Matt Mitchell on the Realities of Socialism in Estonia

communism economic freedom soviet union authoritarianism central planning, stalin hitler pavlik morozov

Matt Mitchell with Julliette Sellgren


April 12, 2024
Matt Mitchell is a senior fellow in the Center for Economic Freedom at the Fraser Institute and senior research fellow at the Knee Regulatory Research Center at West Virginia University .

Today, we talk about what socialism really means and what it meant for a country like Estonia, which was first occupied by Hitler and then Stalin. He tells us about what life under occupation was like and how Estonia broke away from socialism. Join us for stories of oppression, cultural resilience, and to hear what makes real the realities of socialism.




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Read the transcript.


Juliette Sellgren 
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren, and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith works.org.

Welcome back Today on February 2nd, 2024. I'm excited to welcome Matt Mitchell. Back to the podcast. We've talked on a wide variety of topics and you should definitely go check those out. But today we're going to be talking about the realities of socialism, especially Estonia. So belt, belt buckle your seatbelt. That's not right. A new project that he's been undertaking and will tell us more about. So stay tuned. He is a senior research fellow at the Knee Regulatory Research Center at West Virginia, and he is senior fellow in the Center for Economic Freedom at the Fraser Institute. Welcome to the podcast.

Matt Mitchell 
Thanks so much for having me. It's great to chat again.

Juliette Sellgren 
So I told you before that there's a new variant of the first question. So what is the most shocking thing about socialism that you've learned from working on this project, and why is it the most shocking thing?

Matt Mitchell (1.29)
Well, I mean, I learned a lot, and so it's hard to think through what was the most shocking when you use the word shocking. My mind immediately goes to some of just the horror stories, and I have to think of particularly with, given what's happening in the world right now, I have to think about Ukraine and the famine, the entirely avoidable, manmade famine that was engineered by Stalin because he was just so incredibly pigheaded, honestly, that he thought he could force this country to be collectivist and collectivize our agriculture and was willing to allow 7 million people to perish in, let's be honest, the most awful, awful of ways. Not only does a famine turn people cause people to starve, but it just turns, just brings out the worst of humanity. People killing one another for meat. It's just absolutely awful. So that's some of the most shocking.

And then the other aspect I think I'd say is the characters involved are really fascinating, especially on the Estonian side. Along the way, you just learn about all these interesting characters in Estonian history. Some of them are heroes and some of 'em are villains, and their story is really inspiring in many ways. And so that was kind of the shocking in a terrible way, and then the shocking in a very positive way of there's a lot to love about humanity and if you dig into any one country, you're going to uncover a lot of really fascinating tidbits.

Juliette Sellgren 
Yeah, thanks for sharing, and we're going to get into some of that. So can you tell us a bit about the Realities of Socialism Project and what it is, how you're involved, and why Estonia?

Matt Mitchell (3.34)
Yeah. Okay. So this is a project that we started at the Fraser Institute really earlier this year. We started releasing the research and it's focused on telling the stories of a handful of countries, some true socialist countries like Estonia and Poland, and those are the two that I had the most involvement with. But also telling a story about countries that are perceived as socialists even though they're not so Denmark and Sweden. We also have a research on Singapore, which is neither perceived as socialist, nor is socialist in any way, but just sort of to show it as a contrast. And really the reason why we did this project is the reality that many of us don't have a working memory of socialism. And if you ask, one of the things we, first things that we did as a project is did a survey of Americans, Brits, Canadians and Australians.

And one of the things you find is that about half of young people in these countries, when you ask them what do you think is the ideal system? They'll say, socialism and young people don't have a working memory of sitting around the TV and seeing the Berlin Wall fall. And so I think as a result of this, they probably are just as ignorant of that as I am of events in the fifties. And so we're trying to kind of bring that back to life and help people better appreciate what actually played out in the 20th century because there was this grand social experiment where a third of the planet's inhabitants were dragged into socialism, and the experiment did not work out as the socialists thought it would.

