Growing up in the now-defunct Soviet Union was not easy for Zilvinas Silenas or his family.
“Government basically brainwashes you from a very early age, and government thinks you are disposable,” Silenas says of living under communism.
After leaving Russia and spending four years attending a “very left college” in America, Silenas says he became even more committed to the principles of economic freedom.
Today, Silenas is president of the Foundation for Economic Education, an organization that educates young people about economic freedom.
He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his experience growing up under communism and why he is so passionate about teaching the next generation the realities of communism and socialism.
We also cover these stories:
- The Biden administration works to find a way to extend the expired federal moratorium on evictions during the pandemic.
- Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, says he wishes he hadn’t signed a state ban on mask mandates.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, takes a stand for Israel and against the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: Across America, we are continuing to see young people embrace the ideas of socialism. With us today to talk about socialism versus economic freedom is the president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Zilvinas Silenas, or Z, as he likes to be called. Z has also lived in the Soviet Union. So he knows firsthand the realities of socialism. Z, welcome to the show.
Zilvinas Silenas: Thank you for having me, Virginia.
Allen: You once lived in the Soviet Union. How long did you live there?
Silenas: Well, I was born in 81, in Lithuania, which was then occupied by Soviet Union, and was part of Soviet Union. I lived there most of my life, so I saw Soviet Union collapse. I saw what came after Soviet Union. I think I have a pretty good firsthand experience when it comes to how countries do under socialism and how countries do after socialism is kicked out.
Allen: Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about that. What do you remember about life in the Soviet Union?
Silenas: Life wasn’t good. I mean, obviously, people make do. But if you ever wanted to see people disillusioned of socialism, I would say go to Soviet Union.
People who actually lived in Soviet Union, people who actually saw what socialism brings and what it doesn’t bring, I guess are the fiercest opponents of socialism because they don’t buy all into this theoretical “we could be all living together happily” nonsense. Because that’s not what socialism is about.
I wonder if these people, today, these young people, the AOCs, the Bernie Sanders, if they were actually transported back in time to Soviet Union, they would find that actual socialism is very, very different from the fairy tale they keep on telling every day.
Allen: What was the reality for you and your family? What are some of the things that you remember about day-to-day life and the challenges that you and your family faced?
Silenas: First of all, was shortage of living space. I mean, people in U.S., they have it good, and they had it good. In my story, my family, I was brought up in a one-room apartment. That’s not like a one-bedroom house. That’s literally like a one-room apartment. I think if I translated that to a square footage, that would be something like 300-square-feet; basically, it was one room and one kitchen. That was it. That was the entirety of the apartment for a three-person family. That was considered good.
Many people had it even worse. Many people lived in what was essentially dorms. Imagine, let’s say a family of four—two parents, two kids—you live in, basically, a one-room apartment, which is just one single room, which is the same. Your bedroom, it’s your living room, it’s your every room. And you have communal showers and a communal kitchen.
Allen: When you look back on your time there, on your childhood, are there any stories that come to mind that you think capture pretty well the kind of day-in and day-out realities of living in a socialist nation?
Silenas: There was this one time. In Soviet Union, May Day parades, May 1, the International Workers’ Day, that was very popular. I mean, it wasn’t real popular. People didn’t want to go, but the government kind of ordered them to go.
I remember May 1, 1986, my parents skipped the May Day parade because they were not communists. We went sunbathing instead. It was a nice sunny day. It would have been any normal day, but the thing is, five days before, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had exploded.
The only reason we were sunbathing and the only reason people were in the streets as opposed to hiding is because no one told anyone. People did not find out about a nuclear disaster until the radiation reached Scandinavians. And they started raising alarm bells.
That could be one way of describing Soviet life. No one tells you anything. Government basically brainwashes you from a very early age, and government thinks you are disposable. You’re not worthy of knowing. If you know that the Soviet Union just had an embarrassing and deadly disaster, that would somehow diminish communism. That’s why they didn’t tell people.
I think that was a pretty bizarre macabre, a very sad day, but I think that pretty much encapsulates what life in Soviet Union was like.
Allen: Were people careful about what they said to each other? Or did they feel pretty comfortable speaking freely and speaking their mind?
Silenas: Oh, absolutely not. No, no. So let’s say in the 1950s and ’60s, you could probably get shot for saying the wrong thing. Later on, maybe put in a psychiatric hospital.
