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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Rewriting Russian History

Writing on Strategy Page, uber-blogger James Dunnigan (pictured, left) explains how the neo-Soviet Union is picking up right where the USSR left off:

Russians have been rewriting their own history, more so than most nations, for a long time. The most recent example is their current attitude towards the Cold War, how it ended, and the legacy of 70 years of communist tyranny. Because most Russians, especially the leaders, have not accepted the Soviet Union as a truly evil institution, it's possible for many Russians to blame the collapse of the Soviet Union, and end of the Cold War, on the missteps of Soviet leaders, especially the last head of the Soviet empire, Mikhail Gorbachev. However, most Russians go with the, "we just got tired of the incompetent Soviet bureaucrats and shed them" explanation. Either way, most Russians have not come to terms with no longer being one of the world's two superpowers.

Russia today is a much diminished version of the Soviet Union. The population of 140 million is shrinking because of a plunging birth rate, and falling life expectancy. The Russian GDP, at $900 billion, is less than seven percent of the United States (which has more than twice as many people). That, however, is an improvement. In the early 1990s, when economists and accountants got the first good look at the Russian economy since the early 20th century, it was found that the Russian GDP was about four percent of the U.S. GDP. Add back all the lost components of the Soviet Union, and you still don't have a GDP amounting to more than six percent of the American one. How did the Soviet Union achieve superpower status on such a thin economic base? They did it mostly with illusion, and an excessive arms budget that ruined the economy. Starting in the 1960s, the military got a priority on government spending, and permission to build an industrial complex that dominated the entire economy. This was part of a political deal, to keep one faction of the Communist Party in power.

With a GDP more than ten times the size of the Soviet Unions, the U.S. could spend five percent of GDP on defense, and far outspend the Soviet Union. Worse yet, Soviet accounting practices, like so much else they did, were opaque and self-delusional. It wasn't until after the Soviet Union collapsed that anyone could get an idea of how large the Soviet defense budgets were, and it turned out they were less than half the size of the American ones. Suddenly, a lot of Soviet military policies made sense. Russia bought lots of weapons, but did not have the money to maintain them, or even allow the troops to train with them. That was known, and in light of how the Soviet defense budget was set up, was understandable, and inevitable.

The really bad news is, most Russians are still not aware of how screwed up their Soviet era military was. There are two reasons for this. First, Russians take for granted how their armed forces operates. Russians complain about the brutality and incompetence in the military, but that's all they've ever known. Second, Russians remember fondly that their ramshackle armed forces defeated the Germans during World War II. What the Russians play down is how much the Germans lost World War II in Russia, rather than being beaten. The Germans made a lot of serious mistakes during the war, while the Russians got their act together. What Russians fail to realize is that the Soviet Union was an accidental, and largely imaginary, superpower. Russia has long employed large scale deception, and the Soviet Union continued this on a sustained basis. Military weaknesses (poor training and readiness) were hidden, and strengths (sheer number of weapons and troops) emphasized. But as was seen many times (from Budapest in 1956, to Chechnya in 1994), the Soviet military system produced little in the way of real military power. Soviet weapons, as impressive as they appeared to be, always came out a distant second when they were used against Western ones. The main thing that kept the Soviet military reputation going was the need of Western militaries to make the Soviet Union look strong, in order to justify high Western military budgets. The one effective weapon the Soviets did have were their nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Better maintained than the rest of the military, enough of this missile fleet would work, if used, to devastate Western nations. Russia still has a large part of that nuclear arsenal. But that does not make Russians feel like a superpower. That's because Russia no longer has the huge fleet, air force and army. And that's because this huge force was all an expensive illusion, which was disbanded in the 1990s, once it was obvious what a waste it all was. But the big thing that's missing is the size of the Soviet Union. Over half the population of the Soviet Union were not Russian, and did not want to be part of the Soviet Union. Most of these people got their wish in 1991, when the Soviet Union came apart. Many Russians want to undo that, but they cannot. It took Russia over four centuries to build that empire, and the inept Soviet Bureaucrats a few weeks to lose it all. An increasing number of Russians want it back, but are unwilling to confront how they lost it in the first place, or why rebuilding the empire is an uncertain and dangerous enterprise. This is all very dangerous stuff.


Anonymous said...