Juliette Sellgren (5.29)
What's funny to me, and I'm wondering if you think similarly, is that it didn't work. And so even if you think in some ideal world that it does work and it is the ideal system, there is this kind of distinction in people's minds between the fake socialism and the real socialism. The socialism that hasn't yet been realized and the one that failed so long ago, so long ago that we never lived it. And it's just very odd to me because I guess I don't see it as there being a difference. And maybe that's just because I think that in order for theory to really be put into practice, you have to watch that. And no matter what you get when you implement that system, that doesn't mean that the theory is untouched because once you practice it, it's no longer just theory. So I don't know. What is working on this shown you about the differences between this theoretical socialism that young people seem so inspired by and what happened and how might someone make that, I don't want to say distinction, but think that they're different?

Matt Mitchell (6.47)
Yeah, so I mean, one thing I think that's maybe helpful is to get out of the habit of viewing the world or viewing it as a zero or one. It's not socialist or not socialist. Everything is a continuum. And one way to look at it, Fraser publishes the Economic Freedom of the World Index. You just recently talked to Bob Lawson, great episode.

Juliette Sellgren
Thank you.

Matt Mitchell 
And this sort of helps one, appreciate that there's a continuum, yes, there's an ideal where people are perfectly economically free. No, nobody on the planet lives in a place that has that ideal, but there are people that live in more free places and there are people that live in less free places. And you can even see this within the Soviet Union and the Soviet sphere. So we studied Poland, and in Poland they did not collectivize agriculture and they did not collectivize the household. Whereas in Estonia, they did collectivize those things. And in Estonia they had a little bit more economic freedom than they had in Russia. And so you can see this variation within even the socialist countries. And the basic lesson that you come to is, look, no matter how you slice it, more economic freedom tends to be associated with better outcomes. Worse economic freedom tends to be associated with worse outcomes. And so one nice thing is that most of the young people today who say that they are socialists, they actually aren't talking about the extreme version of socialism that Stalin wanted, but they are talking about moving in that direction. And I think that both the experience and the data suggest that moving in that direction is not a good thing.

Juliette Sellgren (8.41)
And I think we can address at each step of the way as we look at Estonia and kind of Poland also in some instances as a case study of how this sort of thing happens, how you break away from it, what it means for the people living in it. We can also kind of address how this is or is not what the people in the survey think or perceive of as socialism. I think that would be kind of interesting if you kind of have an idea, because I think even when we say it, maybe you have a different idea than I do because obviously you've been researching this, but I have a hard idea grasping with what it means when adults or young people say socialism. Even the difference between adults and young people or even any individual talking about social socialism doesn't necessarily mean the same thing. And so bringing that back into the conversation as we go, I think will be super helpful. So let's get started with Estonia. How did Estonia get roped into socialism? How did that even start?

Matt Mitchell (9.48)
Yeah, so Estonia just let's kind of orient where it is. It's in Eastern Europe or Western Asia, if you want to think about it that way. If you want to think of the framework of clash of civilizations, it's right where civilizations clash. It's on these ancient north south for scent countries all around it. So it was invaded by Sweden and Germany and Poland and Russia. The Estonians themselves are some of the oldest ethnic groups, one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe dating back to 5,000 years ago. However, their country is very new. So I like to say that they're an old ancient people in a new country. But what I mean by that is that the idea of being their own country really didn't materialize until the 19th century. So at that point, they were part of the Czarist Russia, and there were really these cultural entrepreneurs in Estonia who decided to roll up their sleeves and convince their fellow countrymen that, Hey, we're a people.

We've got our own language, we've got our own traditions. We have this unique singing tradition where they get together in the forest around campfires, usually in the summer, and they sing and call and response fashion these ancient songs about their people, about the origins of the earth, about their various invasions from different countries. And these entrepreneurs essentially started schools. They started language academies, they started singing festivals, and they sort of built themselves into a country really one step at a time. And so by 1920, the movement for their own sort of, it's called the Estonian National Awakening, the movement towards their own political autonomy had really reached its peak. And they took advantage of the chaos of the Russian Revolution to declare their independence. And they had to fight a war as is typical for Estonians. They were fighting a war against the Russians. And the Germans decided that they were going to try to take off a piece of Estonia too.

