poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

February 22, 2010

LQD: “The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism” by Mark Adomanis.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 6:09 PM
Tags: ,

Adomanis is a contributor at True Slant. What is True Slant – besides where Taibbi is writing now which just makes me grieve uncontrollably for the eXile? I know nothing about True Slant or Adomanis, but he has been making a lot of the same observations as bloggers like Sublime Oblivion, A Good Treaty, SRB and … myself. Demographics doom debunking? Check. Masha Lipman having a point but being unjustifiably hysterical? Check. Criticism of Russian liberals based on their assumption that the 90’s were something worth returning to, their apparent disdain for the poor, their lack of strategy/interest in the hard work that is governance? Check, check, check…

Tolya thinks Mark must been reading his blog. A long time ago when I was young I jokingly suggested that someone who wrote an article entitled, “Russia will kick your ass,” contemporaneous with a post I’d written declaring the same thing, had plagiarized me. I said it in absolute jest – as if it were inconceivable two unique individuals could have this reaction upon seeing Russia throw her weight around the international stage for the first time in decades. (If anyone ever copyrights “Russia will kick your ass” they’ll probably make some cash.) Lo, I was issuing apologies left and right. I almost got some poor shmuck fired! That was no fun. No, I think Mark is telepathic. That’s because I subscribe to the theory that the most interesting explanation is the best explanation. I refuse to live in a boring world. However, if I thought the best explanation were the real explanation, I’d say we are simply witnessing a renaissance of common sense with a dash of Internet meme thrown in to taste.

The bad news is this makes me feel less special. I want my niche back! The good news is the, “Hold on now, let’s think about this,” bloggeratti may actually be gaining ground against the hysterical Russia fear-mongering media noise machine foaming at the mouth with Schadenfreude. The other good news is I don’t have to write as much; I can just re-post other people’s hard work here. So here goes, a dandy of an article:

The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism.

Reprinted in full with author’s permission.

In a self-parodic article, noted Russian liberal Georgy Satarov does quite a lot to show why Russian liberals and Russian liberalism remain so utterly inconsequential and unpopular. I make an effort to remain as emotionally detached as possible from discussions of politics, but I can almost make an exception when talking about Russian liberals – a group characterized by such overpowering mediocrity, stupidity, and petty self-centeredness that they are virtually impossible to not loathe.

Satarov’s target is Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov’s recent interview with Vedemosti, an exercise in the sort of banal defense of government power that exist completely independently of time or place: if he was an American, Surkov would undoubtedly have a high-profile chair at the Brookings Institutions or AEI from which he would sagely spout all sorts of justifications for cutting taxes, invading Iraq, occupying Afghanistan, and torturing “terrorists.” Surkov’s words, which Satarov tries to imbue with some magic and profound significance, are almost entirely without meaning since they are the words of the government apologist and (by design) are so vacuous that they can be use to defend any course of action be it republican, democratic, authoritarian, monarchical, totalitarian, or some combination of all of these.

What interests me is the shocking and barely believable degree of tone deafness that Satarov displays when discussing the 1990’s. To put it mildly, the 1990’s were a catostrophic and near fatal disaster for Russian society. Historian Stephen Kotkin has persuasively argued that the best way to understand Soviet/Russian history from the late 1970’s until the early 2000’s is not as a period of “transition” or “transformation” but as one of utter collapse: the extended death throes of the bankrupt and broken communist system. It should go without saying that societal collapses are not particularly pleasant experiences and are not typically remembered fondly by those who lived through them.

As can be expected in an environment of complete societal collapse most Russians suffered horrifically during the 1990’s, and it is virtually impossible to overstate how blood-curdlingly awful they were for the average citizen. To take just a small sample of what happened: personal savings, which in many cases had been built up over decades, were completely wiped out by hyperinflation, the price of all but the most basic goods exploded (the always-stoic Russians made light of this absurd situation by noting “Under communism we had money but the stores had no goods. Under capitalism it is much better: now the stores have goods but we have no money!”), unemployment went from being illegal to being commonplace, real wages plummeted and, if they were paid at all, were often payed 5-6 months late and in-kind (i.e. if you worked in a mine every few months you’d be given a big bag full of coal, which you would then have to barter, laboriously working out how many lumps of coal would buy a chicken breast, a bottle of aspirin, a jacket etc.), healthcare and educational spending fell by 30-35% from already manifestly inadequate levels, and, to sum things up, the economy, measured in constant dollar prices, contracted by over 60%. That’s right, the Russian economy shrank by over 60%. Russia’s macroeconomic performance during the 1990’s was thus significantly worse than America’s during the Great Depression. Things got so bad that reasonable people predicted that Russia would turn into Yugoslavia, only on a far grander scale and with thousands of nuclear weapons thrown in for good measure.

So when Satarov say the following, you can understand why I can barely repress my sense of revulsion:

During the 1990s, independent universities and independently educated people began to emerge. There is a reason why those universities have been suppressed. Independent courts began to appear and people began to use them independently. There is a reason why this independence has been destroyed over the last 10 years. And independent and (which is more important) effective business began to emerge. From furniture factories that were able to export their products to Italy to Yukos, which was looted and destroyed by the authoritarian modernizers. After the August 1998 crisis it was precisely independent business that lifted the country off its rear end in record time. And all it took was not getting in its way. There is no longer any free business in Russia. And all that was the very energy that we so sorely lack now.

