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Through Russian Eyes

To put into perspective how a great number of Russians regard their first president and his policies, imagine the governor of Illinois striking a deal with the leaders of New Mexico, Texas, and California and offering them support for their independence in order to oust his personal rival, the president, from the White House and take over the rump United States. Imagine, in addition, that he dissolves the US Congress by sending in tanks, resulting in the deaths of over 150 citizens. These patriotic activities then lead to hyperinflation, wiping out the citizens' personal savings. The economy in now in shambles, and high-tech gives way to raw-material extraction. Silicon Valley infogeeks are escaping to China, Europe, and Brazil. Lucrative businesses are "privatized" and handed over to the president's cronies. His reformist economists attempt to fix the economy by not paying wages - for years. Law enforcement virtually disappears, and US cities become the battlefields of endless gang wars. The life expectancy of men falls to 57 years.

Meanwhile, US foreign policy becomes subservient to China, and American troops abroad are withdrawn in a matter of months and settled in the Mohave Desert. Washington renounces any interest in Americans abroad, so the Anglos of Phoenix and San Diego are forced to flee the newly independent states, penniless.

Replace the United States with Russia, and you'll have a moderate description of life under Yeltsin.

When communism was falling in the former Soviet Union, Russians were very positive toward the United States. Soviet anti-American propaganda was crushed by American pop culture. By the late 1990's, anti-Americanism was again on the rise, thanks to the bitter disappointment engendered during the Yeltsin epoch. In those troubled years, instead of suggesting a Marshall Plan for Russia, Washington encouraged Russian liberals to destroy the country's economy by adopting enlightened Harvard theories.

At the same time, Washington was constantly hailing the Moscow regime, and foreign support helped Yeltsin stay in power. So the Russian public got the message, loud and clear: Americans like Yeltsin because America enjoys seeing Russians suffer. That is the joinlegacy of Boris Yeltsin and his Beltway buddies. (Egor Englehardt, on the April 25 death of Yeltsin, in the July issue of Chronicles.)

I can confirm that this is, more or less, give or take a few nuances and emotional inflections, the general Russian perspective on that period of their national history, and America's involvement therewith; being married to a Russian, having Russian in-laws, and coming into contact with many Russians here and abroad has only strengthened this impression. However, it is not quite right - not even for beleaguered Russians - to state that Americans, presumably the American establishment, simply relish the thought and reality of Russian misery. It is rather the case that they are utterly indifferent to such matters, provided that American geopolitical interests are advanced; if Russians can somehow adapt to the Unipolar Moment, so much the better for them, but if they sink in squalor and misery, well, too bad. America, since those halcyon days of the close of the Cold War, has sought, and not surreptitiously, both to discourage the emergence of geopolitical rivals, and to diminish those potential rivals that might conceivably thwart American ambitions. The infamous (at least for foreign policy types) Wolfowitz indiscretion, in which, in 1991, the then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy leaked to the press a draft document which openly avowed that the aim of American policy was to preserve and expand upon America's 'sole superpower' status, was only an indiscretion because it disclosed the truth, and not because it misrepresented it. In reality, this has been the strategic aim of American policy since the close of the Cold War, and this has meant several things where Russia is concerned: the expansion of NATO, despite previous assurances that this would not be undertaken, the encirclement of Russia's vulnerable southern flank by means of alliances and basing agreements, the promotion of neoliberal economic policies which served American interests by serving the interests of American corporations and bankers, though not those of Russians, and the openly incoherent embrace of the Chechen cause. (The Chechen cause being an Islamist undertaking, funded lavishly by the usual suspects in the Middle East, and the Chechens even being the pioneers of the modern jihadist snuff film.)

The American interest in precluding the re-emergence of Russia as a great power is, as in all things geopolitical for America, not merely a matter of strategic maneuver, a grimy realpolitik struggle for influence, power, and wealth - though it is all these things - but also a matter of ideological self-validation. The American establishment cannot endure the rebuke implicit in the rejection, by Russia, or any other nation, of incorporation into a world political and economic order. Such rejection is a repudiation of our (in truth, affected) universalism, and the thought of historical particularity terrifies. And so, the American preference for Russian liberalism, itself a veil drawn over a sordid and sanguinary process of insider dealing, gangland assassinations, and unfettered primitive accumulation (If one wants to understand something of what the dispossession of the Church and the peasantry, and then the enclosure of the commons was like, 1990's Russia is a passable analogue; Russians actually held stakes, as a result of Glasnost era reforms, in various state enterprises; this emergent order of property rights, needing legal elaboration, was swept away in a Great Barbecue of "privatization" and shock therapy.). The Yeltsin era served American interests because Russia was prostrate, geopolitically; economically, with power diffused from the center, and the economy itself concentrated in the hands of oligarchs - men who, as thinkers as different as Jefferson and Marx would recognize, being capitalists above all else, had no loyalty to anything save money - American interests would be able to arrange favourable concessions for Russian resources. The oligarchs could take their cuts, the American (and other Western) corporations would move their profits offshore, and Russia would be reduced to an extraction economy. But because this could be sold as the free market at work, it would have been a validation of the American Way. History does not repeat as farce, only as renewed tragedy.

In brief, the reversal of these trends under the Putin regime is the principal cause of the negative press Russia receives. The Great Barbecue has ended, and oligarchs are no longer permitted to weaken the nation, least of all by allowing Western nations to extract natural resources and take the profits home. And the halt called to the dissolution of the Russian state, along with rising demand for energy resources, has given Russia some geopolitical space, some clout to throw around. This is not supposed to happen, not according to the American narrative. Which brings us round to recent nefarious doings, such as poisonings and diplomatic rows. While I hesitate to do so, I must take issue with the take of James Poulos on the Litvinenko affair. In the first place, the casual assumption that this assassination was ordered at the highest levels of the Russian state requires some demonstration, which has not really been forthcoming. The assumption rests upon a misconception of how government in the former Soviet Union actually functions, even when it is authoritarian; the assumption is that everything we think is notable or important happens because the Leader willed that it happen. To the contrary, in these systems of government, the authoritarianism really only extends to a few matters of state policy; beyond these, there is room for maneuver, which is why the whole "Kremlinology" thing still has a role to play: there are still factions operating within the consensus policy. In the second place, Litvinenko's sources for his outlandish claims of Russian complicity in terrorist actions attributed to the Chechens and the operation of death squads most probably have no basis for their claims. In a security apparatus riven by factions, each vying for advantage over the other, anyone attempting to drop a dime in this manner, identifying the "real culprits", would have more to worry about than finding new work. And on the assumption that this was the handiwork of the Russian state, an authoritarian state in which nothing happens unless Putin wills it, it would be incoherent to imagine that the highest echelons of the FSB would be so riven with dissent as to have friends of a supporter of the Chechens and associate of Boris Berezovsky within them. Come to think of it, no one in the FSB would wish to be associated with either cause, the latter that of a man embittered by the fact that he is no longer given free rein to enrich himself at the expense of his countrymen - so the assumption is doubly implausible.

Someone must speak the Derbyshirean hard truth here, which is that someone who makes a name for himself as a defector and associate of a man loathed and wanted on criminal charges in Russia, and as a tacit apologist for the Chechen cause, just is liable to get whacked on someone's orders - or even by freelancers or rogues. Contrary to the idea that the Russian policy, whoever applied it in this case, was unduly concerned with one man, that policy was very much concerned with an entire nation: the pet causes of the West have no purchase in any corridors of power, because they are bad for Russia.

Comments (40)

"Russia is never as strong or as weak as it appears to be." --Bismarck

Truer words were never spoken about Russia.


Thanks to the paleos (mostly Larison) love of Russia and all things Slavic (particularly Alexandr Solzhenitsyn) has infected me and although I like neo-con foreign policy, when it comes to the Russians I'm inclined to show more love than Wolfie or others might deem prudent.

So, having said that by way of an introduction, I still find your comments and Egor's comments dubious. Of course, this could be a simple case of my pro-American and pro-market bias rearing its (bloated from too many McDonald's Big Macs) ugly head, but to know for sure I'd like your help. Could you point me to an online resource where I might find the answers to the following questions:

1) In what historical sense could the now independent nations of Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States, the Caucasus nations like Georgia, and the "Stans" be considered a vital and integral part of the previous Russian nation? In other words, pre-Soviet Union, were these simply territories of Russia and/or did they enjoy some measure of independence from the czar?