So they had to fight a war with them as well. But they got their independence in 1920. And Lenin's Soviet Union signed a treaty with them saying, you are an independent country and we will not interfere with your sovereignty. And so from 1920 through 1939, they were their own country, and it was a time where they were sort of cautiously optimistic, I would say. They had developed a spirit of entrepreneurship and had developed ties, trade ties with the west. At the same time, they kind of had a moderately sized government that was increasingly more involved in the economy, and they had a president who, it's kind of a weird phrase, it's used in the literature here, but they call 'em sort of like a moderate authoritarianism, which sounds like a contradictory terms in my mind. But basically he sort of was kind of creeping authoritarianism. So it wasn't all sunshine and roses, but it was certainly better than it had been in Czarist Russia and far better than it would be under the Soviet Union.

Juliette Sellgren (13.29)
So then what happened? So how do you go from having, from what I understand about authoritarians especially, they must not be super keen on becoming a part of the USSR.

Matt Mitchell 
No, no. They weren't

Juliette Sellgren 
Being or being flanked by people that want to take you over. So then what happened?

Matt Mitchell (13.54)
Yeah. So what happened is a very important red letter date in the history of the country is August 23rd, 1939. So on that day, von Ribbontrop, the German foreign minister lands in Moscow. He's greeted by six giant swastika flags that the Soviets had just recently been using an anti-Nazi propaganda films. They took 'em out of the studios, repurposed them now, hung them up to praise their new allies. So von Ribbontrop was rushed to the Kremlin where he meets with Stalin himself and with his counterpart Molotov. Molotov, by the way, was…

Juliette Sellgren 
The Molotov cocktail.

Matt Mitchell (14.44)
Yeah, where you get the name exactly. Okay. Molotov, he's the Russian or the Soviet foreign minister. He got his job, by the way, he'd only been on the job for something like six or nine months. He got his job because his predecessor was Jewish, and Stalin had fired his predecessor as a conciliatory gesture to Hitler. Ironically, Molotov himself would lose his job because he was married to a Jewish woman whom Stalin had declared to be an enemy of the state. Stalin was quite antisemitic. They sign the treaty publicly. It's a non-aggression pact. It basically says Nazi Germany and Soviet Union were not going to be aggressors. But the key aspect of this pact is it had secret protocols. They're the worst kept secrets of the Cold War Secret to who? Yeah, exactly. So they are secret in the sense that these protocols are denied. Their existence is denied for the next half century.

Well into the Gorbachev era. They are still being denied. They are not secret. They're the worst kept secrets of the Cold War in the sense that they were known in the Baltic states right away. And what these secret protocols agree to is to divide up Europe into spheres of influence. Germany gets Western Europe and the Soviet Union gets Eastern Europe. They get especially the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and they also get Finland. So they're basically agreeing to carve up Europe. They agree to split Poland down the middle. So this is really important because this is how they basically, this sort of shows you how they get annexed. So what happens is this is August of 39, the very next month in recognition of these secret protocols, Germany invades Poland from the west. The Soviet Union invades from the east. They meet, they have a joint parade in Brest-Litovsk.

You see, there's pictures of Nazi soldiers and Soviet soldiers, Red Army soldiers parading together, and then they move 160,000 troops to the Soviet Union, moves 160,000 troops to the border of Estonia. Estonia only has 16,000 troops on the other side. And the Russians, the Soviets say, Hey, we'd like to form a treaty with you. And they start flying sorties low over the biggest cities in Estonia and Estonia and the other Baltic states essentially have no choice but to form treaties with the Soviet Union. Within a few months, the Soviet Union is then they're moving in 20 or 30,000 troops, and then they're demanding that with these 20,000 troops on Estonian soil, they then suddenly say, Hey, you guys are plotting against us. They offer no evidence for this, but they say, you need to form pro-Soviet cabinets. You need to hold elections. So we recently had primary elections here in the US and there was controversy about releasing the results early. Well, these were really remarkable elections. The results were accidentally released before anyone had even voted.

Juliette Sellgren 
Whoa.