This is Hector,

Another old fart cold warrior. What a surprise! First off, America is the one that rewrites their history more than anyone. They've lied through their teeth about always standing for freedom since the Revolution(which only applied to the white ruling class)to the illusion of winning World War II, "winning militarily" in Vietnam, up to the modern day.

"Imaginary superpower", sure tell that to McCarthy. "Military weaknesses", whatever! In Vietnam the U.S army got the living crap kicked out of them with 58,000 dead, without securing any areas. Afghanistan, the Soviet army was beating back the Mujahideen, securing areas like Khost, Kunar Valley, Paktia, and complete devastation of their supply lines to Kandahar and Herat. Even conservative pundit Jack Wheeler confirmed this.

Soviet weapons "came in second to Western ones"? Oh sure! The Vietcong armed with the AK-47 set up almost flawless ambushes on U.S patrols armed to the teeth with the M-16(which had a tendency to frequently jam during battles unlike the AK).

"The non-Russian population didn't want to be part of the Soviet Union", by the time of the counter-revolution this is true as most were sick of the chauvinistic policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, this moron holds the false notion that the Soviet Union was created by force which is completely wrong. The USSR was established in 1922 before the Stalinist degeneration with the approval of the masses.

Penny said...

The Russian GDP, at $900 billion, is less than seven percent of the United States (which has more than twice as many people).

Take the oil revenues away, and like Saudi Arabia, they would be nothing. When Reagan called their bluff, they folded like a cheap suit.

Hector, instead of pewing your constant Marx crap why not pack a suitcase, immigrate there, and help them get back on the Lenin track to paradise?

Shocked said...

Nice One Penny. It is funny how blindly nationalistic Russian visit this site and try to engage in debate. Its hard to do when your country is messed up almost in every conceivable way and the facts don't go your way. Instead of addressing the main crux of the arguments, they resort stating very questionable conclusions based on even more questionable "facts". Sad...., this is the state of the Russian cyber intellectual world?

Penny said...

I suspect that some of "Russian" posters are really little homegrown lefty moonbats that have never set foot in Russia. There is one that from paragraph to paragraph can't stay in stylized English as a second language mode.

Hector isn't Russian, by the way.

LR provides a valuable aggregate of what's happening in Russia. Too bad fact challenged moonbats degrade the comments.

elmer said...

I think that the author has hit the nail on the head, except for one thing.

It took more than a few weeks for the fall of the workers' paradise sovok union.

The sovok union was an illusion long before 1991, when people were asking how long it would take for the paradise to finally arrive.

Simple, and telling examples:

In 1978, the sovoks were very proud of their ruble. It took about $1.10 to buy one ruble.

But on the street, people knew better - you could get from 7 to 10 rubles for $1. Why? Because you couldn't buy anything with your rubles that was any good. Of course, the sovoks knew this, and made it a crime - it was called "shpeculatsiya" or "speculation."

There were also special stores for tourists - no sovok citizens allowed in. What did they sell in the tourist stores? Western, or Oriental goods. People would approach you in the street to try and get you to buy something from one of those stores.

Tourists were not allowed outside certain zones. That's because once you got outside the permitted zones, you saw the immense poverty.

Sovok citizens were not allowed in tourist hotels for a reason - they were much nicer than anything that was available for sovok citizens.

Even in permitted zones, housing for average citizens was appalling - one-room "quarters" for a family of 4, with shared, communal kitchens and bathrooms.

People sure knew how to maintain their cars. But if you left your car anywhere, you took things like windshield wipers with you so they would not get stolen.

People walked up to you on the street and asked to buy your Levi'
s or Wranglers.

The people themselves knew all this: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" was not just a saying, it was widespread recognition of a house of cards.

And then, there was the bartering system, in which vodka, under the table of course, became a currency.

Chernobyl happened because they cut corners to make it less expensive to build. Also, because the apparatchiks who were building it were promised bonuses if they brought it in before a certain deadline. And it was not any qualified person who ran the place - it was an apparatchik, a party man, who had little knowledge of nuclear power plants.

What is amazing is that this illusion was propped up for that long.

The reality is that it fell apart long before 1991, just not "officially."

But, as everyone in Russia knows, reality is not important.

Tomek said...

There is a famous story that in 1980 or so, Kádár begged Brezhnev to provide aid to Hungary's failing economy, to which Moscow replied that Hungarians should just get used to a falling living standard, as their Russian brothers had.