2) Why did Yelstin dissolve the Russian parliament?

3) What were the Russian economic statistics for the 1980s and 1990s and is it fair to say that "Washington encouraged Russian liberals to destroy the country's economy by adopting enlightened Harvard theories." Or more specifically, what were these theories and how were they put into practice, leading to the supposed destruction of the Russian economy?

Your help with links to any material on the web that could answer these questions will be much appreciated.

In answer to your first question, this is as good a place to begin as any. The article includes the following quote regarding the territorial extent of the pre-Soviet Russian empire:

In addition to modern Russia, prior to 1917 the Russian Empire included most of Ukraine (Dnieper Ukraine and Crimea), Belarus, Moldova (Bessarabia), Finland (Grand Duchy of Finland), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (Russian Turkestan), most of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia (Baltic provinces), as well as a significant portions of Poland (Kingdom of Poland) and Ardahan, Artvin, Iğdır, and Kars from Turkey. Between 1742 and 1867 the Russian Empire claimed Alaska as its colony.

The Ukraine was the original heartland of the Russian people, prior to the successive waves of Mongol and Tatar hordes which divided the Kievan Rus from Muscovy, precipitating some divergence. The incorporation of the other regions into the empire owed more, in reality, to the utter instability of a nation perched between Europe and Asia - Asia being a womb of horrors from which arose virtually every dark thing to bedevil the Russian people - than to the simple desire for territorial aggrandizement. A common, and often, alas, accurate, perception of Russian rulers was that they must either expand their frontiers or watch them contract under the encroachments of foreign powers. The German consciousness was not dissimilar prior to the post-WWII era.

This is not to argue that all of these territories ought to be restored to Russia; far from it. In fact, Solzhenitsyn himself wrote a fine little volume arguing, among other things, that Russia should permit most of these territories/people to depart if they wished. This is more complicated in the case of eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, which are ethnically Russian, a few enclaves in Moldova (ditto), and Belarus, but the point still stands. On the other hand, this is hardly to argue that the US should incorporate these regions into its own quasi-imperial architecture, which is what has been done. Still less is it to argue that the US should grant any security guarantees to these nations, as though American blood should, hypothetically, be shed to determine whether they are ruled from (ultimately) Brussels or Moscow. Though it would pain me in the case of Poland, the land of my ancestors, this is simply the reality of the matter.

As regards the latter two questions, this link on Yeltsin himself is not a bad place to begin. I should clarify that Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament, the Duma, in 1993 because he encountered fierce opposition from the communist faction. The 50% decline in GDP, virtually overnight, should suffice as an indication of the worthlessness of the counsel of Harvard economists; that they could not grasp the vast differences between Poland and Russia, which were obvious to anyone sentient during those years, only adds a further indictment to their ledger. Generally speaking, the theories did not account for the unique features and conditions of the Soviet command economy, which coexisted with a vast underground economy (which one might say became the "real" economy upon the application of the shock therapy), were applied (as the could only be, given their tendentiousness) in a corrupt manner (Do not discount the fact of those shares in state enterprises that I mentioned. My then-future in-laws held them, as did most everyone they knew. This, by nature, was an emergent system of property rights, meaning that people like my future in-laws ought to have been involved in the privatization process, or, at a bare minimum, paid for them when the enterprises were auctioned off - which no one was.), to the benefit of well-connected apparatchiks, underground figures, and toadies of the Yeltsin regime. As indicated, Washington cared little for these real-world disconfirmations of enlightened theory; one might even suggest that the consequences were foreseeable as creative destruction.

Thanks, as always, for the quick response. I was just reading a general Russian history and found the early split between Kievan Rus from Muscovy fascinating. I won't get into arguments right now about the United States' "quasi-imperial architecture", instead I went to that Wikipedia link you provided about Yelstin and checking out one of the footnotes, came across this:

"Many argue that Russia fared badly because its "shock therapy" reforms were too fast and radical. But all measures show that Russia's economy is not very liberalized, and the financial collapse made it obvious that Russia's problems were actually caused by reforms that were too slow and partial. A small group of businessmen enriched themselves and then corrupted many of Russia's politicians and officials. They have all conspired to stymie liberal economic reforms, which would stimulate growth and help the overall population, because reform threatens their domination. Russia suffers not from too free a market but from corruption thriving on the excessive regulations erected by a large and pervasive state. Russia's tragedy is that reformers never had enough power to overrule these avaricious interests. Joel Hellman of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development characterizes the problem of partial reform as "winners take all."

That was from the "Foreign Affairs" article written in 1999. Suffice to say, I suspected that pointing to the dismal performance of the Russian economy in the 1990s and saying it was all the result of the Harvard wiz-kids, was wrong-headed. While the above quote is not sufficient evidence for the defense, I think it points to a picture of the Russian economic reforms of the 1990s that is more complicated than that offered by your characterization of the "worthlessness of the counsel of Harvard economists".

Yes, I recall reading that FA piece back in the day. I never found it persuasive, for reasons of political science and sociology that FA types never deign to consider. The reality is that one simply cannot abolish an entire socio-economic order overnight (as far as historical time is reckoned) without causing immense dislocations and hardships, let alone when that order has already exhibited signs of transition to a new system of property relations. Consider any economic transition in any period of human history, and this lesson is driven home. The disruption of the 'distributive state' of the early Roman Republic, in the wake of the Punic Wars, resulting in the consolidation of vast estates - the latifundia - along with the dispossession of the yeoman class and their conversion to an urban proletariat, entertained with bread and circuses? The collapse of the Empire in the West, which witnessed the dissolution of many of those same latifundia in the absence of any effective authority, the virtual cessation of economic activity above the subsistence level, and the introduction of effective slavery on a vast scale? The emergence of modern capitalism in Britain, with a similar dispossession of the yeoman class, and the subsequent industrial revolution? The emergence of industrialism in America, which actually figured in a major war (ahem)? The maturation of that industrial economy in the New Deal of the 1930's, with the appearance of the managerial state? The development of collectivist economies in the Soviet Union, on the rubble of a combined agrarian/emergent industrial system?

Please. Harvard economists may be able to demonstrate theoretically, which is to say, abstractly, and with assumptions at variance with the contingencies of history, that "shock therapy" would have succeeded but for the allegedly glacial pace of its implementation, but this is to postulate something that mankind has never achieved, and could never achieve save by means of the most draconian and revolutionary methods imaginable. Most of the statements of fact in that quotation are 'true', but devoid of context; the actual Russian context was so complicated, so vast, so 'intertextual' that only a persistent gradualism could have made progress. The immediate post-Soviet economy was in such a state that to achieve what the authors of that piece counseled would have entailed the simultaneous abolition of an entire legal system, suppression of the underground economy, construction of a new political architecture, creation of a financial system, propping up of the Soviet-era pension system, transitioning of the emergent property rights of the Russian people into a 'liberal' order, quelling of internal rebellions, inculcation of Western norms of probity where they had not existed, and extirpation of the mafiya. The supposition, therefore, that 'shock therapy' could have been accelerated is utopian, and that wildly so. The greater the complexity, the slower the gradualism; the greater the haste, the greater the suffering.

Specifically, to cite but one example, a process of reform which respected the rights of the Soviet people in their own enterprises would have, of necessity, precluded the simple auctioning off of those enterprises, and therefore would have delayed their hoped-for permeability to Western investment. Russians would have been confronted with the necessity of determining precisely how to modernize and employ these enterprises, and how, and on what terms, to permit foreign direct investment, because it would not have been a foregone conclusion that these enterprises would have been liquidated and converted to electronic profits in a handful of bank accounts. Again, I return to history: in a nation where there are no capitalists, how does capitalism emerge? The capitalist class must be created, or it must create itself; in the case of England, that class called itself into being by abolishing, over time, the customary and common law, and dispossessing the yeoman class, reducing them to wage-earners. In Russia, that class called itself into being by abolishing the property relations of the people, and arrogating state assets to itself. This was precisely the product of haste, since to respect what had developed, and could have been elaborated, from the old order, would have been much messier, much more complicated.

