A new book crystallizes why one system spawns prosperity -- and why another spawns misery and destruction.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Leon Weinstein, the author of the new book, Capitalism 101.
FP: Leon Weinstein, welcome to FrontPage Interview.
Let’s begin with your background. Tell us about your life in Russia and how you ended up here in America. It was almost impossible to get out of the Soviet Union at the time you left (1974), how did you manage to get out?
Weinstein: In 1972-73 the Soviet Union experienced yet another shortage of food. “Deficits” of food and everything else is a typical thing for the socialist regimes on their advanced stages when all means of production are in the hands of the states. The Soviets came to the US and asked to loan them about one million tons of wheat. The US Congress approved the deal with a little provision that demanded from the Soviets to allow at least some limited emigration. About fifty thousand people got out of the “prison of nations”, as we called it. I was lucky to be among those first ones. You may consider me as one of the few who know their own price tag. If you would divide one million tons of wheat by fifty thousand emigrants, you will see that I was exchanged for twenty tons of wheat. Not a bad price! I doubt however that you can return me back. First of all, there is no Soviet Union any more, and second - I probably worth much less by now.
FP: How different was life in the USSR from the free world? Tell us about your observations and your intellectual journey.
Weinstein: We lived in a constant state of fear and apprehension. Be it at school, university or at work place, we had to be silent about our real views; we were unable to voice our opinions in public and even were not sure we can openly talk with our close friends in private. We knew that our mail could be opened or our phone conversations could be listened to. If you were suspected in a slightest dissent, you would not advance at work or you could be expelled from your place of study. And if you would become really vocal about your anti-government views, you could end up in jail or a labor camp, and your family, including distant relatives, would be thrown from their jobs. This is why we admired people whom you call “refusniks” - they were saying openly what we all were thinking but where afraid to say ourselves.
In the United States you have this unbelievable luxury of freedom that most of the world can only dream about. In a very short period of time the citizens of this great country built a world that allowed most of the population to live a decent life without being afraid of the rulers. I do not believe any such society existed anywhere in the world during the sixty five hundred years of the recorded history of civilization. I think it is very important to all of us to understand why this happened, what made this country flourish beyond belief. We need to fully understand this, cherish it and teach our children to love and preserve the country they were lucky to be born in.
FP: You are a theater director and playwright. Tell us what led you into this field. And what made you decide to write political articles?
Weinstein: I started writing stories when I was twelve. During high school years I was already writing dramas and attempting to stage them with my fellow students. In my college years I produced and directed plays, filmed short films and began to publish short stories. I graduated with a Master Degree in Performing Arts from the University of Culture of St. Petersburg. When I immigrated to Israel, I have organized an Educational Theater for Youth in Tel Aviv, wrote and directed plays for children, and continued with writings funny stories. In Israel I was twice nominated for "the best show of the year” award. After an article about my method of staging children's shows appeared in the Los Angeles Times, I was invited to stage two of my own plays in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and another one in the Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC) in Los Angeles. I loved it here, and when I received an offer to work in California for a TV/Radio production company I didn’t hesitate and accepted it.
My political writing started in 2008 when I saw a sudden shift in the mood of the country. The words that liberal wing of the Democratic Party began to throw into masses worried me. They talked about “equality of distribution,” about “fair share” and “rights of the working people”, and that resembled rhetoric used by socialists/communists elsewhere. But socialism failed in any and every place it was ever attempted. Usually it failed with tragic results. Why would Americans want to repeat such a bloodthirsty experiment? I was always asking myself this question. And then it donned at me – many citizens of this country have no idea what it really means. And as a person who had the firsthand experiences in a different social system, I felt I had an obligation to share those experiences with them. I started writing articles, open letters to politicians, and eventually wrote two books: one is an action-adventure in an Orwellian style called "Looking for Hugh" and another is my recent non-fiction called “Capitalism 101.”
FP: So now you have published "Capitalism 101." Tell us what it’s about. Is it a kind of college course in economics or sort of like a monograph on capitalism?
Weinstein: None of the above. It is the simplest and, I hope, most entertaining explanation of capitalism that you would ever read. The book is full of stories, anecdotes and personal experiences, and it gives the readers a very fundamental understanding of why one system called capitalism works and brings great results, and all others including socialism never worked and never will.
There is one unintended consequence of the book that I was told by its readers countless times. I wrote it in order to share with my fellow Americans my firsthand experiences in different political systems, but quite unexpectedly it came out as a book that shifts paradigms and changes the reader’s mind and attitude and allows him (her) to become a successful entrepreneur. Hundreds of thousands of people read manuals and instructions on how to become rich, but they almost never apply what they learn. They get energized for a day, but don’t know what to do when a first roadblock appears. Then they read another book, go to some seminars or watch motivational videos - the same results. They get frustrated because nothing is working. They envy those who seem to turn everything they touch into gold. Is there an unfair advantage that achievers have? Yes, people who achieve their goals do it naturally. When a problem arises, they don’t have to consult with books. The problem solving is within them. So, it looks like I wrote a book that challenges readers to obtain this ‘unfair’ advantage and become one of them.
FP: What do you love about America?
