Russian Fairy Tales

If there’s one fairy tale Russia experts on both sides of the fence seem to agree on, it’s this myth of Russian endurance to hardship.  The argument goes like this: You can’t change Russia’s behavior via economic pressure because poverty was the norm for most people and therefore they’ll just weather any sanctions or economic pressure by eating homemade pickles and potatoes from the dacha gardens. All Russians have dachas, of course. I’ve written about this issue before, but on those occasions I was writing in response to a Russian author. Here’s an example of a Western author getting taken for a ride by his “patriotic” Russian host. Does the idea of eternal Russian endurance to hardship stand up to the test of history? No, it does not. Let us examine why.

First, people tend to get very tricky with timelines when they play this card. If you’re going to include 19th century Russia in this calculation, you have to remember that life in Victorian Britain and Gilded Age America was no picnic either. In fact aside from the weather, I think I’d choose living on a Russian peasant farm in the 1860’s over living in New York city or London during the same era. Country living is often over-idealized both in America and Russia, but densely populated areas during the 19th century were cauldrons of disease and violence. Here are just a few of the things you could easily experience in 19th century New York, for example:

-Massive gang riots

-Endemic corruption

-Streets lined with animal waste and garbage

-Massive traffic jams of horse-drawn carriages which often ran people over

-Trains running people over

-Thugs who robbed anyone even somewhat respectively dressed, often by immediately bludgeoning their victim unconscious

-Oversized rats that killed infants in their cribs and actually ate people who got drunk and couldn’t get up

-Food adulterated with all kinds of dangerous additives

My point here is that for a long period of time, large portions of Western populations lived under conditions which, while not always harder than Russian conditions of that day, were far harder than anything Russians have had to deal with since the Second World War, much less since 1991. As such, it is foolish to factor in earlier periods to support this myth of Russia’s history of endurance. It would also be foolish to compare an early 20th century Russian peasant to a Russian born in the 1980’s or 1990’s.

If you want to see real endurance, look at the UK and USA. If we start at the Acts of Union in the case of the former, the United Kingdom has survived roughly 308 years with more or less the same system, same flag, etc. The United States has had many reforms since its constitution was ratified in 1788, and it endured an extremely destructive Civil War, yet apart from adding new stars to the flag it has essentially remained the same country in the 227 years since that time. Neither country has had any earth-shattering revolution in centuries. Can we say the same for Russia?

Oh wait, no, we can’t, actually. Russia experienced a revolutionary terror campaign which not only led to the assassination of some important government officials, but actually took out one of the empire’s most important Tsars, Alexander II. Later there was the revolution of 1905, and finally the successful revolution of 1917. Whether you want to call it a revolution or counter-revolution, one must also count 1991 as another example of Russians not just sitting down and eating pickles, waiting for hard times to blow over. I would also say that 1917 and 1991 represent true revolutions in the sense that each totally wiped out the previous system. These are far more profound than Maidan or any “color revolutions” which merely replaced politicians while making few, if any changes to the overall system.

What of this claim that Russians are used to poverty? Well remember how in the 19th century and for about half of the 20th, millions of Russian peasants got their information from television and yet decided that the allegedly better standards of living in the West weren’t for them? Of course you don’t, because that didn’t happen. The Russian peasant and even city dweller was utterly cut off from the West if not the rest of the world. This means that once again we must strike decades of Russian history from the record if we’re going to talk about the Russian people’s history of endurance. They could not rise up and demand a better lifestyle they could not possibly fathom. Today, even in provincial Russia where people get all their information from the television, one cannot help but notice that people seem to live better in the West. If it doesn’t accidentally leak out during the news, it certainly does from reality shows, series, and movies.

Far more importantly, for nearly a quarter of a century, Russians have been able to travel and live in other parts of the globe. Many have studied foreign languages and, unlike in the Soviet era, they actually used them to communicate with people around the globe. These people know that things are different outside of Russia, even in countries that aren’t exactly doing stellar at the moment. Even those without the ability to travel to Europe or the US have at least been able to afford vacations abroad to all-inclusive resorts in Turkey, Egypt, and Bulgaria, a luxury many American families could only dream of. Then you’ve got the designer clothes, the sushi restaurants, the foreign cars, and the iPhones and assorted gadgets. If you never had any of this, you could easily go without them. It’s another story if you had all this and lost it because of some political hack’s vague political ideology.