In Poland in the 1980s we had the amazing phenomenon of the Pewex shops. These were government-owned shops that sold mostly Western goods -- chocolates, electronics, clothes, luxury items like American breakfast cereals, etc. -- but these shops only accepted Western "waluta"/convertible currencies. The bizarre thing was that it was illegal for us to own such Western currencies, except as held in government bank accounts. However, in reality of course, every family kept reserves of Western cash for emergencies -- an entire underground economy operated exclusively in Western currencies in 1980s Poland, mostly West German DMarks and US Dollars -- and the Polish PZPR government was too desperate for Western currencies itself (foreign debts to Western banks) to bother with legal niceties, to it simply looked the other way as many of its wealthier citizens (many of them SB/secret police or communist party officials) shopped at Pewex for luxuries not available elsewhere in the country (in a shop, anyway), revealing in the process their illegal reserves of hard currencies. If we left or entered the country, we had to prove where every single coin of hard currency came from, but nobody asked any questions in the Pewex shops. You have US Dollars? Have some Jim Beam or Marlboros.

As a government employee at the time, along with my monthly salary I also received two pouches of tea, two bars of soap, and two rolls of toilet paper -- commodities generally not available in Polish shops at the time. They were often available on the black market, but for inflated prices. This is one of the problems Poland and other former Soviet colonies have today, learning to respect and understand the role of law in a modern society; in Soviet times, the law was meaningless and it was impossible to make a living without circumventing or breaking laws, just to get the basic necessities for your family. Such was life in the lovely Soviet empire, which couldn't even provide us with the basic necessities of life.

Penny said...

elmer - more amazing are the marxist idiots that still against all measurable empirical metrics endorse this failed system from places in academia and the left. The simple fact, communism squandered 70 years of Russian history, it was a sewer of dispair.
Socialism as applied by the nanny states in Europe is a more benevolent but just as toxic.

If the Russians at this point in time had no oil, they'd be ignored as they faded into oblivion.

Anonymous said...

This is Hector,

Penny: Tell me something, little girl. Why is it then, if Marxists are such idiots on the subject, have you failed miserably to prove me wrong, or even put up a strong argument? "Communism squandered 70 years of Russian history"? If you're going to spew rubbish, would it be too much to ask to support your rant? So I guess your point in essence is capitalist Russia is a paradise of freedom and democracy, despite Putin. Stalinism is the failed system, which led back to capitalism.

After seeing the poverty in Eastern Europe, the ethnic wars in the former USSR and Yugoslavia, the mafia ran capitalist states, inflation, homelessness, crime, I can tell which system is more malignant: capitalism. I even had a chat with a homeless man in Prague who'd lost everything after 1989. He was just a factory worker. But you're a naive litte bourgeois valley princess, who's convinced that regardless of method capitalism its still heaven on earth.

La Russophobe said...


Listen here you crude, ignorant little thug. We've clearly instructed you not to direct personally abusive rhetoric at a fellow commenter:

You've done so with "little girl." We've published your barbaric, idiotic slop just to show everyone what an abject loser you are. The next time you violate our rules, you'll be permanently banned from commenting on this blog, and you'll also be banned if you fail to apologize to Penny for your rude, boorish, caveman attitude. Where'd you get your brain, K-mart? Blue light special?

elmer said...

tomek - amazing! Plus you just jogged my memory - you are absolutely right, everyone stole. If you worked in a factory, you stole in order to survive. Wherever you worked, you stole, and it was common knowledge - to be used against you if it became convenient.

Jeans were an especially prized commodity - the more worn and torn, the better, because you couldn't get jeans, and they were a status symbol.

Of course, the Poles were notably more free-spirited and entrepeneurial than, let's say, Eastern Ukraine. There was a palpable difference the farther you got away from Maskva.

I remember a cab ride in Maskva past Red Square with a drunken cabbie - well, that's a different story.

Penny - you hit the nail right on the head, and it's not only Russian history.

Hector - Russia does not have capitalism. As usual, in attempting to convert to capitalism and democracy, Russia got it wrong. The Russian policy-makers decided that they needed to make some kind of a "clean sweep," and what you got was - oligarchy and corporatism.

Well, let me modify that slightly - long before the collapse of the sovok union, people acted like capitalists - hence, the vast underground economy. But that's exactly the point - it was underground.