This is not to dispute the point that the Russian economy is hardly transparent, and that favoured economic elites do stymie reforms. It is to emphasize, once more, that those reforms will advance not one inch, because the rapidity with which they were implemented in the 1990's has discredited them, and their probable consequences even were they to succeed are undesirable to Russians, who will not consent to have the sort of economy that American elites have constructed: an economy utterly and absolutely indifferent to Americans as a people, and to the welfare and common good of the people, and the nation itself. What is good for business is not necessarily good for the nation.

I don't know enough about the specifically Russian history to have a lot to say here on that subject, but I was pulled up short by the ending of Maximos's last post. If we're talking about terrible hardships, then is it really wise or even right to say, "We won't have an American style economy, because that wouldn't have enough sensitivity to us 'as a people' [whatever, precisely, that measn], since it doesn't for Americans. We'd rather starve and see our daughters enter prostitution"?

Isn't that too theoretical? It seems to me that to talk about "unimaginable hardships" in the same breath with the supposed horrors of the American economy, and to prefer to continue with the former rather than move forward to the latter is...breathtaking. Better _far_, for not only business but also for oodles of individual people, to have an American-style economy if possible than to have poverty and misery.

Oh, and by the way--I don't think the Depression of the 1930's was caused by capitalism. But maybe that's not what you were saying.

In matters economic, you remain singularly unconvincing. Perhaps your understanding of history is better than mine, but I just don't know what to make of this statement:

"The capitalist class must be created, or it must create itself; in the case of England, that class called itself into being by abolishing, over time, the customary and common law, and dispossessing the yeoman class, reducing them to wage-earners."

I seem to have misplaced my history book detailing the capitalist expropriation of the yeoman class land...perhaps you could identify a couple of examples of this phenomenon?

And, it goes without saying, that this statement describing the American economy as

"an economy utterly and absolutely indifferent to Americans as a people, and to the welfare and common good of the people";

is just plain silly.

Even if you could identify flaws in the American economy (as I know I could) to argue that it is "utterly and absolutely indifferent" to the "welfare and common good" is blantantly ignorant of the millions of Americans who live lives of prosperity and healthy longevity. I mean, don't you want to convince people like me that there are serious problems with the current state of capitalism and the American economy? Statements like that signal the opposite.

As for the Russian economy, I don't think Harvard economists were arguing for the "abolition of an entire legal system". They wanted a strong legal system that would protect property rights and contract enforcement...perhaps given the corrupt nature of post-Soviet Russia a tall order, but one that is the pre-requisite of any healthy and functioning economy.

Lydia, the choice with which the Russians were confronted was not neoliberalism and daughters entering prostitution. The neoliberal reforms were imposed upon them, and that quite hastily and without any regard for the actual circumstances of the nation and people; the consequences were predictably horrible. That was why so many Russian women ended up in whoredom. Besides all that, the notion that only neoliberal reforms of the sort we promoted could guarantee prosperity is just unsupported. We may not approve of the features of other societies which achieve prosperity absent some of the structures of American free-market capitalism, but this is not the same thing as saying that it is impossible.

What I meant was that Russians will not consent to an economy in which economic development occurs with reference to itself, meaning that it does not necessarily result in the betterment of Russian living standards. Russians do not want, in other words, an economy predicated, as ours is, upon arcane finance, debt, imported goods, and consumer spending; they want to produce things, and keep the profits of this production at home, in addition to enjoying imported luxuries, consumerism, and the run of it. I see no reason why they cannot accomplish this.

No, I was not saying that the Depression was caused by capitalism; I was not even addressing this. I only wanted to adduce the decade as an illustration of the principle that periods of significant economic and political transition are disruptive.

Um, am I understanding the main post correctly as more or less implying that what's-his-name had it coming to him and that whoever bumped him off with extremely nasty poison was just advancing the good of the nation of Russia? No doubt he sympathized with some real baddies, but isn't that going a bit far? Is something similar to be said of the poisoning of Yushchenko and the thugs beating people at the polling places in the Ukraine?

I seem to have misplaced my history book detailing the capitalist expropriation of the yeoman class land...perhaps you could identify a couple of examples of this phenomenon?

You've never read The Servile State? It is not as though I'm imploring you to read The Origin of Capitalism or The Invention of Capitalism: The Secret History of Political Economy.

And Jeff, you know full well that my remarks concerning the American economy are not silly; you know exactly what I intend by them, since we've had this conversation so many times this year. Russians, as I stated in reply to Lydia, do not wish to replicate certain features of the American economy, and they have reasons for this wish, valid ones, at that. As Jefferson knew, business knows no loyalty save to those arrangements which secure its prosperity; hence, certain limits must be imposed.

The Harvard economists may have desired a strong legal system, but by tearing up from the roots what foundations existed, they ensured that they would never witness the construction of such a system - by the nature of the process of implementation itself, and by the nature of the outcomes, which disposed Russians never again to attempt such follies.

Lydia, no, I was not implying that Litvinenko "had it coming to him" in some morally objective sense of that phrase. He had it coming only in the sense that his unsavoury connections and outlandish accusations meant that someone, somewhere in Russia, would eventually whack him. Were I to run up a gambling debt with the mafiya, and then fail to repay, I would not deserve to be whacked, though I'd have it coming to me in the sense that it would be a predictable consequence of my stupidity. The same analysis applies to Yushchenko and voter intimidation in the Ukraine, to which the aforementioned Ukrainian president contributes his own fair share. None of these things should transpire, but they do, because that, unfortunately, is part of the game over there.

I seem to have misplaced my history book detailing the capitalist expropriation of the yeoman class land...perhaps you could identify a couple of examples of this phenomenon?
He's not making it up... The classic example is from England, where, from the 14th century, landowners began reducing lands previously held in common to private use, usually for sheep herding. Deprived of access to land, those of the peasantry who could not find employment in the countryside went to the cities, or to the wars, or, later on, to the Americas. Successive English governments attempted to limit the practice, but it continued nonetheless.

It is something of an anachronism to refer to the 15th century English gentry as a capitalist class - such a thing really only came to be in the modern sense in the 16th or 17th centuries. Perhaps proto-capitalist is a more accurate appellation. However, as a famous example of the highly profitable private appropriation of public goods, and at great cost to those disposessed, the comparison of the shock-therapy looting spree to enclosure is apt enough.

I am Lithuanian, whose parents lived through the cauldron of the East Front; I have an Eastern European darkness in my temperament, whereby I am resignedly content when miserable. Most Americans just can't comprehend that.

"How come you don't smile in pictures?"

"Because I'm so happy."

I'm a little surprised, Maximos, at your optimism here: "[Russians] want to produce things, and keep the profits of this production at home, in addition to enjoying imported luxuries, consumerism, and the run of it. I see no reason why they cannot accomplish this." I would think that by the time it got to enjoying consumerism and the imported luxuries, you'd be saying this was impossible if they wanted the first part. But look, I have no recommendations for the Russian economy. I'm taking it that you do. What do you have in mind for bringing this state of affairs about? (This isn't sarcasm, by the way.) I'd be particularly interested in what sorts of "features of other societies which achieve prosperity absent some of the structures of American free-market capitalism" "we" (by which, I take it, you mean "you pro-capitalist guys") may not approve of, at least if these are part of your proposal for fixing the Russian economic mess.

As for Yushchenko et. al., I'm sure you're right that many unpleasant things, like assassinations and poisonings and the like, are "part of the game" in that part of the world. It doesn't follow that the present Putin govt. had nothing to do with it. In fact, common wisdom seems to be that it/he did, and the motive, esp. in the Ukrainian case, is pretty clear, in terms of treating the Ukraine as part of Russia. Frankly, I'm much inclined to say that Putin is clearly a very bad guy and that we should hesitate to have anything to do with him--just as much as we wd. normally hesitate in the case of any conscience-free foreign big-wig. Which is to say, it might sometimes be our distasteful duty to have ado with such people, but we should avoid all appearance of special pleading for them.