Soviets had this thing that communism is the greatest thing ever. So if you don’t believe in communism, you’re either a foreign agent or mentally incapable. If you’re foreign agent, you’re getting shot. If you’re mentally incapable, well, you’re getting put in a psychiatric hospital and put under various drugs, which actually liquefy your brain. That was life in Soviet Union.
And no, no, people did not speak their mind. There was a whole, almost an art of saying what you want to say, but in such a way that the sensors couldn’t catch it, or in such a way as you can sort of backtrack and say, “Well, that’s not what I meant.” A lot of doublespeak or triple speak, probably an entire art form of basically not speaking your mind, or not getting in trouble for speaking your mind, or hiding what you truly meant.
Allen: Did you or your family know anyone who got in trouble for their political views?
Silenas: My parents were not involved in anything, nothing like that. But we knew a lot of people who tried to make the living on a side hustle. Small sort of history note. Entrepreneurship, private enterprise, was banned in Soviet Union. If you wanted to do something, you couldn’t because everything was done by the state.
I remember my parents helping neighbors to hide jeans that they made themselves in our apartment because then the police raids came in. They would target the people who they knew were entrepreneurial. So yes, my parents, I remember one night basically hiding sacks of jeans in our apartment to help out our neighbors.
Allen: So being an entrepreneur was a crime, essentially?
Silenas: Yeah. I think punishable up to seven years of prison or hard labor.
Allen: How did your time in the Soviet Union impact your views of economics and limited government?
Silenas: Well, like I said, people who’ve seen socialism are not fans of it. I think I came out of that already pro-free market, and my life and experience after Soviet Union made me even more pro-free market. I think one of the best real-life examples you can see is what happened to the entire region after Soviet Union collapsed.
Let’s say my country of Lithuania, it created in the past 30 years after the collapse of socialism, once socialism was removed, I think we had the economic miracle—in a sense of how people’s standards of living have increased.
In fact, people in the same generation who … lived in Soviet Union and who [are] still alive now, some of them, if they honestly looked at the past, they would not really believe how much their standard of living has improved. And that was once again, Lithuania did not change. People did not change. It’s just socialism as this poisonous, disastrous, ruinous ideology was removed. People’s minds were freed. People could be entrepreneurs; people could make things. And that just basically led to economic miracle.
Allen: How did you ultimately end up coming to America?
Silenas: I studied in U.S. from 2001 to 2005. I was in Westland, Connecticut, which is the lefty of the left schools. In fact, I probably became even more hardcore free market here after spending four years in an essentially very left college.
After that, I went back to Lithuania and worked for liberty since 2006. I’m in the liberty movement since 2006. I worked for Lithuanian Free Market Institute. I then became a president of Lithuanian Free Market Institute in 2012. … And that organization is still very successful in the policy and education. After leading it for seven years, I joined [Foundation for Economic Education] in 2019, I became its president and came over to Atlanta, Georgia.
Allen: Wonderful. Just in a moment, we do want to talk about the work of the Foundation for Economic [Education]. You all are doing such good work. But, in that transition, when you came to the United States and sort of began to study and became accustomed to America, what were some of the things maybe that surprised you or stuck out to you when your childhood had been in the Soviet Union?
Silenas: I think the one thing that the Americans have really got it right is the concept of inalienable rights. I think it’s not just something on paper. I truly think that’s something that most Americans believe.
Now, similar concepts aren’t constitutions of many countries, but I think in many countries they’re just as something on paper. As opposed to here, it’s actually something that people believe in and something they’re willing to fight for it. I think that’s the very heartwarming, fascinating thing that I observed.
Once again, growing up in the Soviet Union, or the “Empire of Lies,” the fact that people actually believe in what’s written in that constitution, that’s very impressive.
Allen: Today in America, we are seeing that there’s this increased, specifically with young people, there’s an increased interest or fascination with socialism. Does this concern you?
Allen: Yeah. Straight forward.
Silenas: Understatement of the century. No, of course, it concerns me.
Allen: Why do you think that young people are fascinated by socialism?
Silenas: First of all, … they’re confused, I think is the problem, would be a proper term. I think if we sat down a bunch of 15-year-olds and explained to them what socialism really is, and we asked them, “Well, are those the things that you guys want to fight for? Is this your ideal society?” I’m sure they would say “no.”