Now, you have oligarchs and Putin keeping everyone down - which is not capitalism.

Capitalism works in a free economy and a free and open government - and Russia does NOT have that.

In other words, you should not blame capitalism for Russia's ills - you should blame the botched attempt to convert to capitalism.

La Russophobe said...


We've read your appeal and reject it. You began this thread with the phrase "Another old fart cold warrior" and degenerated from there. We do not find any inappropriate personal abuse to have been directed at you by anyone; if anything, we think they've been far too kind to you.

Your comments will not be published until you apologize to Penny without equivocation. Apparently, you do not comprehend that the editor in chief of this blog is female, you witless cretin. If you can't live with the fact that we have zero tolerance for your sexist garbage, then we humbly suggest you get lost.

Tomek said...

Elmer: I said almost the exact same thing to a colleague once back sometime around 1988-89, when Mazowiecki and Balcerowicz began the post-Soviet colonial changes. We were looking together at the huge crowd of instant sidewalk "shops" that sprang up all over, as the "black market" finally stepped into daylight and became the legitimate market it already had been (in the shadows) for two decades. I said something like, "Now we just have to get these vendors off the streets and into regular shops, and this will be a normal country again."

Yes, Poles did have a reputation for smuggling back then, which made traveling as a Pole -- legitimate traveling -- very painful as the border people always shook us down. There was a regular route that went between East Germany (for electronics, like East German electric guitars, for instance), Yugoslavia (for foods, wines, soaps, lots of technical parts like plumbing or construction stuff), and both China and Mongolia for knock-offs of Western luxury items like Jordache jeans, NY Yankees hats and sweaters, Gucchi purses, etc. In Hungary I learned in the 1980s they referred to their open-air weekend markets as the "Lengyelpiac", the "Polish market". All this smuggling wasn't done by criminals, it was average Poles who had to make a living. If you rode an international train back then, you would see Polish women in their 40 or even 60s carrying several huge duffle bags of stuff -- they had no choice, it was the only way to make ends meet.

Hector is right about how the post-1989 changes have negatively impacted some, but he's dishonest about how. My in-laws are from the old coal mining regions and both worked their entire lives for those mines. However, the mines were so economically mis-managed for decades under the communists that they could not withstand international competition. It was actually cheaper to import coal than to use that produced in Poland. Because of stories like this -- and they are legion -- there are many industries and regions that faced hardship after the changes because of severe mismanagement by the communists. In Poland's case, the government put off the day of reckoning by taking out massive loans from the West in the 1970s under Gierek and then squandered the money, so that by 1975 our national credit line had dried up and we owed billions. So for some $44 billion, we got a 5 year reprieve from total economic collapse. Nice bargain. We are still paying in many ways, not just in $$$ cost but in social cost, as Hector observed, for the idiocy of the Soviet days.

On a side note, one of my favorite games in Warsaw was buying secret anti-government tapes in dark alleys from black market distributors -- although I didn't think of them like that back then. There is a tradition in Poland of acoustic guitar almost American folk-style music (very Bob Dylanesque, which may not be a coincidence though that's before my time) with underground artists like Jacek Kaczmarski or my favorite, Przemysław Gintrowski or the "Postulat 22" recordings from the early 1980s. You would be walking along the street and a person would look at you, and if you didn't look suspicious they turned from you and walked down an alley. If you were feeling adventurous, you followed, and the prize could be soaps, chocolates, or shavers, but I was particularly interested in the cassettes. I left Poland in the 1990s, and it amazed me to go back just a few years after I left and see not only that the shops were full, but that everyone seemed to think this was normal.

elmer said...


Great stories, thanks! You should write a book. All that has ever been published in the West is spy stories.

One of my favorite jokes (short version) is about the guy who has been waiting in one of those sovok lines for something or other. Just as he gets to the window, they close - out of whatever-it-is.

The guy throws a tantrum. The police come up, calm him down, and one of them says "you know, in the old days, comrade, we would have shot you."

The guy goes home, his wife asks: "how did it go?"

He answers: "it's worse than I thought - they've run out of bullets."

Long live a free Poland!

La Russophobe said...


Elmer is right, and if you'd like to weave some of your material into a form that's relevant to Russia we'd be delighted to publish it as a post on the blog.