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Tsarist Russia

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What everyone thinks the Russian Empire was like.

Tsarist Russia was this superstitious land of icons and cockroaches with Cossacks on thot patrol with nagaikas in hand – and it was absolutely horrific!” – Liberals, Marxists.

Tsarist Russia was this superstitious land of icons and cockroaches with Cossacks on thot patrol with nagaikas in hand – and it was absolutely great!” – Neoreactionaries.

Reality: It was in many respects socially liberal even by the standards of Western Europe.


Yes, Stolypin’s neckties and all that. What Communist propagandists don’t like to mention as much is that just during the three years 1904-1907 some 4,500 Tsarist officials were murdered by what would today be classified as Far Left terrorist groups. In contrast, there were just 6,321 executions from 1825 to 1917. This is basically a rounding error by the standards of the Bolsheviks’ multicultural Coalition of the Fringes, including during their “progressive” Trotskyist phase that Western leftist academics and journalists love to laud so much. It doesn’t even compare unfavorably with the 16,000 or so executions in the US since 1700.

The Okhrana secret policy only numbered one thousand in 1900 in an empire of 150 million – it was a little baby relative to the Cheka. Exiles to Siberia essentially took the form of holidays that the “inmates” could cancel at will. Dzhugashvili (Stalin) “escaped” from Siberia around seven or nine times.


Stalin enjoying the Siberian sunshine.

All forms of corporal punishment were abolished in 1904, ahead of the UK and the US. Despite modern Russia’s 70 year legacy of official atheism, the irony is that Pussy Riot would have spent a maximum of three months in jail under blasphemy laws in the Russian Empire (had they gone to prison at all).

Really, if anything, the Russian Empire had become too progressive, too liberal, too humane for its own good. It was doomed by its own kindness and decency to aspiring Pol Pots. A few contemporary equivalents of free helicopter rides or just stronger enforcement of normal treason laws would have done so much good in 1917.

Social Progressivism

Access to higher education was actually more meritocratic in the late Empire than in contemporary Germany or France by a factor of 2-3x.

Women constituted about a third of Russia’s total numbers of university students, a far larger percentage than in any other European country – and Russia by 1913 had the largest number of university students in Europe (127,000 to 80,000 in Germany, around 40,000 in France and Austria each). Likewise, they constituted an absolute majority in grammar schools, many decades ahead most of the rest of Europe. In 1915, restrictions on co-ed education were dropped across a range of Russian universities by decision of the Tsar and his Council of Ministers.


British suffragettes? Russia raises you a Women’s Batallion of Death.


Fully half of the four mosques in Moscow were constructed under late Tsarism (including the biggest one that nationalist critics of Putin like to harp on about; he merely restored it). The other Moscow mosques include the historical Old Mosque (constructed in 1823), the Moscow Memorial Mosque (more of a war monument than a place of worship), and one that is part of a complex of religious buildings that also includes a Buddhist stuppa (so not really so much of a mosque as a political monument).

Of Saint-Petersburg’s three mosques, by far the most impressive, with capacity for 5,000 worshippers, was opened in 1913. One of them is actually more of a room than a mosque, being part of the Dagestan Cultural Center.


The Russian bobos and aristos of the late Empire loved their tattoes.


Here’s Nicky’s.

Here’s a Russian conservative in 1909 lamenting Social Decline (TM) in the Vekhi:

The vast majority of our children enter university having lost their virginity. Who of us doesn’t know that in the senior classes of the gymnasiums there is hardly a boy to be a found who has yet to be acquainted with a maid, or a brothel

Even in France, which is associated in our minds with all sorts of sexual degeneracies, even there, in that land of the southern sun and frivolous literature, there isn’t this prevalence of “fast-ripening fruits” as in cold, northern Russia.

According to a survey of 967 students, of those who clarified their age at first sexual contact, 61% said not later than 17 years, and of them, 53 boys started it before 12 years, 152 – before 14 years.

This was reflected in the high culture of the late Empire: The Russian avant-garde, the first major penetration of post-modernism into traditional art.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring causes a scandalous sensation in Paris, not in Moscow or Saint-Petersburg.

Scriabin, the consummate bohémienne.


The Shukhov Tower.



He painted his stupid black square in 1915.

Really at this point one can almost sympathize with Mayakovsky:

“Eat your pineapples. Chew your grouse. Your last day is coming. You bourgeois louse.”

It need also be hardly pointed put at this point that the extreme social liberalism – legalization of homosexuality, abortion – and SJWism – abolition of university extrance exams – of the 1920s didn’t come out of a complete void. To the contrary, all this enjoyed the approval of some significant percentage of the Russian intelligentsia.

Stalin of course reversed this, and not only made university exams competitive again but reintroduced tuition fees. After murdering some significant percentage of the professors, and blanketing the country in a stiffling ideological orthodoxy for decades ahead that annulled any meaningful freedom of speech and relegated Russia to the margins of global culture to this day.

Russian Empire 2017

What would Russian culture have been like without the Communist occupation?

Probably a great deal more liberal, actually.

That said, one has to make allowance for the fact that the liberal-leftist strain in Russian cultural life was balanced by liberal-conservative and even a certain conservative-libertarian trend.

For instance, gun rights were very strong in the Russian Empire, unlike in the Soviet Union and its successor the Russian Federation.