If we take a look back at Russian history, we can see that Soviet citizens endured the most difficult hardships in the Stalin era and the Second World War, yet they broke around 1989. What was the difference? While most historians love to focus on the excesses and failures of the Stalin era, what they forget is that it had many accomplishments. The average Russian couldn’t imagine the lifestyle of middle class Americans or Britons in the 1930’s, but plenty could remember growing up in dirt-floor huts and losing siblings to diseases left and right. We like to laugh at Soviet propaganda about tractors and producing massive amounts of coal or steel today, but this was a historic accomplishment back then, and not just for the Soviet people.

Unfortunately success has a side effect. The more you raise people’s living standards, the more they come to expect. Things that were once considered rare luxuries become the minimum standard. The USSR encountered problems with this almost immediately after its post-WWII reconstruction as economic debates arose as to whether the USSR should switch to light industry and consumer goods or maintain Stalin’s position of heavy industry first, then consumer goods. Stalin vigorously defended the latter position in his work Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. Essentially his argument was that the Soviet industrial base was still behind that of the UK and USA, and therefore switching over to consumer goods at that point would be a mistake.

Of course once Stalin was dead and Khruschev took the helm, the pro-consumer goods policy won out. What is more, Khruschev, having seen America’s capacity for producing consumer goods, decided to challenge the US in a realm that it had already mastered, starting from a much weaker industrial base. Without getting into the myriad of other reforms carried out by his regime, the Soviet Union’s economy peaked in 1960 or 1961 depending on who you talk to, and from there on out it was a long haul toward poor quality goods and shortages.  The pro-consumer goods viewpoint of Khrsuchev and many other Soviet leaders was far more intuitive than Stalin’s heavy industry first policy. We can’t say for sure that Stalin’s policy would have worked as he planned, but history passed its judgement on the pro-consumer goods line. Objective historians of the Soviet economy point out that the central planning system worked rather well when the range of goods was small and success was calculated in tons of steel, coal, tanks, and tractors. As the range of goods expanded rapidly after the Second World War and especially after Stalin, state planners began to run up against the so-called “Socialist calculation problem.”

Another problem the post-WWII Soviet Union had was based on its own power in the world. From 1917 till 1945, state leaders could justify repressive measures by pointing to any number of real or at least realistic threats, the most acute being the Axis invasion of 22 June 1941. Prior to that, the USSR hadn’t managed to truly establish itself as a military power and its military value was doubted even before the disastrous Winter War. These days we tend to forget that the USSR lost a war with Poland and in the 1920’s had a very small army.

After 1945, however, the USSR emerged as the second superpower of the world. Indeed, this led to liberalization in the social sphere which increased under Khruschev, but this created another problem for the regime. People will often tolerate things like censorship and crackdowns on civil rights. Even 21st century America in the wake of 9/11 demonstrated how little a threat it can take to convince people that freedom must be exchanged for security. By contrast, Stalin left the Soviet Union as the de facto leader of one half of the world, armed with its own nuclear weapons. Via the establishment of the Communist Bloc and the Chinese Revolution, Stalin had achieved what he had sought for most of his career- massive buffer zones around the USSR’s borders and the destruction of immediate threats in the region. Therefore whereas the fear of German spies creating a fifth column to weaken Soviet defenses in 1937 was believable, it became hard to justify even much lighter repressive measures in the 1970’s when the USSR was acting on a world stage.

Today, with Russia’s opposition disorganized and demoralized and Western leaders seemingly unwilling to even countenance any substantial response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.  the idea that the country will be overthrown by a handful of bloggers or Moscow hipsters looks even more ridiculous, no matter what the media and various Duma members say.  Russia’s success in the mid-2000’s is the reason why many people simply rolled their eyes about the alleged threat of NATO expansion, and while many people switched sides in 2014, sooner or later they will come to their senses and realize that their worst enemy is still in the Kremlin. What they will do about that is anyone’s guess, but it is idiotic to claim Russians will endure any hardship when they clearly had two great chances to do exactly that in less than a century and each time it led to the complete overthrow of the existing order.

