Defending the Loop

Following my posting of Russia’s Sisyphean Loop, the influential East-Central Europe expert, Vlad Sobell, wrote up an interesting critique at the Untimely Thoughts Russia Discussion Group. It addresses what may be considered some weak, or at least not thoroughly explained, points from the original article, so I thought it would be useful to reproduce it in full along with the ensuing e-mail conversation.

I first give a very condensed version (inevitably a caricature) of what he has written, and then proceed to inform him what is wrong with it.

His thesis goes as follows:

In its effort to modernise and catch up with the West (mainly for reasons of defence) Russia has been going in circles, or historical cycles – a Sisyphean Loop. Anatoly has developed a useful model (his Belief Matrix TM) which illustrates the parameters in which this cycle is set.

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Russia’s Sisyphean Loop

Anatoly Karlin @
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Russia’s Sisyphean Loop

The Eternal Return to the Future?

In this article I attempt to explain Russia’s historical cycles of failed Westernization and to project its future socio-political trajectory. First, I note the nature of and linkages between Russia’s geography, cultural traditions and imperial cycles. Second, using a ‘Belief Matrix’ model and drawing on historical observations, I accumulate evidence that Russia is caught in a ‘Sisyphean Loop’ in which all its attempts to Westernize – for a panoply of economic, cultural, and political reasons – merely end returning it to its imperial Eurasian past-and-future. In this century, there are three possible ‘steady state’ outcomes: either the Loop will continue as Russia returns to authoritarian stagnation or even succumbs to ‘totalitarian reversion’, or it will break – resulting in Russia’s entwinement within a ‘liberty cycle’ in which it finally manages to anchor liberal values onto its population.

I. The Curse of Geography

Russia’s physical geography can be characterized in three words – big, cold, and flat. This unique combination has left an indelible mark on the national character and the nature of the Russian state that cannot be ignored in any work on its political economy[1]. Let’s consider the deleterious effects of each of them in turn.

The early Rus’ state emerged in the coldest region to ever produce a settled population, a problem compounded by its post-16th century eastern expansion into Eurasia. Growing seasons are short, late spring droughts are recurrent and grain yields are low. This made Russian agriculture outside the southern Black Earth regions, where the cold is mitigated by exception soil fertility, unproductive and barely sufficient for population subsistence. Peasants throughout the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms[2] necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth. The especially precarious nature of Russian peasant life further amplified these psychological attributes, making Russia deeply averse to the development of capitalist enterprise, with its emphasis on individual initiative and steady capital accumulation[3].

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Reconsidering Parshev

In most Russian bookstores, there is a bookshelf or two dedicated to so-called “patriotic literature” – reappraisals of Stalin against “liberal revisionism”, overviews of Russia’s secret super-weapons, the exploits of its special forces and Russian theo-philosophy. Much of it is (apparent) nonsense, but the economic crisis has forced me to reconsider one particular “patriotic” thesis – Andrei Parshev’s Why Russia is not America.

His big idea, an elaboration and tying together of earlier work, is that Russia’s economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, and that integrating with the global economy will lead to catastrophe. This is because of his counter-intuitive observation that Russia is overpopulated. Though its population density is low on paper, the cold climate, huge landmass and poor riverine connections means that the carrying capacity of north Eurasia is nowhere near as high as that of the world’s other centers of economic and political power – the US, China, and Europe. Because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically “efficient” to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Pearl River Delta or the Great Lakes. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds; the other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the era of neo-liberal reforms). He recommended a return to sovereignty, autarky and sobornost as the solution to these woes.

I agreed with Parshev’s analysis upon my first reading of his book in 2002, a time when I still thought Putin was no more than a better-dressed, sober gangster in Yeltsin’s mold and the country showed little signs of real recovery. Yet as evidence mounted that Russia really was prospering by the mid-2000′s and I became influenced by Krugman’s criticisms of competitiveness, I increasingly came to reject his ideas (e.g. see this comment). However, since then increasing awareness of the vital role played by protectionism in “catch-up” industrial development, the reality of peak oil and above all the economic crisis forced me into reconsidering Parshev.

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