Newsweek: Better Red Than Free!


On Monday I wrote about Jacob Weisberg's shockingly dumb Newsweek column arguing that a certain cable news station engaged in an "un-American" approach to reporting. Now my Reason.tv colleague Meredith Bragg calls my attention to this chart in the latest issue of Jon Meacham somnolent journal of opinion (see below, and click for a larger image).

The sourcing on this absurd little chart is vague, no context is provided, and we aren't told what years are being compared ("Then" is compared with "now"). The conclusion to be drawn, one supposes, is that because the Soviet Union had more hospitals and fewer diagnosed diseases, their undernourished and underfed population was somehow healthier than those living in today's Russia. If we are to take these numbers at face value—I couldn't track down some of the stats, but will trust that Newsweek is being straight…with the notoriously unreliable figures produced by the Soviet dictatorship—what conclusions can we draw from a decrease in the number of hospitals? Is it that the criminal free market has skimped on health care in Russia, or is it that, during the Yeltsin years, the creaking health care bureaucracy created in post-Stalinist Russia was consolidated and made more efficient. As The Independent noted in 1990, health care in "the Soviet Union compares favourably only with parts of the Third World." And were those hospitals back "then" stocked with the latest technology? Were they fully equipped with prescription drugs and equipment? (The answer, obviously, is no).

Or how about the figures presented for those "diagnosed with diseases," which has increased from 91 million to 110 million. Contrary to Newsweek's implication, this could simply indicate not that communism was better for your health, but that capitalism is better at diagnosing disease. There has been a slight drop in life expectancy, but it should by pointed out that in 1990, at the tail end of the Soviet experiment, the life expectancy of a male in the Soviet Union was 64 years. On average, women lived a full ten years longer.

The Rodchenko-inspired "better off red" table also notes that divorce rates have increased significantly in the post-Soviet period, but fails to inform readers that Bolshevism restricted divorce in various ways over its 70-plus year run. Nor is it particularly surprising that increased economic and social freedom would lead to higher divorce rates. The reliance on Soviet "crime" statistics is particularly egregious, as the categories of crime (like "wrecking" and "social dangerousness") have mercifully changed, with the still illiberal Russian penal code having purged of most Bolshevik categories of criminality. Not represented in these figures, of course, are crimes committed by the Soviet government. I doubt, for instance, that Georgi Markov was factored into Bulgaria's 1978 murder rate.

But the most pathetic comparison must be the number of cinemas in the Soviet Union (2,337) versus the number is present day Russia (1,510). Recall, if you will, the good old days of Soviet cinema: the glorious, tedious films about collectivization; of girls falling in love with dashing commissars too busy with purge trials to reciprocate their affection; the clumsy, yet charming, remakes of classics from the less rigidly ideological comrades in the Albanian cinema community. One might expect Newsweek to celebrate this movie theater contraction as a victory over crass American culture, but it is more likely that Russians now have access to flat screen televisions, satellite television, the Internet, and DVD players. But yeah, Russia probably was "better off red."