Fin de siècle Chelyabinsk gunshop – remove the Cyrillic, and it might as well be in the Wild West.

There were also no shortage of conservative and nationalist pundits, who under a normal 20th century trajectory might have developed into US-style conservative talk radio.

Moreover, there are always cycles of social liberalism and social conservatism. To take the example of the US, you had liberalism in the 1920s, conservatism in the 1950s, liberalism in the 1970s, conservatism in the 1980s, liberalism again now – Russia was evidently in a liberal phase during the waning years of the Empire and the 1920s, but this doesn’t mean it would have stayed that way indefinitely. A moderate correction would have been expected by analogy with any other country on a normal development trajectory.

One would also have to account for there being less American influence – Russian (and European) culture would itself have been far stronger, not having undergone a ruinous World War and the stiffling effects of the twin totalitarianisms of Nazism and Stalinism. For that matter, Nazism itself is a significant – if not altogether crucial – component in Europe’s guilt complex, that would have been exceedingly unlikely to arise in the absence of the Red Menace in the early 1930s.

So overall, it doesn’t seem unlikely that Russia would have been in the European mainstream in terms of social attitudes – but that that same European mainstream would be far less “cucked” than it is today.

One undoubtedly negative aspect of the Russian Empire (from a conservative/traditionalist viewpoint) would have been the likely absence of a propiska system regulating internal migration within a surviving Russian Empire, so we can expect there to have been far more Central Asian immigrants to the Russian heartlands – especially since Russia would have been far wealthier without central planning (though their percentage of the population would have been diluted by the Russification of Belorussia and most of Ukraine, as well as a ~30% larger total ethnic Slavic population).

However, it’s not very clear that even this “silver lining” from the Soviet period is of any value. The Putin regime has in recent years made it increasingly clear that it sees Russia’s future in tight integration with Central Asia; just the other day, a Kremlin-linked think-tank released a report advocating an increase in pro-immigration propaganda and the introduction of administrative liability for politicians and bureaucrats who “feed false numbers to the media about immigrants” and “mention ethnic crime.”

So in all likelihood Russia will end up getting the worst of both worlds anyway.

• Category: History • Tags: Feminism, History, Liberalism, Tsarist Russia 
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Prolific IQ researcher Richard Lynn together with two Russian collaborators have recently published arguing that multiple aspects of socio-economic development – infant mortality, fertility, stature, and literacy-as-a-proxy for intelligence were significantly intercorrelated in late Tsarist Russia.


Literate rate of the European part of the Russian Empire in 1897.

Here is the link to the paper – Regional differences in intelligence, infant mortality, stature and fertility in European Russia in the late nineteenth century

And here is a summary by James Thompson – 50 Russian oblasts.

To the right: Here’s your map, JayMan. You’re welcome.

The main potential sticking point:

There are no data for regional intelligence in the nineteenth century and we have therefore adopted rates of literacy as a proxy for intelligence. This is justified on the grounds that a high correlation between literacy rates and intelligence have been reported in a number of studies. For example, a correlation of .861 between literacy rates for Italian regions in 1880 and early twenty-first century IQs has been reported by Lynn (2010); a correlation of .83 between literacy rates for Spanish regions in the early twenty-first century has been reported by Lynn (2010); (Lynn, 2012); and a correlation of 0.56 between literacy rates and IQs for the states and union territories of India in 2011 has been reported by Lynn and Yadav (2015). There is additional support for using literacy in the nineteenth century as a proxy for intelligence in the results of a study by Grigoriev, Lapteva and Ushakov (Григорьев, Лаптева, Ушаков, 2015) showing a correlation of .58 between literacy rates of the peasant populations of the districts (uezds) of the Moscow province in 1883 and the results of the Unified State Exam and State Certification on Russian Language in the districts of the contemporary Moscow oblast.

The methodology at first struck me as being rather problematic.

I’ve read a bit about Russian state literacy programs in the 19th century (National Literacy Campaigns and Movements) and one of their main features is that they tended to spread out from the central European Russian provinces due to cost effectiveness reasons, hence the low literacy rates of e.g. Siberia in Lynn’s data set. However, there is no particular evidence that Siberian Russians are any duller than average Russians. To the contrary, some 3% of Siberian schoolchildren become “Olympians” – high performers who qualify for highly subsidized higher education. This proportion is lower than the 15% of the central region (which hosts Moscow, Russia’s main cognitive cluster with a 107 average IQ), and the 14% of the north-west region (which hosts Russia’s second cognitive cluster with a 103 average IQ Saint-Petersburg, plus the Russians there are probably slightly brighter in general on account of Finno-Ugric admixture), but is considerably higher than in any other Russian Federal District: The Urals and Volga (both about 2%), and the Far Eastern, Southern, and Caucasus (all considerably below 1%).

In other words, would such a historical literacy – modern intelligence correlation apply to Russia as it does to Italy, Spain, and to a lesser extent, India?


Average 2009 PISA results by Russian region.

Fortunately, we don’t have to postulate, since we do actually have PISA data for many Russian provinces that I revealed back in 2012.

This allows us to test if Lynn’s assumptions apply.

There are difficulties, to be sure. Not all Russian provinces were tested in PISA, and there is, needless to say, no data for any of the Ukrainian and Polish oblasts, or for Belarus. As such, only 20 Russian provinces could be tested in this manner (26 if you also include now independent countries excluding Russia itself).

