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August 23 2019

Zilvinas Silenas on what it was like to live in socialist USSR

featuring Beverly Hallberg

On this episode of the “She Thinks” podcast, Zilvinas Silenas refutes the claim that socialism makes life better by sharing his personal experience of growing up in the USSR. He discusses the massive income inequality that existed in the Soviet Union, what it’s like to wait in long lines, and why a free market system best addresses the needs of those living paycheck to paycheck. 
 
Z is the new President of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He served from 2011-2019 as the President of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI), bringing the organization and its free-market policy reform message to the forefront of Lithuanian public discourse. Z is the co-author of a textbook on economics entitled Economics in 31 Hours (Ekonomika per 31 valanda), which is the source from which 80% of Lithuanian high school students are now learning economics. In 2017, Z was named the most quoted opinion leader in Lithuania.
 
 
Beverly H.:
And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you're allowed to think for yourself. I'm your host, Beverly Hallberg and on today's episode we explore the subject of socialism with the term 'polling higher than ever'. At IWF we believe it's important to not only analyze its meaning but also discuss whether or not it improves the lives of those who are struggling the most.

Beverly H.:
I really couldn't think of a better person to give his perspective on the issue. It's an honor to have on Zilvinas Silenas. He is the President of the Foundation of Economic Education and he's here to give his first hand account of what life was like in the Soviet Union and explain why he believes that a free market system, a capitalist system is the best form of government for everyone, even those living paycheck to paycheck.

Beverly H.:
But before we bring him on, a little bit about Zilvinas or as he likes to be called. Z is the new President of the Foundation for Economic Education, also known as FEE. Prior to that, he served as the President of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute and he was in that role since 2011. In 2017 he was named the most quoted opinion leader in Lithuania and as a co-author of a textbook on economics entitled Economics in 31 Hours, which is the source for which 80% of Lithuanian high school students are now learning economics. Z, it's great to have you on today.

Zilvinas S.:
Thank you for having me Beverly, that's quite an introduction.

Beverly H.:
Well, you've done a lot in your life. I know that you are currently now living at Atlanta, which is where the headquarters of FEE are and you've made a huge change. You moved from working at the Lithuanian Free Market Institute to heading up this organization. First question I have for you, what is it like moving from Europe and coming to the States? How has it been?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I mean it's not my first time. I studied in United States in the period of 2001 to 2005, so it's not my first time in US. But this time I had many more things to pack. So I can tell you, if you ever think about spring-cleaning, moving across the Atlantic is one of the best ways to encourage to do spring-cleaning. I threw out so much stuff, some of which I didn't even know that I had. So it's a good exercise in how much unnecessary stuff that you have. Yeah, so that's why.

Beverly H.:
And I know-

Zilvinas S.:
And Atlanta-

Beverly H.:
I was going to say, and I know that you're coming back to United States at a time where the term socialism or the phrase democratic socialism is being used quite often. What is it like for you as somebody who grew up under the Soviet Union to hear that term embraced here in the United States?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, it's something between being offended and just mesmerized by the silliness of the term. I mean, we who grew up in Soviet Union or people who even older than me who experienced much more of Soviet Union, I mean, the first thing they could say is, "Well, there is nothing democratic about socialism." And my challenge to any democratic socialist would be, "Well, please find me one country existing or in the past that would qualify as democratic socialism." And you wouldn't. You wouldn't find any socialist country which is democratic.

Zilvinas S.:
And I know any democratic socialists would point out to Scandinavia or Denmark, but you have Danish people or the Danish prime minister multiple times saying, "We are not socialists. We are not socialists, we're a market economy. We are a capitalist economy." So in fact, my probably the gut reaction is, "You people don't know what you're talking about." That would be my probably the most sincere reaction.

Beverly H.:
Have you actually said that to an American before?

Zilvinas S.:
I tried to. See back in 2001, I was studying in Westland, Connecticut and that is very... put it that way, very left this kind of school. So in my first day as a freshman, I saw these communists selling a thing, Work at Vanguard, that's the name of the newspaper, on basically with preaching socialism. So I tried to tell them to that and they basically said I did not... They told me that I did not know what I'm talking about. And my experience didn't count because Soviet Union was not socialism. I think at that point I just gave up.

