I’ve just returned from the Ukraine, the land of fertile soil and once Europe’s breadbasket back in the Soviet era. Agriculture was then a thriving industry, but people and individual freedoms were sacrificed and were the price to pay for such prosperity. The countryside remains lined with remnants of time gone by, huge buildings abandoned by the kolkhoz, these once-productive collective farms now reminders of the forced merger of farming implements. Older Ukrainians haven’t forgotten the famine that cost the lives of some five million of their countrymen and women in 1932-1933 because the central government requisitioned most of their harvests…
Since its independence in 1991, the Ukraine has converted to a market economy, but it has not been easy. High unemployment and alcoholism have had devastating effects. The situation is so dire that some Ukrainians regret the demise of the Soviet regime. I noticed a small bouquet of fresh flowers at the foot of Lenin’s statue in Dnipropetrovsk. It caught me somewhat by surprise. But as usual, no issue is all black or all white. Let’s not forget that communism and cooperation appeared at the same time and both were driven by the same dreams: to fight social and economic injustices produced by the industrial revolution. Noble dreams of course. For some, the communist promise remains in spite of the many excesses and obstacles that hindered its implementation.
I was in the Ukraine with SOCODEVI, which is leading two cooperative projects in the country. I met with a few Ukrainian professionals who once worked in a kolkhoz. I was interested in knowing more. I learned that these collective farms were cooperatives under Lenin’s authority in the 1920s. It was only in the early 1930s that, under Stalin, the collective rule was forced upon all farms and private ownership was forbidden. From that point on, Ukrainian agricultural cooperatives were cooperative in name only. For Stalin, cooperatives were transitional structures on the road to attaining communism’s ultimate goal: the nationalization of agriculture.
Democracy in the kolkhoz was reduced to a theoretical illusion. There were indeed boards of directors and meetings in which decisions were made… but you can only imagine the theatricality of it all. During my mission in the Ukraine, I was asked to help organize the first general meeting in a small dairy cooperative. You should have seen how surprised the members looked when we handed out the voting ballots. Secret ballot elections? How innovative!
Although the communist dream was noble, its implementation was doomed from the very beginning. Take away personal freedom and you take away any chance of success. There are crucial ingredients to ensure a project’s sustainability - motivation, a sense of duty, leadership – and these can only flourish where freedom is present. Then, individual freedoms must be regulated to avoid excesses and make sure the project stays focused on the common good. That is when democracy takes on its full meaning.
Democracy is more than a moral principle, more than just a fancy word to drop into a conversation, it must be alive and breathing to be effective. When people no longer go out to vote, although it is their right, the system is still considered a democracy. But in reality, how is this democracy protecting the common good? We think we’re lucky to live in a market economy where economic freedom and entrepreneurship are guaranteed. We’d be well advised to understand that this freedom comes hand in hand with a strong democracy. Otherwise, beware of excesses… whether they are kolkhozian or neoliberal!