In some cases, names have changed, typically to honor some faceless Soviet bureaucrat; in more problematic cases, borders have changed significantly (e.g. the five provinces of Estonia, Livonia, Courland, Kovno, and Vilna have become the three countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – I have tried to average the literacy figures between them in a common sense but back of the envelope way). The Moscow Governorate has been split into the City of Moscow (with its 107 average IQ) and Moscow oblast (with a modest 96 average IQ). Which of those should be attached to Moscow’s 1897 literacy rate of 40%? (As it happens, I went with just the City of Moscow instead of figuring out how to weigh the populations and adjust and so forth. I’m not trying to writea formal paper, after all).


There is an exponential correlation of R=0.75 between average PISA derived IQs of Russian regions and of now independent countries, and their literacy rate according to the 1897 Census. Therefore, this bears out Lynn’s assumptions.

The two downwards outliers – more relatively intelligent than literate – are Moscow, Tatarstan, Tula, Samara, and Tambov. Moscow is easily explainable – the city itself in Tsarist times would have been more literate than the Moscow Governorate, while its average IQ was artificially boosted in Soviet times since it became not just the empire’s political but also its cognitive (artistic, scientific) capital. Getting a Moscow propiska required considerable intelligence.

The three very major upwards outliers – more relatively literate than intelligent – are the Finno-Ugric Baltic states: Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. This can’t have been a non-Orthodox/Muslim thing: Both Poland (On-The-Vistula Governorate) and Lithuania (Kovno and Vilna) lie neatly on the correlation curve. Nor was it something Finno-Ugric; Karelia (then Olonets) is not an exception either. It must have been something specific just to them and the most obvious explanation is Protestantism. There is a lot of literature on the independent literacy-raising effects of Protestantism and I see no reasons why Estonia, Latvia, and Finland should have been exceptions to that.

Another outlier, though this one is at the bottom of the IQ scale, is Moldova. To be fair I think Moldova’s PISA-derived IQ is artificially lowered by a third to half of an S.D. due to the massive brain drain it has experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union (something like half the working age population are Gastarbeiters in the EU and Russia). We see similar drops in other countries so afflicted, such as (possibly) Puerto Rico, and (almost certainly) Ireland during most of the 20th century, when it repeatedly reported IQs in the ~90 range (and ironically one of the reasons Richard Lynn himself abandoned it to move to Northern Ireland, thus getting stuck in the most depressed region of the UK and missing out on the rise of the Celtic Tiger a few years later).


The correlation improves further to R=0.80 when we consider only those Tsarist-era provinces which are still part of the Russian Federation. This is accomplished (more than) entirely just by removing the Protestant Baltic nations (Finland, Estonia, and Latvia) and Moldova (whose current day average IQ is depressed due to massive brain drain as per above).

As usual Lynn does his north/south IQ gradient analysis, finding it to be a real thing but diminishing to nothing once the Baltic states of Estonia, Livonia, and Courland are accounted for.

Quoting from Thompson’s summary:

The Russian provinces differed significantly by geographical location. The positive correlations with latitude (r= .33, p<.05) and the negative correlation with longitude (r=−.43, p<.01) show that the rates of literacy were higher in the northand west than in the south and east. These trends were partly determined by the rates of literacy being highest in the north-western provinces of St. Petersburg and the three Baltic states of Estland, Livland and Kourland (correspondingapproximately but not precisely to contemporary Estonia and Latvia; Livland consisted of southern part of contemporary Estonia and eastern part of contemporary Latvia). Removing these four regions makes both correlations non-significant (.21 and −.23).


The Pale of Settlement in 1897.

One additional issue worth bearing in mind: The influence of the Jews. Namely, their concentration in the Pale of Settlement, which correlates to modern day Poland, Belarus, and right-bank Ukraine (west of the Dnieper). There were more than 5.2 million Jews, and their literacy rates were very high (according to the 1926 Soviet Census, Jews over the age of 50 – i.e., who had been educated under the Empire – had a literacy rate of 63% versus 28% for ethnic Russians).

This must have “artificially” raised the literacy rates in this area – as pertains to those regions’ 21st century average IQs, anyway, since the vast majority of those Jews are no longer there due to the trifecta of the Holocaust, Jackson-Vanik, and Aliyah. The effect would probably be to reduce the “indigenous” literacy rates in Lithuania and Poland closer to those of European Russia, while pushing the already low literacy rates of strongly ethnic Malorossiyan and Belorussian provinces considerably lower still. Not a single province of modern Ukraine outside historical Novorossiya (with its strong Great Russian admixture) had a literacy rate above 20% in 1897, despite highly literate Jews helping them out with the statistics.

Unfortunately, there is a severe paucity of usable psychometric data from Ukraine – for instance, it is one of the very few European countries that doesn’t participate in PISA. So its average IQ has to be estimated through generally more indirect means. It does the converted equivalent of 9 IQ points worse than Russia on the TIMSS standardized test. Ukrainians spend less than half as much time as Russians reading, and those from the western parts at least spend a lot more time participating in torchlit processions and chanting “Putin Khuylo.” Some of those activities are considerably more g loaded than others. The low literacy rates in late Tsarist Malorossiya, coupled with the finding of a close correlation between those literacy rates and modern day average IQ across both Russian provinces and today’s independent post-Soviet states, constitutes further evidence of a modest average IQ in Ukraine. Higher than in Moldova to be sure, but probably closer to the level of the Balkans than to Poland.