So, in Satarov’s telling, despite the unfortunate fact that Russians were dying on the streets en-masse, because a few factories shipped furniture to Italy(did this actually happen? has anyone ever seen Russian furniture on sale anywhere in the West?) and because Yukos waged a good PR campaign, shock therapy was a success! Neoliberal economics triumphed! Рынок победил!

This is equal parts laughable and contemptible. Laughable because every social and macroeconomic indicator, literally every single one of them, declined rapidly during the 1990’s and has gotten significantly better since Putin came to power. Satarov’s pablum is contemptible, and deeply so, because the 1990’s in Russia were a humanitarian tragedy on a grand scale. Millions upon millions (somewhere between 5-6 million) of Russians died earlier than expected, and while such “excess deaths” are not directly comparable to genocide or murder they should, at the absolute least, give great pause to someone who is extolling the manifest virtues of the time period during which they took place. Yet Satarov couldn’t care less that heaps of his countrymen were dying like flies, in his telling it was all worthwhile because “independently educated people began to emerge.” One can see why people like Satarov and his ilk may accurately be called “market Bolsheviks,” as their “break some eggs to make an omelet” philosophy is thoroughly Soviet. Indeed the only change from such a worldview’s rotten Leninist predecessor is the metamorphosis of “the market” from the source of all evil in the world to the source of all good.

I can understand, and even conjure some sympathy for, an argument of the sort proffered by Anders Aslund: that Yeltsin and his advisers did all of the unpopular heavy lifting and structural reorganization and Putin, through no particular effort of his own, inherited an economy that had bottomed out and was ready to blossom. But that is not what Satarov is claiming. Satarov is not claiming that Russian liberals laid the groundwork for the economic success of the 2000’s (which has the virtue of being at least partially true), but is instead making the patently false and truly insane claim that the 1990’s in Russia were better than the 2000’s. To understand how preposterous and absurd this is, imagine the public response if candidate Michael Dukakis solemnly pledged to do everything in his power to “weaken the dollar and bring back stagflation” or, perhaps as an even better illustration, imagine if Thomas E. Dewey’s campaign had not accommodated itself to the New Deal but instead openly promised to “eliminate social security, encourage deflation, and spark mass unemployment!” What would happen to politicians with strategies so totally removed from reality? Well, probably, they would extremely unpopular. Shockingly, when Russian liberals defend and embrace a period during which Russia collapsed it does nothing to help their popularity

As I’ve said before, democracy is not a panacea: democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, “get out of the way” and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding “freedom.” Russian liberals have rarely had any interest in the difficult and boring business of running a large and complicated country and, when they have actually seized the reigns of the state, the results have been so disastrous as to discredit them for a generation. What Russian liberals need to do seems quite obvious: first, they need to apologize for ruining the country the last time they were in power (recognizing that Yeltsin is one of the least popular figures of the past several decades would also be a good start). Next, they need to show that they have some sort of connection (even if a tenuous and insincere one) to the real-world problems experienced by average Russians, the great majority of whom are positively disposed towards the current regime. Finally, Russian liberals should develop some vaguely plausible plan for addressing the concerns of average citizens. As of now, their thinking seems to mirror that of South Park’s famous underpants gnomes:

Russian liberalism’s strategic plan:

1. Get rid of Vladimir Putin
2. ?????????????????????
3. Freedom and prosperity!

Indeed after reading Satarov’s article it was immediately clear that nothing the Kremlin does or says could possibly stigmatize Russian liberals more effectively than their own rhetoric. All of the politicians associated with the 1990’s are toxic figures, the targets of vicious scorn, ridicule, and even outright hatred. And yet, rather than distancing themselves from the manifest and epic failures of those years, Russian liberals still draw ever-closer to totally discredited policies and shout themselves horse defending Yeltsin. No one has apparently told them how utterly foolish this makes them look.

Towards the end of his piece, Satarov snidely remarks:

Russia has been undergoing “authoritarian modernization” for 10 years now. We see the results.

Yes we see the results, and so do Russian citizens. Since 2000 real wages have more than doubled and the economy grew by 7% a year. Social spending has exploded and is now substantially more generous than it ever was in the Soviet period. Russian business, while still technologically backward and inefficient compared to leading Western countries, is gradually, is slowly, converging with world standards. More than at any point in their history Russians are free to travel abroad, and Russia has never been more open to foreigners. The ruble’s buying power has increased substantially, and foreign goods are more available than at any time in Russia’s often-painful economic history. This is an incipient catastrophe? In such a situation, why would anyone expect that the peasants would be storming the Bastille? If Russians didn’t revolt when they were being robbed blind by the oligarchs and forced to watch their parents sell their old war medals in order to avoid starving, why would they revolt now? One can very easily exaggerate the success of Putin’s regime, and underestimate the size of the problems still confronting Russia, but it takes a deeply sick and unbalanced psyche to see the past 10 years of Russian history as nothing but an uninterrupted series of catastrophes.

Unless and until Russian liberals take responsibility for the 1990’s and develop a platform that is able to explain not only the difficulties and problems of everyday life but practical methods for redressing them, they will be nothing more than a totally marginal force in society and a crude parody of an effective political opposition. And deservedly so. Any political grouping which views 1990’s Russia as model to be emulated should be kept as far away from the levers of power as humanly possible.

Applause!!!

