Extreme Vetting is a Soviet Tactic & Method of Oppression

by Karoli Hindriks June 08, 2017

Portrait of the Josef Stalin. According to Wikipedia After the Soviet Union dissolved, evidence from the Soviet archives also became available, containing official records of 799,455 executions (1921–1953). Photo credits to Sebos

And I would know — I have first-hand experience

The rollout of President Trump’s extreme vetting proposals for even long standing allies like France and Germany is divisive, short-sighted, and wrong. History illustrates a long narrative around nativist policies like these, and I was unfortunate enough to grow up behind a wall and experienced those policies first hand. Extreme vetting is a Soviet tactic used by Stalin and others like him to promote hyper-nationalism and closed borders — and Trump is taking their lead.

I grew up in Pärnu, a small town outside of Tallinn in what was then Soviet-occupied Estonia. I know what it’s like to live behind an iron curtain, cut off from the rest of civilization by a puppet government and lead by a dictatorship determined to crystallize nationalism as not only an idea but a policy. For years, I and my family were not allowed to see my grandmother who’d been lucky enough to escape Soviet oppression in neighboring Sweden. When the permission for us all to meet was finally granted, she was only allowed to stay in one, fully KGB-tapped hotel under tight surveillance, and only for a very limited time.

Me, my family and some other folks in the Soviet Union in 1980s. Despite everything — we still had our summers!

Inside the vice-like grip of the USSR, any travel was nearly impossible. Stalin and other Soviet dictators loved scrutinizing anyone who crossed their borders to an obsessive-compulsive degree, ensuring obedience from an oppressed public and harming public confidence in their leaders. The same vetting was done to any Estonian citizens who did not fit into the “perfect average” criteria — different ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and LGBT folks (eerily reminiscent of the anti-gay pogroms in Chechnya) were imprisoned or deported to Siberian concentration camps. After World War II, nearly 5% of our population was deported to the USSR concentration camps, from which most never returned.

Paranoia breeds mistrust — Stalin, like Trump, was suspicious of everyone, including his own people. We needed special visas and excessive evidence to visit even the (very Estonian) island of Saaremaa — apparently, the risk of people escaping the country by boat from the island was too high.

My late father in the Soviet army, where all young men were drafted for 2–4 years by force and had to endure horrifying humiliation and conditions.

Trump’s braggadocious and unconventional style is not a new method of communicating with the American people, but the vehicle in which he is delivering authoritarian policies and vindictive regulations is. His relationship with the truth draws alarming parallels to Soviet-era propaganda efforts to an Orwellian degree. “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now,” is his defense of a current statistic which he criticized under the Obama administration. Doublespeak has come to the United States in a frightening way.

Similar to what we see now, the dispersion of “alternative facts” mixed with limited access to accurate outside information kept Soviet citizens ignorant and obedient. Propaganda fed minds, educated our children and kept us all in line. It was horrible.

Illustrations of tv shows “Dallas” and “Dynasty”

But even in such extreme conditions, people found ways to challenge the status quo. Local hackers in Tallinn, a city located sixty miles across the sea from Finland, managed to get access to Finnish television signals. Finland, part of the free West, offered Estonians access to pop culture and a free press for the first time. Besides all the eye-opening news and TV programming (Dallas and Dynasty!) people in my country saw advertising clips for the first time in their lives. When a person comes from a place with a scarcity of everything — a place with empty grocery stores and abandoned gas stations — seeing a cornucopia on the other side of the world was incredibly exciting.

Once outside media had broken into the Soviet culture, soon there were secret meetups in local cinemas showing the Finnish TV programs and ads. And once the Soviet government found out about the Finnish cultural invasion, they released statements to the effect of: These advertised goods do not actually exist. These programs are from outsiders trying to poison the minds of the Soviet people. The Finnish and Western media are all dishonest people.

That rhetoric sounds chillingly familiar to Trump’s attacks on the media, does it not?

Years later, after my country had finally regained its independence from the USSR and breached the iron curtain, I was allowed to dream and left as an exchange student to the U.S. — opening up a new chapter of diversity, sweeping multiculturalism and opportunity for me. It struck me that back home, our similarities were what was supposed to unite us, but in America, we united around our differences. It became clear to me that embracing diverse backgrounds is what had pushed the U.S. to become the global leader in innovation, entrepreneurship, and democracy it is.

Unfortunately, less than two decades after my first steps in the U.S., we are witnessing radicalism and potent, reactionary tribalism. Sadly, this is history repeating — the same paranoia tactics were used by the Soviet regime. I mentioned the Soviet concentration camps; what was most horrifying was the process for how families were chosen to be deported. Essentially, anyone who considered their neighbors too different, too difficult or simply wanted payback for honor lost could report entire families to Soviet officials and receive an award for handing in their fellow citizens.

We have seen how fear feeds paranoia, and paranoia feeds the darkest corners of the human soul. In defense of this country’s persistent greatness, we have a chance to decide which side of history we want to be on. Let’s make the right choice.


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