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baltlivesmatter

Muh reparations! Muh slavery!

The justice ministers of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania declared that it’s time to calculate the losses the three countries suffered as the result of the Soviet occupation and demand that Russia, as the legal successor of the USSR, take responsibility and pay compensation. Yet, other members of the Estonian Government say the declaration, signed on Thursday, was not discussed in cabinet meetings.

This is nothing new. Demands for reparations have been issuing from the Baltics since the 1990s, the most energetic party typically being Latvia. Nothing will ever come of them, not least because Russia could always send them the bill for Soviet-era infrastructure and subsidized gas.

Even so, cringeworthy whining regardless, do the Balts actually “deserve” reparations in a moral sense from Russia for Soviet crimes against them?

Allow me to indulge in some modest russplaining, and present a better question: Does Russia deserve reparations from the Balts?

Contrary to Russophobes who claim the USSR was nothing more than an expression of Russian imperial chauvinism, and anti-Semites who ascribe it all to the Jooz, the fact of the matter is that the Bolsheviks were also greatly aided in their designs by the many the other small nationalities of the former Soviet Union.

Moreover, as a general rule, the more they helped out the Bolsheviks, the more they have been lionized by Western neocons and East European diaspora nations, and the harder they have worked to airbrush their roles out of the Soviet project: From stronk Polish Hussars to True Aryan Ukrainians and “Stalin planned a second Holocaust” Jews to the “plucky” Balts and Georgians of the conventional Western imagination.

The Latvians in particular are the very distillation of this pheonomenon. This nation of less than two million people, thanks to the Red Latvian Riflemen, provided the firepower to disband the Constituent Assembly – the product of the only free elections in Russia until 1990, in which the Bolsheviks got less than 25% of the votes – before being redirected to quell anti-Bolshevik uprisings in the Russian cities of Moscow and Yaroslavl.

No Latvians serving as Varangian Guards to the Bolsheviks, and its feasible that there would not even have been a Soviet Union.

The first leader of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, was Felix Dzerzhinsky, an ethnic Pole (and Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s hero back when being pro-Red Terror was politically correct). His key deputies were a couple of Latvians, Yakov Peters and Martin Latsis.

The heavily Jewish nature of the early top Bolshevik ranks, and of the pre-purge NKVD, is now as much a matter of confirmed historical record by the most impeccably academic and indeed Jewish sources, as is the fact that after 1938 control shifted to what was essentially a Georgian-Mingrelian mafia headed by Stalin.

Considering the critical role of Latvians in foisting the Bolsheviks to power and committing atrocities against Russians, it is if anything Russia which should be demanding reparations from Latvia for its crimes against the Russian people, nation, and culture. Further invoices can be sent to Saakashvili and the Beltway “Now We Call Ourselves Neocons” Trotskyists later.

Of course, as a somewhat self-respecting Great Power with a rich history and culture independent of the Soviet experienece, Russia has no particular need or urge to engage in such antics to confirm its status as a European nation. It is if anything pluralist enough for support an entire ecosystem of ideological Atlanticists and Yuropcultists who insist on taking exclusive ownership of the crimes of a long dead Georgian gangster and flaggelating themselves for it. This “pathological altruism” is a quintessentially European trait. To the contrary, even pro-Russian foreigners in as “reformed” and Yuropean a small East European country as Estonia – look, they have e-democracy! – get deported as “Russian agents of influence.”

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between Russia and the small aboriginal cargo cults whose sense of nationhood boils down to the East European equivalent of muh oppressions and gimme gibs.

 
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alexievich-likes-iron-felix One of the consequences of selecting a literary nobody for the world’s most prestigious intellectual prize is that people will begin digging into their biographies. And find some very, very interesting things.

This is what has been happening in regards to 2015 Nobel Literature Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose main distinguishing feature seems to be neither eminence nor literary quality but dogged opposition to everything and everyone that the Western elites dislike – first and foremost, the genetically aggressive and barbarous Russian people and their current President, Putin.

Russia blogger Igor Petrov recently discovered some of her writings for a Soviet literary journal from 1977. Intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish founder of the Soviet secret police, it is entitled “The Sword and Flame of the Revolution” – and is every bit the breathless panegyric you might expect from something like that.

I have collected Petrov’s scans of her article into a PDF which you can download here (in Russian, of course).

Here are some choice quotes:

I always catch myself thinking that I want to quote Dzerzhinsky himself. His diaries. His letters. And I don’t do this out of any desire to easen my journalistic tasks, but out of adoration for his personality, for the words that he spoke, and the thoughts he must have felt. I know that Dzerzhinsky loved children very much… Thousands of street orphans owe him their new lives…

I wonder if the words she quoted from Dzerzhinsky ever included the following: “We represent in ourselves organized terror – this must be said very clearly,” or this: “[The Red Terror involves] the terrorization, arrests and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”

The whole thing goes on and on in a similar vein, recounting anecdotes about Dzerzhinsky modest and selfless character. He refused the gift of a new suiter because so many other people were living in poverty. He ordered the Turkmen comrades to reverse their decision to name a railway after him. He worked and lived in his office, only venturing to sleep once every few days. On and on it goes. In short, it is a good illustration of why most Soviet literary journals went unread, and for that matter why most Russians were unaware of the existence of “stars” like Alexievich before a few guys in Sweden decided to boost her prominence.

alexievich-adores-iron-felix Still, the ending, in which she remarks on her impressions of a museum dedicated to Dzerzhinsky, takes the cake for shamelessness:

When my son grows up, we will certainly both come to this place to bow before the immortal spirit of him, who carried the name Felix Dzerzhinsky – the “sword and flame” of the proletarian revolution.

This is cringeworthy stuff even by Brezhnevite Soviet standards. This is far too ardent – in order words, she is trying way too hard – for this to be explainable as merely a way of paying the bills.

Instead, the image that emerges instead is of Svetlana Alexievich as a standard pen for hire spouting the politically correct drivel of the day. This changed decade to decade. In the 1970s, that involved writing paeans to the blood-drenched spiritual ancestor of the KGB. In the late 1980s – humanistic criticism of Chernobyl and Afghanistan. In the 1990s – the denigration of the regime she had once eulogized. Come the mid-2000s, the Obkom – the one based in Washington D.C., this time round – emphasized a new set of guideposts for its admirers in the Russosphere, centered around demonization of Putin and the delegitimization of Russian statehood and the opinions of ordinary Russians in general. Fervent support for the Maidan and the so-called Revolution of Dignity is merely the latest expression of this.

In short, she is the mirror opposite of someone like Solzhenitsyn, who whether you agree with him or not, stayed constant to his ideals throughout his life, even as the West went from praising to vilifying him as soon as he was perceived to have outlived his usefulness.

And, lest it be forgotten, anybody who didn’t take the new party line fast enough is – according to Alexievich herself – to be firmly punished and removed. All in the best traditions of her enduring idol, Iron Felix himself.

Of course Russian TV corrupts you. What the Russian media says today – they simply have to be prosecuted for it. For what they say about Europe, about Donbass, about Ukrainians… But this isn’t all. The problem is that people actually want to hear this. We can talk today about a collective Putin, because there is a Putin sitting in all Russians. The Red Empire has vanished, but its people have remained.

What can we take away from this? To be sure, one presumes that the Nobel Prize Committee never got the chance to be acquainted with Alexievich’s pre-perestroika writings.

But insofar as uncritical loyalty and dedication towards the latest politically correct dogma of the day is now standard practice in the West as it was in the Soviet Union – and in this respect, Sweden Yes! is a leader, not a follower – the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision in light of these revelations can be considered even more “correct” than was the case beforehand.

 
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vsevolod-ivanov-man-and-bear

Artwork by Vsevolod Ivanov.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of participating in an “Ascending the Tower” podcast produced by neoreactionary luminaries Surviving Babel and Nick B. Steves.

We talked about foreign policy, especially as it pertains to Russia, modern European and American history, the rise of Western universalism, neocons, and the Ukrainian Conflict in the context of neoreactionary geopolitical theory. Despite the length of time it took to get this podcast organized, the discussion in it has lost none of its relevancy.

Below are the links to the podcasts – due to their length, Surviving Babel split them in two – together with a copy of their “table of contents” and show-related hyperlinks.

***

Episode VII, Part 1: “This Kaleidoscope Of Truths”

Notes:
4:44 – Introducing Anatoly Karlin
7:17 – Putin and his perception in the West
16:26 – Gradual erosion of Russian respect for the US
22:10 – Russia Today vs. Western media outlets
28:05 – Brief thoughts on Alexandr Dugin
32:05 – Mid-19th c. burgeoning Cathedral foreign policy

Related show links:
Opening Music (excerpt): “Thirst For Truth” by Sons of Northern Mist
https://www.jamendo.com/en/track/1174735/thirst-for-truth

Closing Music (excerpt): “You is Light” by KORDYUKOV
https://www.jamendo.com/en/track/1207353/you-is-light

Anatoly Karlin’s Blog
http://www.unz.com/akarlin/

Discussion of 19th c. Russian liberal-conservatism
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/putins-philosophy/

More on Russian attitudes towards the US
http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/07/14/chapter-1-the-american-brand/

Ofcom and Russia Today
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/mar/02/russia-today-anti-western-ukraine-crosstalk-kremlin

Gregory Hood on Dugin
http://www.radixjournal.com/journal/2014/6/23/why-the-conservative-movement-needs-dugin

Russian involvement in US Civil War
http://www.voltairenet.org/article169488.html

***

Episode VII, Pt. 2 – “The Worship of the West”

Notes:
1:03 – Woodrow Wilson, progenitor of the Cathedral
5:46 – Family structure and its influence on political ideology
11:30 – The failure of the League of Nations
15:13 – The post-WWII East-West polarization
19:58 – Competing visions of the nature of Ukraine
29:32 – Euromaidan and the Russian reaction
38:41 – Forecasting the near future of Ukraine
44:04 – Out of Left Field — Impact of the EAEU

Related show links:

Opening Music – “Opening Game” by aktarum
https://www.jamendo.com/en/track/1134793/opening-game

Closing Music – “The Gardener” by Mister_Even_Steven
https://www.jamendo.com/en/track/1245965/the-gardener

Anatoly Karlin’s blog
http://www.unz.com/akarlin/

Anatoly discusses Apollo’s Ascent
http://akarlin.com/2015/01/blogging-at-unz-review/

Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations (warning: Cathedral source)
https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/fourteen-points
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp

hbdchick’s posts on Emmanuel Todd’s family formation theory
https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/tag/todds-family-systems/

Eurasian Economic Union (officially EAEU in English)
http://www.eaeunion.org/?lang=en

Sponsorship:

If you are interested in sponsoring Ascending the Tower, e-mail me at Surviving Babel at gmail dot com. Sponsorships start at $10 an episode, and all proceeds will either go back into the podcast or provide some compensation for your most grateful host. You can purchase a mention or short message, or you can choose to sponsor the Out of Left Field question or even an entire episode.

***

A Gentle Introduction to NRx

Kickstarted by the Jewish Silicon Valley-based programmer Mencius Moldbug in the late 2000s, neoreaction – or NRx, as it is commonly abbreviated – is a radically new look at our social and political systems through the prism of Human Biodiversity, the theory of private government, and the writings of dead white male reactionaries such as Thomas Carlyle and Julius Evola. This set of theories and ways of thinking has been termed the “Dark Enlightenment” by the British philosopher Nick Land. Since the days of Moldbug, NRx has branched off into three distinct directions: The (original) elitist, philo-Semitic, technophilic, and cognitively elitist wing, basically disillusioned libertarians who realized that the average person is a 100 IQ idiot who shouldn’t be trusted with democracy; the more populistic, Semitic-neutral traditionalists, ethnonationalists, thede-preservers, and old-school Christian conservatives who will never have any truck with gay marriage (I believe my interlocutors in this podcast largely belong to this category); and the wave of nationalists, Internet trolls, anti-Semites, and overt Nazis who have been making their way into the movement in more recent months. The entrance of the latter has been especially traumatic, producing a lot of drama and hysterics. Many of the Nazis wanted to overthrow NRx outright – some of them call it JRx, you can guess what that stands for – and sweep up the fragments into White Nationalism. But they haven’t met with success, since by and large the NRx OG’s – the techno-commercialists and the traditionalists – have resisted the assaults of the stormfags. And despite the recent political jitters, a lot of quality work continues to be written under the NRx umbrella.

This is a barebones summary. I will probably write more about neoreaction in the future, but for now, readers who want to find out more about this movement are directed to the following articles.

Personally, I agree with maybe 60% of the NRx platform – heck, check my blog name – but I should stress that I do not identify as NRx. Not out of any misplaced concern for respectability and employability; that ship has long sailed. Just that some of their ideas I disagree with, and quite cardinally so – for instance, the viability and desirability of private government. I don’t really adhere to any ideology but I do generally sympathize with Left positions economically. Like virtually any other ideology, they prefer narratives over facts. Their narrative (I think) happens to be closer to reality than the mainstream SWPL Liberal or Cuckservative narratives, but it contains predictable blindspots like rejection of climate science and statistically questionable claims denying the longterm decline in violence. Plus, they have a solid stance against entryism. That is their right and I will respect it.

PS. Administrative note -

As you may have noticed, my blog has been reduced from three slots to one slot on the front page. This is temporary, and was done by my own request. Basically, for various personal-related reasons, I will be very busy until about mid-August. Hence, my blogging will likely be very infrequent during this period. I will get much more free time come late August and September, when I will return to my regular blogging schedule and the old front page arrangement.

 
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scylla-charybdis-and-me Contrary to what some might try to take from my post on the longterm failure of the Soviet economy, I am not an anti-Soviet ideologue. I loathe lies about its achievements and the blanket condemnations directed its way by moralistic poseurs every bit as much or more than I detest reality-challenged attempts to paint it off as some kind of utopia or at least superior to alternative paths of development.

After communists, most of all I hate anti-communists. – Sergei Dovlatov, Soviet dissident.

On the latter point, I especially notice a tendency to ignore wider historical and comparative context. In the crudest cases, Russian literacy rates and GDP are compared with those of the Tsarist era: Yes, of course the average Soviet citizen c.1980 lived far better than the average Russian citizen in 1913, but then again, so did the average citizen of EVERY OTHER European country. The more important question to ask: Would the average Russian have been better off had the Russian Empire continued on its natural development trajectory without the distortions of Stalinist central planning? Yes, he almost certainly would have, as per comparison with, say, Finland (the sole part of the Empire that didn’t go Communist), or even the Mediterranean periphery nations.

Alternatively, they say that the USSR nonetheless managed to be richer than the “Third World”, as if that was some kind of achievement. Of course it was not, as (1) they were much less advanced than the Russian Empire even in 1913, and (2) their low national IQ’s would have precluded, and continue to do so, convergence with the rich world anyway; a weakness that Russia *doesn’t* suffer from. But the evidence is simply too overwhelming to be deniable: China; North Korea; Cuba; to a lesser extent, the ex-Soviet countries and Eastern Europe – all these nations, which have little in common except insofar as they suffered from the scourge of Communist economics, are ALL glaring and consistent downwards exceptions to the otherwise remarkably tight correlation between levels of national IQ/human capital and GDP per capita. (Of course a further problem here is that hardcore Soviet apologists tend to be cultural Marxists and deny Human Biodiversity and intelligence theory).

They plead special circumstances, e.g. that the USSR was encircled, and it suffered from wars, crises, etc. But the USSR was far from alone from being wracked by catastrophe during the 20th century – in fact, quite a few of them were self-inflicted, like the Stalinist famines – and (to its credit), it remained stable and recovered quickly from shocks, unlike many developing capitalist countries. (E.g., lost WW2 industrial output was restored by the late 1940′s). As for the sums it spent on the military, this was a reason but not the main reason why the Soviet economy became sluggish and living standards stagnated from the 1970′s, at a level that was far beneath that of the advanced world (regardless of whatever absurd anecdotes commentators like Kirill or Leon wish to recount).

That said, I equally despise ideologized LIES about the USSR, which tend to come most prominently from Russophobe Westerners and their liberal compradors in Russia: That it shares responsibility for WW2 with Nazi Germany; that it “drowned” the fascist invaders with bodies (there is a whole host of myths on that front, most of which were initially advanced by retired Nazi generals); that the Holodomor was a genocide against Ukrainians (it was a manmade famine enabled by ideological zeal, and remarkably comparable to the Irish Famine); that the Soviet space program was run by German scientists; that the Soviet system was doomed to collapse; that the Communists killed 70 million people (in reality about 2mn executed or died in camps, and a further 5mn in manmade famines – which is STILL horrible, lest critics accuse me of apologetics, especially when one considers that the most severe late Tsarist era famine happened in 1891, in which half a million people died).

I also consider Andropov to have been the best of the Soviet leaders, and am of the opinion that on balance it would have been better had the USSR not collapsed and instead reformed itself while maintaining political unity (though in practice, again contrary to pro-Soviet propaganda, this was a very hard if not impossible task in the conditions that had developed by the late 1980′s). Despite not having really lived there I very much REGRET the Soviet collapse; for a start, I would not have become a rootless cosmopolitan slouching about foreign countries, and more generally the new democratic and “independent” Russia would not have been pushed about and bullied by the West, which contrary to its democracy propaganda only truly respects the fist. If I were really the anti-Soviet ideologue some people insist on painting me as, would I have made SEVEN out of the 50 (14%) of my article on Russophobe myths directly tied to clearing up misconceptions about Soviet history? Would I have translated the controversial textbook by Filippov, which was smeared as Stalinist by various liberal ideologues and Russophobes?

Of course, there are also polarly opposite ideologues who consider me a Stalinist or Soviet apologist, such as La Russophobe and Economist “journalist” Edward Lucas and his various Balto-fascist minions. They hardly deserve mention. After all if I was this sovok diehard would I bother doing stuff like translating this article which is largely anti-Soviet by Estonian writer Jaan Kaplinski?

My only real sin is being objective, radically ambiguous, not taking sides, etc., and for this I come under assault from everybody – the liberals, the PC brigade and cultural Marxists, the traitors and compradors, the Russophobes Western and Russian, Western chauvinists, the hardcore Stalinists, the Communists, the monarchists and white nationalists, and what’s worst in my view, the Russian “patriots” who think Stalin and/or the USSR in general were the best thing since vodka. That is because many of the above are actually viciously intolerant fascists if not in name then in spirit. Those thugs will never shut me up!

Nonetheless, for all the lively discussion the recent post on the Soviet economy generated, I have taken the strategic decision to henceforth place all my commentary on Russia that is not more or less directly involved with this blog’s sub-header – “Exposing Western myths about Russia” – at my other blog AKarlin. That blog will be for controversial, original, etc. comment on Russia that will at times not jive well with DR’s theme. This blog will be exclusively about specific Russia myths, exposes of lying journalists, Russia-related translations, telling statistical charts, etc.

EDIT Jan 29, 2013: I have moved taken the above paragraph to heart and transferred the post from DR to AKarlin, where you are now reading it.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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While writing this post on Da Russophile about why Russians do not (for the most part) hate Jews – a post that will also be of interest to AKarlin readers – I came across very interesting historical data on literacy and educational accomplishment by ethnic groups in the USSR.

Per 100 people of respective nationality
Literacy Rate among…
ages 9-49 50 and older
Jews 85,0 90,0 62,5
Germans 78,5 79,1 74,4
Russians 58,0 64,3 27,9
Ukrainians 53,4 59,2 22,2
Georgians 50,3 57,0 24,7
Belorussians 47,6 54,2 16,1
Koreans 45,1 50,6 20,6
Armenians 42,9 47,5 20,4
Tatars 41,7 46,4 19,0
Kazakhs 9,1 9,9 5,3
Uzbeks 4,8 5,2 3,3
Chechens 3,4 3,6 2,6
Tajiks 3,0 3,0 3,0
USSR average 51,1 56,6 24,5

This table shows the literacy rate among different groups from the 1926 First All-Union Census. Coming less than a decade after the Revolution this table is of course a reflection of the Tsarist education system, not of the Soviet one. Apart from puncturing one Communist myth, that the Tsarist regime didn’t do anything for people’s literacy and that it was all a Soviet achievement, it also demonstrates that Jews had the highest literacy rate of all the peoples in the Empire.

Per 1,000 people of respective nationality
With higher education With high school diploma Literacy rate
Jews 57,1 268,1 943
Georgians 14,3 129,8 825
Armenians 10,9 106,8 790
Russians 6,2 81,4 834
Ukrainians 5,3 82,1 843
Germans 5,2 69,7 935
Belorussians 4,7 71,0 780
Koreans 4,3 75,6 727
Tatars 2,2 50,3 779
Kazakhs 0,9 21,7 618
Uzbeks 0,7 15,1 635
Tajiks 0,5 12,0 676
Chechens 0,3 7,6 428
USSR average 6,4 77,8 812

The above from the 1939 Soviet Census. Jews are way, way ahead in educational attainment.

Per 1,000 people of respective nationality
With higher education With apprenticeship No education
Jews 561 174 12
Koreans 249 210 42
Georgians 195 202 29
Armenians 163 178 34
Russians 138 201 60
Kazakhs 119 158 62
Ukrainians 108 177 73
Belorussians 107 170 79
Uzbeks 90 123 63
Tatars 92 164 73
Tajiks 79 91 66
Chechens 61 111 137
Germans 57 167 84
USSR average 125 182 64

From the 1989 Soviet Census. Jews maintain a massive lead in educational attainment despite supposed rampant anti-Semitism.

BTWNotice however that Germans are bottom of the barrel, below even Chechens and Tajiks in tertiary attainment. Now that is clearly a group that is being discriminated against as German IQ is typically a couple of points above that of ethnic Russians, so their rate of tertiary attainment should be at least equal if not higher.

So how to resolve these paradoxes – that Jews were “held back” from Russian schools and universities, but at the same time somehow maintained educational qualifications well in excess of the Soviet and Russian averages?

I think the answer is quite simple; both are true.

Ashkenazi Jews (such as lived in the USSR) are typically recorded to have a mean IQ about one S.D. above the white European norm. So all things equal they will perform much better than ethnic Russians. What the imperial Russian government did in fact do was a form of pro-indigenous majority affirmative action.

In 1887, the quotas placed on the number of Jews allowed into secondary and higher education were tightened down to 10% within the Pale, 5% outside the Pale, except Moscow and Saint Petersburg, held at 3%. It was possible to evade this restrictions upon secondary education by combining private tuition with examination as an “outside student”. Accordingly, within the Pale such outside pupils were almost entirely young Jews.

This 10% quota broadly correlated with the actual percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement.

It all makes complete sense.