I don’t expect anyone else to share my perverse affinity for Surkov. In fact, it might be best he doesn’t get too much encouragement. Or my visceral disgust for the policies of the 90’s. I have horrific images burned into my psyche for life, but that’s not your problem. But Adomanis is able to rebut liberal rhetoric without glorifying the current regime or even questioning Yeltsin’s legacy as well-meaning reformer. Criticism of contemporary Russian liberals is not, then, implicitly an endorsement of Putin or anti-capitalist. I think that’s the strawman. Much easier to present oneself as the preferable alternative to Putin by invoking the bad old days of the Soviet Union than to recreate one’s own tarnished image and win back the people with responsible policy that benefits the common good.

Adomanis makes an astute remark that “democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, ‘get out of the way’ and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding ‘freedom.'” I am thinking that this choice between authoritarianism and freedom is just as much of a strawman. I hope we can eventually overcome our dependence on catchphrases and scare-tactics, on sounds bites that make us feel and labels so overused they’ve lost all meaning. Freedom is not a form of government, and any effective government must have some degree of authority. I’ll take Adomanis’s advice for the liberals one step further: actually identify problems facing your country (there’s lots to choose from, and not just your own personal ones!) and come up with possible long term solutions.

Like, for example, Medvedev and Putin are attempting to do…

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34 Comments »

  1. “I have horrific images burned into my psyche for life, but that’s not your problem.”

    I was a kid, then a teenager in 1990s, and do not keep horrific images of that time. It was fun, one way or another. For example, in 1990s my family, like the majority of families, planted potatoes and other vegetables. For a kid, it was a very interesting experience, with elements of camp life. 🙂

    Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 9:11 AM | Reply

    • Evgeny – there is not enough room in a comment to go into my personal experiences. I will agree that it was a lot of fun (especially for those of us young enough not to have all of the responsibilities of adulthood) and in many ways “normal” with a routine of school, work, family, leisure… I’m certainly not dismissing that. And of course people’s experiences varied. And experiences are subjective…

      While I take some offense at the following article, it does seem to capture the 1990’s Moscow I knew:

      “End of The eXile Era”

      U.S. author and journalist Tom Wolfe said, “There are only two adjectives writers care about anymore — brilliant and outrageous.” The eXile was both. But it was also an anachronism. Indeed, it was a minor miracle that it should have survived so long. Even before the paper’s demise, I couldn’t think of it as anything but a child of its time, vibrating to the deep, doomed rhythms of a specific moment. It could never have happened anywhere else but the Moscow of the mid-1990s. Like the city itself, The eXile was vulgar, venal and violent. It was also manic, obscene, uproarious and mammon-obsessed. But above all, it was only by soaking up enough of the penetrating cynicism of that time that all of Russia’s tragedies could seem, on some level, darkly amusing.

      Moscow, I found, seemed to attract people who were ferociously smart but often hungry and damaged, fleeing failure or trying to prove something to the world. Russia — especially the Russia that created The eXile — certainly had a definite appeal for anyone with a dark streak of gross irresponsibility and self-destructiveness. And if you had these traits, there was nothing to stop you from indulging them. It was a weird Godless world where values went into permanent suspended animation and you were terrifyingly free to explore the nastiest recesses of your own black heart. Like a traumatic love affair, it seemed to change people forever. Like a drug, it would be exhilarating at first. Then, as it wore on, it reclaimed the buzz it had given, with interest.

      Despite the good times, Moscow got its revenge on its new masters, insidiously screwing with foreign psyches. You’d see how young men, who had arrived as cheery, corn-fed boys, would, within a year, adopt that hardened, taciturn look that one usually associates with circus people. Selfish young hedonists quickly turned into selfish psychotic monsters — too much sexual success, money, vodka, drugs and cynicism in too short a time. Ames lived it and wrote about it. He described his encounters with heroin, teenage prostitutes and speed with a savage self-loathing and fueled, in his own words, by “vanity and spleen.”

      The story of The eXile is the story of an earlier, pre-boom Moscow, before gourmet supermarkets and sushi restaurants sprouted on every corner. The eXile was born in a place that was dark, vibrant and absolutely compelling. The money, the sin and the beautiful people — it was doomed, apocalyptic and transiently beautiful. The incandescent energy of the pretty, deluded party kids whom the paper wrote about could have lit up this blighted country for a century if channeled into anything other than self-destruction and oblivion.

      They were indeed strange and savage times, to borrow a phrase from U.S. author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. And Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi were their greatest chroniclers.

      Comment by poemless — February 23, 2010 @ 11:40 AM | Reply

      • This certainly gives me some insight about Matt Taibbi and where his voice came from, that’s for sure …

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — February 23, 2010 @ 1:35 PM | Reply

        • You’ve never read the eXile?! Watch, as I expand your horizons:

          FAQ: The eXile.

          Looks like their archives are still accessible: eXile.ru

          My eulogy: Exile in Exile

          Comment by poemless — February 23, 2010 @ 2:08 PM | Reply

          • I haven’t even gotten to the archives and my mind is reeling … too good. Too good!

            (Now about to bookmark the archives …)

            Comment by EdgewaterJoe — February 24, 2010 @ 1:08 PM | Reply

      • Thanks. That’s interesting, although I did not quite get the idea, possibly. There were different worlds that time (like now) in Russia (even Moscow), and it is/was up to you which world to live in.

        Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 4:43 PM | Reply

      • But I guess this has to do something with the attitude revealed by Dmitry Bykov in mid-90s (if poetry in Russian is allowed in this blog):

        (From the poetry piece “Sumerki Imperii”)

        Вот она лежит, располосованная,
        Безнадежно мертвая страна –
        Жалкой похабенью изрисованная
        Железобетонная стена,
        Ствол, источенный до основания,
        Груда лома, съеденная ржой,
        Сушь во рту и стыд неузнавания
        Серым утром в комнате чужой.

        http://www.erfolg.ru/hall/dmitry_bykov.htm

        Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 6:03 PM | Reply

        • Poetry is always allowed here! As long as it is good, of course.

