thin ice. Anyway, besides my ramblings, do yourself a favor and watch the series.