What the Soviet Union Left Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-19xx). Photo from Havana, 1945.

To this day, in the universal history books in junior high or high schools in Cuba, the Soviet theme is handled with kid gloves.

They recall its founding father Vladimir Illych Lenin, the epic of the Second World War with its 20 million dead (old data, it was 27 million and more than a few died from a bullet in the neck from their own comrade, or in a dark Gulag), and the selfless help of the USSR in the first years of the olive green revolution.

To Zoraida, a third year high school student and a lover of history, when I ask her about that nation made up of fifteen European and Asian republics, without hardly taking a breath, let loose with a tirade right out of the school books.

“The October Revolution was founded in 1917 by Lenin, and despite the aggression of the western nations, it established itself as a great world power. It was the country with the most deaths in World War II, 20 million (the error persists), and it had to fight alone against the fascist hordes. The United States and its allies were forced to open the Second Front in Normandy, faced with the rapid advance of the Red Army,” she responds with the usual pride of a student who applies herself.

She doesn’t know what her future vocation will be. But, in he,r the Party has a good prospect of a political commissar. Wanting to investigate other aspects less publicized in the national media, I posed the following questions.

What could you tell me about Stalin’s brutal purges, that cost the Soviet people millions of lives? Did you know that the application of agricultural collectivization caused a famine and between 7 and 10 million deaths in Ukraine, the so-called Holodomor? Have you read about the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact where in a secret clause Hitler and Stalin shared out the Baltic republics and the Eastern European zone?

Have you read or heard about the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish soldiers by elite Soviet troops. Did you know that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, like many other intellectuals, was imprisoned in the Gulag just for thinking differently?

Don’t you think that the Soviet Union was an imperialistic nation, because it occupied a part of Eastern Europe as a trophy of war and installed puppet governments? Have you studied the Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Afghanistan in 1970?

Did they ever tell you that by the decision by Nikita Kruschhev and Fidel Castro, 42 medium-range atomic missiles that would have provoked a nuclear war were installed in Cuba? Did you know that, just like the United States has a military base against the will of the Cuban people, Fidel Castro without consulting the people authorized a military training center with Soviet troops and an electronic espionage base on the outskirts of Havana?

To each of the questions, the young woman answered evasively, “No, I don’t know that. No, I haven’t read that or they didn’t teach us that in school?”

It’s well-known that the teaching methods in Cuba try to equip its students with a Marxist vision and exalt Fidel Castro and his Revolution. In rigorously tested subjects, the method used is not lying, but no admitting that you have the information or not telling the whole truth.

Although the Soviet Union disappeared from the map more than 20 years ago, and said adios to its bizarre ideology, the education on the island continues to zealously hold to the Soviet narrative.

Manuel, who graduated in philosophy, recognizes that in his university history studies there was no emphasis on Perestroika and Glastnost. “The teachers slide over that stage. They tell us that Gorbachev was a traitor, that he dismantled the Soviet power and influence stone by stone. Communism’s undertaker. A pariah.”

In the Cuban power structure there is a powerful nucleus that still remembers the Soviet period with nostalgia. General Raul Castro, at the head of Cubans’ destiny, is a great admirer of Russian communism.

In a visit to the apartment of Juan Juan Almeida, soneof the guerrilla commander, when he lived in Neuvo Vedado, Juan Juan told me that in the anteroom of General Castro’s office at the Ministry of the Armed Forces, there was a painting of Stalin, the butcher of Georgia.

In the discourse of the old “apparatchiks” (leaders), raised in the severe Party schools, the old Soviet Cuba persists.

Joel, a retired officer, longs for the trips to Moscow and visit the Kremlin mausoleum, where Lenin lies embalmed. At his house, on a wooden shelf, there’s a collection of books by Boris Polevoi, Nicolai Ostrovski and Iliá Ehrenburg, among others who wrote about the exploits of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War.

Carlos, sociologist, considers “that the Soviet Union might seem like an old newspaper, but it is not dead yet. People no longer remember the corned beef, the applesauce or the nesting dolls. It is in the power structure where the Soviet era is missed.

The love story toward the USSR among the intellectual and political sector is long-standing in the country. Many who swear to be nationalists standing firm, accuse people who admire the lifestyle and institutional structure of the United States of being annexationists.

But where annexationism really exists is in Communism. Not only did they import the ideology, they also tried to clone the Soviet model in a Caribbean archipelago 6,000 miles away.

And those who applauded the theory of a Soviet Cuba weren’t stupid or illiterate. Among them were intellectuals of stature like Nicolás Guillen, Salvador García Agüero and Juan Marinello, members of the People’s Socialist Party.

With the coming to power of Fidel Castro, the political opportunism of the bearded ones coupled with the communist imagery of skilled men in labor unions and the Marxist proselytizing in various academic and intellectual sectors of the nation.

Despite the Cuban government’s affinity for the Soviets, among a wide segment of the citizenry, the Russian culture doesn’t go down well. Nor are they cool with their fashions and customs, their food and religious beliefs.

What the Soviet Union left was were hundreds of marriages between Russians and Cubans. And names like Ivan, Tatiana, Vladimer, Irina, Boris, Natasha… Little else.

Although the stale political dinosaurs treat Russia royally in the media, and the nomenklatura endeavors to reactivate new pacts, the Eurasian company remains a distant and exotic music for ordinary people.

But, by geography and culture, Cubans continue to look north.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966) and the American communist politician Earl Browder (1891-1973), on sale in bookstores in Havana, taken in Cuba in 1945

25 July 2014