The differential between Jews and Russians with a higher education was recorded at more than 10x in 1939. This was reduced to 4x by 1989. Two possible explanations:

(1) The 1920′s were a philo-Semitic period and AFAIK quotas on Jews entering universities weren’t present during this period. I do not know if there were formal quotas against Jews in the later, “anti-Zionist” period of Soviet history but it IS anecdotally known that barriers to entry into many institutions were higher than for other Soviet citizens. Certainly this played a major role in setting Soviet Jews against the regime. This is the well-known version which stresses Russian anti-Semitism.

(2) The other explanation is that by 1989 when more than half of Jews had higher education the percentage of Jews who could access it even based on pure meritocracy had been maxed out. Let’s crudely assume a mean IQ of 100 for Russians and 115 for Jews with an S.D. of 15. This means that 16% of Russians and 50% of Jews will have an IQ of 115 or above. Let’s say that this is the part of the population that had access to a higher education in the Soviet era (this makes sense: The system was, for the most part, meritocratic, and standards for entry where far higher than today when higher education is far more accessible). According to our stats, the actual higher education achievement figures in 1989 were 14% for Russians and 56% for Jews, i.e. Jewish access to education was actually higher than what you would get by assuming reasonable mean IQ’s and no anti-Semitic discrimination. Of course even slight differences in the actual mean IQ levels (e.g. a Russian mean IQ of 97, not 100 – as may be more realistic) will have substantial impacts but they would not cardinally change the overall picture.

My preliminary conclusion is that anti-Semitic discrimination at least in terms of higher education was negligible at least as indicated by this simple thought experiment. A more detailed model would be preferable but I do not see how it could invalidate any of this.

Russia has long been presented as a seething bastion of anti-Semitism.

To the contrary, an objective look at it through measurable impacts finds that at worst what existed was a system of pro-indigenous affirmative action. It is loosely comparable to official AA in American college admissions, however in the US case it is geared to aid NAM’s. Nonetheless as Blacks are about one S.D. below whites even fairly drastic interventions do not much impact on white admissions. The effect on Jews, who are in turn one S.D. above whites – or two S.D.’s above Blacks – is of course all but negligible. So although pro-NAM’s-AA in the US does disadvantage Jews it does so to a far lesser extent than did pro-non-Jew AA in the USSR.

A better comparison might be with Asian-Americans, who are (slightly) discriminated against in favor of whites in the US. For the USSR, replace Asian-Americans with Jews. Of course Asian-Americans will rarely improve their lot by going back to China or Korea, unlike Soviet Jews emigrating to Israel or Silicon Valley; hence, they are quiescent, and largely satisfied with the American regime.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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While researching my article on Soviet economic performance relative to the US (it was bad), I came across this fascinating graph showing income inequality in the USSR since 1946.

As you can see, the 10% richest Soviet citizens in the first postwar year were more than seven times as rich as the 10% poorest. That is actually substantially higher than in many capitalist social democracies today: Czech Republic (5.2), Finland (5.7), Germany (6.9), Japan (4.5), Sweden (6.2). Russia’s current R/P ratio is about 13 IIRC.

And there’s lots of factoids that support this assertion:

(1) Stalin increased his own salary as General-Secretary from 225 rubles (until 1935), to 500 rubles in 1935, 1,200 rubles in 1936, 2,000 rubles by the end of the war, and a cool 10,000 rubles by 1947.

(2) While in the 1920′s there were strict limits on managerial salaries as a percentage of workers’, in 1929-1934 they were quietly lifted. In the 1920′s, the “Party maxim” was 175 rubles compared to average worker salaries of 50 rubles; whereas by 1937 the average manager-worker differential increased to 5:1 (higher than in contemporary Paris, where it was 4:1). This figure doesn’t include unofficial payments in envelopes and huge bonuses for over-fulfillment of the Plan.

(3) In the military, a lieutenant’s salary in 1939 was 625 rubles, compared to a colonel’s 2000 rubles. This was a higher differential than in France, where it was 2,000 francs and 5,000 francs, respectively. Or for that matter far higher than in today’s “oligarchic” Russia, where a lieutenant now gets 50,000 rubles and a colonel 75,000 rubles.

(4) The highest administrative salaries reached into the 10,000′s of rubles, e.g. the director of one Kharkov enterprise in the late 1930′s got 22,000 rubles. The chairman and deputy chairman of the Supreme Council got salaries of 25,000 rubles. These figures are 100x the salary of an average worker which was 250 rubles and a minimum industrial wage of 110-115 rubles.

Another interesting factoid I discovered was that the supposedly education-worshiping Soviet government made people pay for it from 1940 onwards. The 8th-10th classes of schools, as well as colleges, now cost 150-200 rubles per year to attend (10% of an average worker’s yearly salary), while higher education cost 300-500 rubles. This system was only removed in 1954.

So apart from the well-known features of Stalinism (repressions, etc) it seems to have also been a period of privilege – in which bureaucrats may have been very unsafe but did enjoy incomes that were unprecedented compared to the rest of Soviet history. Overall inequality wasn’t astoundingly high because private enterprise had been banned for the most part, but inequality within the actual state structure was; quite possibly, more so even than today. Needless to say it was also full of informal hierarchy in terms of privileged access to scarce goods – the 1930′s-40′s was a horrible period for Soviet consumers.

I wonder what Russian Stalinists who idealize the period would make of all this?

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Many Communists, leftists, and even patriots (I’m sorry to say) have a pronounced tendency to make out the Soviet economy as not quite the resounding failure it really was – or even to paint it as a success story that was only brought down by perestroika and liberal reforms.

The above chart – based on historical GDP per capita (Geary-Khamis 1990 Int$) by Angus Maddison, compiled by liberal economist Illarionov, popularized online by Lopatnikov, and Starikov – purports to destroy two “myths”: That of (1) Prosperous Tsarism, and (2) The ineffectiveness of the Soviet economy. After all, the average Russian went from being 40% as rich as the average American in 1885, to only 23% by 1917; whereas during the Soviet period, despite the turmoil of two major wars, Russian incomes reaches a relative peak at 40% of American levels during Brezhnev’s “stagnation” period.

These is however a glaring hole in this logic, namely that (1) relatively slow growth under late Tsarism reflected a permanent state of affairs, as opposed to the heavy but temporary burden of a large rural, illiterate population; and (2) that a level of per capita GDP that is a mere 40% of what Americans enjoy was in any way a fulfillment of Russia’s potential during the 20th century. In fact, graphical comparison with other countries shows this to be almost certainly false.

I replicated the graph comparing Russia’s historical performance relative to the US, but adding in another reference – those south European countries that were broadly comparable to Tsarist Russia in terms of economic development at the turn of the century (i.e. both were backward), but were spared from the distortions of central planning. (I could only find figures for the Russian Empire/the USSR as a whole, not Russia specifically, hence the slight disparity from the first graph; but the trends would remain the same). You can click on the graph to view it in higher detail.

On examination, several things became clear:

(1) While it is true that Russia was losing ground relative to the US under late Tsarism, or at least until 1905 (see first graph) – the same was true for all other backward European economies. In fact, the Russian Empire tracked Portugal almost exactly. But bear in mind that Russia in 1870 was 90% rural and illiterate, a state of affairs utterly nonconductive to industrial development; and agriculture’s potential for productivity gains is extremely limited, especially in the context of the system at that time. In contrast, the US was almost universally literate and embarking on its great industrial boom. It is no wonder then that the relative gap between the US and Russia increased from 1870 to 1905 (why the gap existed in the first place can be traced back centuries and is far beyond the scope of this post). Notice that the same thing was happening in all the other similarly backward countries: Portugal, Spain, Ireland, to a lesser extent (but more developed) Italy also all lost ground to the US from 1870-1913.

(2) The Soviets inherited Tsarist infrastructure, hence the period until 1925 was simply one of restoration. It should also be noted that the literacy rate by 1916 was around 50%, i.e. in terms of human capital development, much of the legwork had already been done; that is, the country was ALREADY ripe for a faster rate of industrialization, that would have happened regardless under any political regime. Nonetheless growth began to flag by the late 1920′s, as Tsarist-era production levels were restored. It was only further turbocharged from 1930 on by forced savings via collectivization and consumption repression, and German and American investment. But even so note that the sharp rise in the early 1930′s was in large part an artifact of the Great Depression that wracked the US, and that in that period ALL countries rose upwards, and that the USSR failed to make substantial gains on the US standard of living following the mid-1930′s; indeed, Soviet GDP actually fell in 1940. Needless to say this growth was also achieved at much higher human cost than elsewhere.

(3) Everybody suffered from the wars and the collapse of trade during the 1940′s. The USSR did start recovering earlier, showing strong growth relative to the US during the 1950′s and to a lesser extent during the 1960′s; it also held its own against what were still the weakest West European economies, that is Portugal, Greece, Spain, and Ireland – although Italy sprinted far ahead. The fast growth during this period was structurally similar to the US some fifty years prior: The large-scale shift from agriculture to industry, which is a one-off in historical terms.

(4) Once this process started exhausting itself by the 1970′s, relative growth flat-lined at a base only 35% of America’s (or slightly more than 40%, taking into account only the RSFSR). By 1990, it dipped below 30%. Note that it is a linear downslope from 1975, well before perestroika or “reforms”. From 1970 a sharp gap began to develop with Portugal, Greece, Spain, and Ireland; by 1990, for instance, the weakest of this group, Portugal, was at 50% of US GDP per capita. European nations that a century ago were overwhelmingly rural, undeveloped and superstitious just like the Russian Empire had now pulled decisively ahead of Soviet Russia; during the 2000′s, Ireland briefly almost converged with the US! While as we all know, during the 1990′s, the Russian economy fell into a precipitous collapse…

(5) Yes, on the one hand, this collapse wouldn’t have happened had the USSR retained political authority and central planning. On the other hand, there does not appear to be any good reason that the USSR should have experienced a productivity spurt relative to the US; if anything the reverse as demographic prospects were deteriorating by the 1980′s (especially the pool of surplus rural labor was drying up) and resources for higher investment rates were hard to find (due to the demands of the MIC, and falling oil prices). Indeed, Goskomstat planners in the late 1980′s assumed growth to the end of the millennium would be around 1.5% per annum, i.e. even further decline relative to the US. In the big picture, Russia exchanged a very punishing transitional depression for the prospect of normal market growth, which has predominated since 1998, and the longterm possibility of real convergence.

fennoscandia-russia-gdp-usa-compared

Another interesting set of countries Russia can be compared to are Fennoscania, though with a word of caution – Sweden, Norway, and to a lesser extent Finland were in literacy (human capital) terms far ahead of the late Russian Empire. Note that Finland, relatively backward nonetheless, declines more relative to the US than its Nordic neighbors; again, presumably a function of its initial backwardness (highly rural, can’t grow fast). Its performance in the 1930′s is every bit as impressive as Russia’s, and unlike the USSR, it continues to rapidly converge with US living standards from the 1960′s onwards. Note that Finland was only a modestly richer subject of the Russian Empire in 1913 than the national average.

russia-gdp-historical-compared

The final graph shows Russia’s historical performance relative to the US, Finland, Greece, and Portugal all in one. It is particularly telling that plotted against Finland, it is a story of almost inexorable decline during the Soviet period. While Russia did makes massive gains vis-a-vis Portugal and Greece under Stalinism, both the latter grew far more quickly during the 1950′s and 1960′s, with the result that they overtook the USSR in per capita terms at around 1970 and held a substantial lead by the 1980′s. This substantial gap became an awning abyss during the catastrophic nineties, however it is important to emphasize that the economy of the 1990′s was for the most part still a continuation of (well, the dissolution of) the stagnant Soviet command economy.

There are of course many caveats. Some might argue that what the USSR suffered from in inefficiency it made up for in more focus on developing human capital (which is the single most important factor for long-term productivity growth). I don’t see this as convincing. As mentioned above, literacy rates by the 1910′s were above 40%; the school enrollment figures of the mid-1910′s would only be reattained in 1925. It is simply wrong to say that the Tsarist regime neglected human capital, it was just developing it from a lower base and the Soviets merely took over that process.

The two biggest problems were that (1) the Soviet economy was seemingly unable to develop to more than 40% of the US per capita level, due to its inefficiency – that was its ceiling; and what’s worse, (2) it could not be dismantled without incurring a hyper-depression in the meantime. That second point is the reason why many Russian leftists continue to insist that the Soviet economy was a good thing, at least it held steady relative to the Americans under Brezhnev as opposed to collapsing in the 1990′s (which is in actuality the collapse of the Soviet economy), and being on the retreat throughout late Tsarism (for aforementioned structural reasons, but whose negative influence was weakened from the 1900′s); they also for some reason think that a GDP per capita at 40% of the US level is something to be proud of.

Addendum 6/22: I noticed Sergey Zhuravlev makes much the same arguments in his article Wily Lines

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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It is now nearly 20 years since market reformers began liberalizing the economies of Eastern Europe, or as some smart-ass put it, trying to revive the fish in the centrally planned fish stews. These stews, cooked to diverse recipes from goulash socialism to Soviet “structural militarization“, were subjected to a wide spectrum of overlapping treatments ranging neoliberalism (the Baltics), market socialism (Belarus), and mercantile corporatism (Russia). Other fish stews just stagnated in anarchic stasis (Ukraine). Twenty years on, it is time to observe the oft-surprising results.

I used Angus Maddison’s historical statistics, CIA figures for 2009 growth except where available the results from national statistical services (Belarus & Russia), and the IMF projections for 2010 (adjusted upwards for non-Baltic nations with sharp recent falls in GDP to account for their stronger-than-expected recoveries) to create GDP (PPP) per capita indices for post-Soviet nations and Poland (generally representative of Visegrad) where the output levels of 1989 – the year of peak Soviet GDP – are set to 100.

So which national ponds look like they’ve been subjected to grenade fishing, and which ones have the liveliest fish? Drumroll…

Belarus! At least amongst the industrialized nations, this market socialist economy – mocked and despised by proponents of the Washington consensus – is now substantially more productive than it was in 1989, beating out all its peer competitors. Furthermore, unlike the Baltics or Russia, it remains one of the most equal societies on Earth. Belarus suffered less of the “catabolic collapse” observed in neighboring Russia and Ukraine in the 1990′s, and strong growth resumed earlier. This included growth in manufacturing – Belarus did not suffer from the widespread deindustrialization from which Russia has only recently, and just barely, recovered from in 2007 (and then lost again in 2009!) – and the country even developed a competitive micro-electronics industry. Interestingly, Belarus is also the only CIS nations with whom Russia had a negative migration balance (until 2005). It seems that the stability and benefits offered by Bat’ka outweighed his collective-farm-boss chique.

That said, Belarus’ relative success – shocking as it would be to neoliberal ideologues – should not be overstated. First, in 1989 it was one of the poorer members of the “industrialized nations”, and in standard macroeconomic theory, faster economic growth is, ceteris paribus, easier when you are further behind. Second, whereas Belarus is great for ordinary workers and pensioners, the more talented find it unpromising, even oppressive. Intertwined with an authoritarian political structure, the economic system is largely closed to those who don’t like toeing the party line.

Despite its economic depression from 2007, Estonia seems to have performed very well too. Enfused with post-independence optimism, it carried out its liberal reforms earlier and more completely than any other post-Soviet nation. As a result, it enjoyed a fast revival of growth from 1993, giving it a 2-year head start over Belarus and a 5-year one over Russia. Estonia is far richer and more transparent than Belarus, has a vibrant hi-tech sector, and more political freedoms (with the important exception of disenfranchised Russophones). Latvia has been somewhat less of a miracle economy. After the recent economic collapse, its economic output is now little bigger than the Soviet-era peak, and is much less equitably distributed.

In the bubbly days of 2006-2007 (and by bubbly, I do mean bubble), these economies became known as Baltic Tigers. Their liberal economic policies, balanced budgets, favorable geography, and low-wage skilled labor attracted huge credit inflows. This enabled a debt-fueled consumerist orgy, resulting in awning current account deficits. As the 2008 global credit crisis unfolded, investors took fright and capital inflows turned into capital flight. The house of cards fell down. The Baltics embarked on brutal wage deflation and budget cuts, especially in the worst-hit Latvia, to maintain their currency pegs against the Euro, acquire much-needed IMF financing, and reattain competitiveness. This is projected to take years – and that’s discounting both further shocks to the global financial system and political discontinuities (e.g. after the last Great Depression the Baltic nations became soft dictatorships).

The Balts cannot rely on a renewal of the old bubble, rising foreign protectionism precludes an export-led recovery, and the prospects for strong domestic consumption are dim because of the huge rise in debt levels. The IMF now forecasts prolonged below-trend growth, with GDP per capita only approaching their 2007 peaks by 2014 for all three Baltic nations (the same projections show Russia and Belarus converging to or overtaking the Baltic economies by that date). Just as for the old chasm between Marxism and “actually existing socialism”, whatever the merits of neoliberalism as a theoretical construct – its proponents will have to answer for its real-world disappointments.

Now we come to Russia, which has the region’s biggest and most important economy by far. It’s post-transition history is also highly complex. First, it cannot be stressed enough that the USSR did not collapse economically because of its inherent internal contradictions. It collapsed because Gorbachev aborted central planning, or more accurately ditched the coercive mechanisms that made central planning work (though granted the observable evidence of worker unrest and economic stagnation may have tipped his hand). In the absence of evolved market mechanisms, the “dictator’s surrender” only led to ruinous insider plunder, asset stripping and managerial misappropriation, all under the slogan of “liberalization” (true liberalizing reforms were far less wide-raging and generally implemented much later than in the Baltics). Output plummetted as barter arrangements replaced late Soviet scientific socialism.

As a result, Russia’s new capitalism developed in the most anarchic and perverse ways; indeed, it arguably had a greater resemblance to old Muscovite patrimonialism. A weak Tsar (President Yeltsin) bestowed rent-gathering rights unto his new boyars (the oligarchs) in exchange for their political support – a compromise he was driven to by the combination of 1) state weakness and 2) the perceived need to prevent the Communists coming to power at all costs. Putin’s cardinal achievement in his first term was to decisively shift the balance of power between Tsar and boyars back to the former, a fact confirmed by the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Khodorkovsky – the power-hungry robber baron who didn’t realize that the days of oligarch rule had passed. The economic crisis of 2008 led to the further reassertion of Kremlin power over the oligarchs – bailed out by a Russian state grown cash-rich from foreign energy sales, many are now little more than its glorified, well-compensated servants.

In the past decade, Russia has been in flux, metamorphosing from the chaotic, boyar-dominated, “appanage” atmosphere of the 1990′s, to the brave new world of Kremlin modernization dreams that are opening up the 2010′s. Three trends are now becoming dominant: 1) the state is becoming much more central in pushing Russia’s modernization through mercantilism (e.g. industrial tariffs), industrial policy (e.g. economic zones), and targeted investments in strategic and “sunrise” economic sectors (e.g. nanotechnology), 2) there is a concurrent, measured economic liberalization – from the 2001 flat tax reform to the raising of internal energy prices, and 3) there is a renewed attempt at social mobilization to fulfill the state’s development plans. In sum, a latter-day replay of the Petrine “revolution from above” (albeit one altered with the benefit of hindsight – Putin is careful to emphasize, even exaggerate, his Russian cultural patriotism, so as to avoid recreating the social divisions and unrest that tends to occur when a ruler is popularly seen as being in thrall to foreigners).

Russia’s post-1990 performance was far from stellar, though it should be noted that in overall per capita welfare it is still comparable to Belarus and only slightly behind Latvia (possibly ahead now) – not that much changed from the late Soviet period. Russia essentially lost two decades, like Latvia or Lithuania – and performed worse than Belarus, Estonia, and Poland (included in the graph for comparison).

This is not too surprising, since 1) Russia spent much of the 1990′s in “anarchic stasis”, a semi-failed state that had trouble maintaining any meaningful monopoly on violence, tax collection, and monetary emissions (the three vital functions of a state), 2) like the Baltics, Russia started from a relatively high base (it was already an industrialized nation), so it could hardly expect particularly rapid growth, and 3) the Kremlin only really began to focus on modernization as a priority in the mid-2000′s, as before it had been too preoccupied with consolidating the Russian state.

As I wrote in an earlier post on the Russian economy at the dawn of its late-2008 crisis (which was basically correct with the exception of the far too optimistic 2009 GDP forecast), Russia’s greatest weakness during the credit crunch was that its major corporations, the vast majority of them state or quasi-state, had come to rely on Western intermediation for accessing cheap credit. When the global credit wheel ground to a halt in late 2008, the first countries to be cut off were the emerging markets. (Having access to deep indigenous credit systems, nations like Brazil and China weathered the storm far better than Russian corporations and consumers who were suddenly cut off from cheap credit). Though the initial economic collapse was steep, Russia does not possess the long-term ailments of the Baltic states – debt has nowhere near the same level of penetration, the state remains incredibly cash-rich, and its strategic depth makes it largely invulnerable to any further retreat of globalization. Many forecasts now say that Russia will grow by 4% to 6% in 2010. In the longer-term, it has a comprehensive development plan and arguably good prospects for effecting an economic catch-up to the West.

Finally, far and away the worst post-Soviet performer amongst the industrialized nations is Ukraine. It never managed to reattain its Soviet-era level of per capita output, and that goal is now further away than ever. Comparable in its level of economic development to Belarus, Poland, and Russia in the late 1980′s, it is now far behind all three. Why? True, Russia had the gas reserves, but until the mid-2000′s Ukraine received vastly subsidized gas anyway. Furthermore, unlike Russia, Ukraine was nowhere near as burdened by “structural militarization” at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor did it retain prodigally expensive military forces or Great Power ambitions. It was also closer to Europe, directly bordering Poland. And besides, Belarus was in a similar position to Ukraine, but landlocked and shunned by the West to boot; but it nonetheless managed to do incomparably better.

I think the only good explanation for this retrogression is that Ukraine simply never left its 1990′s conditions of anarchic stasis. Its Tsar (or Hetman?) was always weak, Ukraine’s cultural cleft between Russian Orthodox East and Uniate West putting a glass ceiling to any ruler’s level of popular support at around 50% of the population. This constant problem with political legitimacy, experienced by both pro-Western and pro-Russian Presidents, stymied reform efforts and attempts to reign in oligarch power. Ukraine lagged well behind Russia, not to even mention the Baltics, in its economic liberalization, and its politicians remain representatives of oligarchic clans, not their puppet-masters as in Russia. Any sustained state-backed modernization scheme (e.g. on Putin’s Russia model) is doomed from the outset, while private investors and entrepreneurs are scared off by the unending political instability and lack of liberalization (in this respect, if Russia or Belarus is purgatory, Ukraine is hell). Long-term development is thus impossible under Ukraine’s conditions of anarchic stasis.

Below is a graph plotting the economic fortunes of the USSR’s less-developed nations (again per capita).