Criticizing the current American economy is not silly, continually using hyberbole to describe the features of the economy you don't like is silly. The fact of the matter is that America does still produce all sorts of things (increasingly these things are intangible, which I think is part of your concern...but again, that is different from saying we don't produce anything) and many Americans live prosperous lives. I would echo Lydia's question, although I suspect your answer would be something like "limit foreign investment and the importation of consumer goods", which may or may not be good ideas for the Russian economy, but they hardly represent a total repudiation of free-market capitalism or a rejection of American ideas. After all, unlike my libertarian friends, I don't get bent out of shape with government programs that attempt to constrain some of capitalisms externalities or redistribute wealth...I just think there are better and worse ways of doing this. By all means let the Russians produce all they want, but more importantly let individuals own property and let these individuals enter into enforcable contracts.

I think Maximos' title of this post "Through Russian Eyes" says it all. Some people here persist on seeing Russia through American eyes. Can't be helped if you're American through-and-through, but what you see is not what you get.


My purpose here was to sketch a picture of Russian-American relations, particularly as regards economic affairs, as Russians would perceive those relations, insofar as any non-Russian would be capable of such a thing. In doing this, I drew upon both reports I have read in certain American journals and the substance of conversations with actual Russians, including, well, yes, members of my own extended family. I have no detailed proposals for the reform of the Russian economic system, inasmuch as I freely confess that there are many details with which I would have to acquaint myself before attempting to draw up such a programme. I am not, after all, a Harvard-trained economist.

As regards those features of other societies which achieve prosperity absent some of the features of American capitalism, I have in mind specifically the virtual absence of private capital markets in Japan, as detailed in this fascinating paper. There are more differences between the Japanese economic system and American capitalism than this, but this is arguably the salient distinction. Note that I am not recommending the adoption of the Japanese model by either America or Russia, although Russia would find it much easier to evolve towards the Japanese model than our own; this would likely be better suited to Russian social conditions, in any event. But, again, not being a Harvard economist, I'm not taking a position on the question of whether Russia should undertake such reforms.

It doesn't follow that the present Putin govt. had nothing to do with it. In fact, common wisdom seems to be that it/he did...

Neither does it follow that the Putin regime did have something to do with these recent, nefarious deeds. It is a tremendous non sequitur to leap from the conviction that the Putin regime is unpleasant in certain respects to the conviction that it is unpleasant on account of some specific instance of wrongdoing, particularly when those alleging involvement in assassination attempts are unlikely to be positioned to know such things, and have ulterior motives, as they all, in fact, do. In point of fact, the opponents of the Putin regime in Russia and the Ukraine are all financed, in part, by oligarchic interests thwarted by the economic policies of the Putin regime, which have obviously benefited most Russians. Moreover, the contested Ukrainian presidential election of 2004 involved a struggle between competing and overlapping associations of oligarchs, and the maneuvering of these groups could yield a poisoning attempt just as easily as a directive from the Russian president. Perhaps much more easily. The same could be said for Berezovsky and Litvinenko, Berezovsky having amassed his fortune by a variety of illicit means, including assassinations; the poisoning of the former KGB agent could easily have resulted from some sort of underworld extortion racket. In other words, as Missourians can appreciate, show me. Don't merely assert that because Putin is X, that he must therefore be connected with evil act A; all of the public discussion thus far has consisted of little more than declarations that because we don't like Putin, he must be responsible.

Finally, the potential of the present Russian economic system is limited, because actual productive activity extends little beyond resource extraction and processing; there is some manufacturing - steel, aluminum, automobiles - but natural resources and consumer goods are the foundations of the present economy. So, yes, the Russians will have to strengthen certain sectors of their economy if they are to secure recent advances in prosperity, and it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that they will know how to do this; but there is no fundamental contradiction between a productive domestic economy and the enjoyment of some foreign luxuries; the key is to minimize the substitution effects - something we do not accomplish.

Jeff, while you and I will inevitably differ on this score, the following

...an economy utterly and absolutely indifferent to Americans as a people, and to the welfare and common good of the people, and the nation itself. What is good for business is not necessarily good for the nation...

is intended as description, and not mere hyperbole. It is descriptive inasmuch as the presupposition of the neoliberal economic model that America has embraced is that the pursuit of increased economic efficiencies, as measured by such things as GDP and stock market performance, can be equated with the betterment of the people and nation as a whole. Rising tides and all of that. The two, however, are not necessarily connected, or even loosely associated; it is logically and practically possible for the economy as a whole to expand while simultaneously shifting wealth upwards. Practically, relatively recent economic developments such as outsourcing and offshoring have demonstrated that very indifference, or, at best, the equation of returns to capital with the good of the American people. Moreover, the fact of indifference may be perceived in the language with which Americans are now addressed: perpetual change, retraining, re-education, mobility, flexibility, etc. The system has no regard for them; they must show regard for it: capital's way or the highway. That qualifies as indifference in my book, and assuredly privileges business over the common good. (Or, one could simply review recent Argentine history to note the divergence of the interests of business and the common good of Argentines.)

Russians, increasingly, do own property, with secure titles, and do enter into enforceable contracts; that is one of the reasons the Russian economy has strengthened in recent years. In fact, though predominantly Russian Sevastopol is in the Ukraine, the Avtonomna Respublica Krim (all apologies if the transliteration is sloppy) has witnessed many of the same reforms, so that Sevastopol is now something of a boomtown, with new construction and new businesses sprouting everywhere.


Thanks for the link to the Japan article...they are a fascinating example of a country that has done well not necessarily following the "neoliberal" script. I tend to think you and the author of that article exaggerate the rigidity of this script and even get some of the details wrong (see below); but nevertheless, I think talking about Japan to compare and contrast their experience with America can indeed teach us something about both countries economic policies and even point the way to alternative models of economic growth than those proposed by Harvard economists.

As for my neoliberal economic script, I was just consulting a copy and I don't think you get at its essence with this statement:

"[the] neoliberal economic model that America has embraced is that the pursuit of increased economic efficiencies, as measured by such things as GDP and stock market performance, can be equated with the betterment of the people and nation as a whole."

In fact, economic efficiency, is a term us neoliberal economists think is good because of all the other things we associate with that term: full employment and flexible labor markets, widespread and cheap consumer goods, increasing use of technology to help people solve problems and the price of these helpful technologies moving down, cheap and widespread availability of food, home ownership, etc. In other words, you assume we worship at the shrine of GDP and economic efficiency without asking what these concepts mean to an average person...it is precisely because we think that GDP growth and increasing productivity can bring the most widespread good, where good is measured by data like what people use and own, what they eat, what they do with their time, etc.

Now, from our previous discussions I know you reject this definition of good. You think we should think about good in more qualitative terms, for example, asking the question of whether or not individual goods and services are conducive to living a virtuous life. But, even here, you would have to acknowledge the examples of success within America. So for example, if you think manufacturing work is uniquely virtuous (something you and I do disagree on) then you should acknowledge that even today, many Americans are gainfully employed building stuff (including Japanese cars!) and these workers enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle in towns all across America. So again, to say that the American economy is "utterly and absolutely indifferent to Americans as a people" seems to me to be a simple case of hyperbole, using your own frame of reference for evaluating the economy (which, by the way, I reject).

I will close with a beautiful article (having nothing to do with Russia) that encapsulates for me why I love free markets and technology and why those who like to constrain both excessively (I agree that some constraints are always necessary) in the name of particular values, often prevent the alleviation of suffering and the wide distribution of wealth:


Oh, I'm well aware of the the benefits that are attributed to that emphasis upon efficiency; my objection to them is not to the things in themselves, but to the partiality of the perspective that advances them as the ends for which economic activity should strive. Full employment may, as with many other concepts, be defined variously, but - to consider but one aspect of employment - the greater the subjection of the labour market to the simple forces of supply and demand, the greater the socialization of the costs of wages inadequate to the maintenance of the labourer and his family. Flexible labour markets are all well and good, but if an economy generates so much creative destruction, and so much unpredictability - which is what flexible markets are supposed to respond to - then it undermines the stability requisite to the good of both the individual and the family. Cheap consumer goods are also fine - to a point, the point at which so little is being produced domestically in the country where those cheap goods are being sold that prosperity depends increasingly upon a mountain of debt and debt instruments, plus the sprawl industry. Technology, similarly, is all well and good, to a point, the point at which technology for its own sake becomes dominating feature of economic life - change for the sake of itself - and the obsession with reducing its costs to the consumer lead to the crude arbitrage that has become a defining feature of our economy. In other words, one thing that we can glean from the Japanese model is that both consumption and production, inclusive of the compensation of labour, must be considered; the American system slights the latter factors.