Matt Mitchell (18.11)
In one region there was something like 120% turnout. So this gives you a sense of what kind of elections. These are totally fraudulent elections.

Juliette Sellgren 
It's also funny because for central planners, they're not very good at numbers, which I feel like is kind of the key to social, to central planning.

Matt Mitchell 
There's a lot of bumbling that does go on. That's absolutely right.

Juliette Sellgren 
But I guess if you have power, you can get away with it, which is what's so problematic.

Matt Mitchell (18.36)
That's right. That's so essentially they hold these elections and then the Estonian parliament with armed Red Army soldiers in the well of the parliament, lo and behold, they vote to join the Soviet Union. So the whole thing is fraudulent from the get-go, but they joined the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union says, oh, thanks, we'd love to have you. And they're actually subsumed into the Soviet Union. So it's not like Hungary or Poland where they're so-called puppet states. They're actually a part of the Soviet Union from 1930 to nine on now, it said that Stalin's worst mistake is trusting Hitler. And Hitler's worst mistake was double crossing Stalin, as you know, Hitler then double crosses Stalin and invades Moscow. So

Juliette Sellgren 
With another non-aggression pact, or is the same one? I think it's a different one, right.

Matt Mitchell
So,

Juliette Sellgren 
No, I guess it's the same pact.

Matt Mitchell 
Yeah, he basically

Juliette Sellgren 
Breaks

Matt Mitchell 
The pact. Yeah.

Juliette Sellgren 
Okay. I was just excited that there are multiple, and I knew of one, but it's the same pact.

Matt Mitchell (19.45)
So basically what happens is the Soviets are in control for less than a year. The Germans are then in control for two years, and then the Soviets sweep through and are in control for the next half century

Juliette Sellgren 
In Estonia. 

Matt Mitchell 
In Estonia. But Estonians talk about it as being between two wolves, right? They didn't like either master. And in some ways, I think of George Orwell's Animal Farm. At the end of it, he talks about the animals outside are looking from the pigs to the humans and from the humans to the pigs, and they can't tell the difference. And I really think that's how the Estonians must have felt is it didn't matter whether it was a German Nazi oppressor or a Soviet red army oppressor. They were both oppressors. You literally have people who had to host a German soldier in their house for nine months. He moves out, and then they had to host a Soviet army soldier for nine months. It's just absolutely crazy what people had to go through.

Juliette Sellgren (20.53)
So in that way, the difference between the two really, there is none. It's very negligible. Who you're housing, who did I interview? I might remember who I interviewed and said this later, but I interviewed someone on the podcast and they literally said, it doesn't make a difference whether it's fascism or communism or any sort of authoritarianism. Just the shape of the mustache of the guy who's going to kill you is what changes. And this is what it feels like with Quartering soldiers in your house. When you say this, what I'm wondering,

Matt Mitchell 
one thing to point out real quick there too is obviously Nazi stands for national socialism, and you can look up on the, I believe actually it's the Holocaust Museum website. You can Google the 16 planks of the Nazi party, and a half dozen of them live up to the socialist hat, a part of the Nazi socialist name. There was quite a bit of the, obviously Stalin wanted to portray his, especially after you were a double cross, he wanted to portray Hitler as the polar opposite. And Hitler wanted to portray Stalin as the polar opposite, but they had a lot more in common than just depraved totalitarianism. They really did share quite a bit of ideological perspective.

Juliette Sellgren (22.17)
And I actually remembered it was Rob Tracinski, who I interviewed who said that, which I thought was a brilliant quote, and I have it saved in my phone, so I pull it out every once in a while. But I guess maybe this answers the question for me, but was there any difference in day-to-day life between German occupation and Soviet occupation?

Matt Mitchell (22.38)
There was somewhat of a difference. So I mean, it's not radical. So one thing that to be, remember I was saying that Estonia had been invaded by different countries. Their historical enemy was the Germans because that occupation historically was not a good one. Whereas they look at the Swedish occupation with fond memories. So what a lot of people say is that it took nine months for Stalin to turn that around. They amazingly were actually happy to see the Nazis come in because they thought had to be better. The Germans, or I'm sorry, than the Soviets, but there were some differences. So obviously, of course, the Nazis ended up being brutal. The Nazis, of course, were focused on Germany. That's all they cared about. And so for them, other countries and other ethnic groups are really just in service of the German goals. And the Nazis had bizarre ideas about, well, the Estonians are a more superior race than the sls.