What I think is happening with young people, and there are many sort of opinions, surveys, and studies to base what I’m saying, is that they’re confused.
For instance, if you talk to 14-year-olds, if you talk to 16-, 18-year-olds, they actually … do believe in the American dream. If you ask them, “Do you still think that hard work is a road to success?” They all believe in that. Something like 80% of them believe in that. If you ask them, “Do you think that you have it better than your parents?” Most of them still believe that.
I think what actually is happening is that they are also living in this sort of informational field or informational society, which every day hammers the point that capitalism is bad. Or that somehow, people use Denmark or Sweden as example of socialism, which of course, is complete nonsense, complete lie.
You have the Danish prime minister actually telling, “Guys, we’re not socialist, just get it right, we’re a free market economy.” But you know, American left still kind of keeps hammering home the point that it’s Denmark and Norway and Sweden, these are socialists countries that we should be like.
And of course, if you’re young and you are 14, you don’t really have much exposure to what Denmark and Norway really are, nor have you spent really time distinguishing between what real socialism is and isn’t.
I think that the silver lining, the reason why I’m optimistic, I think if you sit down a group of 16-year-olds and explain to them what socialism is, most of them would actually not like it.
Allen: In your role as president for the Foundation for Economic Education, if you were to have a conversation with a high school student or a college student and explain to them what those key differences are between socialism and a democracy or capitalistic society, what would be those key points that you would hit on to really articulate to them, you know, these are two very different things?
Silenas: The good thing is that we actually do that. It’s not just a theoretical exercise. We do go to schools, we do talk to young people. We do talk to them in the classrooms. We do talk to them online. And we explain to them what the difference is.
The main difference is who makes the decisions, who makes the decisions in life? Is it you? Or is it the government? The main difference is basically, in capitalist society, as imperfect as it is, it’s the people, or in fact, it’s the individual that makes a decision that governs his life. In socialism, it’s the government.
Another thing is one key difference. Of course, later we can go into who owns the means of production and all that, but I think once again, young people, as they should, they want to think for themselves, they want to make their own decisions. And the fact that once again, in capitalism, as imperfect as it is, and everything in the world isn’t perfect, but they have a choice to think, they have a choice to do. They have no choice in Soviet Union or in socialism.
Allen: You say you work with young people, you talk with high school students, with college students. The Foundation for Economic Education, you have a mission to inspire, educate, and connect really young people with the economic, ethical, and legal principles of a free society. You all do this in a very creative way. You use so many different creative tools to really communicate these messages to young people. Tell me a little bit about the kind of work that you all do at the Foundation for Economic Education.
Silenas: Foundation for Economic Education, founded in 1946. We did many things throughout our life, but I think about 10 years ago, we said, “What’s the best value that we can serve the movement?” I think the right choice was made back then that, our movement, we’re great at writing white papers. We are absolutely awful at talking to young people. So how about FEE becomes the expert in talking to young people?
The point is, how do we talk to young people? We did a lot of research, and I think we understand our audience pretty well. There are two main ways how we communicate to young people. One is online, and the second one is in the classroom. The reason why we chose these two methods, or these two modes, is because this is where young people spend most of the time, in the classroom or online.
For the classroom programs, that’s relatively simple, but very effective, we’re kind of like the Uber of education. What we do is, we find schools which want our programs. We send a professor who goes to a public high school and spends about four hours explaining to them why freedom is better than socialism or what are the limits of a government, what is free society based on.
Let’s say last year, I think we … visited 200 classrooms like that and had about 20,000 students listen to this. Once again, this is powerful. This is in a public school. This is coming from a professor for four hours.
Definitely young people learn something and we poll them afterward: How did you like it? Were these things new? And to our surprise and actual horror, something like 80% of young people say, “Well, I’ve never had liberty explained to me like this before.” Which probably is nothing new, but the point is liberty, right to decide for yourself, freedom, many people spend their careers smearing them and young people have never heard these things, explain it to them like that. That’s where we come in. That’s our classroom thing.
Allen: Are those classrooms all over the country?
Silenas: Yes. We are, of course, in a national-based organization. It’s everywhere from East Coast to West Coast, to Mountain States, to Middle America. We are increasing our operations pretty fast in that area. The good thing, the encouraging thing, last year we had about, I think, 200 to 250 programs and we had zero rejections. In fact, what we had is people saying, “Well, that’s great. Can you come back?”
Allen: Wow, that’s excellent. That’s encouraging.
