Who Do You Want to Blame?
This Russia Today video clip asks: what can the Russian government do to promote Russians having families again?
Thomas P.M. Barnett is an influential author and consultant who gets paid to present his theories about global politics to high ranking military officers and corporate executives around the world. He is also a former Sovietologist who was educated by the U.S. Navy to analyze what the Kremlin was up to during the 1980s. This is why a recent post Barnett wrote on his blog caught my eye.
In a post on June 20, 2007 ("A Good Sign for Russia's Political Future") Barnett wrote about the former world champion chess player and Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov:
"I don't expect Kasparov to dislodge Putin's crowned successor, but the sheer reality that he's been able to unite the opposition is a modest step forward. When this evolution moves into something more recognizable as rough pluralism, Russia's establishment and its opposition will move beyond the dregs/stars of the Soviet system, or the last generation of KGB versus the last generation of celebrities/poseurs."
Garry Kasparov's Other Russia has attracted a lot of press but very few votes
Barnett is correct to describe Kasparov's appeal as consisting more of Astroturf than grassroots support. Although Kasparov writes frequently for The Wall Street Journal and previously served on the board of an American think tank in Washington, D.C., when he is actually remembered in his homeland it is for his chess career, not for his politics.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky admitted funding Kasparov's coalition, prompting Other Russia spokesmen to deny ever having taken money from him. Mr. Berezovsky added that he would no longer fund Other Russia because it had proven to be ineffective.
National Bolsheviks selling the ultranationalist tabloid Limonka - this word is literally translated as "lemon", which is Russian slang for "hand grenade". In 1996, a Russian judge ruled against the paper for inciting ethnic hatred and violence, declaring that "in essence, E. V. Limonov (Savenko) is an advocate of revenge and mass terror, raised to the level of state policy."
During his recent visit to Moscow, Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman found that Novaya Gazeta and other newspapers critical of the Kremlin were sold out at the newsstands he visited. Clearly, many Russians are willing to support an effective "loyal opposition" -- but they also can see right through Kasparov, the neo-fascist (and frequently anti-Semitic) poet Eduard Limonov, and other "celebrity poseurs". It is very difficult to take Kasparov seriously when he marches with Limonov's small but noisy group of supporters waving banners modelled on the Nazi flag with a hammer and sickle in place of the swastika.
The real interesting discussion began with a comment by Barnett that one of his readers found disturbing:
"Putin, in retrenching from the wild days of Gorby's political unraveling of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin's economic unraveling of the centrally-planned economy, has provided that [stability] and only that, but it's enough for now."
"Yes, the country is full of old farts who'll tell you it's all been a disaster, but the harsh truth is those were old dogs whose only new trick learned has been to drink themselves into early graves rather than change. Don't mourn them or the system. It was a journey well worth enabling."
To this, an anonymous reader responded::
"Um, Tom? The sharply higher death rates reach into people in their thirties. It's not just 'old farts' who have paid the price of 'reform' with their lives. Couple that with birth rates dropping to a bit more than half their 1992 level by the time Putin took over, and you have a demographic catastrophe that exceeds Stalinism and approaches WWII."
"That's what you're brushing off here, and our refusal to realize and acknowledge what 'reform' has really meant will poison US-Russian relations for years.
Thomas P.M. Barnett (left) is the author of the bestselling books The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the 21st Century and Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating
Barnett's response to this pointed criticism was swift and direct:
Your one-note is acknowledged, but comparisons to Stalinism and WWII are just plain indefensible and display a stunning ignorance of history...
Blaming Russia's bottoming-out (with the rebound already begun) on "reforms" is simplistic in the extreme.
The Soviet Union was long shielded from markets and liability. When Russia was suddenly thrust into that world, the country found that much of what it owned was useless, much of what it made was useless, and much of what it knew was useless. Decades of pushing pregnancies yielded to a demographic decline by volition. Comparing that to the tens of millions killed by Hitler or Stalin is nonsense.
What caused Russia's collapse was 70 years of socialism, not reforms, which merely pulled the curtain back on that vast human tragedy...socialism was a huge menace to life, liberty, happiness, and wealth in the USSR, just like it was everywhere else.
Russia's population now heads toward a number it can sustain rather than one artificially manufactured by the state. That is not a tragedy. It is a reality Russia imposed on itself.
