After my retirement and before attending seminary, my wife and I took a Norwegian fjord cruise. We sailed north along the Norway coastline stopping at quaint Nordic towns and the vaulting fjords. We rounded the North Cape and made a stop at Murmansk, located 2 degrees above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia. My only knowledge of Murmansk was from the Tom Clancy book, The Hunt for Red October. In the movie, Sean Connery plays a captain of a Russian submarine. One scene shows him with binoculars scanning the Murmansk submarine naval base on a cold day.
After docking and clearing customs, we boarded a tour bus. Our guide was a young Russian who spoke excellent English. She pointed out the city highlights and history. We passed by large above-ground pipelines and learned that the buildings were heated by pumping hot water through these pipes. As an engineer who studied heat transfer, pumping hot water through open air pipes in freezing weather is a terrible waste of energy. Given that Russia exports crude oil and natural gas, perhaps they didn’t care about energy efficiency.
Our guide showed us the progress of the Russian economy over time. Much of Murmansk was destroyed by the Germans during WWII. After the war, the Stalinist government built new apartments. These building were poorly constructed without indoor plumbing. Each decade, apartment buildings were added with improvements over the previous buildings. Apartments were assigned to families by the government who owned all the property. Recently, the Russian government changed property laws and individuals could now own their own apartment. These newer, greatly improved apartments were purchased by Murmansk residents who had enough savings. It was shocking to see that the oldest buildings, still without indoor plumbing, were being rented by the government right next to new, privately owned apartments.
On the way back to our cruise ship, our tour guide proudly showed us a McDonalds fast food restaurant, the first in Murmansk and a sign of westernized changes. Most of the city was dark and unattractive, bur this newly built McDonalds was a sign of hope. This arctic city was trying to thaw after almost a century of communism. The Russian revolution (1917–1923) liberated the people from Tsarist rule but plunged the nation into Stalinist tyranny and suffering. Our tour of Murmansk was a somber reflection of life after a bloody revolution.
In his 1932 publication, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Must Have Books, Victoria, BC, 2021), Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr discussed in Chapter 7 “Justice Through Revolution.” Niebuhr is a theologian steeped in Christ’s teachings. Yet, he is also a realist. “The middle classes and the rational moralists, who have a natural abhorrence of violence, may be right in their general thesis; but they are wrong in their assumption that violence is intrinsically immoral. Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing intrinsically good except goodwill. … Since it is very difficult to judge human motives, it is natural that, from an external perspective, the social consequences of an action or policy should be regarded as more adequate tests of its morality than the hidden motives. The good motive is judged by its social goal. … Each action is judged with reference to its relation to the ultimate goal.” (page 97) The Russian revolution overthrew the unjust Tsar and replaced him with a communist, Marxist government. Human rights were tragically abused, and the Russians suffered from the lack of economic efficiency.
Niebuhr does not believe that violence is naturally linked to ill-will and non-violence to good-will. There is no absolute moral value. “Every action resolves a certain competition between values, in which one value must be subordinated to another.” (page 99) For example, a physician may need to decide whether to save the life of a baby or the mother. The Russian revolutionary government decided to execute the Tsarist family to rid the state of the monarchy and keep it from returning.
The proletarian feels loyalty to a group and will devalue individual property rights for social welfare. The middle-class values liberty, individual rights, and personal property. The proletarian does not believe that social needs can be resolved peacefully with the middle-class. The middle-class advocates patience and accommodation. “He [proletarian class] has come to the conclusion that the hope of achieving a moral group life results in illusion. The conflict between proletarian and middle-class morality is thus a contest between hypocrisy and brutality, and between sentimentality and cynicism.” (page 101)
If violence can establish a lasting just social system, then there are no ethical reasons to discard its use. “We can make no absolute distinctions between nonviolent and violent types of coercion or between coercion used by governments and that which is used by revolutionaries.” (page 102) Niebuhr takes a wider view of morality. “If a revolution can destroy social injustice and preserve equal justice, much might be forgiven it in the methods which it employs.” (page 108)
Why did the Soviet Union collapse between 1989 and 1992? “An officious bureaucrat may cause intolerable injustices, even if he eats the same food and wears the same clothes as his victim.” (page 109) Communist theory proposes that a dictatorship is only transitory and fades away once equalitarian ideals are firmly rooted without challenge. The reality of human nature is not to give up power, but to hold it. “If the Russian oligarchy strips itself of its own power, it will be the first oligarchy of history to do so.” (page 109) Today, the Russian oligarchy still holds power.
Marxist theory is invalidated in practice. Equality, in principle, is a good idea. However, humans are selfish and will elevate to increase their own needs over the needs of others. When I observed the different periods of Murmansk building projects, I wondered how the communists determined who lived without indoor toilets and who lived in the new structures. “Those who are shrewder will gain some advantage over the simple, even if they should lack special instruments of power.” (page 110)