Beverly H.:
So let's go back to you growing up in the Soviet Union, give us the timeframe of how old you were when the curtain fell and what was like life living under that presence?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I was born in '81, so I still had nearly 10 years inside the Soviet Union and then the rest of my life sort of transitioning away from the Soviet Union. Transitioning from socialism into capitalism. So I have a bunch of stories I think some of the Americans would even find incredible to believe what was life like in Soviet Union. I'm not going to talk about repressions of political persecution, because that's a whole other chapter. But even like simple life things.

Zilvinas S.:
So whenever democratic socialists talk about democratic socialism here in United States, I think that they think, or even some of their supporters think that they basically were talking iPhones for everyone. That kind of. And that's not what life in Soviet Union was. I mean, there was a shortage of all the basic goods. There was even an official state term. It was called deficit goods. I mean, goods that is a perpetual scarcity or lack of. And most of the consumer goods of any quality or most of the consumer goods, which were somewhat good, were always in perpetual deficits.

Zilvinas S.:
For instance, such a silliness that toilet paper was a deficit, basically. You couldn't just regularly go to the shop and buy toilet paper. You had to sort of hunt for it. Well, you basically go to the shop every day and hope that perhaps one day they would be selling toilet paper. Mayonnaise, for some reason, mayonnaise was a big luxury item in Soviet Union. You couldn't buy mayonnaise in the shop because it wasn't there. If you are lucky, you would get like a special package during holidays, which would include a small jar of mayonnaise and a small jar of instant coffee. And that was like a luxury item.

Zilvinas S.:
So then it's not iPhone for everyone. It's very low living standards for most people, including the so-called the workers and the peasants. I mean, these people had the worst. The only people who had good life in Soviet Union were the people who had party connections or basically politicians. Now, those people had shops in which regular people were not even allowed to enter. So if someone wants to talk about inequality and how socialism solves inequality, I would once again refer them to Soviet Union, the most socialist country. There was such high level of inequality that some people cannot even imagine that.

Beverly H.:
And I'm curious, so you as a young boy experiencing this, I'm assuming maybe one of your chores growing up was to go wait in line and see if you can find the mayonnaise or the toilet paper. Were you aware of what the United States was like? Were you aware of what life could be like if it wasn't socialist or was it even hard for you to have that concept at that time?

Zilvinas S.:
See at the time I think we kind of knew that life wasn't that good. Because once again, we're talking about what '85, '86, Soviet Union was already fraying across the edges and Gorbachev announced better striker, which means rebuilding and glass [noise 00:00:08:01], which means publicity. Probably for the first time in Soviet Union, people were allowed to say that actually things are bad. So I mean, we were getting increased exposure that actual life in Soviet Union is awful compared to other countries. My first time when I've experienced that directly, was actually... That I think was already in '91 when official we were... Lithuania had already declared that it's not a part of Soviet Union anymore.

Zilvinas S.:
But anyway, so my local city's broadcasting station, I think they got a bootleg cable or something like that or bootleg TV feed from a satellite dish, and that was for the first time that we could see a foreign TV channel. And being a kid, I would watch on my black and white TV, I would watch that great American classic of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which of course is a great show. And then me and my friends, basically, we would watch that show, but we couldn't get what pizza was because there was no pizza. I mean, we've never encountered pizza in our lives. So whenever the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be eating pizza all the time, we did not understand what kind of dish it was. So basically we would be sort of speculating, "Well, is this a sweet dish? Is this a proper dish? Is it a dessert? Is it like a meal? What are these round things on top?" And things like that because we couldn't discern it what it was. So, probably that was the first time when I actually saw what the West was like.

Beverly H.:
And so talk to me about what it was like with neighbors and friends when all of you are trying to find these goods that are extremely scarce? What does that do to relationships? Did you find that people weren't as trusting of each other, weren't as close? Or because of what you experienced, did you really tie yourselves even closer to the people in your neighborhood?