Azerbaijan‘s success is almost entirely tied up with the massive expansion of its oil production, especially from the mid-2000′s. Azerbaijan’s oil output rose from 0.2mn barrels a day between 1992 and 1998, to 0.4mn in 2005, and skyrocketed to 1.0mn by 2009, and as shown in the graph, the years of rapid increase were accompanied by amazingly high rates of GDP growth (up to 20-30% in a couple of years). A similar explanation would probably hold for why Kazakhstan‘s post-Soviet performance was substantially better than Russia’s, despite the many similarities between their economic systems – Kazakh oil production was 0.4mn barrels from 1992-95, 0.6mn in 1999, and 1.5mn by 2008.

(Russia produced only 22.6% more fuel energy in 2008 than in 1992. Its oil production went from an all-time peak of 11.5mn barrels in 1988, to 7.9mn in 1992, 6.0-6.5mn during 1994-99, 9.3mn in 2004, and 9.8mn by 2008 – i.e., correlated with general growth trends in its real GDP. Whereas the recovery in oil production accounted for a very substantial share of its GDP growth / recovery from 1999 to 2004, these effects became small after increases in oil production flattened out post-2004 due to geological factors (i.e. peak oil) and the political factors (the YUKOS affair); from the mid-2000′s, the main drivers of growth became retail, construction, transportation, manufacturing, and finance.)

Summation – Russia was recovering lost ground in oil production; Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were gaining massive new ground. Translated into GDP growth over the entire transition period, Kazakh and Azeri growth appears much more impressive, even though it was much more narrowly based on increasing resource extraction.

Armenia showed impressive growth, despite that it has no such resource windfall and is a mountanous, landlocked nation bordered by unfriendly Turks to the west, the hostile Azeris to the east who are closely related to Turks (with whom it fought a war in the early 1990′s), a Georgia up north that dislikes its alliance with Russia, and with Iran to the south, which is friendly, but is an international pariah. How the Armenians managed this I don’t know, but kudos to them!

Despite the pro-Saakashvili rhetoric, Georgia is not that impressive on objective terms. The average, post-Rose Revolution 2004-2008 growth was 8%, which although ostensibly impressive was not exceptional by regional standards. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean very much for a nation 1) starting from a low economic base and 2) recovering from a massive prior GDP collapse. True, somewhat better than trainwreck Moldova, but left in the dust by its Caucasian neighbor Armenia (likewise wracked by blockade and the occasional war), and only slightly better than Russia – a nation that has a GDP per capita that is three times bigger than Georgia’s.

According to an alternate, non-rosy view, The Georgian Economy Under Saakashvili (Irakli Rukhadze and Mark Hauf), much of Georgia’s recent growth was one-off, being based on state asset sales and government lay-offs. This was accompanied by accelerating deindustrialization, continued emigration and poverty, and the destruction of all remaining safety nets. The authors say the government acquired the habit of pressuring independent businesses to provide “voluntary contributions” in return for not bankrupting them under corruption prosecutions. This is not to singularly condemn Georgia’s weak rule of law. After all, politicized interference in the economy, widespread corruption, and corporate raiding are the rule rather than the exception throughout the former USSR. The only thing that’s special about the Georgian economy is the chasm between the gushing, star-speckled rhetoric emanating from Saakashvili and his neocon cheerleaders – and the actually existing reality.

Finally, we can note that Uzbekistan saw much better growth than Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is an unreformed economy, as well as land-locked, poor, and truly authoritarian (i.e. an extreme version of Belarus). But starting from a low base really helps, I guess. On the other hand, Tajikistan saw a devastating civil war between Communists and Islamists that killed 100,00 people during the early 1990′s, and it is the post-Soviet republic that is least advanced in the demographic transition (capital diverted to sustain new mouths and remember that we are measuring GDP per capita in this post). Growth performance in Kyzgyzstan was in between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whereas Turkmenistan’s was as good as Uzbekistan’s.

What to Expect?

Russia has a comprehensive modernization plan, the human, administrative, and financial resources needed to implement it, and the Kremlin’s siege mentality should give it the impetus to force it through. Thus, I am reasonably confident that Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will continue to see relatively fast growth. These countries have relatively high human capital (a necessary prerequisite for economic catch-up), and their recent customs union will enable bigger economies of scale. As I said before, there are many reasons to suppose that Ukraine will (re)join this Eurasian space within the next few years, at which point its anarchic stasis will finally end.

As I observed above, economic openness and transparency are not as important to economic catch-up as they are sometimes made out to be (this is NOT to imply they’re bad, however – obviously, imitating North Korea’s Juche principle or Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocracy is not the way forwards). However, they shouldn’t be treated as the be all and end all of things either. Moderate levels of corruption are nothing more than an additional tax, and it is even possible to think of situations where it can be positive (for instance, nations with impossible, idiotic regulations). Meanwhile, excessive economic openness can leave one too open to the vagaries of global casino capitalism – observe Latvia today, or Argentina 2001, for good examples. Furthermore, the next decade will likely see the retreat of globalization in tandem with peak oil and the waning of Pax Americana. In this new environment of “scarcity industrialism“, states that carve out self-sufficient dominions will fare best. Russia is aware of this, and has begun to regather its former Empire, and so is China with its fevered buyout of mines, land, and political elites around the world.

The Baltics may slowly recover under business-as-usual, though in the more globally pessimistic scenarios favored by S/O the general pattern will be stagnation, political unrest, and authoritarian reaction (especially possible in the most vulnerable member, Latvia). Central Asia does not really have the capacity for generating its own sustainable development. Far from potential markets and tyrannized by extreme climes and distances, the region is doomed to perpetual backwardness, except in so far as outside Powers like Russia or China find it in their interests to subsidize their development. In the Caucasus, the threat of instability and violence hangs permanently in the air, making any attempts at prediction even more of a futile endeavor.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Following my posting of Russia’s Sisyphean Loop, the influential East-Central Europe expert, Vlad Sobell, wrote up an interesting critique at the Untimely Thoughts Russia Discussion Group. It addresses what may be considered some weak, or at least not thoroughly explained, points from the original article, so I thought it would be useful to reproduce it in full along with the ensuing e-mail conversation.

I first give a very condensed version (inevitably a caricature) of what he has written, and then proceed to inform him what is wrong with it.

His thesis goes as follows:

In its effort to modernise and catch up with the West (mainly for reasons of defence) Russia has been going in circles, or historical cycles – a Sisyphean Loop. Anatoly has developed a useful model (his Belief Matrix TM) which illustrates the parameters in which this cycle is set.

He concludes that Russia is currently at a crossroads: it could either continue the cycle, with the current authoritarianism strengthening (even metamorphosing into totalitarianism) or it could break out from its cycle and embrace genuine liberalism.

What is wrong with it:

While this is a very useful analytical framework, it is too deterministic. Anatoly is very good at sticking his neck out on the side of the NEGATIVE outcome, based on his tendency to see History as an endless repetition, rather than progress to something new. Thus he predicts a reversion to totalitarianism and neo-imperialism.

(Incidentally when earlier analysing Europe, he raised the prospect of a rising Germany eventually drawing Europe to another war – a daring prediction indeed!) [see The Return of the Reich?]

However, Anatoly should realize that while history does to some extent repeat itself (and there are structural/geographical causes of this), things ALSO DO CHANGE and evolve. Indeed, change and evolution is a more potent force than eternal repetition. This is why there are different species, for example, and why there is such as a thing as Russia in the first place!

(And I do not want to remind Anatoly of the hackneyed statement – usually (but most likely mistakenly) – attributed to Karl Marx, that although history does repeat itself, the first time around it is a tragedy, but the second time a farce).

I believe that this time around the odds are stuck firmly in favor of
fundamental change and a break out from the cycle. Russia cannot revert to the past because its economy would not be able to take it. Without modernization the Federation would disintegrate, and modernization cannot be carried out on the basis of autarchy. In today’s globalized environment (and in the era of the Internet) autarchy is simply a non-starter.

Anatoly makes the mistake of taking the indisputable signs of repetition (e.g. Putin’s strong rule) as a proof of reversion to kind. The evidence for this so far is meager. This is not authoritarianism for authoritarianism’s sake, this is largely a democracy’s defense against oligarchy and demagogy driven chaos.

I would also argue that we are witnessing Perestroika mark 2. The system that Putin built has been shown to be seriously wanting by the depth of the economic crisis. Just like in the 1980s this is fueling pressures towards liberal reforms.

Best regards,
Vlad Sobell
London

My response.

Thanks for the critique, Vlad.

Re-my view of history as cyclical and pessimism. First, I would note that I didn’t really give predictions as much as different possible scenarios. The reason that pessimistic ones figure much more prominently in my work than in some (most) others is because my worldview is fundamentally shaped by the concept of Limits to Growth – the theory that the world system is coming under increasing ecological and resource stress and may collapse in a few decades. Whenever you’ve had strains, you also had popular disillusionment, more support for strongman rule, retreat of globalization and of commercial values in favor of militarism and nationalism, etc. Even though Russia itself is pretty well endowed with resources, the shrinking of the world system may encourage it to move to a more autarkic and militarized form of government (e.g., note that the Great Crash and the Soviet “Great Break” [that marked the genesis of Stalinism] both took place in 1929). In the end, industrialism may just be a passing phase in human history, just one really big cycle [enabled by humanity's discovery of and exploitation of the fossil fuel windfall], and will centuries later be remembered as some kind of “Age of Myths”.

Re-”Russia cannot revert to the past because its economy would not be able to take it. Without modernisation the Federation would disintegrate, and modernisation cannot be carried out on the basis of autarchy. In today’s globalised environment (and in the era of the Internet) autarchy is simply a non-starter.”

There are two assumptions here: that globalization is permanent, and that autarchy won’t survive in a globalized age. For the former, see above [or my article Shifting Winds]. For the latter, see Brezhnev’s Soviet Union – impoverished, but still a superpower, and one that endured for a generation after the onset of zastoi (and could have theoretically endured for much longer – see North Korea). The Federation itself can’t really fall apart any more, I think, (with the exception of a few S. Caucasian Muslim states) because it is now 80% Russian, whereas in the USSR the figure was 50%.

Re-”The system that Putin built has been shown to be seriously wanting by the depth of the economic crisis. Just like in the 1980s this is fuelling pressures towards liberal reforms.”

But… one of the biggest reasons, probably the main one, why Russia’s economy fell so hard was because of its loss of access to the cheap Western credit its corporations had come to rely upon, and the primitive nature of its own domestic financial system. To the contrary, this may be interpreted as a lesson to become *less* reliant on outsiders.

In sum, you think we’re in the 1980′s, I think we’re in the 1920′s. ;)

Vlad replies.

Anatoly,

I cannot take seriously this theory of the limits to growth. I understand the reasoning and there is no doubt that the growth of population is vastly out of line with the availability of all manner of resources (plus the environment damage etc).

But instinctively (apart from rationally) I do not like any apocalyptic theories (the same goes for conspiracies). Something always happens, things ALWAYS turn out different, in both positive and negative sense.

I also do not accept the global warming – yes there is a lot of evidence and yes it is caused by human activity, but I do not believe that shutting down on industrialisation is the answer, and we do not (cannot) know now what we will know in 10 years from now, never mind 100 years from now.

So as you can see I am very sceptical.

The market will likely solve these problems – as resources get more scarce, they will get more expensive. This will generate money for the alternatives and will make previously expensive alternatives look cheap. This is how it works. Population growth will slow down – as it does when nations get richer. etc.

I am aware of the problem of the Russian economy – it was the inability of the system to provide long-term finance, and hence its foolhardy reliance on external finance.

But when they start building a proper financial system, that system will need to be properly integrated within the global financial system. There can be no such thing as financial autarchy these days – hence the same applies to the rest of the economy. Diversification of production, financial flows and hence diversification of risk is the answer.

I am not saying that you are completely wrong. There are (will continue to be) forces in Russia pulling in the direction you describe. But they cannot prevail in the long run.

As I said, I do not believe that History repeats itself – there are similarities and analogies, but there always are also huge (and material) differences. Every situation is always novel.

Best regards,

V

By the way, I think are one of the most interesting writers on these topics around. I like the way you put together the big picture and your ability to draw your ideas to their logical ends, regardless of how “outrageous” or unpalatable these ends may be. Your stuff always makes me think and look at things in a different way.

And here I basically think we can agree to disagree, since otherwise the debate will spiral far beyond the more limited subject matter of Russia’s Sisyphean Loop. Just to conclude, however:

  • The markets-and-technology will solve our problems, or a latter day form of cargoism. The problem with rising costs is that they, in essence, translate to higher energy costs – or in other words, a lower EROEI. The minimum EROEI needed to sustain industrial civilization happens to be 5:1, which is probably somewhat equivalent to the overall values for wind (not enough of it to power the world anyway) and solar (can power the entire world, but is still very underdeveloped – even in 2008, photovoltaics supplied less than 0.02% of the world’s total energy supply).
  • There has been no significant action on global warming at all, with emissions increasing at a record breaking rate during the 2000′s as China continued its breakneck industrialization; furthermore, public acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is actually falling, despite the overwhelming evidence for it.
  • The subjective factor – I like apocalyptic theories, which may bias my judgment. ;)
  • Russia will have to do with financial autarky if global finance collapses. It won’t be that difficult, since that has been the norm for most of Russia’s history, with the exception of late Tsarism and the post-Soviet era till now.

Readers, please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments below.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin @ www.DaRussophile.com
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Russia’s Sisyphean Loop

The Eternal Return to the Future?

In this article I attempt to explain Russia’s historical cycles of failed Westernization and to project its future socio-political trajectory. First, I note the nature of and linkages between Russia’s geography, cultural traditions and imperial cycles. Second, using a ‘Belief Matrix’ model and drawing on historical observations, I accumulate evidence that Russia is caught in a ‘Sisyphean Loop’ in which all its attempts to Westernize – for a panoply of economic, cultural, and political reasons – merely end returning it to its imperial Eurasian past-and-future. In this century, there are three possible ‘steady state’ outcomes: either the Loop will continue as Russia returns to authoritarian stagnation or even succumbs to ‘totalitarian reversion’, or it will break – resulting in Russia’s entwinement within a ‘liberty cycle’ in which it finally manages to anchor liberal values onto its population.

I. The Curse of Geography

Russia’s physical geography can be characterized in three words – big, cold, and flat. This unique combination has left an indelible mark on the national character and the nature of the Russian state that cannot be ignored in any work on its political economy [1]. Let’s consider the deleterious effects of each of them in turn.

The early Rus’ state emerged in the coldest region to ever produce a settled population, a problem compounded by its post-16th century eastern expansion into Eurasia. Growing seasons are short, late spring droughts are recurrent and grain yields are low. This made Russian agriculture outside the southern Black Earth regions, where the cold is mitigated by exception soil fertility, unproductive and barely sufficient for population subsistence. Peasants throughout the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms [2] necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth. The especially precarious nature of Russian peasant life further amplified these psychological attributes, making Russia deeply averse to the development of capitalist enterprise, with its emphasis on individual initiative and steady capital accumulation [3].

The resultant low per capita surpluses and the difficulties of taxation rendered old Russia incapable of supporting an extensive institutional superstructure. Instead, it assumed the form of a “patrimonial state” based on absolutist rule, capable of concentrating scarce resources to fulfill crucial national tasks such as defense, “defensive modernization”, and the provision of food security. Even though industrialization and fossil energy reserves have somewhat mitigated the economic effects of the severe cold in Russia, the costs remain substantial: the construction and maintenance of infrastructure is far more expensive than in temperate regions, and the Soviet legacy of large population centers in deepest Siberia and the High Arctic necessitate subsidized energy flows to avert humanitarian catastrophe.

These climatic problems are compounded by Eurasia’s huge, unconnected landmass, a feature noted as early as the 18th century by Adam Smith [4]. The low population density, relative lack of navigable rivers and distance from the seas starved Russia of capital, necessitating coercive state intervention in economic development. Though it is true that in the post-agrarian age the railways, telegraphs, telephones, radio, TV, and the Internet mitigated these factors, Russia continues to incur great costs on road and railway maintenance and the opportunity costs of missing out on the cargo freighter revolution of globalized late industrialism.

Furthermore, not only was Russia in a perpetual natural state of economic backwardness, but it was also surrounded by foreboding plains dominated by Asiatic horsemen to the east and Teutonic, Scandinavian and Polish encroachers to the west. This induced an acute sense of insecurity, at times overspilling into paranoia, in its rulers. Russia was impelled to expand from its Muscovite heartlands to suborn weak border regions (Ukraine, Poland, Central Asia, etc) and seize and hold natural buffers against powerful neighbors (the Caucasus, the Carpathians, etc). As Catherine the Great pithily put it, “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them”. However, the initial economic gains of conquest were worn down as Moscow was forced to maintain strong standing armies on every potential front, administer the new lands and fund an extensive internal security apparatus, all of which constituted a constant drain on scarce resources and the productive labor pool.

The reasoning behind Catherine the Great's claim, "I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them".

[The Kremlin's view of the world - its strategic rear secured by the frozen Barents Sea, it feels “natural” to expand up to the Tien Shan, the Iranian border, the Caucasus, the Carpathians, and as far down the North European Plain as possible. Source: Stratfor].

Adding these factors together, it becomes clear why imperial overstretch, economic inefficiency and primitive consumer markets are features, not bugs, of any Eurasian empire. Although industrial, technological, and fossil energy sources have mitigated the curse of Russia’s geography during the last century, they were reinforced in the other direction by the Soviet physical legacy of “city-forming enterprises”, industrial “gigantism”, remote population centers, a metastasized military-industrial complex and “structural militarization”[5].

Much has been written on how developing nations can get locked into ‘dependency’ relations with the advanced ‘core’, in which a misguided focus on comparative advantage (bananas, oil, etc) contributes to the growth of strong structural and institutional barriers in the developing nation towards long-term, industrial growth – the only sure path to sustainable wealth [6]. It has also been pointed out that the only nations to have successfully ‘caught up’ with the original ‘leading’ industrial economy, Britain, were those which developed their indigenous manufacturing capabilities with active, large-scale state involvement (e.g. Germany, Japan, the Asian NIC’s)[7].

Not only does Russia suffer from the classic problem of economic backwardness (along with its associated tendency to develop unhealthy dependency relations), but its economy is further burdened by the aforementioned cold climate, huge landmass, poor riverine connections, strategic vulnerability, and a Soviet physical legacy which (somewhat) worked in the context of central planning, but which is a liability now that the Eurasian economic space has been opened up. In its open condition, the Russian economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, relative to Europe, the US, and China; because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically ‘efficient’ to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Rhineland or the Pearl River Delta. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds. The other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the post-Soviet era of neo-liberal reforms [8]).

Hence, it is hard to escape the conclusion that to achieve real, long-term economic growth and political sovereignty, as opposed to transitory commodity-bubble booms and political dependency, Russia needs to implement a degree of economic autarky – protective barriers, state backing of sunrise industries, buying (or stealing) of key industrial technologies, etc. True, this will doom it to eternal backwardness relative to the developed West. But so will openness – and at a far steeper social and political price, as will be demonstrated below.

II. Clash of Beliefs

Despite all the superficial similarities, Russia is most certainly not America. The US has a temperate climate, no significant external threats, abundant land, and excellent navigable river systems and sea ports on both coasts, all of which enabled its long legacy of free-wheeling capitalist development. Though the individual European nations tend to be strategically insecure and heavily-populated, entailing a more state-centered pattern of development, the continent’s geographical endowments – fertile river valleys, easy access to the sea and differentiated climatic zones – made it highly favorable for the development of commerce and capital accumulation [9].

These differences in starting conditions manifested themselves in lower growth rates for Russia relative to Europe. Although their absolute differences were infinitesimal and overwhelmed by the “noise” of annual climate / harvest variability and longer-term Malthusian cycles [10], this nonetheless led to a growing development gap between the two civilizations on a millennial timescale [11]. Russia’s historical backwardness was already evident by the 15th century in the contrast between the achievements of Renaissance Europe, which was by then building up the foundations of the modern world – the printing press, mechanical clocks, caravels, etc – while medieval Muscovy, the precursor to the Russian Empire, was only beginning to emerge from its long Tatar-Mongol night. Thus, the Russian state’s first interactions with a self-confident, more advanced, and frequently predatory Europe, set the template for the next five hundred years of its tortuous relations with the West. This relationship made it into a “torn nation”, to use Samuel Huntington’s term from the Clash of Civilization – forever torn between succumbing to Western civilization and returning to its Eurasian legacy.

This takes us to the crux of the problem. Russia’s seemingly-permanent backwardness ignited a prolonged debate between groups that would come to be known as its “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” / “Eurasianists”. One of the current and most influential iterations of the former is the argument set forth in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which in the heady, triumphalist days of 1992 proclaimed, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

First, this is backed by the empirical evidence. According to the Polity IV database, the number of countries qualifying as democracies rose from around a dozen before World War One, to more than ninety by 2008 [12]. Second, Fukuyama noted the increasing influence of the “Mechanism” of natural science on societies, which emphasizes the primacy of rationalism and the desirability of optimal socio-economic arrangements. Third, he appropriated the Hegelian master-slave dialectic to argue that liberal democracy is the system best geared towards managing the conflicting thymias[13] of both “isothymiacs” – whose desire for equality is satisfied by classical liberalism and rule of law; and “megalothymiacs” – whose desire for power over others is satisfied through capital accumulation and the thrills of democratic politics. The theory goes that as nations embrace the scientific method and industrialize – whether to enjoy the fruits of consumerism, or only just to preserve their political sovereignty – the likelihood of their convergence to liberal democracy and integration into the “international community” approaches one.

These theories of secular progress have developed in an uneasy conjunction with the “civilizational school”, which believes that free markets and liberal democracy are specific features of Western civilization, i.e. of the Latino-Germanic peoples, and therefore cannot easily take root in other societies. One of the most powerful arguments against wholesale Westernization was made by Nikolai Trubetzkoy in Europe and Man, published in 1920 amidst the postwar disillusionment and revolutionary turbulence of those years. He states that the idea of world progress, with European civilization naturally at its forefront, is nothing more than a baseless assumption of European cosmopolitanism (which is itself merely a euphemism for “egocentric” “pan-Latino-Germanic chauvinism”). This is because “the scientific nature of the proof is illusory”, since to “reconstruct the evolutionary scheme, we must know its beginning and end points, and to ascertain its beginning and end points, we must reconstruct the evolutionary scheme”. Through a deft combination of psychological and philosophical arguments, he comes to the conclusion that all cultures – including “savages” – are essentially equal and should be evaluated on their own merits. Though cultural relativism is well-known today, at least on liberal university campuses, such ideas were ground-breaking at the time [14].