          Death was part of it. A major part of it. But it felt like a wild, thrashing death, the nervous delirium that precedes death, or the hell that follows it, not the sad, gloomy, tragic kind of death in Bykov’s poem (if I understand it correctly…)

          Or purgatory.

          Comment by poemless — February 23, 2010 @ 6:16 PM | Reply

          • And what about the God? By the way, did religion make it easier or only more complex for the Western people?

            P.S. Love your style!

            Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 6:22 PM | Reply

          • By the way, do you think the lack of Catolic/Protestant churches in Russia complicates living for the local Western folks?

            Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 6:26 PM | Reply

            • I’m an atheist and not terribly interested in religion. If there is a God, I can assure you he and I were not in Moscow at the same time. Pretty sure Woland was there, though…

              If you’re religiously inclined, I don’t see why the Orthodox Church should not suffice. But what does this have to do with anything?

              Comment by poemless — February 23, 2010 @ 6:34 PM | Reply

              • I am an atheist as well. Just I think, that a religious person shouldn’t be easily influenced by the social changes. Why the hell for, if one has a God to account for everything? And if that’s not like that, why the hell do you need religion at all?

                Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 6:37 PM | Reply

          • P.P.S. What I always liked the Western folks for — is their optimism, the desire to move on regardless of the difficulties. Take that optimism out of a person and you’ll get… perhaps, a Russian?

            Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 6:29 PM | Reply

            • I have thought the same, a long time ago. Well, it’s a vast generalization, but yes, it’s something you notice. I used to think, “If only they could realize their fate is in their own hands, they don’t have to be sad and oppressed and cynical…” Well, it’s a childish and condescending thought. Years later, I question how much of our Western optimism is delusional, or, how much of it is honest, and how much of it is a quilt of lies we wrap ourselves in to hide from the horrible truth that actually, our fate is not entirely in our own hands, that there are valid reasons to be sad and passive and cynical. Optimally, a person might operate somewhere between the two extremes of American zeal and Russkii avos…

              But then you’d be boring, like Switzerland.

              Comment by poemless — February 23, 2010 @ 6:46 PM | Reply

              • Lol. In fact, I can’t really believe that I’m living in the country which performed industrialization of 1930s, won a war of 1940s, and chose to lose everything since 1970s. The paradox leaves my mind unsolved.

                Comment by evgeny — February 23, 2010 @ 6:56 PM | Reply

  2. Thanks for sharing this True/Slant site. I feel more irrelevant with every new great Russia blog I discover.

    Comment by No Plans for the Moon — February 23, 2010 @ 1:33 PM | Reply

  3. Being an editor at Robert Amsterdam’s blog, I think you could expect me to voice my usual rejections of many of Adomanis’s arguments, protest his breezy lack of facts or figures, and help widen the divide in the debate which probably has you placing me among “the hysterical Russia fear-mongering media noise machine foaming at the mouth with Schadenfreude.”

    But the truth is that Satarov makes for an irresistible target, and I don’t like his line of argument very much either. If you and Adomanis didn’t like this one line from this one article which suggests a different portrayal of a past decade, and therefore defines the baffling ignorance of the entire opposition to Putinism, than you should do more reading of Satarov – such as his book “The Consolidation of Dictatorship in Russia” – you would find a hell of lot more ridiculous statements to complain about. There is some really loony stuff in that book, along with some more convincing questions.

    But the discussion seems tired and out of fashion. Of course Satarov defends everything in the Yeltsin administration as golden (duh), because he was his chief adviser for three years and therefore played a major role in the decision making process. However making him the one and only face of Russian liberalism is like equating everyone who disagrees with me to Stalin – it’s like a reverse La Russophobe. Besides, I am sure Satarov earned your applause when he publicly broke from Kasparov, another political grifter along the lines of Sarah Palin or John Edwards. Oddly both these guys do more for the health of Russia’s democratic competition (let’s all try not to laugh) than Mironov or other fake opposition figures created by Surkov.

    The thing here is a debate about the causes and consequences of the economic crisis of the 1990s, which I do not think anybody can debate the deplorable human damage it caused. It is central to the Surkovian narrative to always focus on the chaos and violence as a by-product of democratic freedoms and political competition … instead of perhaps, oh, the complications of undoing the entirely screwed up control economy of the Soviet Union. Did anybody think that it wouldn’t be a total disaster to make the transition? Is there a blueprint somewhere which outlines the textbook steps of how to take a communist country to a market economy? Do you really think that the exact same result would not have happened if Russia were ruled by a Putin-like dictator during the 1990s? Or that the economic growth over the past decade would not have happened under a democratic system? Oil prices don’t give a damn about voting rights and constitutionalism.

    All the problems and perceptions which Satarov is only too willing to unwittingly help make clear is the basis of the logic for a power grab – recruiting along the way a new class of apparatchiks who are genuinely convinced that dead journalists and lawyers, state censored TV, and no elections is the acceptable cost for gleaming Prada stores in Moscow and restored pride in the power of the state. Russian people have a better life when economic conditions permit – and things can suck at anytime, whether we are talking about the 70s, 90s, or even, yes, 2010. Whether the country is more democratic or liberal at the time or more iron fisted at another, it’s largely coincidental … but at least under the overly unregulated (yes, that’s what I think) Yeltsin period we were allowed to watch Kukly.