Zilvinas S.:
No. No, no. Whenever people say that materialism leads to people becoming more isolated or less ritual, I would actually point out that then you really have scarcity of goods. People are even less spiritual. So, there is this kind of phony or fake idea that materialism or abundance of material goods brings a spiritual degradation. Well, lack of material goods even brings a higher spiritual degradation.

Zilvinas S.:
So I wouldn't say that communities came together. I would say quite the opposite. I mean, what kind of community can you expect if basically everyone is standing in line knowing that once their turn... Imagine everyone's standing in line for something. Because that was the thing. If you're walking down the street and you see a line of people queuing for something, you would join the line without even knowing what they were selling. But you would kind of assume that they were selling something good.

Zilvinas S.:
And in fact if they were selling shoes and you stand in line, your turn comes, you're allowed to enter a shop, you see the shoes, you would buy them even though they wouldn't fit you because perhaps you could trade them for something later. So then you're standing in line and you know that the person in front of you can buy the last pairs of shoes and that does not breed community. That brings resentment and probably the worst human qualities.

Beverly H.:
So, tell me about the change. Tell me about the USSR completely dissolving. Lot of huge changes there. What was that like and did you feel that that was even a possibility leading up to that moment?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I was probably too young to comprehend these things back then. But that came very fast. And I think some people were a little bit unprepared for that because of the... Some of the slogans or some of the naive beliefs people had is basically, "We declare independence and we're going to live like in Western Europe in a couple of weeks." That was not the case. The economy had to be transformed completely.

Zilvinas S.:
Imagine going from a system where all prices are set by the government to the system where people can bargain or agree upon prices. For instance, I mean, once again, going back to Soviet Union, any consumer goods, from forks, to TVs, to carpets, to T-shirts, all of them had prices stamped into them. So imagine if your sort of holding a fork, somewhere it would be etched in what the price of the fork is.

Zilvinas S.:
If you have a TV, somewhere on the back of the TV, there would be a huge sticker or paint that how much this TV should cost. All the prices for all the goods were set by the government. So the first transformation people had to go through is to realize that in fact people can bargain about prices or they can agree for what the price of the good should be.

Zilvinas S.:
So in the beginning we had these pilot shops where basically the huge thing about them was that people could bring their goods there for commission to sell, and the shops would announce, "Well, in this shop the price are agreed upon by the buyer and the seller." Meaning those were not set by the government. So that was the first huge hurdle for people to overcome, to understand that actually you can set whatever price you want as long as someone buys it. So that was a big change.

Zilvinas S.:
So the level of that kind of change, I think that breeds resilience into people. So whenever someone says financial crisis or maybe the stock market's down by a couple of points, then I remember that change that Lithuania had to go through. All of these kind of crises, they seem like basically minor disturbances.

Beverly H.:
So how long before you think Lithuania was able to really gain a sure footing when it came to an economic structure and really to grow into the country that it is today?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I think that was pretty fast. If you see how fast Lithuania has transformed, the speed is pretty much incredible. Even in material terms. Sort of in '91, '92 an average Western European would earn probably 10, 15 times more than the average Lithuanian. Right now the gap is two, three times maximum. So basically we are closing the gap or Lithuania is closing the gap with Western Europe or the Western world pretty fast. And the only thing that changed, I think that's sort of the best story of socialism. So then we seceded from Soviet Union... it's not that Lithuania is abundant in oil or any kind of natural resources. The only thing that changed, the only thing way Lithuania is now probably 20 times better off than it was in Soviet Union times, is simply the change of system.

Zilvinas S.:
We went from communism, where government decided everything to capitalism where people can decide for themselves. And just that little change brought a huge increase in living standards. And that's a universal story everywhere. Look at China, then they had 100% socialism or communism. Basically the country was starving. Once they adopted even some capitals to be formed or sort of capitalist way of thinking, the country has remarkable economic success. So any of these transformations of sort of post-communist world or communist world into capitalist world, is the biggest probably empiric proof of why free market works and why socialism doesn't.