Silenas: Yes. That’s our classroom outreach. Then the second large part of our outreach is what we call online. We have Facebook operations. We have FEE.org as a website, and we have YouTube videos. In which, once again, we take things that young people care about and we mix freedom and liberty into them.
Let me give you an example. Young people care about movies, and they watch “Avengers” and all these things. I watch “Avengers” as well. I still consider myself young. The point is, more young people care about “Avengers” than they care about philosophy of capitalism, or philosophy of freedom. So what we do, we take what they like, something like “Avengers,” and we explain concepts of free market capitalism, individuality, and all that through the lens of “The Avengers.”
Allen: I love that. Just last night I was on your YouTube channel. These videos that you’re talking about are called “Out of Frame,” and they’re so creative and so well done. I just thought, wow, what a creative idea and a creative way to really explain these big picture, philosophical concepts to young people—really, to anyone—in a way that is relatable and also really entertaining.
Silenas: Right. Yeah. We have a different channel as well. It’s called “Common Sense Soapbox.” Those are snappier, faster animated series in which we basically pull no punches.
The episode that I really like is the one where we explain that concept that, you remember … last year, there was this nonsense that, if you burn down the building, it’s fine because insurance is going to pay for it. That was during the riots. We went all-in and explained why this is nonsense, why it doesn’t work like that.
Allen: Then you all have a podcast and a news outlet as well. Correct?
Silenas: I’d say news outlet, that’s FEE.org. So if you like to read about news, if you like to read sort of our articles about the current happenings, that’s at FEE.org. Podcast, that’s “Words & Numbers.” That’s two of our professors, once again, giving their insights. I would like to highlight two other programs that we do, if you don’t mind.
Silenas: One of them is “Revolution of One,” and that’s specifically aimed at young African Americans. I would say that’s a wonderful program.
Our spokesperson, T.K. Coleman, he really cares about this community. He really cares about young African Americans advancing. I think the message that he articulates really well is that capitalism is for everyone, or free markets are for everyone. It’s only in the capitalist system is that anyone can achieve anything. I think that’s a very empowering message.
Allen: Yes it is.
Silenas: We also target Spanish-speaking populations in the U.S. and the outside of the U.S.
Allen: You-all are busy, you have a lot going on.
Silenas: Just last May, we broke a world record for the largest economics lesson in the world. We had nearly 10,000 students attend our four-hour economics event.
Allen: Wow. And that was just open to everyone online? Anyone who wanted to join?
Silenas: We did a huge promotion. It was in Spanish. So we targeted the Spanish-speaking population. Some of them were from the U.S., others from Latin America. That was, I think, like 9,573 students spent at least an hour or so listening to … these people explaining what economics is, how free markets work, why liberty is important, and obviously, why socialism is not the answer. We are now in the process of certifying that with a Guinness book of world records.
Allen: I love that. So do you have plans to do another one of those kinds of events? I would love to join if there’s another one lined up.
Silenas: Absolutely. Right now, we are going through what we call the Entrepreneur Week, and that’s going to be happening next week. And those are, once again, entrepreneurship empowerment, individualism for young people.
Allen: That’s excellent. If anyone is listening and thinking, “OK, I want to get them to come speak at my school or at my child’s school or at the school I teach at,” how could they go about reaching out to the Foundation for Economic Education to have one of your professors come and give one of those four-hour lectures?
Silenas: Just go to FEE.org, and it’s pretty much all in there. There’s a form that you just basically ask us. That’s the simplest way, I guess, to answer your question. Just go [to] FEE.org, go to “Programs,” and just look around our website, and you can definitely request a professor to come to your school, to your community, and explain it.
Allen: Great. For those who are eager to check out your YouTube videos, to read your articles, all of that is also on your website, correct? At FEE.org?
Silenas: Everything is there. It’s a nice website. It pretty much encompasses everything we do. You can find videos there. You can find articles there. You can find teaching materials in there. So all the plethora of what we do is in there, FEE.org.
Allen: Great. Excellent. We’ll also leave that link in the show notes, but Z, we really appreciate the work that you’re doing and thank you so much for your time and joining us today.
Silenas: Thank you. And I want to use this opportunity to thank what [The Heritage Foundation] does. I think you guys do an amazing job too.
Allen: Thank you so much. We really appreciate that.
Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email [email protected] and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the URL or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state.