    There is no time in Russia’s past or present that one can declare to be 100% awful or 100% terrific, and I think we are cheating ourselves out of a better debate when we succumb to such comforting dualities.

    Comment by James — February 24, 2010 @ 11:16 AM | Reply

    • Yes, moral absolutes are designed to comfort people, not answer tough questions. You’ve also got a defensible point about the inevitability of hard times in any post-Soviet transition.

      That said, you reasonably acknowledge that Yeltsin and Putin represent different trade-offs: “more democratic but overly unregulated” vs. “more iron-fisted but restored pride.” It seems to me that that only thing you’re excluding here is the ‘stability thesis’ usually cited as the payoff for Putin, though you do agree that the government failed to properly assert itself under Yeltsin.

      So now Russian journalists die because they offend powerful state figures, instead of powerful oligarchic figures; television is the project of the Kremlin instead of the pet of competing moguls; and elections are fixed by party, instead of traded for the economic commanding heights.

      Is that a gray enough picture? Have we successfully abandoned all comforts?

      P.S., I think you’re still “allowed” to watch Kukly. NTV just “decided” not to produce any new episodes.

      Comment by No Plans for the Moon — February 24, 2010 @ 11:44 AM | Reply

    • James,

      First, let me thank you for your thought-provoking, substantial comments. This is precisely the kind of discussion/debate I enjoy and find productive. I’m not out to tell anyone what to think; the truth is … I don’t know the truth.

      Second, let me be clear that I actually do not consider RA or its editors part of the “hysterical Russia fear-mongering media noise machine…” (though you’d disagree with my reasons why). In fact, I am a fan, and consider your blog an asset. And I say that all even though you don’t even put me on your blogroll.

      Now, to the meat:

      Adomanis did in fact provide some facts and figures. Moreover, from what I know, he’s got more where those came from…

      I hope no one reading this is under the illusion that Satarov singularly represents the entire opposition or even the entire segment of the opposition who are self-described liberal democrats. He is an example. Is it fair to condemn the Republican party solely on the madness of Sarah Palin? No. But she is symptomatic of their internal identity crisis.

      More importantly, my issues with Satarov’s logic are the same issues I’ve expressed with those Shevtsova, Kasparov, etc. Frankly, it is not Satarov or Kasparov etc. I have a problem with. It’s their overwhelming myopia and elitism. And even these complaints do not apply to all the opposition.

      “Oddly both these guys do more for the health of Russia’s democratic competition (let’s all try not to laugh) than Mironov or other fake opposition figures created by Surkov.”

      By your own standards, you’ve set that bar low. But I think that is also a rather limited understanding of “democratic competition.” Dissent, freedom of speech, etc. are positively integral to a healthy democracy, its heart and soul. But a beating heart alone can’t actually accomplish anything without a brain. And democratic competition requires one of those. Also, do I really have to run through my list of concerns about the democratic ideals espoused by the more vocal liberals? Even I am bored by it…

      “Did anybody think that it wouldn’t be a total disaster to make the transition? Is there a blueprint somewhere which outlines the textbook steps of how to take a communist country to a market economy?”

      If this is about Admoanis’ article, he explicitly acknowledges this.

      “Do you really think that the exact same result would not have happened if Russia were ruled by a Putin-like dictator during the 1990s? Or that the economic growth over the past decade would not have happened under a democratic system?”

      Who knows? We don’t have a way-back machine, and you can’t win an argument about hypotheticals. Why not focus on what did happen, who actually was in charge? Reality? I have no patience for the argument that all of the positive things that have happened over the past decade had nothing to do with Putin’s decision making. If the buck stops with him when there are negative developments, it stops with him when there are positive ones. Period. This idea that all of the terrorist attacks and murders and imprisonments and corporate fiascoes over the past decade were personally engineered by one man at the top while the improved standard of living, lowered crime rate, more stable economy -all things the government is actually responsible for- happened on its own, magically, is bullshit. It’s just astonishingly without objectivity or understanding of government.

      “but at least under the overly unregulated (yes, that’s what I think) Yeltsin period we were allowed to watch Kukly.”

      I’m all for Kukly. Nothing against Kukly. Yet, I suspect I am not alone in preferring things like having my wages being paid on time, having my savings not stolen, being able to make a few plans for my future on the assumption the whole economy won’t collapse next week, being able to run a small enterprise without paying protection or risk being murdered, having income options beyond selling my last belongings or my body on the street … to having Kukly.

      The brother of the woman I lived with was murdered in 1995. I’d rather have him than Kukly. That’s just my personal opinion. I consider freedom from destitution and fear as important as freedom to watch puppets and freedom to prey on investors. I would have more respect for the liberal opposition is they simply acknowledged this.

      Comment by poemless — February 24, 2010 @ 12:48 PM | Reply

      • “I would have more respect for the liberal opposition is they simply acknowledged this.”

        It doesn’t sound like this generation of liberals are capable of doing that. It’ll probably take another 10 years or so before there’s a new batch of folks willing to look backwards and admit some of the errors before they they can even start coming up with answers to run modern Russia.

        I keep thinking of American liberals I ran into in the 1980s who kept yapping about the 1960s and how they had all the ideals and all the right ideas to change the world — never mind that because of how they tried to implement some of their ideas (i.e., vilifying veterans returning from a war they opposed and letting the welfare state emerge without New Deal-style discipline) — who were eternally mystified about how they could keep losing to “the bad guys” like Nixon and Reagan in the face of how “Right!” (that is, correct) they were. They never realized that they pissed off the electorate with their extremism and never figured that out, and they couldn’t be convinced otherwise. So they basically had to get old and lose their power before a new generation of liberals arose to at least try to dig out of that hole.* Old habits and philosophies don’t die.

