Escaping the Hotel USSR

You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Despite the abundance of internet memes ridiculing New York Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questionable grasp of economics, the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist’s rising star confirms what disturbing recent polls are showing: that socialism has a burgeoning appeal for millennial Americans. As historian Bruce Thornton has written for FrontPage Mag, trying to reason young people out of supporting socialist policies is likely a doomed strategy, so how can they be made to see the light about what many call “the gateway drug to communism”? The most effective way may be through the compelling personal experiences of those who have escaped its confinement, and there is arguably no better current record of that than Oleg Atbashian’s just-published memoir titled Hotel USSR.

A writer and graphic artist from Ukraine, disillusioned Soviet propagandist Atbashian emigrated to the United States in 1994 and created the hilarious The People’s Cube, a Communist-themed satirical website that brilliantly captures the tone and perspective of the totalitarian left. Rush Limbaugh has accurately called it “a Stalinist version of The Onion.” Atbashian is also the author of Shakedown Socialism, an illustrated study of why that economic system cannot work. David Horowitz has said of it, “I hope everyone reads this book.”

Hotel USSR, Atbashian’s second book, is the riveting, darkly comic, and poignant story of his coming of age in a totalitarian state, a real-life “Hotel California” (in homage to The Eagles song) that one could never leave – at least until it collapsed. The book follows his tragicomic adventures from childhood through his stages as a worker in Siberian oil fields, an army conscript, an inmate at a forensic psychiatry facility, a visual propaganda artist, a Soviet dissident, and finally an immigrant to America. It is illustrated with many examples of Atbashian’s own colorful, perceptive artwork which includes portraits of himself, loved ones and strangers, and landscapes both real and fantastical – all of which help immerse the reader in the artist’s own perspective of his world.

“People have often asked me what growing up in the USSR felt like,” Atbashian writes. “This book is my answer... Rather than debating Marxism directly, I demonstrate how it fails in practice and what absurdities ensue when the entire state lives in denial of its failures, forcing people not to trust their own eyes.”

Like other children under communism, the young Atbashian was propagandized about the glorious promises of abundance and freedom to be found in a collectivist paradise. He dreamed of a future as an artist, but his ambitions quickly met with resistance because art supplies, and art itself, were reserved for state-approved artists and restricted to propaganda. “I thought I could beat the system and continued to paint,” he writes. “My youthful enthusiasm lasted for several years, until I realized that I’d been beating my head against an impenetrable wall made of regulations that governed our existence within the state.”

“To make us equal, the state regulated our existence in a way that left very few things to our personal discretion,” he says. “We owed our lives to the state and had to abide by its collectivist rules. But with so many rules, not a day went by without breaking at least one or two, because we were human beings, not unfeeling robots.” Subversive music from the free world like rock ‘n’ roll and even the musical Jesus Christ Superstar threatened the Communist system and give Atbashian a taste of liberation. But ultimately, “[w]ith everyone pursuing collective happiness while sacrificing their own, no one ended up happy.”

He gradually woke to the realization that the Communist dream was a fraud; his country was a dysfunctional dictatorship governed by bullies, liars, and thieves. “Out of seemingly good intentions, communists had built an impossible system… locked in a perpetual war against human nature, an uphill battle against the instinct to be free, to pursue happiness, and to care for one’s children. These instincts were vices corroding the collectivist state.”

Atbashian observes that, despite its promises, the Communist revolution brought social, economic, cultural, and technological advancement to a grinding halt. It had frozen time not just in his neighborhood, but in the country as a whole, while progress marched on outside its borders:

In the rest of the world, life galloped forward, creating new music, new fashions, new household gadgets, and new ways of thinking. Some of it was being smuggled into our world, and that’s how we knew about it. That world had no need for smuggling because everything it had was made by the people who lived in it. I wanted to be a part of that world.

He asked himself, “Why did we pretend we were still building communism when most people had stopped believing in it? Why did we live isolated from the rest of the world? Why did we continue to sacrifice our wellbeing to a myth?”

After Atbashian eventually manages to emigrate to the United States and build a life here, he reflects on “the stories of how newly arrived Soviet immigrants would burst out crying on their first visit to an American supermarket”:

Those weren’t the happy tears at the sight of abundance, but rather the tears of anguish at the discovery that everything they’d been taught about the world was a lie, that pain was not the norm of existence, and their sacrifice for the bright future turned out to be a cruel joke played on them by sadistic despots. All the shortages, waiting in lines, the bribes and kickbacks, the art of getting through the back door – none of it had been necessary. The rat race to obtain essentials, which had been their way of life for several generations – it wasn’t normal. Abundance was possible without the five-year plans, quotas, rationing, propaganda, one-party rule, and fear of the all-powerful state.

In one of the book’s most touching moments, Atbashian has a similar revelation upon entering a gigantic art supplies store in Manhattan. “Rows upon rows of shelves brimmed with products that catered to every artistic need. No gatekeeper was checking permissions, and no Artists Union card was required to make a purchase... After the first floor I went to the second, and then to the third. And then I imagined how different my life could have been and broke down in tears.”

Oleg Atbashian’s book leaves no doubt that building a "real socialism that works" is no more possible than building a house based on a mirage. “I hope this story can be an eye-opener for younger people who believe in the false promise of socialism,” Atbashian told me in conversation.

Spread the word about Hotel USSR – it is more likely to change resistant hearts and minds, or at least plant a crucial seed of doubt, than any number of pro-capitalist arguments.

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