Sources: Grigoriev, Lapteva, and Lynn 2015; Karlin 2012 (derived from PISA 2009).

IQ Literacy in 1897
Astrakhan 94.8 15.5%
Bashkortostan 93.4 16.7%
ESTONIA 102.1 77.9%
FINLAND 106.6 75.6%
Kaluga 91.7 19.4%
Karelia 98.1 25.3%
Kursk 94.6 16.3%
LATVIA 98.0 74.3%
LITHUANIA 99.0 35.4%
MOLDOVA 84.9 15.6%
Moscow 106.6 40.2%
N. Novgorod 93.1 22.0%
Orenburg 92.7 20.4%
Perm 93.3 19.2%
POLAND 100.2 30.5%
RUSSIA 96.0 21.1%
Ryazan 94.7 20.3%
Saint-Petersburg 102.6 51.5%
Samara 99.2 22.1%
Saratov 96.0 23.8%
Tambov 95.9 16.6%
Tatarstan 98.1 17.9%
Tula 98.6 20.7%
Ulyanovsk 91.5 15.6%
Vladimir 98.9 27.0%
Vologda 95.3 19.1%
Voronezh 92.7 16.3%

Literacy and Social Development in 1890s Russia (from Grigoriev et al. 2015)

Incidentally, I am not surprised to see Yaroslavl being the top non-Baltic/non-capital Russian region by literacy rate in 1897. It struck me as by far the cleanest and most civilized provincial Russian town on the Golden Ring when I visited it in 2002 (a time when Russia was still shaking off the hangover of the Soviet collapse). Curiously enough, it also hosted one of the most vigorous insurrections against the Bolshevik regime in central Russia. Although it was not one of the regions covered by PISA, I would not be surprised if Yaroslavl oblast was to get a 100-102 score on it should it be carried out there (and as would be implied by the correlation curve).


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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 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.


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.


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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Though there are plenty of caveats and exceptions, it is safe to generalize that predictions of what the “next war” was going to be like before 1914 were completely inaccurate. The Great War would not be the quick, clean affair typical of the wars of German unification in the 1860′s-70′s or the sensationalist literature of the antebellum period. The generals were as wrong as the general public and war nerds. France had an irrationally fervent belief in the power of the offensive and dreamed of the Russians steam-rolling over Berlin before winter, while the Germans gambled their victory on the success of the Schlieffen plan. When the war finally came, the linear tactics of previous wars floundered in the machine guns, artillery, mud, and barbed wire of trench warfare. The belligerent societies were placed under so much strain by this first industrial total war that by its end, four great monarchies would vanish off the face of Europe.

Nonetheless, there were three theorists – a Communist, a Warsaw banker, and a Russian conservative minister – who did predict the future with a remarkable, even eerie, prescience. They were Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo.

Friedrich Engels

Way back in 1887, Friedrich Engels, the famous Communist theorist, wrote this remarkably accurate prediction of the next war.

world war of never before seen intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits… eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Third Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result was absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.

Engels was completely right on the “total war” aspect. The number of military deaths in the war, 9.7mn, was within his predicted range. And indeed by 1918 there was a severe epidemic, the Spanish flu, and a year later the crowns of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey were all rolling in the gutter. The working class only got their “final victory” in Russia (though they came close in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bavaria).

Ivan Bloch

Ivan Bloch was a Warsaw banker, railway planner, and campaigner against Russian anti-Semitism. In 1899, he wrote a book Is War Now Impossible?, in which he argued that its costs would be such that the inevitable result would be a struggle of attrition and eventual bankruptcy and famine. His hope was that by getting people to comprehend the vast costs and uncertainties of future war, he could forestall it. Though he was unsuccessful in that goal, he did at least get the muted privilege of being almost 100% right about its nature. For instance, see this direct extract from his book.

At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lession that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then, instead of war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest, in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being willing to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack… That is the future of war – not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organization… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle… All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations… soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine… Unless you have a supreme navy, it is not worthwhile having one at all, and a navy that is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme.

This is, of course, a pretty accurate prevision of WW1. It was a stalemate of artillery and entrenchments. The German home front collapsed in late 1918 in large part as a result of dearth resulting from being cut off from global food imports and the requisitioning of the chemical fertilizer industries for munitions production. And the Kaiserliche Marine was indeed bottled up in port for most of the war. To further demonstrate Bloch’s predictive genius, I will quote from Niall Ferguson’s summary of his book in The Pity of War.

In Is War Now Impossible? (1899), the abridged and somewhat mistitled English version of his massive six-volume study, the Warsaw financier Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch argued that, for three reasons, a major European war would be unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness. Firstly, military technology had transformed the nature of warfare in a war that ruled out swift victory for an attacker. “The day of the bayonet [was] over“; cavalry charges were too obsolete. Thanks to the increased rapidity and accuracy of rifle fire, the introduction of smokeless powder, the increased penetration of bullets and the greater range and power of the breech-loading cannon, traditional set-piece would not occur. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, men in the open would “simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything“. For this reason, “the next war… [would] be a great war of entrenchments“. According to Bloch’s meticulous calculations, a hundred men in a trench would be able to kill an attacking force up to four times as numerous, as the latter attempted to cross a 300-yard wide “fire zone“. Secondly, the increase in the size of European armies meant that any war would involve as many as ten million men, with fighting “spread over an enormous front”. Thus, although there would be very high rates of mortality (especially among officers), “the next war [would] be a long war“. Thirdly, and consequently, economic factors would be “the dominant and decisive elements in the matter”. War would mean:

entire dislocation of all industry and severing of all the sources of supply… the future of war [is] not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization.