        *And yes, I fully realize the fight isn’t anywhere close to being over (or even won) for American-liberalism. Different discussion, except to show just how deep the hole is for Russia. And America, come to think of it …

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — February 24, 2010 @ 1:28 PM | Reply

      • I’m in the middle of a move over here, so I’ll have to get back to this point by point a bit later on.

        A couple random thoughts … Isn’t it weird to mourn the silencing of the eXile, while at the same time endorsing an attack against the (somewhat earned) ineptitude of those who are fighting against the Kremlin’s censorship?

        “Adomanis did in fact provide some facts and figures.”

        Actually, he writes, “Laughable because every social and macroeconomic indicator, literally every single one of them, declined rapidly during the 1990’s and has gotten significantly better since Putin came to power.”

        Yes, later he cites a drop in social spending, and the 60% contraction in the economy, and then throws out in the 7% growth rate and the doubling of real wages from 2000 going forward (maybe leaving out 2008-2009). But all, “literally every single one of them”? I am just wary of such absolutism. Further, I just wish he could do more to show that these things improved because of policies undertaken by Putin, instead of just the natural by-product of the highest sustained oil prices the world has ever experienced.

        Above, you have this line. “The brother of the woman I lived with was murdered in 1995. I’d rather have him than Kukly.”

        Again, I would argue that this is the false trade off. I am not sure that Putinism has succeeded in improving corruption, violence, law enforcement, and rule of law.

        Comment by James — February 24, 2010 @ 1:51 PM | Reply

        • “Isn’t it weird to mourn the silencing of the eXile, while at the same time endorsing an attack against the (somewhat earned) ineptitude of those who are fighting against the Kremlin’s censorship?”

          Is it? I’ve never claimed I’m not weird… I guess while I miss the genius of Ames and Taibbi, it was a guilty pleasure, and I don’t think the fate of an entire country rests on their freedom to publish vulgarities and pornography. But you are absolutely right about Kukly: a false trade off indeed.

          BTW, I don’t think I said anything about corruption…

          Comment by poemless — February 24, 2010 @ 2:59 PM | Reply

  4. James,

    You wrote:

    “Did anybody think that it wouldn’t be a total disaster to make the transition? Is there a blueprint somewhere which outlines the textbook steps of how to take a communist country to a market economy?”

    I certainly don’t know of anyone who thinks any of that, or at least anyone who’s opinion I take seriously. How glad I am, then, that I never said any of this. What I said was the following:

    “I can understand, and even conjure some sympathy for, an argument of the sort proffered by Anders Aslund: that Yeltsin and his advisers did all of the unpopular heavy lifting and structural reorganization and Putin, through no particular effort of his own, inherited an economy that had bottomed out and was ready to blossom.”

    How could I make this any more clear? Should I have used all caps? Did I say anywhere that, had Putin been in charge starting in 1991, that everything would have been hunkey-dorey? No of course not, I never said anything of the kind.

    I do, however, vehemently contest the following:
    “Do you really think that the exact same result would not have happened if Russia were ruled by a Putin-like dictator during the 1990s?”

    This, to put it bluntly, is idiotic. Russia woudl have had the “exact same” economic results if it were formally a dictatorship during the 1990’s? Do you honestly think that? If you want to advance such a comically crude version of structuralism, far be it from me to argue with you. But I absolutely think (and I know that I’m not alone in this opinion) that the drunkenness of Yeltsin and the fecklessness and naivite of his political advisers played significant roles in Russia’s disastrous transition to a free market.

    Now, would things have been “bad” regardless of who was in charge? Yes, they would have, but as should be obvious to anyone who has finished elementary school there are greatly differing degrees of “badness” and I think that, given vaguely competant leadership, Russia could have done a much better job managing its economic transition. I hardly think this puts me outside the pale.

    Comment by Mark Adomanis — February 24, 2010 @ 11:48 AM | Reply

    • Mark I will have you know that I did indeed complete elementary school, and even secondary school! OK, well, GED equivalent, but don’t hold that against me.

      Comment by James — February 24, 2010 @ 2:36 PM | Reply

  5. “Besides, I am sure Satarov earned your applause when he publicly broke from Kasparov, another political grifter along the lines of Sarah Palin or John Edwards. Oddly both these guys do more for the health of Russia’s democratic competition (let’s all try not to laugh) than Mironov or other fake opposition figures created by Surkov.”

    Now if only ‘democratic competition’ was the most important thing for a people.

    “The thing here is a debate about the causes and consequences of the economic crisis of the 1990s, which I do not think anybody can debate the deplorable human damage it caused. It is central to the Surkovian narrative to always focus on the chaos and violence as a by-product of democratic freedoms and political competition … instead of perhaps, oh, the complications of undoing the entirely screwed up control economy of the Soviet Union.”

    Without question, but don’t stop there.

    “Did anybody think that it wouldn’t be a total disaster to make the transition?”

    Yes, actually.

    “Is there a blueprint somewhere which outlines the textbook steps of how to take a communist country to a market economy?”

    At the time, there was the ‘Washington Consensus’, deviation from which was gravely frowned upon.