"Indifference" does not mean that no Americans benefit from, say, Toyota manufacturing plants in America; indifference only means that if Toyota can generate greater profits (or is no longer given tax, regulatory or other inducements to maintain them) by shuttering even those facilities, it will do so. It is, as I say, the tendentiousness, the one-sidedness, of neoliberalism, which earns my ire.

I shall read the article you link as I have leisure; if I have any comments, well, you can anticipate them.

Maximos, I'm trying to figure out why you even brought up the Litvenenko affair in the original post. You were basically saying (if I understand you correctly) that people in America dislike the current Russian regime (and Putin?) because of the "reversal of the trends" that supposedly were to the benefit of rapacious American companies at the expense of the poor Russian people. It's at that point that you urge agnosticism as to whether Putin has his enemies bumped off with nuclear materials. What's the point? We should be positive about Putin, because he's reversing nasty capitalist trends and hence is a Benefactor to the Motherland, and we shouldn't let ourselves be blinded to these good qualities of his policies by the possibility that he arranges assassinations with polonium 21 or whatever it was? Is it an attitude towards Putin you are promoting, a set of policies of rapprochement with him, or agnosticism about his being complicitous in these assassinations just because, it seems to you, such agnosticism is the best position given the evidence? But in that case why bring it up in this particular piece?

I have to say, without meaning to be snarky, that if there were even as much evidence against some other foreign leader (or his administration) as there is against Putin in these cases, and if the neocons urged agnosticism, presumably in the service of some sort of policy decisions or at least positive thinking about such a person, we wouldn't hear the last of it from the paleocons for a long time.

And in any event, might it not be that Americans are negatively inclined towards Putin and his regime and give them "bad press" because they _think_ he does this sort of thing and not because they just _hate_ to see those doggoned Russians dragging themselves out of American-investment-induced poverty under his leadership?

I brought it up because media portrayals of the case are obviously conditioned by establishment displeasure over Russian want of conformity to Western geopolitical designs. The alleged evidence in these cases is of the order of, "Litvinenko croaked out, while lying in his deathbed, that some anonymous source, from some unspecifiable position within the FSB, had told him that Putin ordered the assassination." Or, in the Ukrainian case, that Putin must have done it because Russia does not wish for the Ukraine to fall into the orbit of NATO and the EU. Neither sort of claim is at all dispositive. The only point with regard to Putin is that agnosticism is due when the evidence against his government is so insubstantial. And Americans are negatively disposed because they imbibe all of the media coverage of these occurrences, which is conditioned by the interests of American elites; those elites, in turn, as I argued in the original post, don't literally wish for Russians to suffer; they simply do not care, provided that they "get theirs."

Okay, so I think I follow this: Americans believe that Putin had these guys poisoned and tried to exercise blatant thuggery to influence the Ukrainian elections only because of American media reports. Those media reports are biased against Putin because they are, one way and another, controlled by American elites who are in turn annoyed at Putin because his policies mean that they aren't making as much money off of Russia, or maybe won't be making as much in the future, as they used to be/want to be. So they spin the stories to make it look like he bumped the one guy off and tried to bump the other guy off, when in fact *all sorts* of people had access to the radioactive stuff with which these assassinations and attempts were carried out...

I can't in honesty say I'm convinced.

On another point, was that _Chronicles_ I saw seeming to endorse the idea that we should have had a Marshall Plan for Russia in the 90's? I thought they were principled isolationist paleocon types? The sort of people who hate it when America tries to be the Big Nanny for the World, yes?

I admit fully to not knowing that much about the causes of the economic problems in Russia, except that I think we'd all agree that there are some objectively bad people doing very bad things, and we might even all agree about who some of them are. (The Russian mafia, for example.)

But I do find that pieces like this give me the oddest feeling that there's something programmatic going on. It's this weird feeling that the American corporate types are going to be blamed for what's happened one way or another. They invested in an impoverished post-Cold War Russia. This is supposed to be bad--something between an insult to Russian national identity and an overt harm. Yet that's not obvious. And if they hadn't invested in Russia in the way that they did, would they then be blamed for that? America is being blamed for doing too little (giving away free money in the form of a Marshall Plan, presumably), or too much (investing, or giving economic advice that was "too theoretical" and didn't work out well), or too something. It's all America's fault, somehow, that things are so bad in Russia.

Perhaps the "Russian eyes" are seeing things through the glasses of a people who were expecting too much from America in the first place and are now looking for someone to blame. I can't say I see much to commend itself prima facie in their vision of the way things are.

In your rehearsal of my sketch of the geopolitical situation, you omit the strategic political designs of the American foreign policy establishment (you should really read some of those AEI and Project for a New American Century pieces!), with which neoliberal economic nostrums are intertwined. The designs of global hegemony are analytically separable from neoliberal economics; after all, if America cannot cajole Russia into embracing liberal reforms, the establishment would surely be content merely to ensure her geopolitical marginalization, which is what they are now labouring to achieve. There is a hoary tradition of Russophobia in the West, a sort of distant, secular echo of the Catholic claim that the Orthodox are schismatic and unworthy of regard unless and until they acknowledge the spiritual and political dominance of the West; this tendency was exacerbated by the Cold War, and is nourished by the inveterate American incomprehension of other civilizations and cultures. Each of these factors is a tributary feeding a larger stream of antipathy, the antipathy with which Americans tend to regard any society that does not accept that American Way - as a package deal - as normative culturally, economically, and politically. The same factors that condition the American intransigence in Iraq likewise condition perceptions of Russia; the American establishment cannot abide an existential rebuke to the Universal Nation. This is a spiritual and psychological pathology as much as a thwarted geostrategic and economic design; American strategists contemplate American strategic and economic interests as nearly identical, and this unity is expressed in an almost creedal, religious fashion - as the destiny of nations, the logic of history.

Russia tore up the script - the entire script, not just the economic section - and this has confirmed the pre-existing narrative of the benighted, backwards Russians, whom we must fear on account of their difference.

Paleoconservatism is not ideological, so I suppose that one will occasionally encounter offhand statements to the effect that a new Marshall Plan for the FSU would have been preferable, despite the general noninterventionist thrust of the persuasion. And Russians - really - did not expect that the US would do any specific thing, other than refrain from exploiting the weakness of their nation, worsening an already dire situation. Russians are exquisitely, acutely conscious of their failings as a people and nation; they are not reproducing, say, the victim psychology of the Muslim world.

Fair enough. I'd have to know more about the situation to know whether I'd agree that Americans did anything wrong that I would count as "exploiting the weakness" of the nation at that time.

The link to Chronicles is just to the magazine's page, not to the particular article. Is there one to the particular article?

Looking at the quotes given here from it, I have to say they bother me more the more I think about it. For example, the analogy to a present-day America suddenly thrown into chaos seems to me invidious inasmuch as it overlooks the many extremely salient differences between present-day America and Soviet-era Russia, yes, even under Glasnost. It gives me rather the sense of "at least the Nazis kept the trains running on time" and of a sort of hankering after the good old days under Communism, which does rather ignore the monstrous evil and evils (these not the same thing) of Communism.

I can't help being reminded of one of Ron Paul's debate gaffes where he said something like, "How would we like it if Chinese troops descended on the U.S?" This was meant to be an analogy to the Iraq war. I'm no fan at all of the Iraq war, but this analogy was ridiculous. The moral equivalence (America and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, American troops to Chinese troops) is just shouting, and I'm beginning to think this sort of thought experiment--"How would we feel if our situation in America were worsened drastically in such-and-such a way?"--is a highly unfortunate trope that is too much practiced in certain circles.

It was scarcely the intention of Chronicles to argue for some sort of moral equivalence; this 'thought experiment', as you term it, is merely a device for getting into the mindset of a different culture. At this level, the analogy does convey something of the Russian discontent with the American stance toward their nation, as does Ron Paul's analogy. Whether or not the Iraqis are 'right' to view us as we would view the Chinese, that is, more or less, how many of them do regard us: as invaders, and illegitimate on that account. It is true that this intellectual device carries some perils with it, but I don't believe that Chronicles and Paul have stepped into them.