I would tend to agree with Barnett on his main arguments - the roots of Russia's present problems can indeed be found in the Soviet era, and there is no serious comparison between Russia's ongoing population decline and the genocidal policies of Stalin and Hitler. Nonetheless, the debate over the future of Russia and the consequences of a smaller and older Russian population is worth having, both inside the country and in the West.
In spite of his very strong credentials as a historian of the Soviet Union, Barnett seems off-base on just one point he makes: the Soviets did not "artificially manufacture" a larger population than Russia could sustain. In spite of providing "free" health care and kindergartens, the Soviets mostly promoted policies that discouraged population growth (especially in the system's failure to build enough housing, still reflected in sky high real estate prices in Russian cities today). The only period when the State encouraged Soviet women to have babies was during the 1930s and in the immediate aftermath of World War II (some people argue that the continuing preponderance of women over men in Russia, especially among Russians over age 40, is a demographic legacy of the war).
Russian womanhood has, quite literally, been scarred by the country's extraordinary popular reliance on abortion as a primary means of contraception--with the abortions in question conducted under the less-than-exemplary standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine. A Russian woman nowadays can expect to have more abortions than births over the course of her child-bearing years. In 1988, at the end of the Soviet era, Russian women underwent an officially tabulated 4.6 million abortions--two for every live birth. In 2002, the country officially reported 1.7 million abortions--over 120 for every 100 live births.
Graph depicting Russia's projected population decline over the next forty years
I tend to agree with Barnett that no Chinese-style "soft landing" was possible for the Soviet system, and it is questionable whether China will be able to fully integrate into the global economy before it suffers major internal upheaval. Even if we accept these facts, it makes no sense to idealize the chaotic 1990s as an era of freedom compared to the supposedly repressive Putin years.
The hamfisted Eastern European deregulations that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union taught development economists something very important: the invisible hand is not only hard to see, but hard to find. Capitalism, it turns out, relies on an invisible web of trust, institutional practice, and cultural capital in the form of tacit knowledge and norms about market transactions. These don't simply blossom overnight once you remove the legal obstacles to implementing free markets. Rather, like any exotic bloom, they must be carefully nurtured in fertile soil.
That is a quote from The Economist (a magazine not known for being Putin's biggest fan) which is relevant to Russia's "shock therapy" experiment in the Nineties.
To Mr. Barnett's credit, he pushes against the Wall Street Journal/Washington Post Beltway conventional wisdom on Russia, citing the Putin Administration's achievement of stabilizing the Russian economy. Barnett also recognizes that Putin is a transitional figure, and his government does not represent the final state of Russia's political development.
When we hear Putin quoted as saying that "the collapse of the Soviet Union was a human tragedy", we can still recognize why the Russian President made this widely misunderstood remark. The Soviet system was an unsustainable, hollowed out shell, held together by a bankrupt ideology and failing oil revenues. But its overnight collapse undeniably led to massive dislocation and hardship for millions of people. Some "New Russians" did very well, while others could not cope with the adrupt end to their jobs, their pensions, and in many cases, of their whole communities. Suicide became the way out for some, either by quick methods or through the more slow paths of drugs and alcohol, while others who could went abroad or turned to crime.
Russia's recent windfall from higher world oil prices, far from promoting complacency, has revived the discussion among Russian elites about the country's excessive dependence on oil and gas exports in the late Soviet era. Both Boris Yeltsin's former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Putin's Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin have argued that Russia must diversify its economy away from exporting raw materials. This desire not to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet past has led the current leadership to promote diversification, and setting up tax incentives to shift domestic and foreign investment away from energy to the consumer and high-technology sectors. It has also insured that Russia will never again try to compete with the West in an arms race.
Memories of the disastrous collapse of the ruble and the Russian banking system in 1998 also spurred the Putin Administration to create a large stabilization fund as a hedge against declining oil prices. Russia now has the third largest foreign currency reserves in the world, trailing only China and Japan - both of whom primarily hold American dollars - whiile Russians split their holdings between dollar and euro-denominated assets. The recent slide of the dollar, however, has led to the Russian Central Bank to buy more euros, even as the Russian public gradually switches back to rubles.
The Putin Administration also succeeded where Yeltsin's government failed, by pushing private land reform through the Duma, along with a 13% flat tax. Suddenly, for the first time since 1917, Russians could use land they owned as collateral for loans, unlocking what the Peruvian free-market economist Hernando de Soto has called "the mystery of capital" - that is, turning assets owned by the people into liquidity. This has led to the beginnings of a mortgage market in Russia. With the simplification of the tax code and the abolition of the rapacious tax police, Russians have also started regularly paying taxes, providing steady revenues for Putin's government that Yeltsin could never count on. Whereas in 1996 the Communist Party could thwart Yeltsin's free market reforms at every turn, today the CP in Russia is a shadow of what it was ten years ago.