Lastly, this myth of Russians’ eternal endurance is just another example of a patronizing, anti-Russian stereotype. These days we realize that demeaning stereotypes aren’t always negative. Sometimes they can have a double-edge. This is a case of the long-held, paternalistic stereotype of the simple, hardy Russian who gladly accepts his fate. This is presented as virtue, only because we don’t think about what that really means. In real life there is no dignity in endlessly enduring horrible conditions for the sake of some national myth. There was nothing glorious about charging into German and Austrian machine guns while millions behind the front were deprived of bread. There was no point in enduring the endless lines and corruption of Perestroika, when the Soviet Union had abandoned every last pretext of representing socialism. There is no dignity in enduring Putin’s Russia, where orphans suffer in degrading conditions, cities decay,  prostitution is rampant, corruption is endemic, and the leadership and its media show nothing but contempt for their own people. To say that the Russians will endure this state of affairs indefinitely when past generations would not is to proclaim this current generation to be nothing more than stupid cattle. It is an insult against Russians, not a compliment, no matter how much those who preach this myth claim that they are either patriots or great admirers of the Russian people. Better staunch critics who tell the truth than such admirers.

If you were expecting Russia’s regime to collapse in 2015 you are likely to be disappointed. The government star is still rising and the European leaders don’t seem to be willing to rein it in. But before claiming that the Russian people will continue to endure more indignity and contempt from their ever-shrinking elite indefinitely, it might be a good idea to keep in mind that this idea has been tested twice, and in both cases it was falsified. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all, one should remember that while poverty has indeed been the norm for most Russians for a large part of their history, the current Russian regime is rooted in crass consumerism and the love of luxury. Its greed is what drives it. The average Russian might not live in luxury, but these days he is aware that his masters certainly do. Even now they can’t help but rub it in everyone’s face. When it’s a question of their lavish lifestyle or improving that of the Russian workers, the former will win out every single time. Hence, as the elite continues to squeeze the Russian masses so as to maintain their elite position, the more pressure will build up. The greater the pressure, the more violent the explosion.


13 thoughts on “Russian Fairy Tales

  1. Gunvor

    Hi James! I just discovered your blog and I wanted to say thank you for putting a lot of things into words that I haven’t been able to express coherently about the situation in Russia. I’ve spent a bunch of time there (not near as much as you though) and speak the language ok.
    You’ve really cleared up a lot of things for me and helped me grasp a lot of things that have disturbed me.
    So thanks for that and keep up the good work!

  2. Godzilla Pitbull

    If Ksenia Sobchak is made a speaker at another potential protest rally in the future, you can bet there will be no change. The protest will lose momentum and people will leave with disgust.

    You fail to take into account that this is not Putin’s Russia, there is whole bureaucracy, powerful clans and interests that run the show, and Putin is a distant figurehead. Putin will leave and these bureaucrats, clans and interests will remain. They will not leave the places that make them live a dignified life in an undignified space. Russians could not remove Yeltsin, and their dignity back then was worse than now, so what makes you think they can remove Putin, or Putin’s successor?

    And will anything change if they do?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Who the hell brought up Ksenia Sobchak?

      And please don’t give me this “It’s not Putin’s fault nonsense.” Yes, there are other people with power, people who will one day betray Putin and overthrow him, leaving the nation in chaos. But all this will happen because this is the way Putin designed the system with the help of his buddies and people like Surkov.

      I’m highly skeptical of the value of people like Navalny or other liberal figures, but if you actually see the problem that Putin’s system has created, don’t you at least think there needs to be an open and free opposition so that some kind of coherent political thought can develop and possibly save Russia when the regime inevitably collapses?

      As it stands right now, the consequences will probably be far more dire than they were in 1991.

      1. Godzilla Pitbull

        Nobody overthrew Yeltsin, so why should anyone overthrow Putin? Yeltsin’s regime did not collapse, Yeltsin did, so why should Putin’s regime collapse?

        Navalny, Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Kasyanov, and Khodorkovsky is your free opposition that spends lot of time on development of political thought that amounts to baseless cliches. Don’t like it?

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        So because the Russian people were too weak to overthrow Yeltsin, they should tolerate Putin as he drives the country toward an even worse disaster?

