Bryan Caplan  

When Hell Froze Over

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Not long after Abbie Hoffman praised "revolution for the hell of it," David Friedman memorably retorted "revolution is the hell of it." While reading literary historian Gleb Struve's edifying Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin, I came across an eloquent vignette about what living through a revolution was actually like.

The time: Winter, 1920. The place: St. Petersburg. The author: Victor Shklovsky.

What did we use for heating?... [W]e burned everything. I burned my furniture, my sculptor's stand, bookshelves and books, books beyond count or computation. If I had owned wooden arms or legs I should have burned them and found myself limbless in spring.

[...]

Everyone gathered in the kitchen; in the abandoned rooms stalactites grew. People drew close to one another and in the half-empty city they squeezed together as tight as toys in a playbox. Priests in churches conducted the services in gloves with the surplices on their fur coats. Six school-children froze to death. The Arctic Circle had become a reality and its line passed through the region of the Nevsky Avenue.

It's almost pitiful to think how many people saw the start of the Russian Revolution and thought "It couldn't be worse than the czar."


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
N. writes:

I just don't know. I give this question a lot of thought (for obvious reasons, these days). Is anarchy (or chaos, as Alan Moore's V would have me call it) truly worse for the plebs than life under a totalitarian regime? In the latter instance only the innocent live in fear of the midnight knock, but in the former *everyone* lives in fear of it. Isn't it worse for a despot to die peacefully in his sleep than for his nation to become a meatgrinder and oust him in the process? Is there any moral or ethical way to suffer dictators gladly?

Matt writes:

Next time the Russians would be smart not to revolt against Old Man Winter.

Barkley Rosser writes:

So, Valley Forge was pretty awful, but do you think the US should have stuck with Canada and followed a non-revolutionary path to independence from Britain?

rvman writes:

How much better off were the folks between 1783 and 1848 in the US than in Canada, relative to the pain of 1775-1781? How about for the people who actually fought for the Revolution - does the extra freedom for their remaining lives offset the pain of the war - and the lost potential of those killed? And that is after a clear 'win' and with clear improvement. How about those who participated in the "Whiskey Rebellion"? Bloody Kansas? The Civil War? The French Revolution? Did the expected potential benefits of those offset the costs, ex ante? Were the potential rewards to John Brown and his family worth the risk of Harper's Ferry, or was he just a lunatic fanatic who got his kids killed along with himself? I think it is clear that for the revolutionaries, most revolutions are irrational.

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