The editors of Chronicles hardly intended to argue that communism was swell because things were at least orderly, or some such thing; it is a matter of quantifiable fact that living standards, along with virtually every measure of well-being, declined under Russian liberalism. This does not mean that communism was great, but that Russian liberalism was ill-conceived, poorly implemented, and ill-suited for the Russian situation: in short, that it was ideological and utopian, rather than gradualist and pragmatic.

Yes, I know that's the response. But I don't buy it. Paul for sure and (I'm guessing, as I don't have the full context) the Chronicles author as well are pretty clearly indicating some degree of endorsement of this "other cultural perspective" they are trying to get us to "understand."

And if that's the other culture's perspective, they need to think twice. As for everything's being worse by every standard in Russia, there is that little matter of being allowed to leave. Unless you tell me that they are being shot at borders, having to plead to leave and often being denied, and all the rest, as under communism (and give me some links to prove it), I'm going to continue in my impression that this is one measure according to which things are better, and have been. There was something to be said for the _fall_ of the Iron Curtain. And then there are the gulags. If they are opening up again, and political dissidents and Baptist youth ministers being thrown into them as under communism, I would guess--again, subject to correction--that this is a result of Putin's "reform of the reform," as it were, rather than having continued unabated throughout.

Of course there is some degree of endorsement, because it is incontrovertible that liberal reform in Russia worsened the quality of life of Russian citizens in precisely the ways mentioned. We are being asked to endorse something that is true. As regards Paul and Iraq, all we are being asked to endorse is the fact that many Iraqis view the American presence as illegitimate, which, again, is incontrovertibly true.

As for the other features of communism that you mention, well, what exactly is the point? That Russians should be indifferent towards, even grateful for, Western complicity in their degradation, because at least they are not shot at the border, and are permitted to emigrate? It seems to me that there is a false choice here. The fall of the Iron Curtain imposed no necessity of the West mucking about in the FSU. And there are no gulags in Russia nowadays, so I confess my bafflement on this score.

No, it didn't worsen their quality of life in the way that the analogy implies, because the analogy encourages us to start with the picture of a _free and prosperous_ United States such as we really do currently have and then to imagine the descending chaos described. That would be a very different thing from starting with a communist state, even if a relatively orderly one, and moving "downwards" from there.

Or consider the issue of deposing the "president" and ousting the "U.S. Congress" in the Chronicles analogy. I maintain that how much of an outrage this is depends in no small part upon whether the people in question were legitimately elected in free elections, which indubitably they were not in a communist country. So the outrage that analogy is trying to evoke is completely misplaced. The Communist Duma wasn't like the U.S. Congress, and Gorbachev wasn't "the president" in anything like the same sense that Bush is the president of the United States. And if Russians can't see that, then too bad for Russians. They have a reality problem.

I mentioned the possibility of present-day gulags only in case you were going to tell me they exist now and try to tell me they've been there all along, in order to imply that "Russian liberalism" didn't get rid of them and did no good in regards to stopping the visits of the Black Marias to people's apartments late at night. I, too, was under the impression that they no longer exist in Russia. I'm glad to have this impression confirmed by someone (you) who knows more than I do about the present state of affairs. But of course they did under Communism.

What, exactly, is the point? That the Chronicles article is doing something to my mind fairly odious in making an analogy between a free present-day United States brought to ruin by a rogue kookball revolutionary, on the one hand, and a communist country who, in what was a _popular_ revolution at the time against an intrinsically illegitimate and repressive regime, threw off its yoke. It is similarly odious to make an analogy between Soviet satellite states and states in the Union of the U.S. That is, it is odious unless the article contains somewhere else some *extremely strong* disclaimers disavowing these aspects of the analogy and indicating an awareness of the monstrosity that is Communism and reminding us all of the true and good joy it was to have lived through the fall of the Wall and the end of the iron grip of communism in Eastern Europe, *whatever* may have come since. In charity, I have left open that possibility, as I haven't seen the full article, but somehow, I don't hope for it very much.

Anti-communism is not a sufficient condition to be a conservative, but it should be a necessary one. I'm beginning to think not everyone agrees. Any sort of approved and endorsed analogy between the U.S. and Communist Russia should be as disgusting on its face to right-thinking men as an analogy between the U.S. and Nazi Germany, but unfortunately we have not in all circles yet gotten to the point where the evil of Communism is seen in its proper light. We've still got all too many people with that "at least they were idealists" garbage. Yeah, right. Idealists who tortured prisoners to get them to torture other prisoners. Perhaps the proper odium never will attend communism, but in my book, a journal that considers itself conservative in any meaningful sense should "get it" on that score, however much its authors and editors may like Russia and want to correct all of our "Russophobia."

No, it didn't worsen their quality of life in the way that the analogy implies, because the analogy encourages us to start with the picture of a _free and prosperous_ United States such as we really do currently have and then to imagine the descending chaos described. That would be a very different thing from starting with a communist state, even if a relatively orderly one, and moving "downwards" from there.

Huh? The application of liberal nostrums to Russia did not result, and, by this logic, could not have, in the degradation of the Russian quality of life in the way implied by the analogy, and this because the Russians were starting from the admittedly less-than-stellar foundation of communism? Your construal of "in the way implied" is conditioned by your remark about the "free and prosperous" United States, which is quite beside the point of the analogy, which is only that an ordered society - independent the extent of the freedoms it permitted, the conditions of prosperity it facilitated, and the degree of (philosophical and moral) legitimacy it possessed - descended into chaos. The disanalogies between America and the Soviet Union are irrelevant to the question of whether and to what extent neoliberalism retarded the Russian transition from communism. You may not consider such an admittedly stripped-down analogy useful; I submit that absent the ability to formulate analogies of this type, understanding of other societies will remain forever beyond reach. This may be a matter of indifference to you, though I find the possibility mystifying.

To entire function of an analogy is to abstract from certain features, characteristics, or qualities of the things under comparison, precisely for the purpose of understanding a point of similitude that might otherwise remain hidden or implicit. If we are only rationally permitted to analogize things that are already practically identical in most respects, I doubt that analogy can endure as a mode of rational thought. Are we now forbidden to analogize God and man in theology, on the grounds that man cannot experience theosis in "the way the analogy implies" because God is ineffable, inconceivable, infinite, and resplendent in perfection, while man is sunken in sin and vice? No, the analogy between the US and Russia works precisely because Russia, having emerged from communism, did not have to fall a great distance in order to reach disorder; to produce the conditions of societal collapse, only neoliberalism and corruption were required, while something much more substantial would be required in the American case: the analogy is ultimately drawn between conditions of disorder and dissolution.

Again, the legitimacy of the Soviet premiership is not at issue, condescending language about putatively reality-averse Russians notwithstanding. I doubt that you intend to endorse the proposition that, given a totalitarian system, anything that succeeds it, any action performed to overthrow it, or any set of circumstances obtaining subsequent to its demise ought to be received as an improvement - for this would be to imply that a totalitarian system is a sort of absolute, unconditional and unqualified, metaphysically substantial manifestation of evil: in every facet, it manifests the very extremity of wickedness. I cannot imagine, either, that you would endorse the proposition that ordinary people should simply shut up and evince their gratitude for the disappearance of the black marias, even from the depths of hunger and deprivation, to the point of blessing their suffering because they need no longer fear the night visits; such a view would be startlingly unnuanced, as though Russians should have said, confronted by misery and injustice, that at least they could vote, and at least Boris Berezovsky could enrich himself. What ordinary person privileges the political in this ideological fashion: though I hunger and though my leaders steal from me in the name of The Market, it suffices for me that I can vote for these mountebanks, who cannot any longer throw me into the gulag? Neither, for that matter, can I imagine that you are arguing that communism so degraded Russia that nothing we or they could have done after the fall could have prevented the descent; for this would be to argue the cynical position that because nothing could have been done that would have resulted in preferable outcomes, what we actually did cannot be reproached.