They had just weird racial hierarchies. One of the things that the Nazis did is they brought in about 8,000 Jews and murdered them on Estonian soil. And one of the things that happened is the Estonians, a handful of Estonians worked to save them. I mean, it's remarkable, but listen to this stat, there were only 12 Jews that managed to survive that we know of in all of Estonia that survived that occupation, the Nazi occupation. So just absolutely horrendous. But because the Germans had such a focus on the Aryan race and promoting Germany, they weren't as concerned about what the Estonians read or what they thought. The socialists, on the other hand, they were interested in building a socialist utopia in Estonia just as they wanted to in the rest of the Soviet Union. And so they actually were more oppressive of say what we would call First Amendment rights in the US. So they actually, I think they burned 70,000 books. They immediately set about making sure that there were pictures of Stalin and Lenin and all of the schools. And so they were sort of

Juliette Sellgren 
Set up Lenin corners.

Matt Mitchell (25.09)
Yeah, Lenin corners, exactly. So they set about indoctrinating, the Estonians, the Germans didn't care so much about what the Estonians thought. They just wanted to extract, get as much use out of them as possible that would help Germany. So they're both kind of inhumane perspectives. I don't think either of 'em regarded the Estonians with great as worthy human beings, but they sort of have their own slightly different takes on it.

Juliette Sellgren 
And so I guess the most practical next question would be how did quality of life change between pre-occupation, pre warring, pre all of that to then being occupied? So I think I kind of want to focus more on under Soviet, because if they're trying to control their thought and all of that, how does that change culture? Did it take away from this culture of innovation with singing and all of that from before? And how did it change? And then how on earth did the culture survive if it did, or did it come back? How do you,

Matt Mitchell (26.22)
That's fascinating. Yeah. So right away, they set to not just take control of the economy, but to take control of society. And some of this is just practical, and I would say this is relevant for modern socialists too. Even more mild versions, if you want to control what somebody buys and sells, you have to exercise a fair amount of control over what they do. You may even have to exercise control over what they or they think. But there's also an OG reason here. [Karl] Marx talked about how the economic base of a society depends on the superstructure of the society, its culture. And they believed that all of us capitalists are diluted, right? We are fooled into thinking that the capitalist system is, we're fooled by culture and institutions to think that the capitalist system serves us well because they have that belief. They specifically tried to engineer culture and institutions that promoted socialism.

So as soon as the Red Army marches in, they also bring the NKVD. This is the predecessor to the KGV. By the way, NKVD give you a sense of some of the many, many cultural problems here. When you transliterate that into Estonian, it spells the word coffin. And this was sort of appropriate because they start interviewing everybody who's over the age of 12. They're looking for enemies of the people or anybody who might not be a good socialist, well, who's an enemy of the people. Well, if you're entrepreneurial or successful, of course that's an enemy of the people. If you had a business, of course, that's an enemy of the people. But also, if you are doing suspect things like stamp collecting, that's probably an enemy of the people because that shows a cosmopolitan mindset. So long story short, they have these waves of deportations.

So they round people up, they interview everybody over 12, they arrest whole families because one in the Soviet statutes, you could not only be arrested for being an enemy of the people, but for being related to an enemy of the people. They round them up, they put 'em on in the early waves, they put 'em on train cars, and they send them to what the Soviet press called the happier East. What this means is 40,000 people are sent to different parts of the Soviet Union. Men are generally separated from women and children because the men need to go to labor camps. It's estimated that at this time period in the fifties, about 18% of the entire Soviet labor force was slave labor. They had these grandiose dreams of outproducing, the capitalists, and they had to do it with slave labor. So within two years, 50% of the women are dead, and 94% of the men are dead.