Weinstein: I love that the individual here is more important than a collective. This is unheard of in the Old World. I love opportunities. I love that anyone who works hard and has the right values can achieve success. I love that the middle class here lives like only royalty live in many countries. And I love people. They are good people. They will always give you a hand. This country has taught us emigrants to live and let live. The country taught us, emigrants, that if one wins, it’s not necessary for someone else to lose. During my life in the USSR and then through all my travels around the world I’ve never seen what I often observe in this country: every time a group of emigrants celebrate something, one of the toasts they drink for is “For this blessed country, for our America!”
FP: What don’t you like about contemporary America?
Weinstein: I don’t like borders that are open to illegal immigrants, smugglers and terrorists. I don’t like educational institutions that have no competition and can’t fire or stimulate teachers, and stagnating because of that. I don’t like tenure in Universities. I don’t like Unions that force jobs out of the country. I don’t like minimum wages. I don’t like that Congress can take away any share of the money we, productive citizens earn, and imprison us if we don’t pay. I don’t like growing debt and inability of our government to slow this process down. I don’t like the fact that those who receive entitlements can vote and eventually will vote us into a socialist country. I don’t like politicians that want to fundamentally change this best country in the world …. I just started. Do you want me to continue? Or may be let’s talk about a bit less of an emotional issue?
FP: Your thoughts on Putin and the recent “elections” in Russia?
Weinstein: I met Putin in 1989 in St Petersburg, Russia. He was at that time an assistant to the Mayor of the city Anatoly Sobchak. I was visiting Russia and began to negotiate with Sobchak signing of the sister-city charter with Los Angeles. Putin was quiet, didn’t look into people’s eyes and spoke in an almost whisper. He was an embodiment of a KGB operative, and I remembered those folks quite well from my pre-emigration experiences. After our conversation I called my wife and said that if people like him will be coming back to power, I don’t want to deal with Russia anymore. Russia had her chance and was for a short period of time a free country. It is not free anymore. I think Putin likes the Chinese model of one party/one rule, at the same time allowing people to conduct private businesses but be silent politically.
FP: Do you miss living in Russia?
Weinstein: No. Absolutely no!
FP: Can you expand on the reasons why you do not miss living in Russia? Leaving one’s homeland comes with its painful price. There is so much beauty and warmness in Russia and in so many of its people, the relations between people, the literature, poetry, the richness in the Russian soul.
It is very painful to have suffered a disconnection from our roots, no? Even the tenderness of the Russian language reminds us of something to be cherished about Russia. Being displaced comes with its disorientation and hurtfulness.
What are your thoughts when I say refer to these realities? Or you are removed from these things and do not share the same feelings?
Weinstein: I left the USSR when I was twenty four years old. I just got an MA in Performing Arts and worked as an assistant director at a major film studio. As an independent filmmaker, I wrote, directed and produced several short films, staged a number of theatrical shows, participated as a co-director in an award winning theater production and (the riot!) two major theaters took my plays for their upcoming seasons.
I was the most accomplished 24-year-old young man I knew about. All my dreams were coming true. At this moment the US made the wheat-for-people deal with the Soviets that I mentioned earlier. There was a possibility to apply for an exit from the "socialist paradise" risking everything in your life - you would be fired from your job, passport revoked and you would be blacklisted for life. My mother was a teacher at school, my dad a scientist with an administrative position in his research center and my younger brother was just graduating from school and was risking to be drafted into the army immediately and as retaliation for our attempt to leave would spend three years at the Arctic Circle. There were however no slightest doubt in our minds what we wanted to do. We risked everything and applied. We were lucky. We received our permit and left. Many of our friends didn't.
That was then, you might say, and this is now. Nostalgia, culture, circle of friends...of course when you think about your earlier years you feel nostalgic. But it is a feeling for the time when you were young, first kiss, first love... first book, first success and failure. Those are powerful memories. But in my mind it has nothing to do with the Soviet Union or even Russian Federation if one were to call this country by its current name.
When I came back almost twenty years after my emigration I suddenly understood why God didn't allow Jews who were born slaves to enter the promised land. The tribes were circling deserts for forty years and only after the last slave died did their journey came to an end. The people of Russia even today are slaves. They are slaves in their spirit and slaves in their relations to one another. They either treat others as servants or they behave like servants with those who in their opinion are richer or bigger or more powerful than they. I can't stand it. I can't stand it to the extent that I feel disgust when I am visiting Russia. Do not misunderstand me - there are plenty wonderful people who live there, but the general atmosphere, the accepted set of relations, makes me want to vomit.
FP: What are your thoughts on the Western Left in general?
Weinstein: When I lived in the USSR and we heard about the Western Left we thought that since everyone understood that socialism is terrible, and those people are not brain dead, then they are paid agents of communism. Right now I do not think anyone pays the Hollywood Elite to promote anti-capitalism and wealth re-distribution. Right now I think we were wrong in our assumption and they are truly stupid. Let me explain myself. They are not stupid from the point of view of two plus two is four. They know that. Most of them (I hope) are clever enough to understand that if you hit your finger with a hummer, you will feel pain. But they lack wisdom. They are not capable of looking a bit ahead and foresee consequences of the actions they advocate. In Russian we used to say "All their steam went into whistle."
FP: Leon Weinstein, thank you for joining FrontPage Interview.
Capitalism 101 is a superb book! Buy it!
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