What is the point? That communism is illegitimate? The Russians knew it then and know it now; when Russians now express nostalgia, it is for the accidents of the communist era, not its essence: the stability, the geopolitical status of not being the 98-lb weakling, and so forth. The analogy, in other words, concerns the circumstances which abolished, in most places and for most people, these accidents. Again, what is the point? That because America is "free and prosperous" and communism is illegitimate, that the corrupt application of an incoherent ideology, neoliberalism, cannot be responsible for the deterioration of Russia during the 1990's? That the morality of overthrowing the Soviet system entails the morality of what followed? I reiterate: the analogy concerns only the fact of disorder and its causes; it does not concern such considerations as legitimacy; neither does it imply that communism is anything other than a moral enormity, a point that everyone who has ever written for Chronicles would endorse. One may pull at the tassels of any analogy - what does it matter that the Yeltsin revolution was initially popular? Are Russians forbidden to exercise hindsight, or required to positively endorse all of the consequences of their popular revolutions, in accordance with some theory of implied or tacit consent, the swindle of consent? - but what is transpiring here is that an analogy is being faulted for excluding some moral considerations while focusing on others, namely, excluding considerations of regime type while emphasizing problems of transition from one regime to another. This appears to be a faulting of the analogy, not for being the specific analogy that it is, but for being an analogy at all: the illegitimacy of communism is not implicated in the question of right and wrong, prudent and purblind, ways to transition from one political system to another.

"[I]magine the governor of Illinois striking a deal with the leaders of New Mexico, Texas, and California and offering them support for their independence in order to oust his personal rival, the president, from the White House and take over the rump United States. Imagine, in addition, that he dissolves the US Congress by sending in tanks..."

This scarcely confines itself to questions of economic wisdom nor avoids questions of political legitimacy. And it does indeed make the fall of the Soviet Union and of the Iron Curtain, which say what you will was one of the glorious moments of the 20th century, sound nasty, petty, and illegitimate.

Suppose I waive for the moment the question of whether there was a clearly better way to proceed, in the transition, than the one Yeltsin took. Suppose I grant arguendo that he was incredibly foolish and should have listened to a different set of political and economic advisors.

Even so, none of this stuff about analogizing the Soviet satellite states to U.S. states, and analogizing the dissolution of the Soviet Union, letting them go as they wished to, to the secession of U.S. states, will be relevant to some economic point. None of the outrage evoked by the image of dissolving the U.S. Congress with tanks will be relevant.

Moreover, it will be extremely hard to make any just analogy even between the relative _economic_ prosperity of the U.S. right now and a communist country. Communism, after all, has its economic downside. So if you wanted to make a just analogy that stuck to the economic issues, you would more or less have to eschew analogy altogether and just recreate the situation: "Suppose that at some time in the far future the U.S. became a Communist country. Suppose that, after Communism fell, the president at the time did some very foolish and hasty things in trying to make the transition to a private economy and ended up making matters economically much worse for the citizens." Sounds a lot milder and less outrageous, doesn't it?

But suppose I even waive _that_ and _permit_ the quite unfair strategy of beginning with a prosperous United States, but still confining oneself to the economic issues: "Suppose that some U.S. President ruined the economy and sent the country into partial anarchy through well-intentioned but bone-headed economic policies." That _still_ sounds a lot less outrageous and angering than what the Chronicles article in fact gives us.

I can't help feeling that there is this habit in the circles we're talking about of making hasty, dramatic-sounding, "how would we feel" analogies that rely for their rhetorical punch in no small measure on _precisely_ the areas of disanalogy. This may well be accidental. It may be a habit picked up by reading other people who do it and encouraged by some (to my mind misguided) notion of fostering cross-cultural understanding. I'm not saying there's any intention to deceive. I am saying it's a bad habit.

Actually, I'll abstract from the fact that the analogy was intended, in part, to account for Russian perceptions of America and American policy interests, restricting myself to the grubby details.

In point of fact, the beginning of the analogy does abstract from questions of legitimacy, because it quite plainly assumes only the existence of a legal architecture in which numerous Soviet Socialist Republics comprised an entity called the Soviet Union, which architecture was dissolved more or less in the manner indicated - by personal, cloak-and-dagger deal-making. The imputed position on the legitimacy of the Soviet Union, the position you insist upon reading into the analogy, implies that because the Soviet Union was illegitimate, absolutely any means which brought about its (desirable) dissolution (separation into constituent states) must be legitimate. But why should this be? Could no more representative, consultative procedure have been conceived, no procedure that might have guaranteed that Russians in the new near-abroad wouldn't be regarded as second-class citizens? Your imputation depends upon this, inasmuch as the American component clearly involves a crisis of legitimacy, which you do not grant in the Russian case, on account of the communist context. It does not follow from the illegitimacy of a regime that anything goes once it goes, so I cannot grant the argument for disanalogy; there are reasonable and sordid ways of handling these things, with the Soviet case exhibiting rather more of the latter.

Why must this all reduce to the singular question of economics? The broader context is that of a badly-engineered political transition, of which the neoliberalism was but one component, a component, though, which is often made to stand in metonymically for the whole of the period. In other words, the analogy concerns the transition from order to disorder; however, it would seem inarguable that secessions and territorial losses would result in economic contraction, particularly when managed so poorly, so I don't see the rationale for isolating the components in airtight conceptual containers.

Finally, what this distills down to, in the end, is that you simply reject even the hint of a suggestion of a whisper of an analogy between America and the former communist empire - which is understandable. The analogy, however, was not drawn between two nations, but between a hypothetical set of corrupt and illegitimate acts, with their attendant policies and consequences, and an opposite set of of corrupt and (arguably) illegitimate acts (illegitimate not because the SU was legitimate, but because there are right and wrong, better and worse ways to manage such things), with their attendant policies and consequences. It is at this point that another presupposition of the discussion becomes relevant: to focus on the relative economic merits of whatever it is we call the American system and communism is not only to slight the corruption-and-bad-policy core of the analogy, but to assume that, communism being what it is, not much can be hoped-for upon its overthrow - of course the bungled transition and the application of neoliberal nostrums ruined Russia, because Russia had been communist; but America is different. The distance traveled to the bottom is irrelevant to the question of whether bad policy has bad consequences; regime type is irrelevant to the matter of policies bad relative to local conditions exacerbating whatever already might have been wrong. Bad policy is just bad policy, and learning to perceive oneself as one is perceived by others is an essential aspect of self-understanding and self-criticism. Americans will never come to terms with they ways in which others perceive them unless they are willing to engage in thought-experiments of this type, because only through such analogies can the viewpoints of those affected by American policy failures be approximated, however roughly.

I took your previous post to mean that we were supposed to be focusing just on the "accidents" of the overthrow of the Soviet Union--the loss of stability and (what I take you to have been talking about a great deal throughout) the economic problems, lowering of standard of living, and so forth. My suggestion of "keeping things in airtight containers" was intended precisely to _isolate_ these and to suggest different thought experiments that would not get us into the whole issue of how bad communism is and what sorts of means are legitimate for its overthrow. I took it, perhaps wrongly, that you were annoyed at my bringing such considerations into play in my outrage at the Chronicles analogy and were trying to insist that we focus only on how much worse the Yeltsin policies (supposedly) made things for ordinary Russians in their ordinary lives. But then, as I pointed out, when we really do stick to discussing those matters, the whole thing sounds much less nasty and outrageous than the Chronicles piece would suggest.

But you can't have it both ways. If you want to defend the intermingling of economic and ideological issues, then you're going to have to deal with the fact that I (and I suspect many others) are offended at the analogies to the United States and that, yes, we do consider that the legitimacy of a previous regime makes a difference to how bad it is if it's brought down by "personal" or "cloak and dagger" means. After all, some of us thought spying on the Soviet Union was okay, even just possibly brave and laudable, depending on what the spy did, so "cloak and dagger" can't be all bad. And, yes, the "distance traveled to the bottom" is relevant to whether policy could be _seen to be bad_ with foresight, because risks taken are proportional in part to the badness of one's present situation.

And, finally, yes, the fact that Russia was previously Communist is of course _very_ relevant to how hard or easy it would be to get it to make the transition to a market economy, to a Japanese economy, or to anything other than Communism, without disaster--something the Chronicles thought experiment _entirely_ ignores, seeming to imply that Yeltsin took something that wasn't broke, tried to fix it in a criminally foolish fashion, and broke it. It may well be that anything tried would have resulted in hardship, that there was no royal road, and that other policies would have been even worse. I don't actually know. But the fact that we are talking about a Communist country at the outset is at a minimum _pragmatically_ relevant to all of these questions, and that aside from the fact that Communism is evil anyway. So is America different? You betcha. Because we don't need to make the kind of transition in question anyway, so we're not in danger of that kind of disaster anyway. What's not to understand?