Following his reflections on the non-universality of Western culture, Trubetzkoy asks whether it is possible for a non-European culture to a) completely assimilate with it and b) whether doing so is desirable. To do so, he draws on the work of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who argued that all cultures are defined by “the uninterrupted emergence of new cultural assets” (legal codes, political structures, scientific ideas, artistic styles, etc). All cultural assets are either “inventions” – a product of the indigenous culture, or “propagations” – imports from another culture. The former is much easier to assimilate because it is an organic product of the society in question, whereas the latter is copied from another society and whose transplantation will result in a clash with older pre-existing values, resulting in a long and bitter duel logique for supremacy.

When a culture like Russia tries to Westernize, the result is cultural schizophrenia. A good half of its inventions – those stemming from its “old Russian” side – will now be rejected out of hand for not conforming to the dominant European paradigm. Because of its “cultural dependency” on Europe, paralyzing social clefts develop across classes and generations – for instance, during the 18th century “trivial, demeaning aping of Europe”, when the French-speaking upper classes were often unable to even understand their Russophone serfs. (Furthermore, “[Russia] must accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”. This basically defines Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to create a Western style free-market economy in the early 1990’s, which was carried out by ideologues and hijacked by insiders).

The resultant internal weaknesses and wastage of ideological energy on internal debates and conflicts cement a permanent cultural lag behind Europe. This breeds a burning inferiority complex within Russians, and causes Europeans to look down upon Russians, whom they criticize for either a) not Europeanizing far enough – for Russia’s indigenous cultural assets can never be fully extirpated, absent a full “anthropological merger” with the Romano-German world, or b) deceitfully repressing their “true nature” under a European veneer [15]. This further reinforces Russians’ disillusionment with the West.

The failure of Westernization, growing social tensions, and simmering ressentiment against the West, occasionally reach a critical point in which Russia attempts to “leap” the gap separating it from the West, as happened during the Bolshevik Revolution (leapfrogging from feudalism to socialism) or the 1990′s (from socialism to market fundamentalism) – i.e., to whatever utopian end-of-history the West appears to be moving towards at the time. However, these leaps are extremely enervating and result in long periods of stagnation as Russian society sets about resolving the contradictions opened up by its Sisyphean attempts to catch up to the West.

III. The Belief Matrix

One way to understand changes in a society’s belief systems is to graphically represent it within a Belief Matrix, as shown below for a ‘Sisyphean loop’ (encounter with the West).

The horizontal axis represents the degree of society’s faith in its own indigenous culture, which can be (roughly) proxied by measures such as demographic health, social solidarity, levels of social trust, the crime rate, and faith in the future. The rightmost part represents a state of “sobornost” (соборность) – a catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society, or in the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values”[16]. An example of such a period in Russian history could be the Khrushchev thaw (1956-64), which saw the ebbing of the class war and Stalinist repressions, rapid industrial growth, and symbolic achievements in space; but before the onset of the Brezhnev stagnation, with its drunkenness, corruption and cynicism, which dimmed the lights of faith in a bright socialist future.

Its opposite is another untranslatable Russian word, poshlost (пошлость), which according to different commentators is a kind of “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity”[17], “triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality”[18], “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive”[19], and “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature”[20]. This is another good catch-all term for categorizing declining cultures that have, or believe they have lost, their faith in themselves, prominent 20th century examples being Weimar Germany and 1990’s Russia.

The vertical axis of the Belief Matrix represents a society’s degree of belief in Rationalism, that is, Enlightenment values such as liberalism, the rule of law, the scientific method, etc, or what Samuel Huntington ethnocentrically labels as the “Idea of the West”. Several caveats must be added. Rationalism does not necessarily imply democracy, for as thinkers from Aristotle to de Tocqueville pointed out, democracy has a tendency to degenerate into an (irrational) tyranny of the majority. However, some democracy, or at least some degree of popular consent, is needed to sustain a rational society, i.e. for ‘liberal democracy’ to become so ‘embedded’ as to be accepted as an integral part of the national culture, as it is in countries like France or the US.

That is much harder than it sounds. The scientific method is alien and unfamiliar to the peasant mind filled with images of rain gods and trickster demons. The rule of law cannot sit well in human societies based on on communal coercion, “big man” rule and sacrificial scapegoating. As pointed out in Part I, rational market forces are anathema in subsistence societies. Thus, reconciling sobornost with rationalism, or ironing out the internal contradiction inherent in ‘liberal democracy’, is a long and tortuous process that necessitates the development of economic surpluses, and consequently of a culture of tolerance and an argumentative tradition, for its fulfillment. The only nations that managed to fully accomplish this in their pre-industrial phase were Great Britain and the US. However, once a society resolves these contradictions it enters a powerful liberty loop, which ensures the long-term survival of liberal democracy within its territories, at least in the absence of very severe exogenous shocks. Finally, it should be emphasized that the “Idea of the West” is only an absolute ideal to which humans can only aspire to, but never reach unity with; as such, it should not be conflated with individual “Western countries” (France, the US, etc), which are composed of humans and hence frequently, understandably, and inevitably fail to fully live up to their Rationalist ideal.

This explains the frequent Russian, Muslim, Third World, etc, accusations of double standards and hypocrisy [21] on the part of the “West”, which presents itself as a universal, end-of-history civilization, but in reality often acts in ways to further its cultural and economic hegemony. Though part of the critique is accurate and justified, another part veers into being a Romantic reaction against the West, which Gustav Pauli tried to define as “irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development”[22] – much like postmodernism, it is very hard to define Romanticism, for (rational) definition is contrary to its very spirit!

I have designated this over-reaction in Russia’s context as Russian mysticism (Romanticism) or skeptical Russophilia[23], noting that their adherents share a common belief in the non-universality of the Western project and in Russia’s unique civilizational identity and destiny – be it of a Slavophile, Eurasianist, or some other hue. Contrary to the ‘Western Russophobe’-imposed definition of a ‘Russophile’ as someone who uncritically praises Russia and its government, their defining trait is a simple acceptance of Russia for what it is; for unlike the case for (rational) Western civilization, resolving its own contradictions is not part of Russia’s historical mission – and one could add that attempts to do so on the part of its elites have led to usually led to tragic results. The essence of Russian Romanticism can be summed in just four lines by the famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev.

Умом Россию не понять, | You can’t understand Russia with intellect,
Аршином общим не измерить: | You can’t measure her with a common scale,
У ней особенная стать — | She has a special kind of grace,
В Россию можно только верить. | You can only believe in Russia.

This anti-Western reaction can sometimes spiral out of control, transcending its aesthetic, mystical origins into the realm of ‘metapolitics’[24]. The intersection between sobornost and mysticism is the dark region where totalitarianisms arise and democides are unleashed, as their spiritually tortured societies attempt to go back to an imagined past using the most modern tools – as Goebbels himself said, “National Socialism has understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time”. Speaking of which, the prime example of this during the 20th century is German Nazism, which ‘scorns personal freedom and objectivity and all universal, unnational values as being the “superficial” civilization of the sunny Mediterranean, in contrast with the “deeper” Kultur of northern fogs, that misty metapolitics, that “queer mixture of mysticism and brutality”’[25]. A modern example would be the Islamists using modern technology (bombs, airplanes, etc) and modern ideology (Islamized ‘Third Worldism’) to recreate their vision of a pure, idyllic imagined past [26].

In conclusion, there are four utterly distinct socio-psychological states on the Belief Matrix. First, at the bottom right (rationalism / sobornost), we have stable societies where liberalism enjoys a substantial degree of popular consensus, locking them into self-perpetuating ‘liberty cycles’. Second, at the bottom left (rationalism / poshlost), we have peoples with minimal internal social solidarity and a rational mindset, which one could call “diasporic[27] (in that it is typical amongst “diaspora peoples” like the Jews, Armenians, the Chinese ‘bamboo network’ in East Asia, etc). The diaspora mentality cannot be sustained within a non-diasporic society, for a society cannot be a parasite on itself indefinitely; it will have to move upwards, towards a state of “barbarism”, whose essence is a principled stand for pure parasitism – the top-left of the Belief Matrix (mysticism / poshlost), which is a form of nihilism. Yet this too is an unstable state, since it needs to feed off a functioning civilization for its material and cultural survival (i.e. one with a certain degree of sobornost), hence it will eventually come to an end – either when it is crushed by the civilizations it necessarily stands in opposition to, or when it conquers them itself but whose demise likewise eliminates the rents the barbarians had previously relied upon to sustain their civilization, thus forcing them into generating their own productive capabilities. Fourth, the region of the top-right (mysticism / sobornost) is the aforementioned realm of metapolitics, of the “charismatic authority”[28], of high “passionarity”[29], of the national will, of totalitarian despotism.

IV. The Sisyphean Loop

We are all prisoners of the belief matrix and its laws, even the ‘post-historical’ Europeans [30] entrenched within transnational liberalism. As such, it is imperative to understand these laws, especially as they apply to cultures in an uneasy relationship with the West. I will now try to put together a general model of how traditional cultures react to the Western challenge, before applying it to Russia’s five hundred year history of alternating acceptance and rejection of the West in Parts V-VII. I will be referring to the ‘Sisyphean Loop’ chart in Part III throughout.

As attested to by numerous chronicles, first contact with Westerners by less advanced civilizations typically results in a certain fascination with the strange, new Westerners, as well as a determination to catch up – especially to acquire the Western military-industrial technologies to defend against Western predation. (There are many exceptions, of course; for instance, 19th century China believed the Europeans had nothing to teach them, and retreated in on itself to its cost. But in the long-term, the reality of Chinese stagnation and its exploitation by Western powers – including by a Western-armed Japan – eventually forced a tectonic shift). The two cleanest examples of countries repeatedly opting for ‘defensive modernization’ are Japan during the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and successive incarnations of the Russian Empire under Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander II, Stalin, Putin?

Many indigenous traditions are seen as incompatible with modernization and are rejected by the ruling elites – and as noted in Part II, since a Westernizing nation “borrows its evaluation of culture from the Romano-Germans”, it must then “accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”[31]. This creates internal tensions, conflicts, and unrest within society. There occurs a growing gap between the Westernizing elites and the traditional mass of society, a theme that typically comes to dominate vast swathes of its culture and literature, a classic sign of poshlost. Society moves to the bottom- left of the belief matrix, embracing Rationalism (synonymous with Westernization) at the expense of faith in itself. Social trust erodes, there is more internal strife, and society takes on a “diasporic” mentality – the debasing feeling of being a foreigner in one’s own land.

The cosmopolitan elites come to be seen as foreign leeches on indigenous soil, decadent and degenerate, by the common folks – many of whom retain, let us remind ourselves, peasant mentalities valuing egalitarian collectivism, and many of whom are now being uprooted from the soil to swelling cities, made literate and capable of reading agitprop, and made mobile by the new railways, as happened in the last decades of Tsarism (in modern times a similar role may be played by the spread of electronic social networking technologies [32]). Furthermore, these grievances tend to have more than a grain of truth, as the elites do tend to slavishly follow foreign manners (e.g. see the French-speaking Tsarist aristocracy, many of whom could not even understand their Russophone serfs) and exploit the indigenous population in the name of Western-associated ‘modernization’, forcing the country into a humiliating ‘dependency’ relationship with the already-developed core.

Over time these problems begin to discredit further Westernization, especially once the easiest (and ostensibly most useful) task of military modernization is completed. The people and the elites lose faith in the West – the former because they associate it with degeneracy and corruption (e.g. the Russian workers and peasants most aware of it: because of the development of the national railway system during late Tsarism, even a peasant from a rural backwater could now observe the parasitic decadence of the Court); the latter because of the shallow nationalism born of reinvigorated military, economic and cultural strength accruing from a limited modernization. Intellectually, there is a gradual movement back towards embracing indigenous culture, like the late Tsarist intelligentsia’s (narodniki) fad towards Slavophilia, with its (rather risible) idolization of Russian peasant life.

But now one of two things happens. A part of the elite realizes that their decadence is politically dangerous (a large gap between the masses and the elites presages revolution), and tries to move back towards indigenous traditions – back to the people, so to speak. This is opposed by another part of the elite that has gotten used to its perks and privileges, despite the spiritual anomie in which they are stuck because of this. The ruling elites become disunited and weak; the masses are increasingly disillusioned with the whole system; new ideologues appear, preaching about total rejection of the West (e.g. the Bolsheviks) and a return to an imagined past of purity and virtue, i.e. to tradition (e.g. amongst whom there were many admirers of Russian peasant communal traditions; non-Russian examples would be fascist movements or the radical Islamists who overthrew the Iranian Shah).

There appears a crisis, further straining divisions in the government and polarizing society in general (e.g. World War One). Eventually the government is forced to reform, but alas and alack, as per de Tocqueville, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. By reversing course and showing weakness, it delegitimizes itself in the face of crisis; furthermore, it frequently becomes more democratic just when the people (and newly-enfranchised electorate) are becoming more hardline, and extremists (the Bolsheviks in 1918, the Iranian Islamists in 1979, etc) are waiting in the wings. The extremists moderate their positions to win over the people and consolidate their control; after that they unleash terror, taking their captive nation into the far-top fringes of uncompromising rejection of Rationalism and anti-Western reaction.

On the other hand, if the elite remains united; if the crisis is not that severe; if the people retain a firm belief in Rationalism and the Idea of the West and are unswayed by the extremists, then a more moderate outcome can be expected – a reversion back to the past, the state of stasis (“traditional authority”), yet having assimilated some elements of the Idea of the West during its loop so that society is now “better” and perhaps “fairer” than before (by the yardstick of more Westernized states). They remain in this inert state until another shock (e.g. defeat in war by a more Westernized nation, or recognition of weakness) forces them to act, restarting the loop.

Why do I call this a Sisyphean loop? Because while it lasts, this basically explains a tortured nation’s attempts to catch up with “the West” (roll the rock to the top of the mountain), but never managing it (the rock keeps going back downhill). This is very pronounced in Russia – its entire history since gunpowder Muscovy has been one of quixotic attempts to catch up to and surpass the West, yet which all too often ended in catastrophes wrought of messianic delusions, followed by prolonged periods of frustration, stagnation, and collapse.

V. The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Russian Empire

The hand of the Muscovite Leviathan lay heavy on a people always near the edge of subsistence, creating strong centrifugal forces that further reinforced the state’s natural penchant for coercive centralization and intensive legitimization (the main instruments in these endeavours being the Army, the bureaucracy, and the Church). This resulted in Russia oscillating between two equilibrium states – 1) a centralized autocracy attempting to consolidate state power over the Eurasian vastness – “Empire”, and 2) a natural state of illiberal, anarchic stasis – “Chaos”.

This is how this imperial cycle works. Following Russia’s cyclical collapses (the Mongol conquest, The Time of Troubles, the Civil War and the post-Soviet transition), in which the state withers away and foreign powers and their Russian proxies move in to take advantage of the Eurasian vacuum (the Poles during the ‘Time of Troubles’, the Civil War era interventions, Western ‘financial advisors’ during the 1990’s), there eventually emerges a messianic “white rider” who heavy-handedly drives out the usurpers, and restores order and national morale (the 15th- and early 16th-century princes of Muscovy, Peter the Great, Lenin). Putin is the current white rider, intimately cognizant of Russia’s weakness from his intelligence background and determined to once again play state-driven catch-up to the West.

However, this is rarely successful – these developments are stymied by the baleful economic and social effects of Westernization on Russia (see Part II). Disappointed by slow and stunted progress, the white rider “realizes that the challenges ahead are more formidable than he first believed and that his (relative) idealism is more a hindrance than an asset”[33]. Into this society riven by internal divisions and disillusionment (poshlost) – in steps the ‘dark rider’, who unburdens himself of the white rider’s moral restraints in an all-out drive to fulfil the state’s goals through strict internal controls, subjugation of the economy and military expansionism – he recreates the Empire, driving Russia to the (metapolitical) top-right of the Belief Matrix. The most famous examples are Stalin and Ivan Grozny in his later years.

This empire-building is accompanied by intense efforts at state legitimization (the “Third Rome”, the socialist future, etc – i.e., reincarnations of the mystical, messianic Russian ‘national idea’) and state coercion (from oprichnina to OGPU). Yet the people tend to go along willingly with this project, because of unfavorable memories of the era of collapse and disintegration, and their perception that this regime, though harsh, is a necessary and ‘national’ one. In his visit to the 1930’s USSR, John Scott noted that Stalin himself was regarded as a kind of beneficent Tsar, a father of the nation, and a competent ‘captain of state’ like the propaganda posters portrayed him [34]; the regime enjoyed popular support and Stalinist industrialization was fuelled not only by fear, but by immense enthusiasm and fervor too. The war correspondent Alexander Werth noted similar sentiments in 1941, e.g. Stalin was viewed as a paternal bashka (thinker)[35].

After the dark rider dies, his ‘charismatic authority’ is replaced by more traditional and bureaucratic institutions, i.e. a more rational order. However, his legacies and achievements – sobornost, autarky, sovereignty, i.e. the Empire – linger on, and continue legitimizing the regime. For the Empire is, at root, a social preservation mechanism to allow Russians to enjoy the benefits of sustained socio-political complexity – internal peace, a degree of security from foreign marauders, a large contiguous market space permitting economies of scale and autonomous economic development, and the aesthetic trappings of imperial splendor.

However, cursed with a geography highly unfavorable for settled life (let alone civilization), imperial overstretch, economic backwardness and primitive consumer markets are features, not bugs, of any Eurasian empire (see Part I). Furthermore, the dark rider also sows the seeds of destruction by overextending his realm, which eventually ushers in a period of stagnation and increasing socio-economic strains. Russia’s imperial cycles are basically a permanent struggle against dissolution. Sometimes, the costs of maintaining the imperial superstructure exceed the benefits, by which point a systemic shock could unravel the entire system – a good example would be Kerensky’s Russia in 1917, which collapsed once its coercive (military) and legitimizing (the Church) power was destroyed by defeats, defections, and Bolshevik propaganda.

Half-hearted attempts of the ancien régime at reform fail and the country slides from decline into a new collapse, thus closing the cycle. Though crises are generally rarer in Russia than in most European countries, once they occur – given the amount of stress holding the system together – they tend to be extremely catastrophic. Even as newly-empowered ideologues set about fulfilling their dreams of leapfrogging the West from within the collapsed shell of state, the real Russia outside the Kremlin crumbles reverts back to its natural state – the natural state, an anarchic state of stasis, decentralized Chaos; abandoning its cities, laws, and other accoutrements of civilization for the primeval mysticism of its endless plains, dark forests and Slavic skies.

VI. Patterns of the Past

In this and the next chapter, I will be putting together the above observations on Russia’s geographic-climatic idiosyncrasies, the derived cultural traditions, its special path along the Belief Matrix, and its imperial cycles, trying to link them together and apply them to its past. There appear to me to be several ‘Sisyphean Loops’ in the history of the post-Tatar Russian state, periodic ‘waves’ in which it actively tried to reconcile rationalization with its indigenous traditions – most intense under the rule of Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’), Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin, and Yeltsin and Putin (though also identifiable under Catherine the Great, and Alexander II and Alexander III).

Thunderstorms over the Third Rome

First off, the reason I put apostrophes around Ivan IV’s epithet – in Russian, it is “Grozny”, an adjective formed from the Russian word “гроза” – “thunderstorm”. Not necessarily cruel and unjust; more appropriate translation are ‘fear-inspiring’, ‘mighty’, ‘superhuman’, ‘sublime’; an unpredictable force of nature that can bring the rains that save the harvest, or kill and destroy everything in its path.

Following Ivan IV’s recognition as ‘Tsar of All Russia’ in 1547, he proceeded to build a diverse, Eurasian empire – and thus cementing Russia’s conception of itself as an Empire ever since. Though criticized for his ‘repressions’, including the violent suppression of the Novgorod insurrection [36], most of the ‘evidence’[37] for his ‘tyranny’ comes from Andrei Kurbsky, the first Russian ‘dissident’ and traitor who turned to Poland-Lithuania in 1564. Actual historical records record only 4,000-5,000 executions under his reign, most of them recidivists who betrayed Ivan Grozny a second time; furthermore, in any case the numbers pale besides the violence seen in Western Europe at the time (e.g. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in France with 5,000-30,000 dead, and Henry VIII’s anti-vagrant laws that resulted in the execution of 72,000 peasants misappropriated of their lands).

Ivan Grozny made a series of far-reaching reforms, some of which were surprisingly advanced for their time – e.g. the introduction of elected juries from the lower ranks, local self-government, medical quarantines for combating plague, a standing military (strel’tsy), and rationalizing reforms of the Church, the law code, tax collection, the bureaucracy (formation of permanent chanceries, or prikazy, in 1553), nobles’ service obligations (the 1553 ‘decree on service’), and the convocation of zemskie sobory (‘land assemblies’) drawn from merchants and artisans to build consensus for state modernization policies.

Many of the reforms were based on those prevailing in the Ottoman Porte, in particular those concerned with the military structure, tax collection, and noble obligations. However, the attempt to copy the Ottoman system of land division (private, clerical, state, and ‘sovereign’) – known as the institution of oprichnina (1565-1572), meant to create a personal fiefdom subject to Ivan’s direct rule in order to extirpate treason and reduce boyar power – backfired. The black-cowled, sinister oprichniki, riding on black steeds with a broom and dog’s head to “sniff out and sweep away treason”, were more interested in personal enrichment and settling personal vendettas than in pursuing their task of consolidating Ivan Grozny’s power. They proved powerless to defend Moscow against a devastating raid from the Crimean Khanate in 1571, and were disbanded soon after – but not before inflicting severe damage on the Muscovite heartlands. By now Ivan’s transition from a white rider to dark rider was complete, as he steadily slipped into mental insanity, and Russia was wracked by famines and depopulation, and an unsuccessful war with Livonia. Following his death, Russia would slip into deep stagnation (in which state predation would be displaced by boyar predation) and within two decades, the ‘Time of Troubles’, an era of conspiratorial politics and internal strife (poshlost), depopulation, and foreign (Polish) intervention. Much of the 17th century was spent in recuperation from the depopulation and weakening of the state during the late 16th century; although pointedly, it was during this time, relatively free from Malthusian stress and predatory state alike, that Russians enjoyed some of the highest per capita surpluses and consumption in their pre-industrial history [38].

The reign of Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’, set the template for all of Russia’s consequent ‘defensive modernizations’. Realizing Russia’s backwardness upon coming to power, the white rider, or strongman saviour, begins to rapidly implement a revolution from above involving centralization, social mobilization, and technical and cultural borrowings from abroad, i.e. an embrace of Rationalism. Yet eventually it is noticed that results aren’t progressing as fast as they ought to and need to, and the white rider is replaced by a much stricter dark rider, who rules with an iron fist and possesses an overinflated perception of Russia’s capability to assimilate his changes and reforms. The pursuit of modernization takes on a mystical, quasi-spiritual hue.