Beverly H.:
So what do you say to individuals who think that the term capitalism is an evil word? Meaning that profit, if you desire profit, it always has to be at the expense of someone else. What do you say about those individuals whose lives have been improved dramatically in drastic ways because of the free market, to those who think that the free market actually hurts those who are struggling?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I would tell to that person that well, he's wrong. And I would actually give them all of these examples. See, there are probably couple of people. A couple of types of people who think capitalism is wrong. So it's either hardcore socialists, they would deny any achievements of capitalism and they would deny any horrors of communism or socialism basically. If you talk to a hardcore socialist and point out that capitalism or free markets have lifted millions of people out of poverty, they would say, "Well, but that's still not good enough." And if you tell them that, "Well, socialism failed at everything you tried," they will sort of shoot back that that wasn't really socialism. So, it's kind of impossible to debate that hardcore left because they basically reject all evidence, all facts, all empirics of even all logic. Anything they say to them, they say, "Well, socialism does it better." So there's nothing much to debate with them.

Zilvinas S.:
If we're talking to sort of undecided person, a person who's just curious or sort of a person who is not unreasonable, then I think we can go through any accusations that people throw at capitalism. So one thing they say, "Rich are getting richer," and that's true. Rich are getting richer but so are the poor. And if you look at the rates of growth or things like that, in fact, it is the poor are getting richer much faster than the rich. And if you look at what kind of system makes the life of poor people better, it's capitalism.

Zilvinas S.:
So I would kind of invoke my inner Churchill when he said that democracy is imperfect or that democracy is the worst kind of government, but the only one there is. It's kind of like with capitalism. Capitalism is imperfect. There are things in capitalism that perhaps could be better, or should be better, or will be better. But it is by far the best economic system if we're talking about personal freedom, if we're talking about economic freedom of people or even material wellbeing. So that would be, yes, capitalism can be better or yes, things can be better as things will be better, but that's because of free markets and the materially free markets. But the way free markets allow people to create, to realize themselves, tend to get the gains of their work. And that's all capitalism.

Beverly H.:
And kind of before we move on to the work that you're doing today, I wanted to just spend a little bit of time maybe defining the different terms. We hear socialism, we hear democratic socialism, we hear communism, and none of those seem to be reviled as much as the term fascism. Fascism seems to be the term that's like one of the worst things you could call somebody. A Hitler, a Nazi, a fascist. Can you break down these different terms for us? How many of them are kind of overlapping and is fascism very different from communism or is it within the same camp?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, what does Nazi stand for? National, socialist or the... And that [DAP 00:19:40] would be National Socialist German Workers' Party. So Nazi is national socialism. Even in terms of economics or in terms of attitude to economics, there is no difference between what we would call the a communist economy or a Nazi economy. They're one in the same. Government decides everything. People, individuals, they have very little or no say. So in terms of economic policies, there is no difference between the two.

Zilvinas S.:
I would go even further and say if we're talking about the evil that any of the system's brought, communism and Nazi-ism, they brought as much evil as one other. Meaning both systems, let's say of national socialism or communism and what they had in Soviet Union, they all brought unimaginable suffering for the world. And it's really kind of weird that in the Western world, people somehow they are very correctly and righteously critical in condemning Nazi-ism or fascism, but they give communism a task as if communism was something different.

Zilvinas S.:
I mean, I would say they're one and the same and they brought just as much suffering. So it's really weird and strange and inexplicable how people, like I said, are correctly condemning fascism or Nazi-ism and completely giving a task or kind of the benefit of the doubt to communism or socialism.

Beverly H.:
And if you could give... One more comparison, I'm curious, so you think of China as being communist. You think of Russia, is definitely using many tools as state control and repression. How do you compare the USSR Soviet Union in today's countries of Russia and China and how they operate within their populations?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I mean, once again, yes, they are all kind of repressive, but the level of totalitarian control that was in USSR, I would say is much higher. It was much higher in USSR, because not only did they control the whole of the economy, they also pretty much controlled people's life. And the apparatus that they had for controlling people's lives, that was very, very, very extensive. Back in those days, there was no Internet, there was no Facebook, there was no 24 seven news service and probably no news coming out of Soviet Union. So there was a kind of the fog of war or fog of lack of knowledge. So, the atrocities that happened inside Soviet Union, most people probably never even knew about them. Not even probably some people in Soviet Union even didn't know about them.

