One of the most memorable anecdotes from Stephen Cohen’s Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives is where he recounts a visit by Egor Ligachev, probably the second man after Gorbachev in the late 1980s USSR, to New York, in which he amazed his interlocutors by repeatedly asking who was responsible for organizing the food supply to the city. By all accounts, Ligachev was a nice man, not corrupt, a teetotaller unlike many of his chronically drunk colleagues… and yet he was what we would regard today as totally clueless.
And apparently this was a pattern. Commenter Dmitry recounts Gorbachev asking pretty much the exact same thing during a visit to Washington D.C: “He couldn’t imagine the logistical and organizational complexity of the Americans, to somehow supply so many different kinds of cuisine.”
You won’t particularly find this in Transition Economics 101 textbooks, but these anecdotes might be more telling than you might expect.
For instance, at explaining why the late USSR failed so hard at market reform.
Or why former KGB cadres, who were more clued in than the commies, ended up taking over much of the state.
reiner Tor writes:
There’s a materialistic explanation for this: [Gorbachev] was the first [Soviet leader] who never saw a normal country and political and economic system around himself, and even his parents only had some childhood memories of normalcy, and didn’t have much time to observe even the partially normal NEP system as teenagers. So he grew up totally clueless, only being fed propaganda. An ideology so far removed from reality will produce such totally clueless people. (I don’t think Gorbachev was malicious, not even in the sense of wanting to end the empire – he probably didn’t think it was all bad and thought it could be reconciled with the wishes of its subject peoples.)
So basically Bolshevism required that people educated outside of Bolshevism lead it. By the time they died out, the system started to collapse. For example I suspect Stalin or even Khrushchev wouldn’t have asked how New York restaurants were supplied, probably even Brezhnev had a foggy idea how it worked, but Gorbachev was already totally clueless.
As Egor Kholmogorov put it in a recent essay, Gorbachev was Soviet history’s “last man.”