The disruption of trade would badly affect food supply in those countries reliant on imported grain and other foodstuffs. The machinery of distribution would also be disrupted. There would be colossal financial burdens, labour shortages and, finally, social instability.

He pretty much nails it! Now yes, Bloch wasn’t 100% spot on. He was slightly wrong about alliances. His was wrong in his conjecture that “the city dweller is by no means as capable of lying out at nights in damp and exposed conditions as the peasant”, which coupled with her agricultural self-sufficiency, would give Russia the advantage in a war with “more highly organized” Germany. And most of all, he was wrong in predicting that social instability and revolution would doom all the belligerent states – after all, the key war objective would only be to remain the last man standing.

Pyotr Durnovo

While reading Secular Cycles by Turchin & Nefedov, I came across a reference to a truly, remarkably prophetic document called the Durnovo Memorandum. It was penned by Pyotr Durnovo, a member of the State Council and former Minister of the Interior in Witte’s cabinet, and presented to the Tsar in February 1914. A conservative Russian nationalist, he emphasized that it was not in Russia’s interest to fight a costly and uncertain war with fellow monarchy Germany, a war he saw as only serving to further Albion’s aims. His fears were all astoundingly prescient and eventually, tragically realized. More than anything, this discovery spurred me to write this post.

After digging around I found that Douglas Muir had already written about it in History: The Durnovo Memorandum at A Fistful of Euros. It is an excellent summary and analysis, and I recommend you go over and read it in its entirety. In this section, I will liberally quote and paraphrase Doug’s post.

Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.

Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. … [Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain neutral…

Both America and Japan–the former fundamentally, and the latter by virtue of her present political orientation–are hostile to Germany, and there is no reason to expect them to act on the German side. … Indeed, it is possible that America or Japan may join the anti-German side…

Right off the bat, in February 1914, Durnovo correctly sketches out the WW1 alliance system, despite that “Italy was still officially allied with Germany and Austria, Ottoman Turkey was firmly neutral, and Romania was ruled by a Hohenzollern”.

Are we prepared for so stubborn a war as the future war of the European nations will undoubtedly become? This question we must answer, without evasion, in the negative… [T]here are substantial shortcomings in the organization of our defenses.

In this regard we must note, first of all, the insufficiency of our war supplies… the supply schedules are still far from being executed, owing to the low productivity of our factories. This insufficiency of munitions is the more significant since, in the embryonic condition of our industries, we shall, during the war, have no opportunity to make up the revealed shortage by our own efforts, and the closing of the Baltic as well as the Black Sea will prevent the importation from abroad of the defense materials which we lack.

Another circumstance unfavorable to our defense is its far too great dependence, generally speaking, upon foreign industry, a fact which, in connection with the above noted interruption of more or less convenient communications with abroad, will create a series of obstacles difficult to overcome. The quantity of our heavy artillery, the importance of which was demonstrated in the Japanese War, is far too inadequate, and there are few machine guns

The network of strategic railways is inadequate. The railways possess a rolling stock sufficient, perhaps, for normal traffic, but not commensurate with the colossal demands which will be made upon them in the event of a European war. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the impending war will be fought among the most civilized and technically most advanced nations. Every previous war has invariably been followed by something new in the realm of military technique, but the technical backwardness of our industries does not create favorable conditions for our adoption of the new inventions. …

[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor foreseen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.

“Bang, bang, bang: too few heavy guns, not enough munitions production, inadequate rail network and rolling stock, too much reliance on imports, financial weakness. Durnovo doesn’t identify every problem Russia would have, but he’s hit about half of the top ten.” In particular, I was impressed with his negative assessment of Russia’s railways (which would break down later in the war resulting in food riots in the cities) and his gloomy perspective on the productivity and innovation potential of Russia’s military industrial complex. Obviously, he leaves out a set of other crucial factors – the administrative and political failings of the Russian state itself (the corruption and incompetence of many Russian ministers like Sukhomlinov, the personal foibles of the Tsar and the malignant influence of court lackeys, etc). Whether this omission was due to political considerations or Durnovo’s own blind-sidedness as a conservative stalwart is open to interpretation.

If the war ends in victory, the putting down of the Socialist movement will not offer any insurmountable obstacles. There will be agrarian troubles, as a result of agitation for compensating the soldiers with additional land allotments; there will be labor troubles during the transition from the probably increased wages of war time to normal schedules; and this, it is to be hoped, will be all, so long as the wave of the German social revolution has not reached us. But in the event of defeat, the possibility of which in a struggle with a foe like Germany cannot be overlooked, social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.

As has already been said, the trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen. …

No matter how strange it may appear at first sight, considering the extraordinary poise of the German character, Germany, likewise, is destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals. The effect of a disastrous war upon the population will be too severe not to bring to the surface destructive tendencies, now deeply hidden. … there will be a revival of the hitherto concealed separatist tendencies in southern Germany, and the hidden antagonism of Bavaria to domination by Prussia will emerge in all its intensity.