Zilvinas S.:
Kind of like the things that happened in Chernobyl. It exploded, what was it... I think April 26. And for pretty much, I think, five, six days, no one even knew about that. Even in Soviet Union, we did not know that these bad things happened. I remember May the first is May Day, obviously. It's a day of everyone is forced to kind of go to the communist parades back then. In the USSR on May the first there are huge parades that everyone's kind of expected to attend and praise Soviet Union. Well, my parents weren't that communist so they didn't really care about communism. So on May the first, we went sunbathing just as the radioactive cloud was passing overhead. So, I'm saying probably things were even a lot worse in Soviet Union.

Beverly H.:
I want to now shift to your current work and what you're doing. You, of course as we mentioned at the top of the podcast, that you worked in Lithuania promoting the free market, promoting the ideas of liberty up until you came and moved over to the States to work for FEE. Tell me about your work at FEE and how you're using your experience to talk to kids across the country. You think of education and that's what FEE is about, explaining these ideas of liberty. What is it that FEE is doing?

Zilvinas S.:
Well, I think you said it pretty correctly. We are explaining ideas of liberty and we're teaching kids economics and common sense. So we're not really doing policy work. We're doing educational work. So FEE goes to schools, FEE goes to universities and we talk to kids or actually our professors talk to kids and explain them how the world works, how economics works, what is prize, what is supply, what is demand, why is individual freedom or ability to choose for yourself or economic or personal economic freedom, why these things are important. We do a lot of education in that. So, one venue where we work is high schools and colleges and we have our professors who are, well, PhDs and professors from colleges and they go and talk to these kids. So that's one sort of area of our work.

Zilvinas S.:
Another area of our work, we create materials that we think are attractive to young people to explain once again how the world works or how economics work. So for instance, we have a very popular video series where we take the, well, currents pop phenomenon and we apply economic thinking to it. So for instance, Avengers, that was a big Box Office hit. And then the evil guy in Avengers, he wants to destroy half of the universe, or half of the people, or half of living beings in the universe because he thinks the universe is running out of resources. Well, for us, this is basically 18th century Malthusian-thinking, which had been debunked and it's basically incorrect. But that is actually a perfect opportunity to explain to kids who Malthus was. What Malthusian-thinking is all about, why it is wrong and why in fact human creativity will solve those kinds of problems.

Zilvinas S.:
So we are creating resources for kids and for teachers to use to understand the world around them. Now, how am I using my experience? I would say not that much. You see, for most of the 16-year-olds or 20-year-olds, for them Cold War is already history. So I don't think they want to hear about how bad life was back in Soviet Union.

Beverly H.:
I'm just kind of curious, have you thought about using the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an example in the curriculum since that was so inspirational for you in your life?

Zilvinas S.:
Yeah, but well, see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren't really that hot right now. So we're using Avengers.

Beverly H.:
I do think they did a remake of it a few years back, but I also remember Teenage Mutant-

Zilvinas S.:
Yeah, I see that.

Beverly H.:
It's too old now. Right?

Zilvinas S.:
A few years back is ancient history in modern life.

Beverly H.:
Well, Z, I just want to personally thank for sharing your story with us and also the work that you're doing. I think one of the things you hit on that is so important is the fact that kids today, they don't know what the Cold War was like. They don't know what the Soviet Union and socialism and communism was like under that. It's so important to continue to share the ideas of the free market. So thank you for the work that you're doing and the good work at FEE. We appreciate you joining us today.

Zilvinas S.:
Well, thank you Beverly.

Beverly H.:
And thank you all for joining us. If you have more interest in the topic we discussed, you can follow Z on Twitter. He's @zsilenas. That's Z Silenas and you can also check out his work on FEE's website. That is at fee.org.

Beverly H.:
I also wanted to let you know of a great podcast you should also subscribe to called Problematic Women. It's hosted by Kelsey Buller and Laura Evans, and they sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative-leaning or problematic women. That is women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so-called feminist left. Every Thursday, hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for problematic women, wherever you get your podcasts.

Beverly H.:
Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks, do leave us a rating or a review, it really does help and we'd love it if you share this episode so that you can let your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women's Forum, thanks for listening.

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