        One way or another the regime will collapse, rest assured. As it is now, it will probably happen when the militants he’s been supporting one day turn against him. But like I said, the collapse will happen because Putin eliminated any other means to change the government.

        And if you don’t like the small crop of oppositionists now, who is to blame but Putin? He ruthlessly cracked down on dissent and monopolized the media under the aegis of the state. If Russia had a functioning democratic system instead of a managed political reality show, there’d be a much wider range of different candidates with sincere viewpoints.

        And as for Khodorkovsky, he can maintain whatever delusions he likes, but he’s out of the running. Ever since getting out of prison many of his supporters suddenly remembered what an ass he was all along.

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        But hey, no need to listen to me. If Russians want to continue bending over for a tiny class of rich dickheads who send their kids to study in Europe and the USA and treat the rest of the country like children, that’s their choice. I guess not everyone is a fan of dignity.

      4. Godzilla Pitbull

        Why would you blame the failure of Nemtsov on Putin? Or can anyone blame Putin for Khodorkovsky being an ass? It is not the fault of Putin that the pro-Western opposition is what it is. The government in Russia does not change because Russians do not make any effort for it to change.

        The militants that Putin is allegedly currently supporting find it hard to keep Ukrainian volunteer battalions at bay, and you see them marching on the Kremlin? I am sceptical about your scenario of Novorossiya conquering Muscovy sir.

      5. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Yes, it is Putin’s fault because he built a system that harasses and eliminates organic opposition. When you see people like Navalny or Nemtsov, you have to keep in mind that Russia had a LOT of parties and organizations that were or still are unable to negotiate the bureaucratic labyrinth in their way to get on the ballot. Then even if they did, the media is firmly in the hands of the state or Putin’s friends.

        Also since much of the “Novorossiya” forces are in fact Russian military or military intelligence personnel, they’ve had little problem defeating the aging, unused Ukrainian army in a conventional war. But this force will not conquer Moscow. What will happen is that when things finally do calm down, Putin will recall his “volunteers.” Eventually these men will become embittered because who wants to fight a war and not have your country acknowledge your sacrifice? These men will be angry(more so than before), have military experience, and connections. Even if they don’t directly challenge Putin, they could cause all kinds of chaos that will compound the government’s current problems exponentially.

        This is the system Putin made. He gets the blame because he consolidated power into his hands. If in 15 years with all he’s done and with all that oil revenue the country is still supposedly controlled by these bureaucrats- how is he a good leader at all?

      6. Godzilla Pitbull

        If Putin is unable to do with corrupt bureaucracy, then he did not create no system that represses organic opposition. Your so called organic opposition are a bunch of losers who played and still play gullible Americans for grant money, promising the latter to remove big bad boogie man Putin.

        I never said Putin is a good leader. You probably think he is, I do not.

      7. Jim Kovpak Post author

        And yet the Kremlin is afraid of those losers, enough to continually implement more and more laws restricting freedom of speech on the internet and in media.

        Also I’m pretty sure that Navalny is seriously anti-corruption. Why? Because I live in Russia and there’s a lot of fucking corruption. That tends to make people angry.

        If you don’t think Putin is a good leader, what does it matter to you if he somehow got replaced by anyone else?

  3. Martin

    Good piece.

    Nice analysis of some of the economic problems in the USSR as well, although what was that about the socialist calculation debate? Whole thing is a bit dubious – especially since large multinational corporations (some of which have larger operating costs and revenues etc than many small states) nternally use computer systems etc to manage internal production and distribution and they don’t implode.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      The socialist calculation problem is real, just not as world-ending as the Austrian schoolers would like us to believe. Also we must remember that those computer systems weren’t available to the Soviets. They actually could have been, but for the incompetence of people in Khruschev’s regime.

      Just for future debates though, keep in mind that the proponents of neo-classical economics, when responding to the internal operations of multinational corporations, will simply point out that the component parts and whatnot are priced in money units, ergo the market still applies. Be prepared for that.

      I’m guessing you’re probably familiar with labor time accounting, pioneered by Paul Cockshott. If by some chance you aren’t, I highly recommend his book Toward the New Socialism, which is available for free as a PDF. Unfortunately Paul bought into Russian propaganda over the Donbass, but his economic theories are still very valuable.


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