Ivan Grozny is special in that in his case, both riders were the same person; it’s just that under the pressures of sabotage and treason from his boyars, he metamorphosed from being a white rider to a dark rider. Under his later rule, efforts at legitimization, coercion, mobilization, etc, were pushed to such extremes that they of themselves critically undermined Russian power. Furthermore, Russia’s rising power and expansionism brought it into conflict with Poland-Lithuania to the west, which sought to check its advances, attempted to block Muscovy’s technological imports from Western Europe [39], and allied itself with the Crimean Khanate to the south (an Ottoman protectorate) – a move that could be seen as a precursor of Britain’s and American’s strategies of ‘containment’. This illustrates a recurring theme of Russian expansionism mentioned in Part I – there are always limits to imperial growth in the form of mounting resistance from bordering Powers, which impinges on the Empire’s economic base. Just as it Russia’s neighbours made it difficult for it to acquire modern gunpowder weapons, so the US during the Cold War would try its best to restrict exports of advanced technologies to the Soviet Empire.

And so it went for more than three hundred years more of Tsarism, during which time Russia suffered from a dependency relation with Europe, both economically (grain exports for luxuries) and culturally (a Francophone, ‘foreign’ elite). Ironically, the single greatest attempt to break out into modernity through mobilization and centralization (despotism?), pursued under Peter the Great, had its greatest impact on the reinforcement of (development-inhibiting) serfdom. The aristocracy soon wriggled out of its state service obligations after Peter’s death, but retained despotic power over their serfs until 1861, using their surpluses to fund lavish lifestyles devoted to the ‘trivial, demeaning aping of Europe’, as characterized by Trubetzkoy (see Part II). A renewed state-led industrialization campaign from the 1880’s would eventually generate the massive reaction – both Western and anti-Western, rational and irrational – known as the Bolshevik Revolution. It is to this event and its consequences that we now turn.

“The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”

Late Tsarist Russia was a highly polarized, divided and turbulent society, as noted in Part IV. Peasants were drifting into rapidly expanding, unsanitary industrial cities riven by inequality. The railways and the spread of literacy – contrary to later Soviet propaganda, already well advanced [40] by that time – gave Russians unprecedented mobility and access to new, radical ideas and a glimpse of the aristocracy’s (and foreigners’) la dolce vita. In its last decade, Tsarist Russia was wracked by constant labor unrest in the factories and political violence, which were harshly suppressed. The workers, aware of and seduced by the consumption habits of Europeans [41] and their elites, demanded a bigger piece of the consumption pie, as did a younger, more ambitious segment of rural society. This conflicted with the state’s need for rapid industrial development, which by now it was taking seriously [42] – high tariff rates on manufactured goods, state involvement, the railways, and a cheap, suppressed labor force contributed to the late Empire’s rapid industrial expansion. But for all that, it should be noted that the Tsar retained the support of the vast majority of people, the extremist elements like the Bolsheviks were regarded as traitorous internationalists, and Russia’s growing power bolstered national self-confidence. At the genesis of modern total war in 1914, the Russian Empire was waxing, not waning; indeed, fearful projections of its future strength were an important factor in Germany’s decision to cross the Rubicon into Belgium.

The war exposed the Empire’s underlying weaknesses, as the initial outburst of patriotic euphoria degenerated into pessimism and anger. The war effort was prosecuted incompetently and an ill-supplied and demoralized Russian Army met defeat after defeat at the hands of the Germans. The privileged elite refused to share the war burden with the workers, alienating them through their ostentatious splendor – manifested above all in the Tsar, whose German wife, English lifestyle, and tolerance of the dissolute Rasputin discredited him in the eyes of the people. These transgressions were made to seem all the more egregious due to the Tsarist regime’s war propaganda, which only served to reinforce Russia’s sense of national consciousness. By 1917, the railway system was breaking down, and along with it food supplies to the cities and the front.

Following the collapse of the three-hundred year old Romanov dynasty in early 1917 and the cessation of political repression under the weak Provisional Government, the socialist-revolutionary movement sensed its historical moment. The radicalization of the urban workers, the discrediting of the old order, and the Bolsheviks’ skilful representation of themselves as the solution to the people’s problems (Land, Bread, Peace), laid the groundwork for the October Revolution of 1917. Utilizing their control of Russia’s main urban centers, instilling iron discipline in their followers, strangling the early Revolutionary freedoms in their cradle, and portraying the White forces as being corrupt and in cahoots with dark foreign forces (i.e., playing on the nationalism which they had rejected in their older, theoretical days), the Bolsheviks won the Civil War and set about building Communism – ‘Soviet power plus electrification of the country’, in Lenin’s memorable phrase. This was in essence another Russian attempt to ‘leap ahead’ of the West, similar to that attempted by Ivan Grozny, Peter the Great and even the late Tsars; yet married to industrialism, far more radical and ‘total’ in its scope and ambitions. Incubated within this apparent, radical Westernization – for Marxism was developed by a German in London, and had its antecedents in the Western dialectical tradition – was a profound resurrection of the mystical and sublime element of Russian history (e.g. the spiritual rehabilitation of Eurasia symbolized by the return of the capital to Moscow from Petrograd).

After the radicalism, insecurity and terrors of the Civil War period, the 1920’s saw a significant liberalization and social modernization – the fruits of the latest Western Rationalism. Abortion was legalized in 1920 and divorce laws were reformed. Austere ‘war communism’ was replaced with the New Economic Policy, which grudgingly granted the right to make private profit. There was more freedom in the arts, typified by the Russian avant-garde movement, which reached its peak in the 1920’s before being forcibly displaced by ‘socialist realism’ from 1932. This was part of a general return to ‘tradition’ spearheaded by Stalin, who pushed the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ in opposition to Trotsky’s internationalist concept of ‘permanent revolution’ and Bukharin and Kamenev’s social-democratic leanings. These old Bolsheviks were to be later condemned as heretics, and extirpated during the Stalinist ‘show trials’ of the mid-to-late 1930’s along with their ideas as Russia drifted back towards a socially-conservative, neo-imperialist state based on mobilization, militarization, and messianic fervor. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev put it in his 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, “the Third Rome, Russia managed to bring about the Third International, on which were imprinted many of the features of the Third Rome… The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”; the Soviet state represented a transformation of the “ideas of Ivan the Terrible, a new form of the old hypertrophied state of Russian history…Russian Communism is more traditional than people usually think, and is nothing more than a transformation and distortion of the old Russian messianic idea”. That said, the social revolution nonetheless irrevocably changed Russia: as Slavoj Žižek noted, for all their arbitrariness, ‘terror and misery’, nonetheless socialism “opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself”[43]. In other words, Russia’s inevitable failure to fully assimilate this latest Western propagation (see Part II) would in time psychologically contribute to the late Soviet disillusionment and collapse because it opened up a space for its own refutation; just as previous radical ‘revolutions from above’ overseen by strongmen like Ivan Grozny and Peter the Great ended up undermining the Empire.

As noted in Part V, for all the privations (repressions, economic coercion, etc) forced on the Russian people as the Empire was built up during the 1930-1950’s – and defended at phenomenal cost during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) – the regime retained a great degree of support throughout. Sometimes the regime went too far in its paranoia and ended up undermining itself, as during 1936-37 when the repressions spiraled out of control and became of themselves the greatest source of ‘sabotage’ in the Soviet economy. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the USSR could have withstood an assault by the Wehrmacht, supported by the industrial potential of most of Europe, if it hadn’t been for Stalin’s foresight and ruthlessness in industrializing the Urals, expanding Soviet borders west, centralizing state operations, and preparing wartime industrial relocation plans.

For if the USSR had lost the Great Patriotic War, this would have resulted in the partial extermination, Siberian exile and helotization of the Slavic and Jewish populations of eastern Europe, as envisaged under Generalplan Ost, Nazi Germany’s genocidal scheme for conquering Lebensraum in the East. This partly explains why Russians today hold such conflicted and contradictory views on Stalin, the despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament – according to a February 2006 opinion poll, 47% of the population are positive, whereas 29% are negative [44]. During the postwar decades, Victory was the greatest single legitimization of the Soviet regime, and even today, it cleanses away the other manifold sins of Stalin’s regime in the minds of many of Russia’s citizens – attesting to its lasting power as Russia’s national myth.

After the poshlost of the 1920’s to the early Stalinist period, in which Russia moved in an upwards arc along the left side of the Belief Matrix, after 1938 – and especially after the spiritual boost of Victory in 1945 – Soviet Russia returned to a state of sobornost at the top-right position of the Belief Matrix, underpinned by sovereignty and autarky, i.e. all the classical elements of the idealized Russian Empire. Prior to Stalin’s death in 1953, the groundwork was being laid for what could have been a new purge directed against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, a euphemism for Soviet Jews, with the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ (1952) to poison Soviet leaders serving as a pretext: hundreds were already arrested by early 1953. This would have been the culmination of a steady process under Stalin in which ‘diasporic’ elements (Rationalism – poshlost) were expunged in favor of Russia’s older imperial identities (mysticism – sobornost). Examples of this process include the purges of the avant-garde artists and the old Bolsheviks; the deportations of minorities; the crushing of ‘national’ movements in direct contravention of Lenin’s liberal attitudes towards nationalities; the gradual rehabilitation of Tsarist-era ranks, symbols and old national heroes like Alexander Nevsky during the war, whose socialist credentials were highly questionable; the wartime reversal of course on Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church, etc. There is even a story, perhaps apocryphal, that after the end of the Second World War a group of exiled Russian nobles wrote to Stalin, congratulating him on his recreation of a great Empire and offering him their services in return for clemency. He didn’t reply, of course – the Red Tsar did not tolerate heresy, even when recanted.

The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire

The Soviet Empire reached its greatest degree of sobornost during Khrushev’s reign (1956-64). The Stalinist repressions were condemned and political prisoners in the Gulag – many of whom had wept on hearing of Stalin’s death – were released. There was a degree of liberalization and even a work as controversial as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published and avidly debated. Meanwhile, there was strong economic growth, this time including in the consumption sector, as Stalin’s emphasis on the military-industrial complex was relaxed.

However, after the Khrushev thaw (ottepel’) there set in a period of stagnation (zastoi) and renewed authoritarianism, this time of a milder, rational-bureaucratic character. After 1965, the USSR came to be afflicted by a metastasizing alcoholism epidemic, and after a half-century of rapid improvement, Russian mortality rates peaked and began their long slide down. This was most pronounced amongst middle-aged men, though uniquely for industrialized countries, the phenomenon even manifested itself amongst infants from the 1970’s-early 1980’s. This gray authoritarianism was accompanied by a growth in corruption and ‘structural militarization’, in which an ever growing percentage of Soviet industrial output was diverted from the consumption and social sphere into the military sector – by the 1980’s, the military-industrial complex accounted for up to 30% of Soviet GDP [45].

Belief in socialism moved metamorphosed from pure idealism to an ironic skepticism lubricated by vodka. Structural factors strangled economic growth – the demographic transition (declining industrial workforce growth as the effects of the Stalinist fertility transition and the end of large-scale urbanization made themselves felt); limits to growth in the form of flat-lining raw resource extraction (e.g. peak oil in 1987) and the fulfillment of ‘heavy industrialization’; aging machinery (need more investment to maintain the same level of growth); the aforementioned ‘structural militarization’; the growing complexity of the late-industrial economy (the numbers of goods produced explodes and central planning becomes increasingly unviable); and the associated massive expansion of the bureaucracy (e.g. the percentage of the population who were Party members increased from 1% under Stalin to 15% by the 1980’s). There appeared an incipient rejection of Soviet tradition in favor of the West, especially amongst liberal youth, as well as growing disillusionment on the part of the dominant class – the workers. Realizing the dire straits the country was in by the mid-1980’s, the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev embarked on an increasingly radical program of economic (uskoreniye, perestroika), social (anti-alcohol campaign) and political (glasnost, demokratizatsiya) reforms.

Contrary to popular belief, Soviet collapse was not inevitable since the system itself was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant [46]; the underlying reason was lay not in its failed consumer economy, hypertrophied defense sector or general nastiness, but rather Gorbachev’s abortion of central planning and economic coercion – the system of benefits and punishments for economic performance that was the linchpin of the Soviet economy. (Though, granted, worker unrest and stagnation may have tipped Gorbachev’s hand). In the absence of evolved market mechanisms, this simply led to ruinous insider plunder, asset stripping and managerial misappropriation, all under the label of “liberalization”. Russia’s physical production system remained intact, but retreated to a much lower level of output as barter arrangements replaced central planning and the huge military resource stocks were sold off.

In principle, the Soviet economy could have been reformed if the dictator (Gorbachev) had cracked down hard on the corruption that was debilitating the USSR, undertaken efficiency and organizational improvements that had previously been discarded because of concerns over upsetting entrenched interests and labor unrest, forcefully halted and started to reverse the structural militarization of the Soviet economy (e.g. by transferring capital and R&D assets to the civilian industrial base), etc. However, perhaps the collapse really was inevitable, if the system itself was simply too myopic to imagine its own demise, and / or if a reversion to coercion could not have been made to work by the late 1980’s – a valid point because this might measure may not have won support from a nomenklatura class terrified of a return to Stalinist terror.

Whatever the answer to these questions, this debate is now entirely academic. Costs exceeded benefits; the burden of complexity became too great to bear. The Soviet state, bereft of its most powerful tool (economic coercion) yet still burdened by immense obligations (welfare and warfare), unraveled under the strain. It left behind what could be called, for all practical purposes, a void, for the development of a functioning capitalism and its legal and regulatory norms needs both time and stability – neither of which Russia had. By the early 1990’s, the Empire crumbled and Russia had again reverted to its second equilibrium position – a Hobbesian ‘natural state’ of anarchic stasis [47], or ‘Chaos’.

VII. Reading Russia Right

There are currently three major schools of thought on Russia’s post-Soviet socio-political development, which can be characterized as a) “authoritarian reversion” (a promising transition in the 1990′s that was checked and reversed by dark Kremlin forces – siloviks, chekists, etc), b) ‘convergence’ (a rough but secular convergence to Western liberal democracy) and c) the cynicism of Andrew Wilson’s ‘virtual politics’. Though b) predominated during the 1990′s, under Putin’s tenure a) became the conventional wisdom.

Though each has varying degrees of truth, they all nonetheless have major weaknesses: a) does not account for the fact that the transition period was hardly liberal or democratic, and that the scope of the Kremlin’s authoritarianism is arguably overstated [48], b) the divergence from the West has become too great – both rhetorically and in practice, and c) assumes the elite is entirely post-ideological, concerned with only power and money. The “Sisyphean Loop” model attempts to integrate these divergent worldviews into a coherent whole.

Russia’s loop is a Sisyphean one, because though at times it strives towards the bottom-right of the Belief Matrix – i.e. ‘convergence’ with the ‘rationalist’ West, it never manages to permanently settle there because of the shocks that have always disturbed it from its position there. Being a hostage to its history, it cannot end it. Throughout the stagnation under Brezhnev and Gorbachev’s reforms, society became progressively more pro-Western; however, faith in Soviet-Russian culture remained strong too, held together by decades of socialist propaganda and some real achievements. However, during the early 1990′s, as the magnitude of the Soviet failure to build a fair and prosperous society became painfully clear and the country descended into a black hole of corruption, there was a wholesale rejection of Soviet-Russian culture – society moved left towards poshlost. The period was characterized by insider plunder, rising inequality and grinding poverty, the failed First Chechen War, plummeting indexes on nearly every socio-economic measure that the government still took the trouble to collect, an ossified military reliant on brutal impressments to fill its ranks, and a near-collapsed state that lost effective control of three vital functions – legitimate violence, tax collection and monetary emissions [49].

Some of the key reasons the transition was much harder in Russia than in east-central Europe were its aforementioned geographic disadvantages, cultural proclivities and burdensome Soviet legacy (see Part I). As pointed out in Part VI, after the end of economic coercion, with no market mechanisms or rule of law in place, output collapsed. Russia’s structural disadvantages in manufacturing contributed to its 1990’s deindustrialization, which was much more severe even than the 40%+ peak-to-nadir fall in GDP (1989-1998), for the post-Soviet elites found it much more convenient to sell Russia’s mineral resources abroad, using the proceeds to enrich themselves and import the needed consumer goods from Europe and China. Despite Yeltsin’s authoritarian efforts to implement market fundamentalism with tanks on a recalcitrant Duma in 1993 [50], Russia became a rent-seeking oligopoly in economic depression instead of the globalized, laissez-faire economy dreamed of by the neoliberal ideologues in the Kremlin.

No country can remain in a state of collapse indefinitely; towards the end of the 1990′s, the state began to reassert control. The tipping point came in 1998, when the financial crash cemented Russia’s disillusionment with the West and new faces from the security services [51] were brought into Russian politics, determined to clean up and restore its power. This change of course was reinforced by Russians’ angry reactions to NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which was felt to be unjust and grotesquely insensitive to Russian feelings. This marked the beginning of a long-term decline in Russians’ perceptions of the US – for better or worse, the champion of the “Idea of the West’. The human face of this shift was the accession of Putin the white rider to the Russian Presidency at the dawn of the new millennium – a strongman who restores peace and order to the Russian lands (as presented by his supporters). Russia began to move up along its Belief Matrix, away from the West, as the siloviki consolidated their power and Kremlin rhetoric became less ‘Western’ and more ‘national’ (the critics would add an ‘ist’).

Following a short dip back towards the West during the early 2000′s, when Putin cooperated with the US in the war on terror and introduced some liberal reforms (e.g. the 13% flat tax), the YUKOS Affair and increasing centralization moved Russia further away from the West, into the top-left nether regions where there is no belief in either the indigenous culture or the West. The political culture of the Russian elites transitioned from being ‘diasporic’ to ‘barbaric’, as the terms were defined in Part III. The YUKOS Affair – in Western rhetoric, a heavy-handed and corrupt clampdown on free enterprise and political participation; in Kremlin rhetoric, a necessary defense against an attempted hijacking of the state by the latter-day boyars – was the seminal moment in the break between Russia and the West. In its immediate aftermath, the US launched an information war against Russia and pushed aggressively with ‘color revolutions’ into its Near Abroad; whereas in the 1990’s Western expansionism had been aimed at stabilizing the Eurasian vacuum, now its aim was to reconstruct a cordon sanitaire around Russia to preempt the Empire’s reemergence. Russia retaliated by intensifying its efforts in the economic and intelligence penetration of Ukraine and the Baltics, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Though direct talk of it remains muted, the old strategy of active containment has resurfaced in the last five years.

Facing humiliation from Russophobe rhetoric in the West and feeling increasingly under ideological and territorial siege, the impetus to once again gather up the Russian lands and recreate the Empire has been rapidly resurfacing. On the Belief Matrix, the moral anomie or ‘barbarism’ of the top-left is an unstable state, for almost all people have an overriding need to believe in some higher ideal; once again stimulated by the Russian inferiority complex and perceived Western arrogance, or ‘Russophobia’, from 2006 Russia undoubtedly began to move to the right of the matrix at an accelerating pace, towards sobornost.

Thus we see how all three of the interpretations given at the start of this chapter – a) ‘authoritarian reversion’, b) ‘convergence’, and c) ‘virtual politics’, are to some extent accurate [52]. The concept of ‘convergence’ was popular during the late USSR and early 1990’s, when Russia was at the bottom of the Belief Matrix – its then subscription to Rationalism was taken to mean that Westernization would be inevitable, though some voiced doubts that the psychological collapse (poshlost) brought on by the post-Soviet ‘Time of Troubles’ would undermine the stability of any such transition. The doubters were proven correct, and their concept of an ‘authoritarian reversion’ fueled by popular disillusionment and the ‘traditional’ Russian craving for a strong hand gained ground amongst Russia-watchers, who found their evidence in Putinism’s alleged slide into ‘dark’ authoritarian from the rosy, ‘democratic’ Yeltsin years. This viewpoint manifested itself in lurid book titles like ‘Kremlin Rising’, ‘The New Cold War’, and ‘Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State’ and dominated – and continues to dominate – the Western journalistic and political discourse on Russia. This is regretful, since this viewpoint lacks nuance and tends to favor hyperbole over dispassionate analysis [53].

In an incisive but unfortunately little-known study [54], Andrew Wilson argues that the defining theme of Putin’s Russia isn’t authoritarianism as such, but the preeminence of electoral and media manipulation to conceal a mild, non-ideological, and extremely corrupt authoritarianism beneath a veneer of pluralistic politics. This model of ‘virtual politics’ has a great explanatory potential for the post-Soviet period of poshlost, when Russia was indeed governed by a ‘historyless’ elite; however, arguably, with the creeping return of sobornost and the ideal of the Empire as guiding lights of Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, the era of ‘virtual politics’ is waning and is about to be replaced with something different. This is the topic of Part VIII, which concludes this essay.

VIII. Return to the Future?

Since 2006, there has arguably been a discontinuity in Russia’s national life, akin to what happened in 1998; though as yet little recognized, it will come to dominate its analysis within a few years. Russia has begun to return to the Empire.

First, the state took a much more proactive role in economic and social development. National Priority Projects were launched to improve housing, healthcare and education. Subsidies to agriculture were increased, and in 2008 the grain harvest returned to its Soviet-era highs [55]. A high profile initiative to develop nanotechnology was launched in 2007. It pursued industrial policies designed to attract foreign manufacturing and hi-tech companies, with noticeable effects – for instance, automobile production increased from 1.2mn units in 2000 to 1.8mn units in 2008 [56]. As noted before, a degree of ‘autarky’ coupled with state intervention is a vital prerequisite to real economic development in Russia (to a greater extent than is the case in already-developed nations and / or countries with more favorable geographies), with its concomitants in the form of increased national morale and political independence. This is a return to Russia’s traditional mode of development, in which the state harnessed its surpluses – grain during late Tsarism, oil during the late Soviet era – to support the development of strategic industries. As Russia acquires globally competitive industries – an entirely feasible prospect given its strengths in general education and some specialized sectors like defense, aerospace, and nuclear power – the state may gradually loosen its reins. Though it can hardly hope to ever fully converge with the richest Western nations due to its embedded disadvantages, given that it no longer suffers from the Soviet-era inefficiencies of central planning and excessive militarization, it can reach an asymptote relative to the West substantially higher than its previous 1970’s peak.