    In actuality, there wasn’t. Which is a very good reason for approaching the problem with great respect, making careful observations of the effects the new policies are having, and being willing to alter them as a result of feedback from the mentioned careful observations. None of which happened. By early 1994, Nicholas Eberstadt was informing us that Russian death rates were sharply higher even for people in their 30s, to say nothing of older age groups. The ‘Washington Consensus’ response? ‘More reform! Faster!’

    “Do you really think that the exact same result would not have happened if Russia were ruled by a Putin-like dictator during the 1990s?”

    Putin is no dictator. A Putin-like leader in the 1990s would not have done “loans for shares”, thus giving away the State’s source of revenues for a pittance, and that pittance often loaned to the Oligarch in question by the State itself.

    “Or that the economic growth over the past decade would not have happened under a democratic system?”

    Under the comprador Yeltsinian system, the 0.6 terabucks Medvedev/Putin started the crisis with would have been left in the hands of various Oligarchs, and would have been utterly pissed away by them as the foundation of further leverage at the rate of ~30-1. Under those circumstances, the demographic improvements referenced in the article you are so critical of would not have manifested themselves, and Russia would still be in the demographic death spiral Steyn was babbling so erroneously about.

    But at least your tender political sensibilities would not have been outraged. That’s something, I suppose.

    “Oil prices don’t give a damn about voting rights and constitutionalism.”

    Indeed. However, the use of the proceeds would have been entirely different in the two cases, and not in a way that would have reflected credit on ‘voting rights’. As to constitutionalism, Putin and Medvedev have used the vast unchecked powers given the president in the constitution Boris wrote with great sobriety, skill, and with restraint. There was nothing sober, skilful, or restrained about Boris’ exercise of them. Those powers do remain excessive and unchecked. Not all future ‘tsars’ will be as sober, skilful, and restrained in the exercise of vast unchecked power as Vladimir and Dimitrii have been.

    “All the problems and perceptions which Satarov is only too willing to unwittingly help make clear is the basis of the logic for a power grab –”

    Indeed. And the best response to power being in such reckless hands as his sort is to grab it away as fast as possible, and keep it as far away as possible, for as long as possible, from the likes of those who had so badly bungled their exercise of it.

    “There is no time in Russia’s past or present that one can declare to be 100% awful or 100% terrific, and I think we are cheating ourselves out of a better debate when we succumb to such comforting dualities.”

    Indeed, though given the failure to maintain conditions adequate for the maintenance and perpetuation of human life in Russia, in a time of peace, the 1990s do come close to being terribly near the “100% awful” end. Even the 1930s endowed the Russian people with an undeniably vital asset, the powerful heavy/military industrial complex that more than anything else prevented their extermination at Hitler’s hands. Nothing remotely as valuable was produced for Russians during the 1990s, though the demographic sacrifice was of a similar order of magnitude.

    Comment by rkka — February 24, 2010 @ 5:18 PM | Reply

  6. Interesting debate here even if it is over old territory. 1990s vs. 2000s. Yeltsin vs. Putin. Praise for the one means denouncing the other. The reality is that both systems are shit for the majority of Russians who live outside of the fantasy land of Moscow. Instead of Yeltsin’s oligarchs, Russia gets Putin’s. I have to agree with rkka in that at least Putin’s system has given Russians something to believe in even if it is wholly immaterial, and in the end a fantasy. The belief that there will be palaces on Monday is better than not believing in palaces at all.

    I think, as Mark Adomanis suggests, is that people should embrace Kotkin’s thesis that the 1990s is more about continued collapse. I’ve started to view the 1920s as something similar which makes the Stalin and Putin eras periods of restoration.

    Apropos to no one’s specific comments, I find all of this talk of democracy telling simply because it tends to reflect Westerners’ and in this case Americans’ notion as if their conception is universal. It’s not, of course and to evaluate Russia’s democracy (whether in the 1990s or in the 2000s) by it is essentially a replay of the narcissistic game that Russians will be good/civilized/modernized when they are like us. Ironically, it is also a game the Russian elite has bought into . . .

    Frankly, what is most interesting about the democracy debate is that both sides–the Putinists and the “democratic opposition” deploy it. The question seems to me is not who is and isn’t democratic, but what does democracy mean in the Russian context? Here I can’t help suggesting people look at the post-1905 period of Russian history because my observations of both the rhetoric and symbolism suggest a much more imperial tone.

    On this it is interesting what one finds in Russian academic books stores (and what I can gather by looking over people’s shoulders at the library). Topics seem to fall into two categories: 1) the deluge of blood shed under Stalin and Stalinism; 2) the Tsarist constitutionalism embodied by Stolypin, Witte, etc. It is interesting that these two poles reflect the political spectrum of Russian politics under debate here. (One should note that this politics is only that of the elite. The mass of Russians are a mixture of nationalist-paternalism and outright skepticism of the elite).

    My opinion is this. In Russia, democracy functions as an idiom. It is what the opposition uses to bash the government; it is what the government uses to shore up their legitimacy and hold up as a future goal (one must recognize that even the Putinists admit their democracy is not perfect.) In Russia, democracy, it seems to me is about two things: power and “modernization”.

    The last term has given me the most trouble in understanding. As many know, it is all the rage, yet for the life of me don’t really know what it is or means except that Russia has been modernizing since the 16th century. Is there any end in sight? And if so what is it?

    Comment by Sean — February 26, 2010 @ 2:48 AM | Reply

    • “Interesting debate here even if it is over old territory. 1990s vs. 2000s. Yeltsin vs. Putin. Praise for the one means denouncing the other.”