Things went, as they say, to the letter. Not only does Durnovo seriously entertain the prospect of Russia’s defeat, but he spells out its consequences with an almost eerie accuracy. The Empire was indeed wracked by social revolution, as the railway system and food supply system began to disintegrate by late 1916 and popular resentment against the government was inflamed by court scandals. The soldiers in St.-Petersburg in February 1917, many of them recently drafted peasants who did not want to fight for a regime under which they were non-propertied and disenfranchised, would join the workers demonstrating for bread instead of dispersing them. Within another year, Russia was wracked by total anarchy. Likewise, following its defeat, Germany experienced political fissures between the far right and the far left, and even saw the emergence of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. If one were very generous, Durnovo’s mention of “destructive tendencies” could even be said to have hinted at the coming of Nazism.

“Durnovo glosses over a lot, and gets some details wrong. His contempt for intellectuals and the Duma is very clear in the last part of the memo, and it leads him down a couple of dead ends. But he’s so right about so many things that picking out his errors is really quibbling. In the last hundred years of European history, I’m not aware of any document that makes so many predictions, of such importance, so correctly. And I’m astonished that it doesn’t get more attention from western historians.”

The German General Staff

This is not to say that all European armies were infatuated with the offensive and the bayonet. In particular, certain thinkers from the elite German General Staff stand out for their prescience. They feared that rapid Franco-Russian military modernization meant Germany had to plan for a two-front war of attrition instead of a rapid, one-front campaign of annihilation. Thus Moltke the Elder foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, or in his last Reichstag speech of 1890, that the “age of cabinet war” would have to give way to “people’s war”.

His disciple Colmar von der Goltz had expounded on these views in his influential book Das Volk in Waffen back in 1883, which advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. (Although, unlike Bloch or Engels he did not cover the impact on the civilian role in much detail, e.g. how to feed the population or maintain industrial production – on which total war would make unprecedented demands – under harsh conditions of blockade). Köpke , the Quartermaster of the General Staff, wrote in 1895: “Even with the most offensive spirit…nothing more can be achieved than a tedious and bloody crawling forward step by step here and there by way of an ordinary attack in siege style – in order to slowly win some advantages”.

Yet for all the brilliant foresight of a few members of the German General Staff, as a body it institutionalized the military philosophy of the past. The best proof is its fixation on the Schlieffen Plan, described by B.H. Liddell Hart as a “conception of Napoleonic boldness”, which aimed to knock out France early in the war so that Germany would not have to confront the geo-strategic horror of waging a two-front war against the Entente Cordiale. But while it may have worked a decade or two before WW1, by 1914 it suffered from a host of unwarranted assumptions that made its success highly uncertain – e.g., a lack of effective Belgian resistance, a slow Russian mobilization, the ineffectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force, and underestimation of French logistical capacities and overestimation of their own. So even an institution as brilliant as the German General Staff was trapped between the Scylla of past experience and the Charybdis of new technologies; they were just somewhat more aware of this trap than the other European armies.

What’s the point of this post? It is really a confluence of several interests – the history of World War One, history in general, and futurism. It might not challenge any existing “narrative”, but I do think it adds a bit of richness to the subject, and reinforces the theme that sometimes the “conventional wisdom” (among both masses and elites) can be very, very wrong, and only recognized as so by a few pundits coming from surprisingly varied, even opposed, ideological positions.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Then you might get something like Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, which I’ve finally read on the recommendations of Kolya and TG. Ranging from Ermak’s subjugation of the Sibir Khanate to the rise of Rome, Turchin makes the case that the rise and fall of empires is reducible to three basic concepts: 1) Asabiya – social cohesiveness and capacity for collective action, 2) Malthusian dynamics – the tendency for population to outgrow the carrying capacity, and 3) the “Matthew Principle” – the tendency for inequality and social stratification to increase over time. The interplay between these three forces produces the historical patterns of imperial rise and fall, of war and peace and war, that were summarized by Thomas Fenne in 1590 thus:

Warre bringeth ruine, ruine bringeth poverty, poverty procureth peace, and peace in time increaseth riches, riches causeth statelinesse, statelinesse increaseth envie, envie in the end procureth deadly malice, mortall malice proclaimeth open warre and bataille, and from warre again as before is rehearsed.

Turchin, PeterWar and Peace and War (2006)
Category: history, cliodynamics, war; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Amazon reviews

Ibn Khaldun, Malthus, and Saint Matthew meet up for coffee

1) According to the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, empires only form when a tribe, nation, or religious sect attains a high degree of asabiya, – the ability of a group’s members to cooperate with each other, to maintain their identity and discipline in the face of adversity, and to impose their beliefs, values, and control over other groups. Other similar expressions are social cohesion or “social capital”. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, “royal authority and dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through… mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other”. (To put this in context, this is similar to Lev Gumilev’s theories of “passionarity” / пассионарность (willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s values) or my own ideas on the sobornost’-poshlost’ / rationalism-mysticism belief matrix, in which a state of sobornost’, of course, refers to a high level of asabiya).