Second, there has been a substantial improvement in social morale, as attested to by the demographic statistics and opinion polls. Whereas in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s Russia was losing around 750,000 people a year, today the decline has almost stabilized due to an increase in the average fertility rate (the average number of children a woman is expected to have) from 1.30 in 2006 to 1.49 in 2008 (and still rising in 2009 despite the economic crisis)[57], as well as substantial reductions in the (still abnormally high) middle-aged mortality rate. Furthermore, despite the big reduction in the size of the cohort of women of child-bearing age projected for the 2010’s as a result of the 1990’s fertility collapse, there are strong indicators that this positive trend may continue[58] into the future based on the strong evidence that Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to low-fertility middle-European norms. From the other end, the mortality crisis is being attacked by a renewal of the anti-alcohol campaign after a twenty year hiatus. During the 2000-2008 period, state statistics indicate that mortality from alcohol poisonings, suicide and murder have nearly halved, though they all remain very high by international standards. Perhaps not coincidentally, Levada polls indicate that for the first time since measurements began in the Yeltsin period, from late 2006 more people were confident in tomorrow than were not. All this indicates that a sense of sobornost is being slowly restored.

Third, Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space, particularly towards Ukraine [59], may imply that it intends, at the least, to restore an econo-political bloc in the region, probably through organizations like EurAsEC and the CSTO. Since more Ukrainians would prefer to join those groups than either the EU or NATO [60] and considering that President Yushenko’s approval ratings hover in the single digits (he is the most pro-Western major political figure in Ukraine) and the nation’s overall disillusionment with the perceived Chaos and poshlost of their democracy (support for which fell from 72% in 1989 to 30% today [61]), this should not be a major hurdle. Russia is likewise reinforcing its influence in Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kirgizstan through a mixture of economic penetration, pipeline politics, and military bases. This foreign policy is stridently independent of the West and contributes not insignificantly to Putin’s consistently high approval ratings, which have been north of 60% ever since he launched the Second Chechen War in 1999. It is not a Western liberal democracy, but Surkov’s description, “sovereign democracy”, appears to be an apt moniker. The main idea being, of course, that Russia is politically sovereign from the West, no longer tied down in the international arena by its economic dependence and internal weaknesses.

[Gallup polls showing attitudes towards Eurasian unity in the post-Soviet space. In all countries except Azerbaijan, the median average wants at least an economic union across Eurasia. This indicates that Russia will not find it unduly hard to rebuild the Empire. Source: Gallup.]

These three trends – autarky, sobornost and sovereignty – are synergistic. Recreating an empire or something resembling one is (‘sovereignty’), apart from its inherent effect in reinforcing Russia’s geopolitical power, also complementary to the return of economic autarky (creates a larger economic space with opportunities for economies of scale) and sobornost (because the Russian national identity remains inextricably linked up with empire since the 16th century – as of today, 47% of Russians believe it is ‘natural’ for Russia to have an empire, up from 37% in 1989 [62]). Likewise, a self-contained economic system (‘autarky’) increases the Empire’s freedom of action on the international stage and encourages a national (‘sovereignty’), as opposed to internationalist or diasporic, mentality (‘sobornost’). The state of sobornost underpins the fundamental unity and spiritual strength of the Empire. The analysis outlined above indicates that Russia is returning to its future rather than the end of history, a future-and-past characterized by a strong, centralizing state coordinating, if not outright controlling, the direction of development – for it is fundamentally the state guarantees all three factors that underpin the Empire, which also explains the importance of gosudarstvennost and derzhavnost in Russian history.

Following the South Ossetian War of 2008, the already popular belief that the West was a hostile power was reinforced – even the once very pro-Western intelligentsia is beginning to reject the West [63]. It is also interesting to consider that the most “anti-Western” segment of the Russian population are university-educated Muscovite men [64], i.e. the future elites; similar attitudes have filtered through to Russia’s schoolchildren [65]. The 2008-2009 economic crisis probably spells the end of the oligarchs as a class: many have lost their fortunes and become financially beholden to the cash-rich Russian state – as copper magnate Iskander Makhmudov said, “The oligarchs now have mixed fortunes, but we will all end up being soldiers of Putin one day”[66]. The banking system is being consolidated, Russian corporate dependence on Western credit has been severed (because the Western credit system has broken), and Russia’s decision to seek WTO admission in tandem with Kazakhstan and Belarus [67] indicates it places a higher priority on forming a regional economic bloc than on global economic integration.

What next? History is a guide. A fundamental feature of autarkies is that to increase their strategic self-sufficiency, they need to expand their domain – much as the Bolsheviks created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which in turn expanded it to COMECON (the idea being that a group of nations ‘liberated’ from domination by global capital is better off sticking together to preserve their new-found sovereignty). They have to expand territorially in order to acquire access to all the vital building blocks of an industrial economy and to be able to hold its own against other economic bloc. Applying this to the reemerging Russian Empire, it is very likely that within the next decade (East) Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan will again become integrated with Russia, on a spectrum of possibilities ranging from an EU-like structure to a unitary state-empire. Netting in the latter two presents no problem, given that they are already tightly integrated with Russia.

Under normal circumstances, Ukraine presents a much harder to nut to crack; however, it should be borne in mind that Ukraine’s project of Westernization – which happened to encapsulate its bid for real independence from Eurasia – has failed on almost all criteria. Its current GD, taking into account the recent 20-25% collapse during the crisis, 30-40% lower than it was in the late USSR! (Russia’s is around 0-10% lower, but it is not faced with a fiscal or political crisis). Damningly, opinion polls indicate that Putin and Medvedev are by far the most popular politicians in Ukraine. The essence of the Ukrainian Question will not be whether it chooses Russia or the West; it will be whether Ukraine will remain a united state that gets drawn back into Russia’s orbit, or whether there will be a ‘Great Split’ between its Ukrainian-speaking west and its Russophone east, with the latter fully integrating into Russia and the former becoming an independent state.

Reintegration with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will create a state with 210 million souls and will significantly increase the economic and military-industrial power at Moscow’s disposal by at least 50%. One has to keep in mind that Eurasia’s industrial base was meant to be unified when it was constructed during the Soviet era, and as such the gains accruing from reintegration will be more than just the sum of its parts. One of Russia’s geopolitical priorities is to thwart an independent energy corridor for the proposed Nabucco oil pipeline and to link up with its ally Armenia, so it will no doubt continue pressuring a weakened Georgia to return into its orbit.

Whether Russia will choose to expand in Central Asia is more questionable. On the one hand, they have respectable energy reserves (especially gas), constitute demographic reservoirs amidst graying Slavdom, and are geopolitically important. There are few problems with radical Islam and on the whole they appreciate Russian culture. On the other hand, they will present a development burden and outside powers will oppose any overt Russian reassertion in Central Asia – although it should be noted that both Chinese and US influence is far weaker in the region than Russia’s.

Forking Paths

There are now four distinct ‘paths’ Russia could take in the next few years – ‘sovereign democratization’, ‘totalitarian reversion’, ‘return to the natural state’, and ‘liberalization’. The only (near) certainty is change; for all its apparent move back towards sobornost and the trappings of the Empire, this belies the fact that Russia today is still in an unsteady and undecided state, and as such its future is far from preordained. Let’s look at them in turn.

In ‘sovereign democratization’, Russia will retain its current geopolitical status, ‘indigenize’ or ‘assimilate’ Western liberal democracy, and will successfully develop an advanced economy, which it will gradually open as it acquires globally competitive industries. This viewpoint is argued by Nicolai Petro [68], who claims that Putin consolidated the Russian state during his first eight years, and that the second part of the ‘Putin Plan’ is to develop liberal institutions and an active civil society. State corruption will be greatly reduced – President Medvedev has already openly spoken out against ‘legal nihilism’, and perhaps the recent allied initiative on the part of Surkov, head of the GRU-related clan, and the civiliki clan, to investigate strategic companies linked to Sechin’s FSB-related clan for corruption and mismanagement is the opening shot of a coming purge. In this vision, Russia will be a prosperous, liberal, and patriotic nation by 2020 at the bottom-right of the Belief Matrix, comfortably entwined within the ‘liberty cycle’ much like France or even the US (see Part II), and the centerpiece of a Eurasian economic union. This viewpoint would also be argued by Vlad Sobell, who believes that this “new ‘USSR’ has shed its totalitarian and imperial character and is building genuine democracy à la russe”. This is the ‘optimistic variant’, and is predicated on the survival of globalization and the continuation of Russia’s economic and demographic resurgence.

In contrast, a ‘return to the natural state’ will see the reinforcement of Russia’s current authoritarian and neo-feudal features, and continuing economic nationalism, silovik cronyism, and resource dependency. A powerful Tsar will dole out transitional rent-gathering rights unto his boyars, in return for their political loyalty and tax payments. This ‘Muscovite model’ is socially unjust, Pareto inefficient, and ineffective at either generating economic prosperity or sustaining resource mobilization. This outcome is made more likely if Russia enters a renewed spiral of demographic and economic decline; the people will demand a strong hand at the helm, but one steeped in conservatism and unwilling to undertake any risky reforms. In this form, the Empire is more likely to take the form of a unitary state based on the political integration of Belarus, East Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia, as well as the strengthening of its military presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, rather than a Eurasian economic and security union as in the previous scenario. It will be underpinned by the resumption of large-scale, fifth-generation rearmament, with which the Empire will effective control and project power over the entirety of the post-Soviet space and perhaps even into East-Central Europe. The Empire will be undermined by foreign-backed dissident and national liberation movements, and subjected to a more vigorous encirclement and containment strategy by the United States. The result will be a zastoi on the model of Brezhnev’s USSR. This is the ‘middle variant’ projected by most ‘Western Russophobes’[69], who perceive that Russia is run by a gang of kleptocratic neo-Soviet revanchists and believe the country is doomed to secular decline on account of its disastrous demography and moribund economic system.

The third and most frightening outcome is a ‘totalitarian reversion’. During the 1990’s ‘Time of Troubles’, as in Weimar Germany, Russia became disillusioned in both the West and itself (Part VII), and came to long for the sovereignty, sobornost and autarky embodied in the lost Empire. This imperial nostalgia brought forth a crowd of Eurasianists, nationalists, derzhavniki, etc, who called for Russia to rediscover its faith in itself and to return to its ‘purer’ imperial past-and-future – be it Eurasian (Aleksandr Dugin), Slavophile (Solzhenitsyn), White Nationalist, or hybrids like National Bolshevism, an intellectual descendent of Strasserism (Eduard Limonov). What they all had in common was an opposition to Western finance-capitalism, to domestic stooges of ‘Atlanticism’, and to the ‘diasporic mentality’ (see Part III) – sometimes manifested in virulent anti-Semitism, which is understandable on the basis that Jews are the ‘diasporic people’ par excellence (see Part III). Free-riding on resurgent the Russian nationalism brought forth by instability, Central Asian immigration, and national inferiority complexes, such views have become much more popular since the Soviet collapse (although overall they are still very much on the fringes). However, let’s not forget that all it takes for this to change is an economic collapse, a weakened state, a profound sense of disillusionment with Rationalism, the loss of sobornost, and a well-organized Party with a skilful demagogue willing to gamble.

The fourth alternative is ‘liberalization’, which is by far the most unlikely outcome – Russia is now heading right towards sobornost along the Belief Matrix, not to the bottom and down. That said, it is not difficult to think up potential scenarios in which ‘liberalization’ can occur as a transitional stage to something else. For instance, a popular uprising topples the fragile authoritarianism of the ‘natural state’ into which Russia had degenerated by the 2020’s, resulting in a wave of poshlost and fanatical Westernization (this time based on, say, environmentalism) that again destroys Russians’ faith in themselves, as a result of which they become disillusioned with the Idea of the West and float upwards to the top-left, into ‘moral anomie’. As pointed out previously, this is an unstable state, for only madmen are capable of abandoning all beliefs. They gray dusk of disillusionment darkens… and there emerges a pure blackness, a despotism based on a new-found, mystical sobornost, united in its contemptuous rejection of Rationalism, and probably far more ‘racialist’ than during the Stalinist era [70]. And this time round, it is armed with thousands of nukes.

These darker possibilities, though currently remote, should not be dismissed. Russia’s oil production very likely peaked in 2008, along with global production [71], and there is credible evidence that this peak will be final [72]. Considering its vital role in lubricating the wheels of global commerce, the future viability of globalization is under serious question. This is just one facet of approaching ‘limits to growth’[73], for in more general terms, resource depletion and pollution threaten the very survival of industrial civilization during this century. Hoarding what remains for its own use may become a priority for rational Russian leaders, and exports only allowed on the most favorable terms, in exchange for Western technologies or German machine tools, but not US Treasuries, Chinese trinkets or oligarch mansions in London.

One consequence is that there will be a massive increase in imperial competition for resources. The industrial core (the US, Europe and China) may strike up strategic alliances to control and influence resource-rich nations, either overtly (latter-day gunboat diplomacy) or covertly (influence operations, information wars, etc). In this world, much like in the 1930’s, the strong will beat the weak. As a resource-rich nation largely spared from the ravages of projected climate change, Russia may come to view itself, with some degree of justification, as a fortress besieged by global industrialism – much as the 1928 war scare contributed to tipping the USSR towards Stalinism. In such a world, Russia’s geopolitical priorities would logically be – and all this is already happening – to a) increase its military strength, including the nuclear deterrent, b) neutralize and co-opt Europe and c) extend influence over the energy-rich Arctic, Central Asia and the Middle East. To pursue these goals effectively, Russia needs to be an Empire.

Finally, any true Eurasian Empire is almost destined to be in conflict with Atlanticism (and not just because this is an explicit aim of folks like Dugin [74]), even leaving aside the prospect of ruthless competition for resources. The economic strength of the Atlantic powers is magnified because of globalization’s opportunities for increasing the power of the whole through ‘scope enlargement’ and international specialization, strength that can – and was – used to strangle any potential Eurasian hegemon. That is the story of the Cold War, in which the USSR increasingly fell behind the West; for with its access to Japanese electronics, Saudi oil, and German machine tools, the US could more than match Soviet military efforts, while at the same time providing its citizens with a much higher standard of life. As such, an autarkic Eurasian Empire would find it to be in its best interests to oppose the Atlantic powers by trying to foment chaos within the global system, so as to shut it down and hence level the playing field to continent against continent, instead of Eurasia against the World System.

IX. The Loop

Due to its geographical and climatic features, and the cultural traditions derived from them, Russia’s economic life is traditionally based on state-driven coercion. This is incompatible with ‘rational’, Western norms, hence Russia always found it particularly difficult to Westernize. When it does try to Westernize, it becomes culturally dependent on the West, but remains backwards nonetheless – if anything, at times even more so. This breeds an inferiority complex and a sense of resentment towards the West, which the latter does little to dispel: Russians increasingly reject the West, and pine for an (imagined?) past of autarky, sovereignty and sobornost. Political leaders are ultimately powerless to resist: either they go with the flow, or they are displaced or overthrown.

The rock is pushed up the mountain with messianic fervor, but eventually the past-and-future turn out to be not as great as Russians imagined them and a long stagnation sets in. The mountain looms ever larger, Sisyphus gets tired, and Prometheus’ acolytes try to block his path; the road ahead begins to look hopeless. This again arouses an intense interest in the West: after some time, due to accumulating backwardness, the regime is no longer able to resist its tantalizing siren calls, and succumbs – often with disastrous consequences, because economic coercion also grinds to a halt, resulting in output and social welfare collapse. The loop comes full cycle, and after a period of recuperation and apathy, Sisyphus starts rolling the rock up the mountain once more with renewed fervor.

The struggle is ultimately (historically) always futile; yet it is too Romantic a struggle to abandon – indeed, Russia does not want to abandon its endless, sordid and tiring, but ultimately uplifting and self-defining struggle towards the boundless plains of universal utopia.


[1] See Почему Россия не Америка / “Why Russia is not America” (A. Parshev, 1999); Russia under the Old Regime: Second Edition (R. Pipes, 1997), Ch. 1: “The Environment and its Consequences”.

[2] Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (K. Polanyi, 1957), Ch.5: “Aristotle discovers the Economy”.

[3] V. Kluchevsky, 1956, pp.313-4: “There is one thing of which the Great Russian is sure − that a sunny summer day is valuable, that nature would allow little time convenient for agricultural work and that a short Great Russian summer can be shortened even more by a sudden untimely turn of bad weather. This would force the Great Russian peasant to hurry up and toil in order to achieve as much as possible over a short while and take the crop in good time… In this way the Great Russian would learn to take an extraordinary but short effort, would learn to do rush, hasty work and then take a rest during forced idleness in autumn and winter. No other nation in Europe is capable of such short extraordinary effort; but, on the other hand, such lack of habit to regular, moderate, constant work is unlikely to be found anywhere in Europe.”

[4] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (A. Smith, 1776). “…all that part of Asia which lies any considerable way north of the Euxine and Caspian seas, the ancient Scythia, the modern Tartary and Siberia, seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state… The Sea of Tartary is the frozen ocean which admits of no navigation, and though some of the greatest rivers in the world run through that country, they are at too great a distance from one another to carry commerce and communication through the greater part of it.”

[5] Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (S. Rosefielde, 2005).

[6] As long as the energy and mineral resources underpinning it last, anyway.

[7] Kicking Away the Ladder (H. Chang, 2002).

[8] This refers to Russia’s well-known post-Soviet demographic crisis, during which average fertility rates and life expectancies plummeted, causing the population to fall from 149mn in 1992 to 142mn by 2008, despite the net influx of 5mn immigrants from the ‘Near Abroad’.

[9] The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (D. Landes, 1999), Ch.2: “Answers to Geography: Europe and China”.

[10] Introduction to social macrodynamics: secular cycles and millennial trends (A. Korotayev, 2006) is a comprehensive analysis and modeling of the exponential secular, cyclical Malthusian, and stochastic processes governing political-demographic and economic development in history.

[11] Even tiny differences in growth rates can lead to huge differences in the long-term.

[12] http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm

[13] A Greek word Fukuyama interprets as “desire for spiritual recognition”.

[14] Interestingly, Fukuyama anticipates – and does not like – the relativist argument. From his “The End of History and the Last Man”: “Relativism – the doctrine that maintains all values are merely relative and which attacks all “privileged perspectives” – must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be fired selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the “absolutisms”, dogmas and certainties of the Western tradition, but that traditions emphasis on tolerance, diversity and freedom of thought as well”.

[15] The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839 (G. Kennan, 1971) quotes the19th century French travel writer: “I don’t reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we [Europeans] are… They are much less interested in being civilized then in making us believe them so… They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric than they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized.”

[16] Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, pp.28 (S. Matthew, 1995).

[17] Nabokov’s Otherworld (V. Alexandrov, 1991).

[18] Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (S. Boym, 1994).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Strong Opinions (V. Nabokov, 1973). See http://www.theparisreview.org/media/4310_NABOKOV.pdf for the original interview.

[21] “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue” – La Rochefoucauld. On the one hand, admirable; on the other hand, it is the implicit deception that is intolerable.

[22] Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (P. Viereck, 1941).

[23] Categorizing the Russia Debate (A. Karlin, 2009) at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/07/09/categorizing-the-russia-debate/.

[24] Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (P. Viereck, 1941).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Postmodern Jihad: What Osama bin Laden learned from the Left (W. Newell, 2001) at http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/courses01/rrtw/Newell.htm.

[27] See Поведение / “Behavior” (K. Krylov, 1996) for a good discussion of the “diaspora” and “barbarian” mentalities at http://warrax.net/behavior/00.html.

[28] Max Weber’s definitions of authority can be assigned places on the Belief Matrix – “charismatic” is the top-right, “legal-rational” is the bottom-right, and “traditional” is in between. The last is typical of premodern, Malthusian, traditional societies based on feudal / clan relations.

[29] Lev Gumilev’s semi-mystical concept of the ‘vital energy’ of a civilization, i.e. its willingness to self-sacrifice, to conquer, to succeed, etc.

[30] In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Francis Fukuyama stated: “The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization…I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military”.

[31] Europe and Mankind (N. Trubetzkoy, 1920).

[32] See Twitter Terror in Moldova (A. Karlin, 2009) for a case study at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/04/11/twitter-terror-moldova/.

[33] The Coming Era of Russia’s Dark Rider (P. Zeihan, 2007) writing in Stratfor (http://www.stratfor.com/coming_era_russias_dark_rider).

[34] Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (J. Scott, 1941).

[35] Moscow War Diary (A. Werth, 1942).

[36] Having investigated the report of Maljuta Skuratov and commemoration lists (sinodiki), R. Skrynnikov considers, that the number of victims was 2,000-3,000 (Skrynnikov R. G., “Ivan Grosny”, M., AST, 2001).

[37] Furthermore, one must also note that the correspondence between Kurbsky and Ivan Grozny is suspected to be a forgery – see “THE KURBSKII-GROZNYI APOCRYPHA: the 17th-Century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV” (E. Keenan, 1970) http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/KEEKUR.html.

[38] Secular Cycles (P. Turchin & S. Nefedov, 2009), Ch. 9: “Russia: the Romanov Cycle (1620–1922)”.

[39] In 1547, Hans Schlitte, the agent of Tsar Ivan IV, employed handicraftsmen in Germany for work in Russia. However all these handicraftsmen were arrested in Lübeck at the request of Livonia.

[40] The End of Imperial Russia, 1855-1917 (P. Waldron, 1997), pp. 97. By 1913, adult literacy was at 38%, up from 21% in 1897; the last generation of children to have had access to the empire’s schools, according to the 1920 Soviet census, had a literacy rate of 71% for boys and 52% for girls.

[41] The international demonstration effect, e.g. see Problems of Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries (Nurske, 1957).

[42] By 1913, Russia had the highest average tariff rates on manufactured goods in Europe at 84% (Bairoch 1993) and enjoyed the fastest industrial growth rate on the continent. In contrast to development in the 1880’s-1890’s, which was spearheaded by a huge state-led program of railway building, after 1905 there appeared big industrial banks clustered around St.-Petersburg geared towards funding domestic manufacturers on the German model of development (Gerschenkron, 1962).

[43] When the Party Commits Suicide (S. Žižek, 1999), at http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek/zizek-when-the-party-commits-suicide.html.

[44] Translation: The Case of the “Stalinist” Textbook (A. Karlin, 2009) at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/05/28/translation-stalinist-textbook/.

[45] Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (S. Rosefielde, 2005), see summary at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/07/06/notes-prodigal-superpower/.

[46] Are Command Economies Unstable? Why Did the Soviet Economy Collapse? (M. Harrison, 2001) at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/workingpapers/publications/twerp604.pdf.

[47] What Russia Teacher Us Now (S. Holmes, 1997) at http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=what_russia_teaches_us_now is a typical late-1990’s article from a time when the theme of Russia’s collapse was predominant in the Western media, in stark contrast to today’s talk of a ‘resurgent Russia’.

[48] Russia Through the Looking-Glass (N. Petro, 2006) at http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-institutions_government/russia_3259.jsp.

[49] The State in the New Russia (1992-2004): From Collapse to Gradual Revival? (V. Popov, 2004) at http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/pm_0342.pdf.