So really, the beginning of the occupation just starts with terror. Over time, it becomes less terrible in terms of outright terror. The last major deportation was in 1949 when about 60,000 people were rounded up. This was in the countryside because Stalin was trying to get them to join collective farms, and they didn't want to. So he went in and he rounded 'em up. This time he put 'em in American made Studebaker trucks, and he sent them east. And incentives worked. By the way, the Estonian farmers didn't want to collectivize, but as soon as he rounded up huge portions of farmers and sent them east, within 10 days, all the rest of the Estonian farmers were like, yep, okay. We will join your collective. We're willing to do that. We don't want to be separated from our families and dying in some cold wasteland in the east.

So it starts with terror. It starts with controlling the population, the terror subsides, but the control really doesn't for the rest of the next five decades, they still exercise a great deal of control over the population. The KGB doesn't round people up, but it pays people visits into the 1980s. It's paying people visits and saying, Hey, just so you know, you're being watched. There's a story of one guy who took 15 photographs of Tartu. This is one of the largest cities in Estonia. He took 15 photos that showed dilapidated buildings and devices to Jam Western Radio, and he smuggled them out to the Fins on the other side of the iron curtain. And for that, he got 10 years in jail and followed by five years in exile. So there's still exercising control even though it's not quite as much terror. So sorry, that was a long answer to your question, but

Juliette Sellgren 
No, that's wonderful. I mean, do we have access to those pictures? Do they still exist? 

Matt Mitchell 
No, that's a great question. I bet. So the guy, at least

Juliette Sellgren 
We even have a record of them existing at one point, which is wild.

Matt Mitchell 
Yeah. So the guy is named Mark Nicholas, I believe he actually ended up, once Estonia became free, he ended up as a member of Parliament. So he probably does have his, I bet you could Google those photos.

Juliette Sellgren 
Listeners, check it out. I definitely will after this. So I know you kind of talked a lot about what happened to people, but does that mean that I would be dead if I was living in Estonia at this time? Would I probably be dead?

Matt Mitchell (32.19)
So one of the things that I try to emphasize is that, again, the deep connection between not only if you're trying to control the economy, do you control people's lives, but if you're oppressing people, it's almost always inevitable that you do it in a discriminatory way. So power corrupts, but it also discriminates. So if you were successful, Juliette, if you were intellectual, then yeah, it's a good chance that you're going to be targeted. So one of the just absolutely crazy things that they do is they invent an entire class out of thin air. They called them kulaks.

Juliette Sellgren 
Yes, I remember learning about this school. 

Matt Mitchell 
You remember one in

Juliette Sellgren 
School.

Matt Mitchell (33.03)
So they're basically wealthy peasants or wealthier peasants. Most of them are descended from serfs. They're not super wealthy people, but the term kulak comes from a Russian word for fist or tight fist, and it basically connotes somebody who's wealthy, and maybe they got their wealth in an underhanded way. But the truth is, and we do have quotes from the archives that they kulaks were just invented. So the way they did it is there was a leader of the secret police and a local prosecutor, and those three people were empowered to just determine who's a kulak and who's not. And so we have a quote from one of 'em saying, we just invented kulaks. We just invented it whole cloth. So if you were designated as a kulak, then yeah, that's terrible. And people were ashamed of it. And one of the coping mechanisms was to hide their true selves.

There's a story of an Estonian named Boris who was born to a family that had been designated enemies of the people. This is because his father and his grandfather had been arrested. So he lived with his wife for 40 years without ever revealing the deep, dark secret that his family were enemies of the people. When he finally opened up to her in the 1990s, she opened up to him and said, I too, my family were also designated, and we too were enemies of the people. So in answer to your question, you either would've been targeted or you would've had to lie about who you are and what you were

Juliette Sellgren 
That I am trying to find a censor worthy way of saying it, because I'm trying not to curse. I can't imagine. I can only begin to imagine. 