This is not surprising – military cooperation and morale is an important factor in military success. See the stunning successes of the early Islamic armies spreading the revelations of Mohammed, or of Nazi Germany. Later in the book, Turchin references the work of Trevor Dupuy, who showed that the Germans had a “combat efficiency” of 1.45, compared to the British 1.0 and American 1.1, in the battles on the western front of 1944 – in other words, excluding equipment and terrain, each Germany soldier was militarily “worth” 20% more than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Now why do some societies have higher asabiya than others? Ibn Khaldun’s analysis covered the dynamics of the desert / settled boundary in the North African Maghreb. Amongst the desert Bedouin tribes, constant inter-tribal warfare exerts group selective pressure favoring the emergence of tribes high in asabiya. These selective pressures are much weaker in settled civilizations with rule of law. Now these defects are more than made up for civilizations’ greater population density and better technologies, which can normally yield much bigger, better-equipped armies than anything the barbarians can muster. However, should civilization fall into a state of internal strife and social dissolution, it becomes “vulnerable to conquest from the desert” by a coalition of Bedouin tribes organized around one group with a particularly high asabiya. However, as soon as the barbarians become ensconced within their new domains, they gradually assimilate into the urban civilization, the high asabiya of the core group dissipates, and the cycle begins anew.

Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s beyond the Maghreb into a general theory of the rise of empires, almost all of which arise along “meta-ethnic frontiers” featuring bloody conflicts between starkly alien peoples. The constant military pressure and hatred for the Other binds the borderlanders together, fostering the relative economic equality, social solidarity, and discipline that will in time build an empire. Examples of this include the conflict of the Roman farmer-warriors against the Celtic barbarians of the Po Valley that melded the Latin peoples into the Roman Empire, the centuries-long struggle against the raiding, slave-taking steppe Hordes that incubated Muscovy’s rise, and the violent frontier wars against the Native Americans that formed the “melting pot” identity of the United States. The entire history of Europe from the Roman Empire to Poland-Lithuania has been characterized by the millennial, north-eastern drift of the meta-ethnic frontier between Rome/Christianity and tribal pagans, a frontier which repeatedly spawned new states and empires (Rome itself, the Caroliangian Empire, and the myriad Germanic and Slavic states.

2) The author notes that Ibn Khaldun’s blaming of “luxury” and “senility” for the degeneration of civilizations is an inadequate explanation, being nothing more than a biological metaphor with questionable applicability. Instead, Turchin lays out the theory of cliodynamics, the “mathematized history” that attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation of the “secular cycles” of imperial rise and fall by modeling Malthusian dynamics, i.e., when a great empire arises the resulting stability and prosperity produce overpopulation, which results in dearth, rising inequality (i.e. the old middle-class shrinks, while oligarchs and the landless indigent veer into prominence), and an intensified struggle for scarce resources that undermines social solidarity. Eventually, a severe shock such as a disastrous harvest, peasant uprisings, civil war, or foreign invasion provokes a full-fledged Malthusian crisis that triggers the collapse of the empire. I’ve already written about cliodynamics in detail here.

(Incidentally, I’ve also connected the decline of asabiya (or in my terminology, the transition from sobornost’ to poshlost’) to the socio-demographic cycles of cliodynamics. The theme of The Ages of Man, in which the bounteous Golden Age of the first dynasties (imperial rise) degenerates into the “immorality” and dearth of the Iron Age (social atomization, Malthusian stress, decline), – finally followed by an apocalyptic “cleansing” and start again (Malthusian collapse, barbarian invasions, Dark Ages, etc), is common to all civilizational traditions. See my Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations and explanation of the Malthusian Loop.)

3) Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. In other words, there is a natural tendency for wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the few, called the Matthew Principle. In other words, if a pre-industrial civilization enjoys socio-political stability, has ineffective redistributive mechanisms, no free land / overpopulation, and a social mentality that accepts (or even glorifies – see “conspicuous consumption”) big levels of wealth inequality, within several generatons it will develop prodigal levels of social stratification. Wealth inequality tends to reach a maximum just before a collapse of the entire system: for instance, the Roman Empire fell for the last time just decades after reaching “peak inequality” in 400AD. Similar things can be said about the end of republican Rome, the decline of medieval France, and even Russia 1917 or Iran 1979.

Why does the Matthew Principle operate so strongly in Malthusian settings? In agrarian societies, private property is the normal way of storing inherited wealth. If a family has lots of children, each one will inherit ever smaller plots. To make ends meet, they will be eventually forced to borrow loans; if they can’t, their land is taken over by their creditors, and they now have to hire themselves out as agricultural laborers or drift into the cities where they can try to join a trade (hence the reason why cities expand so much in times of subsistence stress). Meanwhile, those who have land can 1) rent it out at exorbitant rates (since the demand for it is so high in an overpopulated country) or 2) they can sell the grain their tenants or serfs produce at high prices (again because there are more mouths to feed). The resulting accumulation of drifting unemployed are matchwood for social unrest (e.g. see the role of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social spectrum, the elites or nobility grow at a faster rate than the commoners because they have better access to food and can afford more children, and die less quickly. Those with land benefit from cheaper labor and the rise in rent prices, while manufactures become easier to afford thanks to the increase in trade and urban artisans. However, intra-elite inequality also increases, and there is increasing tension as some poor nobles see peasant arrivistes rising above them in social status. Because the king depends on the nobles for governing his kingdom, state institutions must be expanded to “feed” all those nobles who are left out of inheritances, fostering corruption, aristocratic intrigues, and social stratification. Those at the very top of the social pyramid engage in the most extravagant conspicuous consumption, provoking envy amongst the have-nots. All these widening social chasms reduce the society’s asabiya.