[50] Attempting to portray Putin as a revanchist neo-Soviet authoritarian, the Western media tends to gloss over the manifold authoritarian tendencies of the preceding Yeltsin administration, which redeemed itself by being pro-Western. Alternative newspapers have excellent sources on this, e.g. the eXile: see How do you Spell Hypocrisy? O-S-C-E (M. Ames, 2003) at http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=7149&IBLOCK_ID=35, The Myth of the Democratic Model (S. Guillory, 2008) at http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=16511&IBLOCK_ID=35.

[51] In 2004 the Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya calculated that 25% of the Russian elite had a security or intelligence background (i.e. siloviki), which rises to 58% amongst Putin’s ‘inner circle’.

[52] “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”. – Gideon Lichfield, former Economist journalist. I feel this is especially apt when it comes to Russia-watching. Taken from Press Review: The Economist’s Three Stooges (K. Pankratov, 2007) at http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=8518&IBLOCK_ID=35.

[53] For examples, see my list of Top 50 Russophobe Myths at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/07/04/top-50-russophobe-myths/. Though *some* of my refutations are in some ways as biased as the original claims, they will provide plenty of food for thought for anyone steeped in exclusively American or West European media coverage of Russia.

[54] Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the post-Soviet World (A. Wilson, 2005); see Mark Ames’ eXile review at http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=7982&IBLOCK_ID=35.

[55] The country’s grain market: realising its potential (D. Medvedev, 2009) at http://rbth.ru/articles/2009/06/16/160609_grain.html.

[56] International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers http://www.oica.net/.

[57] Rosstat.

[58] Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography (A. Karlin, 2009) at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/06/13/thru-looking-glass/.

[59] In the past two years there have been a number of hints from Russia indicating that it does not view Ukraine as a fully sovereign state. E.g. see Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine (J. Marson, 2009) at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1900838,00.html.

[60] Would the Real Ukraine Please Stand Up? (G. Stack, 2009) at http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=Politics&articleid=a1245680109.

[61] End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations (Pew Research Center) at http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=267.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Disheartened With the West (A. Pankin, 2009) at http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/1016/42/380391.htm.

[64] Russians don’t much like the West (S. Richards, 2009) at http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/russians-don-t-much-like-the-west, Russia’s New Cyberwarriors (N. Petro, 2007) at http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_nicolai__070623_russia_s_new_cyberwa.htm.

[65] Well-off Muscovite Teenagers More Inclined to View US as Enemy (P. Goble, 2009) at http://social.moldova.org/news/welloff-muscovite-teenagers-more-inclined-to-view-us-as-enemy-201672-eng.html.

[66] Russian Oligarch Special Series (Stratfor, 2009), “Russian Oligarchs Part 3: The Party’s Over” at http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20090522_russian_oligarchs_part_3_partys_over.

[67] Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan to seek joining WTO as parts of Customs Union http://en.rian.ru/business/20090706/155444034.html.

[68] The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan Altered Russian Society (N. Petro, 2009) at http://russiaotherpointsofview.typepad.com/files/nick_petro_putin_plan_may_09.pdf.

[69] See Categorizing the Russia Debate (A. Karlin, 2009) at http://www.darussophile.com/2009/07/09/categorizing-the-russia-debate/ for definitions.

[70] The popularity of the idea of ‘Russia for Russians’ has increased from 26% in 1989 to 54% in 2009 (http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=267). This is reflected in the proliferation of fascist movements.

[71] http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5969

[72] Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (K. Deffeyes, 2006) and The Last Oil Shock (D. Strahan, 2007) are good introductions to the theory of peak oil. See a short, compact mathematical demonstration and quasi-proof at http://watd.wuthering-heights.co.uk/subpages/hubbertmaths/hubbertmaths.html.

[73] Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (D. Meadows et al, 2004).

[74] Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics (J. Dunlop) at http://www.princeton.edu/lisd/publications/wp_russiaseries_dunlop.pdf.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Review of “Moscow War Diary” (A. Werth)
Werth, AlexanderMoscow War Diary (1942)
Category: history, Soviet Union, WW2; Rating: 4/5

Soviet Resilience under Fire

On 22nd June 1941, the armed columns of Nazi Germany began rolling into Russia, heralding the start of the Great Patriotic War. For Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the British Sunday Times paper who had spent his childhood in imperial Russia, this was a deeply emotional event, stirring him ‘perhaps more deeply than any event since the war began’. Spurred by these sentiments and realizing that with the bulk of the Wehrmacht diverted to the USSR, how ‘the Russian people would resist Hitler’ would determine the outcome of this ‘totalitarian war’, he decided to go to Moscow. There, he observed how the military and the material, the media and the morale, aspects of the war interacted, wrote articles about it for readers in Britain (and occasionally the USSR) and recorded his impressions in a diary at ground zero that he edited for readability and published early 1942.

Werth considered the attitudes of some of his fellow journalists towards this war as just another ‘big story’ detestable. ‘Even more irritating, for its cold-hearted non-belligerent objectivity’ – for instance, the intention of an American journalist, Angelina, to remain in Moscow even should the Germans capture it, justifying it with, “You bet I’ll stay here; don’t you think it’ll be a swell story? Who’s to stop me? Aren’t we nootrals?” [sic]. He also lambasted another American journalist, Ingersoll, for whom the ‘war is an opportunity for a scoop’, as opposed to the ‘millions of Russians’ for whom it is a ‘matter of life and death’ .

He considers the Fourth Estate has a responsibility to promote Allied understanding – ‘whatever may be the…snags in future Anglo-Russian relations, we’ve got to support Russia; we’ve got to do away with the suspicions…’ . And at the end of book, after a succinct defense of the Soviet system and of Russian culture, an appeal for a post-war rapprochement between Britain and the USSR, and a call for the punishment of Germany, he bluntly states that that ‘all this would not mean much if in 1942 Russia were allowed to run short of equipment’ . This is telling – in other words, Werth does not consider himself a neutral and objective observer; he sees himself as a kind of combatant too, crucial for forming the kinds of bonds of trust that would allow the Allies to pool their resources, coordinate their actions and so bring the war to a more rapid close.

The publication date is very significant, for 1942 was the crucial year in which final victory could have been sealed by either side. Although the entry of the USA gave the Allies huge material preponderance over the Nazis during 1942, in practice the US would take time to get mobilized. Meanwhile, Germany had occupied much of the western USSR, including the Ukrainian breadbasket (albeit whose real importance to Soviet food security should not be overstated ), surrounded or occupied the industrial centers of Leningrad and the Donbass, and threatened to cut off the supply of Soviet oil from Azerbaijan. The ratio of Soviet to German GDP had tumbled from 1.1 in 1940 to 0.7 in 1942. As material stocks accumulated in the prewar period dwindled and military production was, despite all the difficulties, ramped up to several multiples of the German figure, the civilian stocks plummeted to dangerously low levels that could potentially fatally undermine the Soviet system to sustain war. According to Harrison’s model, during wartime the population splits into productive ‘mice’ and sabotaging ‘rats’ (e.g. black marketers, collaborators, etc). Initially, the payoff to rats is bigger, but as the number of rats increases that payoff decreases – when the payoffs to mice and rats again reach equilibrium, the state is close to collapse. Potentially, this could have happened in the USSR – after all, that had been the fate of tsarist Russia, and the Soviet regime certainly had no shortage of malcontents and wreckers (ex-kulaks, former White army officers, Trotskyites, etc – who were purged by Stalin, an action praised by Werth as necessary to Soviet stability ).

However, several key factors prevented that from happening – the efficacy of Soviet propaganda, support for the regime and the harshness of punishment for rats; the inefficiency of German propaganda and their cruel as well as appallingly stupid treatment of Slavic peoples in the ‘war of annihilation’; the extraordinary Soviet success in mass mobilization, in which the Soviet Union heeded Stalin’s call to become a ‘single armed camp’; the Soviet exploitation of their newly built-up industrial strength behind the Urals to decisively outproduce a Germany that pursued huge, useless investments in projects like the V-2 rockets and the Ahnenerbe, held ideological prejudices against employing women in armaments production, and above all indulged in the ‘polycratic chaos’ of rivaling ministries and sub-empires which, driven by self-interest, could never hammer out a war-winning grand strategy like the Allies; and Lend-Lease, which although small relative to overall Soviet production, nonetheless alleviated shortages of several key war-making components (rare metals, aviation fools, canned food) and helped plug the possibly narrow gap that separated Soviet society from collapse. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Spymania and xenophobia were a feature of Soviet society, in which caution and watchfulness were encouraged to thwart the foreign forces seeking to sabotage the Soviet Union and its achievements – which incidentally caused Werth, a foreign journalist and before his flight to Britain after the Revolution, an incorrigible member of the St.-Petersburg bourgeoisie, no little amount of bother. Stalin was admired as a competent ‘captain of state’, a paternal bashka (thinker). Rumors of (retrospectively justified) Nazi atrocities, executions of POW’s and the dissemination of Hitler’s long-term plans for the subjugation of the Slavic peoples stirred popular anger and a willingness to fight to the end against the Germans – one woman remarked, in defense of the Stalinist regime, “What other regime can there be other than a German concentration camp? Our country has toiled for twenty years, in appallingly difficult conditions, but now we have achieved a standard of comfort and prosperity…the general level of education and culture and economic wellbeing has improved so very much…” A kolkhoz chairman expressed similar views – the Soviets had vastly improved the country, the Germans had invaded and wrecked it (“Damn the Germans! But for this war we’d be living in a world of ever-increasing plenty for everyone! ) and there was a determination to repay them ‘tenfold’. As Werth put it, those who insist the Russians were forced to fight by the GPU were idiots – there was a genuine groundswell of support for the regime for the most part and its promises of socialist democracy.

Supporting the above was a constant drumbeat of propaganda. At the simpler end, these consisted of crude but effective propaganda posters (“Crush the fascist reptile!” ) and uplifting martial songs. More fundamentally, the Soviet state changed it ideological outlook. Anti-clericalism was brushed away, to win the support of devout Orthodox believers and Western observers horrified by state-promoted atheism. Pan-Slavic themes were re-embraced , such as showing Eisenstein’s films about Alexander Nevsky (a Duke of Novgorod who beat the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1240, but whose socialist credentials are dubious), playing Shostakovich’s music (the dramatic 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony) and acting out plays like A Life for the Tsar (renamed Ivan Susanin, for its 17th century peasant hero who sacrifices his life to lead the invading Poles into a swamp). Though the Soviet papers took a bland and upbeat tone, as Werth insists, they included real information buried beneath their big columns and between the lines – this would have served the double purpose of helping preclude popular panic, but succeeding in informing vital decision-makers. Military chaplains were reintroduced and harsh, hierarchic discipline brought back into the Red Army, to the point of establishing penal battalions (shtrafbats) for gross dereliction of duty or unauthorized retreat (Werth doesn’t mention it, as it is unlikely to make a good impression on its audience – nonetheless, counter-intuitively, there is evidence that most soldiers supported these measures). In summary, there was ‘no longer a dividing line between “Soviet” and “Russian”’ – it was a ‘national regime’.

Meanwhile, German atrocities were a massive disincentive to becoming a rat. Contrary to the Cold War myths promulgated by the German generals after the war, the Wehrmacht was an active participant in them. There is a grlimp into this by Werth’s observation of a letter sent by a ‘Hausfrau of a bitch’ to a soldier asking him to seize a fur coat for her from Russia, amongst other things. German propaganda was generally ineffective, due to the disconnect between its ostensibly ‘good’ intentions (at least from some perspectives, e.g. liquidating the Jewish-Bolshevik cabal that ruled over Russia) to the reality of its massacres and criminal mistreatment of POW’s. In any case the Soviets had made sure to try to gather in all radios except those pre-tuned to only receive only Soviet frequencies. Soviet propaganda, which initially tried to differentiate between good and bad Germans, adopted a uniformly hardline, hostile position to them by August as popular resentment against them and military defeats stung more deeply. Werth himself frequently demonized Germans as a people in his diary, although this is justifiable in the context of the time he was writing in.

Werth does not dwell at length on the Soviet military-industrial complex and the evacuation of many manufacturing plants to the near impregnable Urals, where a basic industrial infrastructure had been foresightedly built up under Stalin. Together with Lend-Lease, which plugged many vital holes in the Soviet civilian and military sectors, and the full-scale mobilization of ethnicities and women, it played a vital role in assuring victory – Werth notes how supportive a ‘Mongol’ soldier (actually, probably a Central Asian) was for the war effort and how women were organized into patrols to watch out for ‘parachutists’ and exhorted to go work in the depopulated collective farms (women also fought successfully in segregated aviation and sniper units, as well as forming a large contingent of medics and other support units ). Werth himself contributed somewhat to improving Western images of the Soviet Union (he complained of unfair coverage, Russophobia, and criticized France and Britain for their lack of cooperation with the USSR before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), and as such in his own small way contributed to making Lend-Lease smooth and successful – as noted previously, he saw very much saw himself as an information warrior for the Allies. He expressed a pollyannish belief that Russia would eventually implement the Stalin Constitution, evolve a Soviet democracy, and maintain postwar friendship with Britain.

Werth does, of course, criticize the Soviet Union and military operations from time to time (to be convincing, one has to acknowledge contrary points of view before attacking them), although they are always qualified and explained away – but not always convincingly. Contrary to his assertions, the tactical performance and logistics of the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942 (these years accounted for two thirds of Soviet ‘irrecoverable losses, according to Krivosheev), and ‘radio communications were rudimentary’, radar generally unavailable and officers trained only to ‘undertake frontal assaults’. Werth also spent what appeared to me to be an inordinately large amount of time going to theater, music, and other cultural performances in wartime Moscow in 1941.

Werth viewed the struggle as a Manichean battle between Allied good and Nazi evil, and this, coupled with his own emotional stakes in the conflict, colored his objectivity. He saw journalists as a type of soldier too, bound to keep up morale by withholding deleterious information, or if necessary, releasing it in a low-key, gradual and qualified way. The margin for victory in 1942 was excessively narrow, and it is entirely possible than it was information control that prevented Soviet panic and a mass conversion into ‘rats’. Werth himself was an example of this, emphasizing the positive and maintaining a confident note throughout the book, and which was reflected in his journalistic pieces of the period that affected public opinion in Britain and to a smaller extent, in Russia (he published a few pieces in Russian). It is an intriguing, ground-zero portrayal of how it is sometimes necessary for journalists to ditch pure objectivity to serve a greater and juster cause.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Scott, JohnBehind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (1941)
Category: history, Soviet Union, Stalin; Rating: 5/5

Fear and Fervor under Stalinist Industrialization

The Great Depression of the 1930’s, with its iconic images of well-dressed bourgeoisie in soup lines and gaunt figures with hopeless eyes from the Dust Bowl, challenged the prior American consensus that their system of liberal democracy and free markets was the pinnacle of social and economic organization. Upon graduating from a radical educational program at the University of Wisconsin, John Scott had few permanent job prospects. Coupled with the legacy of his family’s freethinking, non-conformist background, youthful wanderlust and socialist sympathies, he obtained a welder’s certificate at a General Electric plant at Schenectady and set out to discover Soviet civilization – Steffens’ wave of the future, Sloan’s ‘country with a plan’ and in his own pseudonym’s words, ‘the place where there is work to be done is now among the workers themselves’.

The book is a fascinating compendium of observations of Soviet proletarian life in the 1930’s from the point of view of an idealistic but objective American fellow traveler living and working in the model city of Magnitogorsk. He successfully bridged the polar Western views of the USSR of the times, which ranged from the Scylla of the right who claimed it produced nothing but ‘chaos, suffering and disorder’ to the Charybdis of the Communists who held it up as a panacea. His thoughts on this are well worth quoting in full, especially because of their resonance today:

In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren't we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.

In this book review article, I’ll expound on some his observations and ideas, and prior assumptions and elisions, about industrialization, daily life and politics under Stalinism.

Following the economic and humanitarian disaster of ‘war communism’ during the early Civil War, the New Economic Policy was pursued in the mid 1920’s in which the state controlled the commanding heights of the economy while allowing private initiative in agriculture, light manufacturing and services below. Towards the end of the decade, however, Stalin assumed more power and used it to push the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ – the suppression of consumerism in favor of massive investments into heavy industry. Russia was ‘fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries’, and could either make good this gap in ten years or get crushed, as the ‘backward are always beaten’. Opponents were purged and Stalin embarked on state-backed defensive modernization (in the footsteps of Ivan IV, Peter the Great and late Tsarism); Magnitogorsk, where the iron ore deposits are so rich they distort the Earth’s magnetic field, was to be a poster child of a broader movement to build up a strategically invulnerable military-industrial complex powered by indigenous resources.

Collectivization and the lure of higher wages drew the labor power needed to build the foundations of the industrial base, while primary exports (grains, oil, lumber, etc) paid for the capital and foreign specialists. The workforce was further augmented by the economic emancipation of women (e.g. as crane operators, where dexterity had a premium over physical strength), engagement of ethnic groups (bringing Central Asians into the modern world and even attracting immigrants from Pilsudski’s Poland) and tight controls over energetic and technically skilled, but potentially politically unreliable elements like the ex-Tsarist “prisoner-specialists” and kulaks. Despite the hunger – in the early 1930’s food was rationed due to the collectivization famines, and was for the most part nutritionally and in caloric terms inadequate), persistent cold (up to -40 degrees Celsius in winter), sub-par accommodation and the poor skills of peasants suddenly turned workers (which meant that machines were used inefficiently and in ways that depreciated them rapidly), the impressive industrial plans were mostly achieved.

This was done at a high human cost – safety measures were minimal and bred a fatalist attitude, while at a more general level society suffered from consumer scarcity amidst (relative) producer plenty. The above considerations, as well as the recovery of agriculture in the wake of mechanization and electrification, eliminated shortages of basics (e.g. food stopped being rationed by the mid 1930’s) and labor rights were more honored. If anything, however, the cult of meeting and exceeding the plan metastasized, as illustrated by the emergence of the Stakhanovite movement. With technology diffusion complete and the arrival of full-scale totalitarianism by 1937, foreign specialists left and production suffered as much of the top management was purged (ironically, the NKVD turned out to be some of the best wreckers). The hysteria subsided after 1938, as the country entered a phase of further industrial development and structural militarization in response to the emergent Nazi threat.

From the Dickensian smokestacks of early industrial Britain to the smog-clogged Chinese metropolises of today, heavy industrialization was rarely benevolent to its founders. Although the sheer pace at which the Soviet Union industrialized was up till then unprecedented (e.g. pig-iron output trebled during the first two 5 Year Plans) and imposed heavy human costs, it was somewhat mitigated by the similarly unprecedented attention the regime paid to social matters. A trinity of basic sanitation, obstetrics and vaccination vastly reduced infant and epidemiological mortality in the USSR, the two prior leading causes of death (e.g. typhus was eliminated). Apartments began sprouting amidst the mud huts and wooden houses in Magnitogorsk by the mid 1930’s. Efforts were made to bring bourgeois culture like theater and ballet to the proletariatt. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that the immediate impact on salubrity should not be overestimated – even in the late 1930’s the infant mortality rate remained close to 200 / 1000 (for comparison, the equivalent rate for the US at the time was 60 / 1000), while even by Scott’s own estimates some 75% of Magnitogorsk’s population still lived in primitive izbas or zemlyankas.

Education was subsidized and highly encouraged, focused on Marxist-Leninist ideology (to promote political orthodoxy) and on the hard sciences (to build a strong, technically advanced state). Dogma was more prevalent in the simpler technical schools, where ‘every question had a perfectly defined answer’, since that is what it said in ‘the book’, foreshadowing Milan Kundera’s observation in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that totalitarian kitsch ‘gives all answers in advance’ and pre-empts any questions. Not surprisingly, the older dogmas of religion were ridiculed (but not actively persecuted, according to Scott). Nonetheless, these efforts paid off handsomely, giving the USSR a trained workforce to operate the new machines and armaments (even today, Russia has the OECD’s highest level of tertiary educational attainment for 55-64 year olds). However, as Scott mentions, many of the most capable elements of the ancien régime emigrated and were lost to the Soviet Union, while he fully ignores – as did the Soviet authorities – some impressive achievements in literacy and school enrolment during late Tsarism, including a literacy rate of 41% by 1913 and near universal primary enrollment.

The darkest aspect of life was the activities of the NKVD, the secret police. From 1937, denunciations (made out of spite or to cover one’s mistakes) began to be acted upon for increasingly trivial reasons, which were conflated to sabotage or anti-revolutionary activities – before, these minor offences had typically resulted in fines or demotions. There were very few acquittals and only a simulation of the rule of law, but few executions, so the wisest choice was confession. Scott attributes the purges to 1) concern about sabotage on the part of embittered elements of Tsarism, e.g. kulaks and White army officers, 2) spy-mania brought forth by suspicion of the fascist and overpopulated states of Germany, Italy and Japan, which had banded together in the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, 3) bad memories of Allied intervention during the Civil War, 4) the Bolshevik tradition of not tolerating dissent after a decision was reached and 5) Russia’s long secret police tradition (stretching to the Tsarist Okhrana and even Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniki). Although he does not whitewash Soviet crimes, he does seek to rationalize collective punishment – perhaps somewhat implausible, as a means of helping technicians and workers ‘appreciate and correctly evaluate human life’.

Although Stalinist industrialization was marred by fecklessness – although with time the workers did get more proficient, and from 1937 a pall of fear hung over Magnitogorsk’s managers, prisoner-specialists and politicians, there was a genuine collective spirit both in industry and on the farms. The USSR allowed a limited workers’ democracy in the factories, whose members could suggest productivity improvements and demand better labor conditions – although direct criticism of the Party or its paramount leaders remained anathema. Even many prisoner-specialists supported the Soviet power out of patriotic pride for what they were doing to modernize Russia, even if they should suffer for it personally. The system was meritocratic, with subsidized education, higher pay for educated workers and bonuses and social status for Stakhanovites. Stalin himself was regarded as a kind of beneficent Tsar, father of the nation, and a competent ‘captain of state’ like the propaganda posters portrayed him.

Scott is firmly pro-Soviet and swallows whole the Bolshevik propaganda about Tsarist Russia as a land of, in Trotsky’s phrase, ‘icons and cockroaches’ – an incomplete judgment which ignores that by 1913 Russia had the vast majority of children acquiring some primary education and Europe’s fastest industrial growth. Although glossing over the nastier aspects of Soviet power, to his credit Scott is unwilling to deny them altogether (unlike, say, Ilya Ehrenburg). And Westerners too frequently forget that the regime enjoyed genuine popular support and that Stalinist industrialization was fuelled not only by fear, but by immense enthusiasm and fervor too.

Despite his experiences and occasional doubts, Scott remained a true believer in the Soviet project, saying that he shared a belief with its people that “it was worthwhile to shed blood, sweat, and tears” to lay “the foundations for a new society farther along the road of human progress than anything in the West; a society which would guarantee its people not only personal freedom but absolute economic security.”