Matt Mitchell (35.04)
So let me tell you another story that just kind of helps you. Yes, please appreciate how they attempted to isolate people. So Hannah Arendt, I think is the 20th century's maybe greatest student of totalitarianism, and she talks about the totalitarian personality as a completely isolated person. There was a young teen, 13 or 14, Pavlik was his name, and we don't exactly know the circumstances of Pavlik, but he decided to turn his father in as an enemy of the people. He wasn't Estonian by the way. He was from another part of the Soviet Union. He turned his father in and his father is sent off to Siberia later. Then he's murdered, probably actually over something unrelated to this. He was probably murdered over a gun as far as we know. But he was murdered, and it's assumed that he's murdered by his family. So here's this tragic story. This kid is turned into a national hero by the Soviet Union all over the Soviet Union. There are statues and pictures of little Pavlik, the boy hero who believed in the cause so much that he was willing to turn in his own father, and they turned this personal bizarre tragedy into a national symbol of this is what we all want you to be. We want you to be the kind of person who would turn in your parents for the cause. When we say totalitarian, that's what it means is it's trying to control every aspect of life.

Juliette Sellgren 
And I guess the thing that I'm kind of not wondering about, but the thing that's really recurring, and we talked about this a little bit before we started recording, I think a lot of young socialists today probably, or people who are sympathetic to socialism, probably think that you can have certain freedoms because they don't see control as necessarily lending itself to total control or control. Even if it's not death as an implication, it will be control of almost everything.

Matt Mitchell (37.22)
Yeah, that's right. So I mean, just think of it, what is socialism as the socialist described it? Well, nothing, if not have some facility with the English language. Many of them, I guess in other German language too, some of these phrases are really stirring. But the Marx and Engels, the way they put it in 1948, or I'm sorry, in the Communist Manifesto, was that the theory of the communists can be summed up in a single sentence, abolition of private property. And so if you are going to abolish private property, that means you're going to try to take people's personal belongings, their homes, their cars, bicycles, their bicycles. Exactly. A big one is their wristwatches. This is important because the Red Army, it turns out, so all this stuff was taken for the use of the people, but it turns out most of it ended up in the hands of red Army officers or the wrists of Red Army officers in the case of the wristwatch. So you probably know the iconic photo of the Red Army soldier waving the Soviet flag above the Reichstag in Germany. Right? Well, if you look closely, they had to airbrush that photo because the young hero had three watches on his wrists. And so that was an inconvenient truth.

Juliette Sellgren
How do you find that sort of information out?

Matt Mitchell (38.54)
Well, actually, that's another one. You can very easily Google airbrushed photo of Reich stag and wristwatch, and it'll pop right up and you see a left right comparison. So even Stalin himself acknowledged that, yeah, humans are going to probably resist having their farm, their cows taken, their family jewelry taken, but so be it. You've got to break some eggs to make an omelet. So that's just at its very basic level. People want to be able to have some control over their personal property, but socialism doesn't permit that.

Juliette Sellgren 
So I guess the next question is how did Estonia break away from it? Even today, we have countries that are somewhere on the spectrum further from freedom than Estonia. Estonia seems to have broken away in a way that I don't know is shocking, inspiring. How did that happen?

Matt Mitchell (40.06)
Yeah, so one part of it is throughout this entire occupation, the Estonian people did really retain a lot of their culture. So one way you can see this is the resistance movements. So for most of the world, world War II ended in 1940. Baltic states, people went out, guerilla fighters went out into the forests. They called themselves the Forest Brothers, and they resisted Soviet occupation for many, many years, in some cases, decades. So they live in these camps out in the forest. Think about it, it's snow covered. So in the winter, they're not leaving their camps because that would leave traces in the snow if they have to leave their camps, they're walking single file so that people can't tell, the Soviets can't tell how many there are, and they're disrupting Soviet activities, deportations, collectivization, things like that. And the last Estonian Forest brother, he died in 1978, this guy August Sabbe, there needs to be a movie written about this guy because he's really pretty inspiring.

He's out there in the forest. The KGB hears that there's a forest brother out there, and they go to investigate and they pretend that they are fishermen. And so they actually take, here's another thing. You can Google this one, I think. Yeah, we weren't able to put it in the book. We weren't sure about the copyright, but you can Google this one too. August Sabbe, there's a photo of him with his KGB agents, and they're pretending to be fishermen, and then they turn a gun on him and say, okay, you're arrested. He fights back. They all end up in the river. He then says, okay, okay, okay. I surrender. They go to put the cuffs on him, and he jumps back in the river and he dies. Now, there's different accounts of how he died, but I'll tell you my favorite, I'm not sure anybody really knows, but my favorite is that he purposely lodged himself under a log in the river and chose his own way out because he wanted to be the master of his destiny to the end.