The plagues, wars, and internal violence unleashed by Malthusian collapse tends to kill off most of the top and bottom of the social period. The landless indigent starve to death, or their weakened immune systems succumb to disease, or they get carried away as the cannon fodder in the uprisings that wrack the failed state. The nobles also die fast, thanks to their status as a military caste. Generational cycles of violence and wars and political purges carry many of them off. After the collapse, land becomes cheaper and labor becomes more expensive. Subsistence stress largely subsides and society becomes much more egalitarian. The cycle begins anew.

Criticisms and Consequences

I think Turchin’s book is a good introductory text to the new science of cliodynamics, one he himself did much to found (along with Nefedov and Korotayev). However, though readable – mostly, I suspect, because I am interested in the subject – it is not well-written. The text was too thick, there were too many awkward grammatical constructions, and the quotes are far, far too long.

More importantly, 1) the theory is not internally well-integrated and 2) there isn’t enough emphasis on the fundamental differences separating agrarian from industrial societies. For instance, Turchin makes a lot of the idea that the Italians’ low level of asabiya (“amoral familism”) was responsible for it’s only becoming politically unified in the late 19th century. But why then was it the same for Germany, the bloody frontline for the religious wars of the 17th century? And why was France able to build a huge empire under Napoleon, when it had lost all its “meta-ethnic frontiers” / marches by 1000 AD? For answers to these questions about the genesis of the modern nation-state, one would be much better off by looking at more conventional explanations by the likes of Benedict Anderson, Charles Tilly, or Gabriel Ardant.

Nowadays, modern political technologies – the history textbook, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the radio and Internet – have long displaced the meta-ethnic frontier as the main drivers behind the formation of asabiya. Which is certainly not to say that meta-ethnic frontiers are unimportant – they are, especially in the case of Dar al-Islam, which feels itself to be under siege on multiple fronts (the “bloody borders” of clash-of-civilizations-speak), which according to Turchin’s theory should promote a stronger Islamic identity. But their intrinsic importance has been diluted by the influence of modern media.

Turchin has an interesting discussion of the future of the US, China, Russia, and the European Union based on the conclusions of War and Peace and War. In particular, one very relevant point he made is that to become a true empire, the EU requires 1) the development of a European-wide loyalty towards it, willing to shed blood for it, and 2) its core state, Germany, must continue to underwrite it financially. None of these conditions, I think it is safe to say, will be met. Germany is most emphatically not prepared to sacrifice its national interests in favor of a European project over which it does not have direct control; the Germans have their own problems, foremost among them the demographic aging of the population. Furthermore, only 37% of Germans are today prepared to fight for their own country, according to the findings of the World Values Survey*; if that is the case, then how many Germans would fight (and risk death) for the Brussels bureaucracy? 5% would probably be generous. Quite simply the EU does not have any foundations for an imperial future, nor the will to create one; it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks.

Another major problem with the book that makes it incomplete is that although Turchin touches and speculates about the modern world and the future – in particular, he notes that the rising inequality, crime rates, slower growth, etc, of the post-1960′s industrialized world is similar to the traditional symptoms of an emerging Malthusian crisis – he does not connect the dots with the Limits to Growth, the theory that explicitly states that we are being swept into a Malthusian crisis due to global overpopulation and resource depletion. This is a far more important development than the techno-hype he devotes much of the last chapter to.

In the end I gave a 4/5 for this book, although it could have potentially gotten 5*/5. Turchin did valuable work in emphasizing how the material (e.g. the Malthusian) interacts with the spiritual (asabiya) in history, whereas many lesser theorists regard the latter as a “mystical” factor unworthy of serious attention. However, the book suffered from 1) poor writing, 2) too many marginal details that should have been edited out, and 3) unsuccessful application of the theory to the current, post-agrarian era. He should either have left it out entirely, or spent a lot more time doing it better.

* From the latest “wave” of the World Values Survey, “Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?” I think this question is an excellent way of gauging asabiya in a nation, since it directly addresses the issue of life, death, and self-sacrifice. The results are very interesting.

The Scandinavian countries – limp-wristed feminist socialists that they are ;) – all say a resounding “yes” (Sweden 86%, Norway 88%, Finland 84%). Similarly, for all the problems of the post-Communist transition, Eastern European nations also retain high levels of asabiya (Poland 75%, Russia 83%, Georgia 70%), though Serbia 61% is lower (maybe because they’ve already fought) and so is Ukraine 69% (its Russophones aren’t as loyal as West or Central Ukrainians). Most of the Muslim countries say “yes” (Iran 81%, Egypt 80%, Morocco 77%), including a whopping 97% in Turkey. Iraq 37% is the sole outlier. Similarly, the Asian nations also have high levels of patriotism (China 87%, India 81%, South Korea 73%).

The United States 63% isn’t as high as one might think, and curiously close to France 61%, Great Britain 62%, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world. The nations of Latin America tend to have similar figures. The Mediterranean countries, the old countries, and the countries defeated in World War Two are the last willing to put their lives on the line for their nation (Italy 43%, Spain 45%, Japan 25%, Germany 37%).

(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.

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