I took your previous post to mean that we were supposed to be focusing just on the "accidents" of the overthrow of the Soviet Union--

To the best of my recollection, I have only used the term "accidents" in a throwaway line about Russian nostalgia; if I have used it in other contexts, I should clarify that the crucial distinction I have in mind is that between the substantive claims that can be advanced regarding the Soviet Union - concerning the illegitimacy of communism and etc. - and the pragmatics of a bungled transition. Furthermore, when I referred to "airtight containers", I meant to refer only to the separation of secessionist and economic tendencies, which I took you to be discussing in a recent post. This separation is artificial, contrived, at some level.

If anything, it seems to me that you are attempting to have your cake and eat it too, with respect to the relationship of the awfulness of communism and the subsequent economic deterioration: you wish to concentrate upon the economic aspects of the analogy, which you find overdrawn at best, yet appeal to the badness of communism and the relative prosperity of the US in order to argue that the analogy is flawed or invalid. If anything, I have been arguing, perhaps without achieving sufficient clarity, that a separation of the ideological (I'd prefer substantive or philosophical...) and economic is essential to an appreciation of the situation. However, in the following two comments, we draw closer to the source of our impasse:

we do consider that the legitimacy of a previous regime makes a difference to how bad it is if it's brought down by "personal" or "cloak and dagger" means.

And, yes, the "distance traveled to the bottom" is relevant to whether policy could be _seen to be bad_ with foresight, because risks taken are proportional in part to the badness of one's present situation.

With respect to the former statement, yes, in one sense the legitimacy of the existing regime makes a difference as to the means we would employ in changing it; but, in another sense, if the regime is already illegitimate, already repressive and productive of a degraded way of life, oughtn't this prompt us to reflect upon the relationship of means to possible, but undesirable ends, the unintended consequences? If a regime's stock in trade is skulduggery, might not covert means of overthrowing it only serve to reinforce this structural tendency? This is what transpired in Russia, after all. The debilitating, deracinating effects of the communist regime argue for caution and prudence.

With respect to the latter statement, one could, with equal justification, argue that "distance traveled to the bottom" is relevant in a different sense: with foresight, one can predict that getting it wrong when the benchmark is something as awful as communism would be worse that getting it wrong in the American context, inasmuch as the American economy is much more resilient - a few years of tax policy ill-suited to economic circumstances might be inefficient, but it will not plunge the economy into depression and collapse. In other words, the perception of risk might not be proportional to present circumstances, but to the fear of losing what little one possesses; this latter approach may seem timid, but I submit that it is more relevant, ethically speaking, to the cases of entire cultures. There is, after all, not much of a floor to the amount of tough history a nation and people can endure; even the newly-destabilized, but still bearable, poverty of transitional Russia was something on which the people counted, and given the minimal level of amenities it afforded, it would surely have been defensible for Russians to demand conservative, gradual reforms, lest even this be lost to them. Your formulation assumes that a poor economy represents a sort of absence of information: we cannot really foresee that something else might be worse, because what we have is already so bad that we are impelled to undertake great risks to escape it. I submit that degraded circumstances can be as rich in portents of potential consequences as any type of prosperity; the pertinent factor is the psychology of the people, particularly their expectations and aspirations. And the immediate post-Soviet Russians were hardly as venturesome, on the whole, as early American colonists. Seriously. That was one of the cultural legacies of communism.

Of course the fact of communism is relevant to the question of the arduousness of the transition; but the analogy does not ignore this, as you interpret it as doing: to the contrary, Yeltsin took something that was rickety and unreliable, but still functional at some low level, added a policy formula that was ideological, procrustean, inflexible, and then implemented even that badly. The fact of communism is relevant, but only locally: the analogy is not drawn between the regimes, but between respective sets of corrupt acts and policies, and their consequences; a policy set bad for one regime is being analogized to a policy set bad for a different regime.

"The analogy is not drawn between the regimes, but between respective sets of corrupt acts and policies, and their consequences; a policy set bad for one regime is being analogized to a policy set bad for a different regime." I think that's going to end up being far too apples and oranges. And all the more so if the people listening to the analogy are supposed to be drawn into the perspective of the other group and intelligently and rationally agree with their perspective. It's my opinion that if that's all you're doing--comparing one set of policies and actions bad for one type of country with a *totally different* set of policies and actions bad for a *totally different* country--you're only going to grab the emotions of your audience by accessing their feelings about the aspects of the situations that are disanalogous. Which is, though not deliberately, rhetorically illegitimate. Far better to say exactly what policies you think were bad and why, for the country you really want to talk about.

By the way, when we talk about "consensual" means of dissolving the SU, whose consent? The Ukrainians'? The majority of them seem to have been all for it, in their own case, anyway. That, at least, is my impression, and that would explain the speed with which the whole thing was accomplished. If you're going to maintain that the whole adult Russian populace should have had a referendum on ceasing the maintanence by force of arms or the threat thereof of the subjugation of the Ukrainians (much worse, IMO, than "subjugation" by foreign investment), you're going to have to argue good 'n' hard for it. And the Chronicles comparison to secession from the United States isn't going to do the job. And it would come oddly, to say the least, from conservatives committed to local attachment and local patriotism.

I think that's going to end up being far too apples and oranges.

And I do not! What the contributor to Chronicles did was nothing more than a version of what people do, as a matter of routine, in attempting to comprehend circumstances other than their own; they sketch a light analogy, an atmospheric, in order to get at a common experience, sentiment, worldview, what have you. This is not high philosophy; it is more intuitive, more rhetorical; but it is not on this account to be despised. All that it requires is for someone to ask himself, "What would have to happen here for me to grasp the mentality of someone over there who endured that?" This is as natural, as human, as any other attempt at empathy, and to demand analytical rigour of something - analogy - that seldom, if ever possesses it, strikes me as a category mistake. This is not rhetorically illegitimate; it is simply rhetoric.

Yes, a majority of Ukrainians, meaning ethnic Ukrainians, dwelling primarily from Kiev to the western half of the country, and not "citizens of the Ukrainian SSR". I mean that the Russian population ought to have been offered something better - and this is more pressing in the case of the Central Asian republics - than abandonment in a near-abroad that was suddenly hostile in ways subtle and not-so-subtle. Perhaps that would have meant population transfers; perhaps that would have meant territorial exchanges; but something superior to deals with local elites and partially-rigged ballots (if any) could have been conceived. Frankly, the Chronicles comparison with secession is quite apposite on this score: the threat of subjugation has been a part of our politics since 1861, as it was in the Soviet Union; in both the Russian reality and the analogy, the secessions occurred by less-than-entirely-wholesome means. That doesn't mean that the result is wholly bad - Lvov ought not be ruled from Moscow, though there is no reason why Donetsk, or perhaps Sevastopol, ought not be, if the people want it so - it merely means that ends cannot justify means. In fact, a commitment to local attachment would allow the Ukrainians to go their way, and the Russians theirs, not to thrust them together into a state that may not be viable. Just wait until the Crimea comes into play (which it will at some point); that'll distinguish the hegemonists from the localists.

I take it that it's your position that the referendum of December, 1991, in which 84% of Ukrainian registered voters supposedly approved independence, was rigged, didn't count the right people, suppressed a lot of voters who still considered themselves Russians, or something?

"Rigged" would not be the optimal choice of words, a point I'm happy to concede. A preferable characterization would be, "Not capable of bearing the geopolitical weight it is being asked to carry", insofar as:

1) The Ukrainian referendum concerned secession from the USSR, and not a permanent definition of the status of Russians, the relationship with Russia (indeed, negotiations regarding the formation of the CIS were almost concurrent), and so on. The Ukrainians voted, understandably, to repair to the lifeboats as the Soviet ship of state foundered.

2) We will simply have to wrap our minds around the fact that a political system capable only of rigging and corruption in the presentation of Potemkin elections does not miraculously turn about and become transparent, if only the turn coincides with a distancing from communism. Ukrainian elections still fail to measure up to the standards of even a Chicago or New Orleans, let alone Switzerland.

The Ukrainian referendum does not prove much more than that citizens and residents of the Ukrainian SSR wanted out of the USSR at a time when the latter was already falling to pieces.

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