A Tragedy of Errors
On "The Political Economy of Post-Soviet Russia"
By: Vladimir Tikhomirov

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Written: August, 2000

"The philosophers have only  interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however,  is to change it."
Karl Marx

I remember the day in August 1998 when Russia ended its transition. As I walked to work, dwarfed by the decaying monumental buildings and potholed spacious avenues, I saw Russians gathering around exchange offices and banks. As opposed to (Western) media images, there was no violence in the air, just the quiet, matter of fact acceptance that is the hallmark of the Russian. Store shelves were stripped bare and for weeks I survived on stale bread and spaghetti. Peasants streamed into Moscow and sold fresh though exiguous produce in metro stations, flanked by improvised trinket stalls. The city's facade of ostentatious consumption and Byzantine delinquency crumbled overnight. It was the end of something - but no one knew exactly of what.

Vladimir Tikhomirov's recently published "The Political Economy of Post-Soviet Russia" (MacMillan Press, London, 2000) is a minute (though never tedious) chronology and phenomenology of the Reform Movement in Russia after communism. It is an exquisite obituary of the Russia that could have been and an indictment of the Russia that is and was. Dozens of detailed and thought provoking tables and graphs support observations that are never trite (though often familiar). It is a good tome of historiography.

But it lacks a historiosophic element. It offers no exegesis, either explicit or implicit (through the ordering of events, for instance). In other words, it is not out to prove a thesis or a theory and it provides no paradigmatic platform. In the absence of these crucial elements of good history-writing - the book is reduced to the meticulous annals of the rise and fall of a dream. These shortcomings are somewhat ameliorated in Chapter 6 "The Dynamics of Political Change" where the author endeavours to present a coherent framework of trend analysis. Still, despite the profusion of economic content in the book, the author seems to me to be more at ease with matters political. Thus, the "economy" in "political economy" never enjoys the closure it deserves.

The author does not approve of the hasty and insouciant manner in which shock therapy was applied to the already spasmodic body of Russia. He rightly observes that Russian "capitalism" was the continuation of Soviet policy (he refrains from using the label "communist") by other means. The features of authoritarianism, a privileged nomenklatura, an artificial economic model, the disillusionment and alienation of the electorate - all survived the proclaimed demise of communism. Capitalism simply replaced communism as a state religion. To these were added ills unknown under the Soviet yoke. Russia fragmented  - regions against the centre. Impoverished by ever decreasing tax revenues, the state abandoned major industries to their dwindling fate. Private monopolies replaced state ones. The social safety net frayed and social cohesion vanished. According to Tikhomirov, the reformed Russia has nightmarishly mutated into a malignant form of its Soviet predecessor.

Tikhomirov disputes the inevitability of such an outcome. While acknowledging the decrepitude and decomposition of the Soviet carcass - he would have advocated gradualism in putting it to rest. He rejects the notion that results are more important than the means employed to secure them. And he places the blame squarely on the reformists, who should have known better. As an example, he analyses the overnight abolition of price controls by the reformists and its disastrous effect on a monopoly-bound, competition-less economy.

Still, many things are disregarded or glossed over. A Russian paranoid would probably have read a lot into these omissions. The all-pervasive, pernicious and deleterious criminality of Russia merits only a perfunctory mention in the book. Arguably, the annals of Russian crime post Soviet times would make an adequate history of Russia itself as well. To relegate it to the footnotes is a curious choice, to use an understatement. Another neglected factor is the foreign experts. Perhaps understandably so, as Mr. Tikhomirov is the Deputy Director of the Contemporary Europe Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. But these experts were always a part of the problem and never its solution. The more benign among their ranks regarded Russia as an experimental wonderland - the less scrupulous as an Eldorado. They colluded and obfuscated as much as any reformist has ever done. A third glaring oversight has to do with the motivation of the reformists. With very few exceptions, they were out to enrich themselves by all means fair and foul. The kin and kith of Chubais and the Chubais-like were as ruthless and iniquitous as any Russian gangster. A lot can be explained by attributing the worst intentions to this lot. The haste in privatizing state assets and lifting price controls afforded them with the touch of a Midas and the wealth of a Croesus. A mobsters' pact of divvying up the territory led to the rising political fortunes of the regions. The illicit nature of the ruling classes is the parsimonious explanation to recent Russian chronicles.

The most gratifying part of the book is the aforementioned chapter 6. It contains a model of transition and traces the roots of failure of past reforms to the dual demands of political as well as economic change. It did not prove possible to satisfy both, suggests Tikhomirov, hence the dismal outcomes of "nomenklatura revolutions". Tikhomirov proceeds to offer illuminating analyses of Russian regional separatism ("Fragmentation"), the presidency, Russian politics ("the Potemkin villages of nominally democratic and elected institutions") and Russian nationalism.

And his conclusion (page 331):

"Contrary to some recent observations, this study suggests that there is a strong and direct interrelation between economic and political developments in post-Soviet Russia. The spread of economic crisis has played a crucial role in polarization and radicalization of the Russian political life. In turn, the weaker the Russian economy was, the more dependent it became on the outcome of political developments. Political favouritism was gradually replacing a sound economic strategy, the same way as since 1993 the future of a multiparty democracy in Russia fell more into the shadows of the Russian imperial authoritarianism. Given recent changes in political attitudes of the Russian population, it can be stated that by the end of 1998 Russia was even further away from achieving its initial reform objectives than it was at the very start of reform in 1992."

This book could use some editing and it stops short of dealing with Yeltsin's legacy and Putin's ascendance. But it is a rewarding and eye-opening read, replete with well-researched data and academic acumen. Writing about Russia requires the eloquence of Churchill and the erudition of a Gibbon. As long as these two gentlemen are indisposed - I recommend to buy Mr. Tikhomirov's opus.

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