So they've got this resistance culture, and of course, the Forest Brothers in Estonia with a singing tradition. Of course, there are now songs about the Forest Brothers that start to make it into the repertoire. And so they sort of nurtured this culture all along. So that's a long way to say the first part of answering the question of how they got out is they did retain their culture. And then how it ultimately happened, a lot of it had to do with very clever, I think, ways of testing the system. So one was, they called it the Phosphate Springs. So the Soviet Union, the socialist record on the environment, of course, was atrocious. And this was especially true in Estonia. They had large percentages of the rivers and the water sources were polluted. They had huge piles of phosphate all over the country that had radioactive material leaking into the water sources as well.

And the Soviet Union had this dream of doing more mining, and it wouldn't have made sense to do this mining if they were guided by the profit motive. It was pretty worthless phosphate, but they're not guided by the profit motive. So they went ahead with the plans and the Estonians resisted it, and they were managed to do this actually in the environment of Glasnost, of openness that [Mikhail] Gorbachev had ushered in, gave up their plans for more mining. So then their next step was to talk openly about the Molotov-Ribbontrop compact. Then their next step was this spontaneous eruption of singing in the song festival grounds and hear, instead of singing the love songs to Stalin and Lenin, which they had been required to sing for half a century, they actually sang Estonian songs and the Estonian Tongue and about the Forest Brothers. At one point, they had a third. You got 300,000 people singing about a love song to Estonia. That really was a powerful force, and it was difficult for the Soviets to stop it. And then finally, another really remarkable thing that they did was called the Baltic Way, or the Baltic chain, where they coordinated with others in Lativia, Lithuania. And they formed, I think it was a 670 kilometer human chain of clasp tans across three countries. And when did they do it? August of these states into the Soviet Union. And they made sure that there were Western TV cameras and even a helicopter to document it so that the world could see the oppression that was going on.

Juliette Sellgren (45.23)
What's kind of crazy is, especially with the singing and I don't know, the human presence that was kind of used to fuel a lot of this, it really reminds me of, and correct me if you think I'm wrong on this, but of the fight against slavery and then the Civil Rights Movement in America, the methods that were effectively used and the way that culture was sustained through singing, and then again protests.

Matt Mitchell 
I think that's right. It has a lot to do with just recognizing the humanity of people. That's really all they were trying to do. And there were beautiful moments. There was a moment when there were a lot of Russians that had been brought into Estonia, and they were not so happy about this movement. And so at one point, this is actually reminiscent of January 6th, the Russian Patriots stormed the Estonian House of Government, and at that point, then thousands of Estonians showed up to surround and basically trap these people inside. So you've got committed socialists, Russian, and tensions are high, and there's thousands of people on both sides. What happens? Well, what happens is the Estonians peacefully separate, and they allow essentially their enemies to depart. Talk about a beautiful, one of the beautiful things about the singing revolution is that they managed to topple this totalitarian state, and they did it without any bloodshed.

Juliette Sellgren (47.10)
Yeah, so I guess this conversation could kind of go on forever because it's hard to consolidate the conversation about an entire country's basically fight for freedom and journey in this way and almost a century. Yeah, I would say it's, or at least half a century worth of history into one interview. But what are some of the biggest lessons and biggest takeaways you think from the story of Estonia and what should we keep in mind?

Matt Mitchell (47.47)
It's a pretty basic one, but we all need to hear it is socialism doesn't work. The promises of socialism, of prosperity and equality, they just never materialized. And you can see this by comparing the Estonians to the Fins before socialism, the Estonians were wealthier than the Fins about 84, the average Estonian earned 84% more than the average Fin. Afterwards, they were much poor. They earned 22% of what the average Fin earned.

Juliette Sellgren 
Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote Podcast. It means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at great antidote@libertyfund.org. Thank you.
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