      Actually many of the comments have acknowledged the shortcomings of both. And as Mark suggested in his article, and I reiterated, a condemnation of Yeltsin’s policies does not need to be a blanket endorsement of Putin’s. Why does observing degrees of economic improvement automatically put people in opposing camps?

      “at least Putin’s system has given Russians something to believe in even if it is wholly immaterial, and in the end a fantasy. The belief that there will be palaces on Monday is better than not believing in palaces at all.”

      1. Improvements during Putin’s regime were not entirely fantasy. I think rkka makes a valid point about the real -however inadequate or elusive- gains resulting from the State capture of revenue and how those revenues were invested/distributed in a way that average people could see and benefit from. Having wages and pensions paid on time do as much if not more for social stability than pretty stories. I think it’s just as easy for us as it is for the Latyninas of the world to get caught up in debates about ideology and forget that government, and citizen’s expectations of it, is largely about mundane things like making sure wages are paid and trains run on time. While I’ve met a lot of Russians with some keerazy ideas, they do seem perfectly capable of, even inclined toward, a healthy suspicion of their leaders. I think they are more likely to base their faith in government on tangible results rather than fairytales. It may be insulting to suggest otherwise.

      2. All that said, it is also incumbent upon leaders to make sure people have faith in their country. Not as a way to divert attention from real problems, but because nations and currencies rely on people to have faith in them, as there are no natural laws ensuring their existence.

      “Americans’ notion as if their conception is universal.”

      I’m confused. First you said you were not referring to anyone’s comments in particular, then you say, “in this case.” In this case the article in question was a rebuttal to Satarov. This entire conversation was sparked by a Russian’s conception of democracy…

      “The question seems to me is not who is and isn’t democratic, but what does democracy mean in the Russian context?”

      I totally agree that the question is not who is and isn’t democratic, but I personally wonder what it means -if anything at this point- in any context. It seems to be a label used to slap a seal of approval on an argument without having to actually prove why what you are arguing for is beneficial to anyone but yourself. Which is to say, it functions as an idiom in Russia because it functions as an idiom everywhere. I think it is just done more crudely and cynically in Russia.

      “As many know, it is all the rage, yet for the life of me don’t really know what it is or means except that Russia has been modernizing since the 16th century.”

      I think it means investing in technology so the economy is not forever dependent of on a limited supply of a product beneath the ground and to do something about Russia’s image as “backward.”

      Comment by poemless — February 26, 2010 @ 11:39 AM | Reply

      • I think it means investing in technology so the economy is not forever dependent of on a limited supply of a product beneath the ground and to do something about Russia’s image as “backward.”

        Russia has a symptom of “backwardness” in every historical period. First it was not having a modern enlightened bureaucracy, then it was serfdom, then it was an mostly agrarian economy, then it was absolutism, then it was the peasantry, then it was no industrialization, then it was Communism, now its oil, and on and on and on. It all makes me wonder: is the problem Russia or the concept of modernity itself?

        Which reminds me. There is a book that might shed light on this issue of Russia and backwardness: Esther Kingston-Mann, In Search of the True West: Culture, Economics and Problems of Russian Development (Princeton, 1999).

        Comment by Sean — February 26, 2010 @ 2:17 PM | Reply

  7. “…at least Putin’s system has given Russians something to believe in even if it is wholly immaterial, and in the end a fantasy. The belief that there will be palaces on Monday is better than not believing in palaces at all.”

    As I see it, Putin’s key accomplishment was breaking the independent political power of the Oligarchs, and forcing them to submit to the State taxing the energy windfall out of their hands. They would have done nothing good with it, as seen by how they leveraged the vast wealth remaining in their hands. This persuaded Russians, the sort ignored by the various Liberals who find their main support in Western op-ed pages, that the government was acting in some small way in their interests too. The revenues derived from this have also been spread more broadly than before, so Russians, with Putin’s example of sobriety and athleticism before them, see little things like steady jobs as a feasable prospect, and so are slowly crawling out of the bottle.

    Comment by rkka — February 26, 2010 @ 5:56 AM | Reply

    • I agree with all of this too. Breaking the oligarchs was absolutely essential. I would add so was subordinating the provincial elite, which is why I think too much has been made of the getting rid of governor elections. Even Stalin couldn’t control the machinations of his obkom secretaries (which is why I think is one of the many reasons he had so many of them shot). Rooting out or breaking semeistvennost and mestnichestvo is a longstanding historical problem.

      Comment by Sean — February 26, 2010 @ 8:08 AM | Reply

    • Agreed.

      Comment by poemless — February 26, 2010 @ 11:39 AM | Reply

  8. […] & the Uselessness of Moral Calculus An extremely amusing discussion popped up on poemless’ blog the other week. One of Robert Amsterdam’s editors dropped […]

    Pingback by Russia & the Uselessness of Moral Calculus « A Good Treaty — March 3, 2010 @ 11:27 PM | Reply

  9. […] & the Pitfalls of Moral Calculus An extremely amusing discussion popped up on poemless’ blog the other week. One of Robert Amsterdam’s editors dropped […]

    Pingback by Russia & the Pitfalls of Moral Calculus « A Good Treaty — March 3, 2010 @ 11:30 PM | Reply

  10. […] up on poemless’ blog the other week. One of Robert Amsterdam’s editors dropped in to make a few specific points about Georgy Satarov, the former Yeltsin crony and a recent dabbler in the Other Russia movement. […]

    Pingback by Russia & the Pitfalls of Moral Calculus « A Good Treaty — March 3, 2010 @ 11:31 PM | Reply


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