Finally, the decision to build a military-industrial colossus in the Urals was a strategic masterstroke – “The Russian people shed blood, sweat, and tears to create something else, a modern industrial base outside the reach of an invader – Stalin’s Ural Stronghold – and a modern mechanized army”. Not only did its arms’ factories play a vital role in the Great Patriotic War, the physical infrastructure built up there enabled the smooth redeployment of evacuated factories from the west. Stalin’s Ural stronghold ensured that in most key weapons system, the Soviet Union would outproduce Germany by several factors and crush its blood-thirsty millennial dreams. To this day, Victory in that most total and terrible of wars remains Stalin’s primary legacy in the eyes of most Russians, that despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament.

As a cynical former Economist journalist, Gideon Lichfeld, put it: “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”. Now I don’t usually agree with Economist journos on Russia, but here I’ll make a big divergence. Though John Scott’s Behind the Urals undeniably suffers from a certain, pro-socialist bias, and sometimes engages in a near-absurd defense of Stalin’s purges, I nonetheless highly recommend it as a primary source on Stalinist Russia. The USSR in the 1930′s may not have been a utopia or anything remotely close, but neither was it the unadulterated Hell of deportations, famines and gulags painted by today’s Cold Warriors and their fellow travelers.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
With increasing signs of economic collapse, military overstretch and political problems, is the US doomed to go the way of the late USSR?
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Inspired in no small part by the political charade over the bail-outs and boondoggles that plague the TV screens and electronic ether, I’ve compiled a top 10 list of ways in which the US increasingly resembles the collapsing Soviet Union for your information / despair / entertainment / Schadenfreude / ridicule / etc.

A list of how Russians screwed up and Americans are repeating their mistakes step by step. A list that may provoke much needed debate and change that we can really believe in.

10

An alcohol epidemic from the 1960′s on that kept Russian life expectancy flat ever since.

Dietary catastrophe resulting in historically unprecedented obesity and diabetes rates.

9

Hated and feared for human rights violations, invasion of Afghanistan and Communist rhetoric, and its socialist model discredited.

Hated and feared for use of torture, invasion of Iraq and post-Cold War triumphalist arrogance, and its neoliberal model discredited.

8

Military overstretch, economic distortion and disaster in Afghanistan.

Imperial overstretch, runaway military budget and return to the “graveyard of empires”.

7

Wasteful investments into infrastructure, bloated bureaucracy and inefficient industry.

Decaying infrastructure, misplaced investments into suburbia, bloated financial system and hallowing out of industry.

6

Collapse in morality, bloated bureaucracy and soaring corruption.

Regulatory capture, bloated special interests and legalistic mafia.

5

Suppression of statistics and silencing of dissent.

Manipulation of statistics and ignores dissent.

4

Dependence on foreign credit from debts and oil sales.

Dependence on foreign credit from debts, “dark matter” and the $’s status as global currency reserve.

3

Young reformer takes power and talks of glasnost and perestroika while avoiding real reform.

Young “outsider” wins the elections and talk of change and hope…

2

Ethnic nationalism and separatist tendencies.

Tax revolts and state rights.

1

More and more people began to predict Soviet collapse in the late 1980′s.

More and more people are beginning to predict an American collapse now…


10) The first disturbing similarity is the rapidly deteriorating health of the population. From the 1960′s, an alcohol epidemic began to sweep Russia as binging graduated from something done on holidays to a monthly and then a weekly affair. The drinking epidemic spread to women and younger people, and intensified amongst middle-aged men. Once subjected to the cheap alcohol and social dislocations of the post-Soviet world, an already stagnating average life expectancy plummeted.

As late as 1990, not a single state in the Union had an obesity rate of greater than 15% of the adult population; today, not a single state (with the marginal exception of Colorado) has an obesity rate of less than 20%. The national obesity rate soared to 34%. The percentage of American adults suffering from diabetes is now 11%, and another 26% have impaired glucose tolerance. Although improvements in US life expectancy haven’t stalled, change has been slower than in most other developed countries and even then was mostly accounted for by improved medical technology, and successes in reducing tobacco smoking and overconsumption of animal fats. An economic collapse now would trim the vastly expensive healthcare system and almost certainly result in a mortality spike – especially considering that the baby boomers are now nearing retirement age.

Both the Russian and American epidemics affect poor, middle-aged people the most; a difference is that the alcohol epidemic affected men more than women, whereas in the US obesity is slightly more prevalent amongst women than men. Vodka sales made good profits for the state (via taxes) during the Soviet period and good profits for private distilleries in the post-Soviet period; the American diet makes good profits for fast food outlets and the parasitic “food processing” companies that degrade good corn into corn syrup. Perhaps the most poignant comparison is in the kinds of TV adverts that dominate the airwaves in both countries. In Russia after 9pm, every third commercial suddenly becomes about some or another kind of beer (that’s an improvement over the 1990′s, when they ran all day); in the US, day or night, every third commercial praises the virtues of some kind of meretricious fat-soaked starchy thing.

9) Throughout the early Cold War, the USSR was a source of inspiration to leftist Western intellectuals and Third World countries looking to throw off the imperialist yoke and modernize quickly. But by the early 1980′s, pressure was being applied to the Soviet Union on account of its violations of the human rights treaties it was a signitary to. Central planning remained an alien ideology to all Western societies, increasingly so as its failures became clearer. It was condemned for its invasion of Afghanistan (in reality, an intervention at the request of its new socialist government to defend them from Islamists).

The United States gained a great moral victory from the collapse of the USSR (despite it being a result of internal dynamics) and enjoyed it during the 1990′s. However, this came to an end after 2001 due to the hypocritical and immoral way it went about waging the Orwellian-sounding “war on terror”. Preemptive war on made-up pretenses, extraordinary renditions of terrorist suspects and the neocons’ incessant freedom-rhetoric was something the world by and large couldn’t square together. This resulted in its poor showing in international approval ratings and its repeated “victories” in the “world’s greatest threats to peace” category with Iran, Israel and North Korea as regular runner-ups and after party company. Although the fairness of such characterizations can be disputed, they are ultimately immaterial since it is perceptions that matter – not right or wrong, however defined.

The central planning model of the USSR was fully discredited by the 1980′s; neoliberalism is similarly on en route to the ashcan of history.

8) The USSR was spending about 25% of its GDP on the military by the 1980′s. Not only did this squeeze consumption and contribute to stagnant real incomes from around the mid 1970′s, it divested resources from investment into renewing the capital stock, civilian R&D and improvement of human capital via education and healthcare. However, official figures were ridiculously low – around 2.5% or so of GDP – due to statistical fudging and giving purely military enterprises funny names like the Chelyabinsk Tractor and Machine Building Factory (invented example).

The US maintains unrivaled power projection capabilities, a global network of 700 military bases and the world’s most technologically advanced military force – but it comes at a steep price. While the official military budget for FY2008 is around 520bn $, to this must be added the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (170bn $), interest on past military expenditures (170bn $), nuclear weapons (30bn $), veterans (70bn $), “homeland defense” (70bn $) and other spending on their lavish healthcare and education entitlements, military foreign aid and “black projects”. (And btw, the figures for interest, nukes and veterans are from 2005). Therefore, it is probably entirely reasonable to double the entire military budget to better appreciate its true magnitude – i.e., quite possibly close to 10% of GDP. Add in the distortions – military production has the smallest multiplier effect on the economy (machine building has the biggest), and its claim on skilled workers (something like half of R&D outlays in the US are for military applications), and you get a superpower severely hobbled by its arms’ burden.

This is not a good situation, but not critical either. Yes, it ties down a big chunk of the economy in unproductive pursuits and contributes to the institutional corruption and runaway spending that is typical of military-industrial complexes. I happen to consider that most of the procurement programs currently being pursued are useless, from unproven missile defense to the overhyped F-35 (just build a few hundred much superior F-22′s instead) to the shiny new surface warships and aircraft carriers that are of dubious value in our era of advanced cruise missiles, UAV’s and supercavitating torpedos. (But this for another post). Most poignantly, Obama is now preparing to withdraw from Iraq (where stability is not yet assured, and which is far more strategically important) to free up troops for Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires…and ignoring Soviet veterans’ warnings of what might await them. And the economy is nowhere near as dominated by the priorities of the Armed Forces as was the case in the USSR. Nonetheless, huge military spending and foreign adventures do not necessarily lead to collapse – by themselves. However, the other economic and confidence problems now facing the US now make that a realistic possibility.

7) The Soviet Union invested vast resources into industrial development. However, they were frequently inefficient, wasteful and of questionable quality; and in any case were being severely undercut by the arms burden by the 1980′s.

Although the US built up a world class public infrastructure prior to the 1980′s, since then investments in this area have dropped off. The roads in California are frequently cracked and potholed – vastly inferior to what one might find in Germany, and not much better than in Russia. One quarter of bridges are structurally deficient, in most cities the water pipeline system is a century old and the electrical grid befits a Third World country.

Even worse is that much of the “infrastructure” that was built up in the past few decades consisted of lavish homes in sururbia requiring massive inputs of cheap energy to function normally. When oil is at 10$, spending an hour driving to work is monetarily (if not spiritually) sustainable; as we pass the oil peak and other resources (almost certainly) fail to make good the gap in time, this will change as petrol soars in price, even assuming it will remain available on the open market. Due to the “psychology of preveious investments” (see James Kunstler’s work) it is unlikely Americans will summon the will to scale down its suburbia before the laws of economics and geology force them into it.

Soviet industry was inefficient and was destroyed when subjected to market forces. American industry has already been hallowed out; high productivity growth masks a huge decline in quantity and complexity of its “industrial ecosystem”. US vehicle production fell from 13.0mn to 10.8mn from 2000 to 2007, held up only by the (doomed in the long-term) SUV market which is the only sector in which the Big Three made any profits. (During the same period, Germany increased production from 5.5mn to 6.2mn and Japan from 10.1mn to 11.6mn). Its machine tool building industry has for all intents and purposes collapsed. The only marginally healthy manufacturing industries left are in aerospace and defense. This is going to have very bad consequences when inflows of cheap credit from abroad can no longer sustain the US consumption boom; the manufacturing sector that could potentially have led to a quick revival simply no longer exists.

6) Whatever the faults of the USSR in its early years, there was genuine enthusiasm for building socialism relatively untainted by corruption. This began to change rapidly for the worse from the 1970′s. The elites became exclusively concerned with their own power and wellbeing, ultimately leading to the “insider buyout” that probably best describes what happened in its dying days. The size of the bureaucracy exploded and its effectiveness plummeted. A small change for the better under Gorbachev in the mid to late 1980′s led to catastrophic collapse, endemic corruption under Yeltsin, and some improvements under Putin from a very low base. Blatant self-enrichment of the elite at society’s expense became an accepted norm.

How does this translate to the US?

Collapse in ethics, quoting Buiter in Fiscal expansions in submerging markets:

… Financial regulation and supervision was weak to non-existent, encouraging credit and asset price booms and bubbles. Corporate governance, especially but not only in the banking sector, became increasingly subservient to the interests of the CEOs and the other top managers. There was a steady erosion in business ethics and moral standards in commerce and trade. Regulatory capture and corruption, from petty corruption to grand corruption to state capture, became common place. Truth-telling and trust became increasingly scarce commodities in politics and in business life. The choice between telling the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) and telling a deliberate lie or half-truth became a tactical option. Combined with increasing myopia, this meant that even reputational considerations no longer acted as a constraint on deliberate deception and the use of lies as a policy instrument. As part of this widespread erosion of social capital, both citizens and markets lost faith in the ability of governments to commit themselves to any future course of action that was not validated, at each future point in time, as the most opportunistic course of action at that future point in time – what macroeconomists call time-consistent policies and game theorists call ’subgame-perfect’ strategies.

Under bloated special interests, I put the bloated financial services industry, the legalistic mafia, the healthcare industry and the prison-industrial complex. Finance as a share of GDP doubled in the last 30 years, transforming it from a service industry to a rent-seeking one. The proliferation of lawyers amidst amidst burgeoning legalism in society is another example of a self-serving mafia feeding on the blood of the citizenry, as are the “justice” systems and prisons that have gone together with them (the US has an incarceration rate that is unprecedented amongst anything but totalitarian societies). Finally there’s the healthcare industry, perversely regulated in such a way as to make it far less efficient than if it were nationalized or completely private and delivering one of the worst results for the buck in the world – and like a metastasizing cancer, it’s share of GDP has also exploded in the past few decades.

5) Since the 1970′s real wages for workers in the Soviet Union ceased growing, pressed down by the demands of the military-industrial complex. When statistics began to show that the average life expectancy was stagnating and infant mortality rising, they ceased publishing them.

Real median income in the US slowly increased from 35,000$ in 1967 to 46,000$ in 2005; however, the rate of increase slowed and for the first time in modern history it didn’t exceed the level reached at the peak prior to the last recession in 2000-2001 during the growth years of the Bush Presidency. In reality however the situation is even worse because since the time of Reagan the definition of inflation used by the government was being continuously reworked to make the figures appear better than they otherwise would have been, using substitutions and hedonics to spruce up the figures (i.e. adjusting for consumers switching to other products when similar products become expensive, and trying to put values on quality improvements). If the BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis) continued using its old measuring standards, then a) the economy would have been in stagnation during the 1990′s and recession in the 2000′s, b) inflation would have been steadily increasing to a peak of nearly 14% in 2007 and c) median incomes would have been in steep decline. According to this thesis, then, the only reason the US avoided a big fall in living standards was due to the massive expansion in credit…which brings us to the next point.

4) The Soviet Union grew rapidly in the 1950′s and 1960′s because it was easy to move plenty of rural farmhands into relatively low-skilled industrial jobs. However as labor stocks became limited and focus shifted towards improving technology and productivity, GDP growth slowed and eventually stagnated. Collapse was delayed by the onset of high oil prices, which allowed the USSR to more easily import food products, machinery and technologies. When that collapsed in the mid-1980′s, the state was forced to run up huge debts to maintain mounting entitlement obligations, an overgrown military and bail out its East European satellites. Corruption and hidden inflation overtook the state and broke it.

According to Willem Buiter writing in Can the American economy afford a Keynesian stimulus?, America is a nation in fundamental disequilibrium. It can finance its continuous double deficits by giving its foreign investors an atrocious rate of return. In prior times, they accepted this because of America’s status as the largest economy, sole superpower and global financial center. This was presumed to reduce risk, so investors traded profits for security. From 2000-2004, it is estimated that the US exported some 559bn $ of this “dark matter“, or some 5% of its GDP at the time (the UK was second with 234bn $, or a stunning 15% of GDP). It also draws immense strength from the $’s role as the global reserve currency, for instance by allowing it to comfortably buy oil at $-denominated prices even when the currency is weak.

Due to its imperial overstretch, moribund financial system and frozen credit markets prepped up only by the federal government means that American alpha is almost certainly going to disappear in the next few years. The US fiscal deficit is going to be more than 12% of GDP in 2009 and will remain in the red for at least the next few years. Once global flight to quality ceases, the US will experience difficulties borrowing due foreign f ear of American reluctance to commit to servicing their external obligations without inflation. The interest rates on them are going to be punitive and so a greater amount of resources will have to go towards servicing the debt, thus triggering a potential debt crisis. Buiter predicts a global dump of US dollar assets including Treasury bonds within the next two to five years as investors lose faith in the ability of the US Federal government to generate the primary surpluses required to service its debt without selling much of it to the Fed on a permanent basis, or that the nation as a whole will be able to generate the primary surpluses to service the negative net foreign investment position without the benefit of “American alpha”.

In conclusion, the only reason the US can afford to have both guns and butter is that the outside world is willing to provide it with cheap credit. This will no longer be the case as soon as global panic subsides, and the US will face the real possibility of a debt-and-currency crisis which it will have to inflate its way out of (on which they seem to be making a good start). The 2010′s will see plummeting global oil extraction and sky-high prices. If the $ were to collapse, the imports of oil that fuel the economy will plummet and may lead to a post-Soviet-scale drop in GDP (unless the US uses its military clout to lock in Iraqi and Saudi production – however, given its fiscal problems, questions about political unity and rhetorical commitment to human rights, that would be hard to achieve).

America can take consolation in one thing, however – the collapse in Britain, which is three times as reliant on “dark matter”; which is a much bigger energy importer relative to production; whose industry is in a far more decayed state; and where real breakup is far more likely because of ethnic tensions, will be much worse.

3) When Mikhail Gorbachev (the youngest member of the Politburo) came to power he talked of increasing transparency (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika). Yet the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it starts to reform. In reality the Soviet system was already very probably unsalvageable by then, partly because even the leader himself continued to be a part of the system, beholden to dominant interests (in the Soviet case, to the military-industrial complex, the nomenklatura and workers) and steeped in delusions of grandeur. Even as he attempted to liberalize and solve many interlocking social and economic problems at once, social entitlements were increased, new weapons systems ordered and foreign borrowing increased. Half-measures and reckless credit giveouts to save the system led to massive waste, insider plunder and the start of the disintegration of the economy by the late 1980′s.

The similarities with Obama are striking. Obama is one of the youngest Presidential candidates ever, and talks of hope and change. He comes after the zastoi, deterioration in political and civil liberties and reckless foreign military adventures of Bush II. Like Gorby, he is immensely popular throughout the world. He plans on expanding healthcare and other social entitlements, burdening the economy with farcical green schemes* and is intent on rescuing the troubled financial system by massive infusions of credit, with no regard for the future inflationary consequences. His advisors are the same clique of insiders under previous administrations, especially the Clinton one. He is beholden to the financiers and industrial lobbying groups that fund him and the middle classes that are the bedrock of American political power (as were Soviet workers), which are now being whittled down by the collapse in credit and repossessions. Major cuts in funding for the the Armed Forces and sustainable retreat are simply not envisioned. *As anyone who reads this blog nows, I consider global warming one of the greatest challenges faced by civilization. The problem is that schemes to fund “clean coal” or implement carbon trading are too little, too late, too costly and too unreliable.

Obama is steeped in the Pax Americana mindset (just as Gorbachev was steeped in scientific socialism), which is complacent and rests on its laurels; and as such the possibility of collapse simply cannot seriously enter his mind or considerations. Therefore the truly revolutionary reform that is needed to preserve the current system is unlikely to be contemplated, if its even possible.

2) As economic and political difficulties mounted in the USSR, they were further reinforced by disintegration on ethnic lines, diverting administrative and economic resources away from what should have been more pressing matters.

Recently New Hampshire formally requested a casus foedoris with the other states of the union separately from the federal government in a RESOLUTION affirming States’ rights based on Jeffersonian principles.

That this State does therefore call on its co-States for an expression of their sentiments on acts not authorized by the federal compact. And it doubts not that their sense will be so announced as to prove their attachment unaltered to limited government, whether general or particular. And that the rights and liberties of their co-States will be exposed to no dangers by remaining embarked in a common bottom with their own. That they will concur with this State in considering acts as so palpably against the Constitution as to amount to an undisguised declaration that that compact is not meant to be the measure of the powers of the General Government, but that it will proceed in the exercise over these States, of all powers whatsoever: that they will view this as seizing the rights of the States, and consolidating them in the hands of the General Government, with a power assumed to bind the States, not merely as the cases made federal, (casus foederis,) but in all cases whatsoever, by laws made, not with their consent, but by others against their consent: that this would be to surrender the form of government we have chosen, and live under one deriving its powers from its own will, and not from our authority; and that the co-States, recurring to their natural right in cases not made federal, will concur in declaring these acts void, and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts, nor any others of the General Government not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories; and

That the said committee be authorized to communicate by writing or personal conferences, at any times or places whatever, with any person or person who may be appointed by any one or more co-States to correspond or confer with them; and that they lay their proceedings before the next session of the General Court; and

That any Act by the Congress of the United States, Executive Order of the President of the United States of America or Judicial Order by the Judicatories of the United States of America which assumes a power not delegated to the government of United States of America by the Constitution for the United States of America and which serves to diminish the liberty of the any of the several States or their citizens shall constitute a nullification of the Constitution for the United States of America by the government of the United States of America. Acts which would cause such a nullification include, but are not limited to:

I. Establishing martial law or a state of emergency within one of the States comprising the United States of America without the consent of the legislature of that State.

II. Requiring involuntary servitude, or governmental service other than a draft during a declared war, or pursuant to, or as an alternative to, incarceration after due process of law.

III. Requiring involuntary servitude or governmental service of persons under the age of 18 other than pursuant to, or as an alternative to, incarceration after due process of law.

IV. Surrendering any power delegated or not delegated to any corporation or foreign government.

V. Any act regarding religion; further limitations on freedom of political speech; or further limitations on freedom of the press.

VI. Further infringements on the right to keep and bear arms including prohibitions of type or quantity of arms or ammunition; and

That should any such act of Congress become law or Executive Order or Judicial Order be put into force, all powers previously delegated to the United States of America by the Constitution for the United States shall revert to the several States individually. Any future government of the United States of America shall require ratification of three quarters of the States seeking to form a government of the United States of America and shall not be binding upon any State not seeking to form such a government; and

That copies of this resolution be transmitted by the house clerk to the President of the United States, each member of the United States Congress, and the presiding officers of each State’s legislature.

New Hamphshire isn’t isolated. States rights bills are being pushed in nine states this year and almost half the states’ legislatures have plans to pass similar resolutions. While most are addressed to Congress or the President to back off from further violating state’s rights, New Hampshire is appealing for solidarity from other states to develop a casus feodoris / alliance to develop a counter-weight to the federal government in case it increases interference in state matters or moves towards authoritarianism to manage the consequences of the economic crisis. The incidence of tax revolts are growing.

This is all still very far from the situation in the USSR, where after all half the population wasn’t even Russia whereas the US is a nationally homogeneous nation. Nonetheless, the trends are ominous. There is no visible horizon to the end of the economic crisis, and even as late as 1989 no Soviet republic except the Baltics wanted out.

1) Economist Willem Buiter believes there will be a global dumping of $ assets within two to five years. Financial advisor James West writing in SeekingAlpha believes a US debt default and dollar collapse are “altogether likely”. Russia fund investor Eric Kraus has been lamenting the unsustainability of American disbalances for years and predicted the US will fall into a debt trap last November. The economist Nouriel Roubini, one of the few to have foreseen this crisis, predicts this recession will be far longer and deeper than any other post-war recession. Even the Economist mentioned the possibility of a US debt-and-currency crisis in one of its recent issues.

Dmitri Orlov explicitly compares the US to the USSR, and concludes that the collapse will be worse, at least in social terms, in the former. The Russian economist Mikhail Khazin predicts a 25-40% drop in American GDP. Future and trends analyst Gerard Celente, who succesfully predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, now foresees an unprecendented fall in US economic output, tax rebellions and food riots. Russian professor Igor Panarin sees disintegration and civil war as soon as this year.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.