The Soviet Union advocated a conception of human rights different from the notion of rights prevalent in the West. Western legal theory emphasized the so-called “negative” rights: that is, rights of individuals against the government. The Soviet system, on the other hand, emphasized that society as a whole, rather than individuals, were the beneficiaries of “positive” rights: that is, rights from the government. In this spirit, Soviet ideology placed a premium on economic and social rights, such as access to health care, adequate and affordable basic food supplies, housing, and education, and guaranteed employment.
Since 1991, there have been two major phases in Russian history, corresponding roughly to the decades of the 1990s and the 2000s. Under President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), Russia attempted a rapid transition to a market economy and liberal democracy. Economic “shock therapy,” the transition from a planned and centralized economy to a privatized market economy in one leap, proved to be traumatic for most of the population of the Russian Federation. On the positive side, these initial years of post-Soviet Russia saw the creation of a new system of laws, a dramatic rise in political participation, the birth of new human rights institutions at the national level, and the establishment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Yet, the political transition, liked the economic one, proved to be very turbulent, perhaps inevitably in a situation where a country with Russia’s authoritarian past attempts to introduce a multi-party democracy. The country’s political culture seemed a poor fit for its new democratic constitution.
When a devastating famine descended on Bolshevik Russia in 1921, the United States responded with a massive two-year relief campaign that battled starvation and disease and saved millions of lives. By summer 1922, American kitchens were feeding nearly 11 million Soviet citizens a day. At the time, the rescue operation was hailed as “the beau geste of the twentieth century.” Today, it is all but forgotten. A new book, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, resurrects this epic tale in the form of a sprawling narrative history.