When one separates this economic record out from the hype, Russia appears to be closer to achieving a market economy based on the rule of law than it was in the oligarchic Nineties. The much ballyhooed Russian "national champions" in energy, aerospace and metals are the exceptions to the rule, and these companies are gradually being privatized through IPOs on Russian stock exchanges. Corruption remains a major problem at all levels, but living standards continue to improve in most Russian cities, including in Russia's less developed regions.
Furthermore, although many Russians still yearn for their country to be respected once again as a superpower, collective nostalgia for the USSR in Russia remains a mile wide and an inch deep. The distinguished Russian filmmaker Alexei Balabanov (director of the movies Brat 1 and 2, Zhmurki) spoke for most of his countrymen recently when he said that the Bolshevik Revolution was a catastrophe from which Russia has barely begun to recover. The Russian Orthodox Church promotes this view of Soviet Communism as alien system that hijacked the country for 70 years. The church has canonized the royal family of Czar Nicholas II and the Russian Orthodox priests who were murdered by the Communists as martyrs of the faith. Even older Russians' admiration for Soviet scientific achievements and the national victory over Nazi Germany cannot change their desire to recall the best from the past while leaving the worst behind.
Total depravity - Alexei Balabanov, the director of many popular Russian gangster movies, has now produced an ultraviolent horror movie set in the fictional Soviet town of "Leninsk" in 1984
Unlike the postwar generation of Germans, Russians today are "coming to grips" with their nation's totalitarian past without this reckoning being imposed from the outside. Russians do this by watching films like Mr. Balabanov's Gruz 200 (Cargo 200) or Fyodor Bondarchuk's 9 Rota (9th Company), reading new history books and formerly censored novels, and gaining unfettered access to the Internet. It is difficult to say that Russians were more free and had better access to news before they could go online to find out what the rest of the world was saying about their country, or what opposition newspapers with very small physical circulations have to say. When I visited Russia, I checked this out for myself - there is no Chinese or Saudi-style censorship of any political or religious sites, even of web pages glorifying the exploits of Chechen terrorists.
A map of Russia showing where people live
Here at Russia Blog, our common complaint about the Western media is not just that it unsuccessfully tries to fit today's reality into worn-out, Cold War templates, but also that it misses the big stories "out there", among the Russian people. For example, most Westerners who follow the news about Russia have heard of the celebrity white collar criminal Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- but hardly any have heard about Private Andrei Sychev, who was maimed and left for dead by his comrades in the Russian Army. Americans hear opinion columnists argue that the Kremlin should be considered guilty until proven innocent of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko (who may have been poisoned by any number of suspects, including himself), but they don't hear about the serious demographic and public health problems that could threaten Russia's future.
It has just been in the last few months that Westerners have started hearing about the tremendous economic growth in Russia, rather than what is happening to YUKOS this week. Savvy investors, of course, have profited from being on the ground in Russia for several years. Today the cognitive dissonance in the West between what the Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska called "the business page and the front page" may have reached a tipping point.
While their political problems have little to do with their views of Russia, it is interesting to note that the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Tom Lantos, is part of a Congress that is even less popular than President Bush, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the leading critic of the Kremlin among the Republican Presidential candidates, is losing campaign contributions and support to his rivals. Cold War-style rhetoric just isn't very relevant to American voters, who are rightly concerned about the war in Iraq, fixing a broken immigration system, and improving America's economic competitiveness after years of federal overregulation and overspending.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of American commentators like Thomas P.M. Barnett who are starting to recognize the New Russia. Unlike many Democrats, Mr. Barnett does not feel jilted about the fact that Putin is not Bush's drinking buddy like Boris Yeltsin was for Bill Clinton. Unlike many Republicans, Barnett does not expect Russia to welcome NATO's expansion into Ukraine.
Regardless of Mr. Barnett's occasionally brusque manner, he is right about Russia's recent hard-won prosperity providing a sound foundation for a more pluralistic Russian society. What he could have also said is that economic growth is absolutely necessary to bring hope to those Russian "old farts" drinking their lives away in the countryside -- or at least, to their children and grandchildren.