Archives for May 2009

Kremlin Dreams Sometimes Come True

This April, Michael Bohm, editor at the Moscow Times, published the article New Kremlin Dreamers, which questioned Russia’s stated intention of becoming an advanced industrial nation by 2020. I wasn’t much impressed by its pessimistic assertions – for instance, regarding Russia’s hopes of becoming the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020, he falls into the frequent Kremlinologist fallacy of applying standard GDP growth rates to nominal GDP (as opposed to purchasing-power parity GDP, which corrects for exchange rate fluctuations). He similarly passes over that countries in the process of economic catch-up typically grow much faster than the leader nations, because they have greater returns to investment. Soon after Yevgeny Kiselyov wrote Dreaming of Modernization and Innovation on a similar theme.

I disagree with them on two fundamental points. First, I don’t share in their pessimism and I believe that on purely objective factors, Russia – and much of the rest of East-Central Europe for that matter – is well set to converge to Western living standards by 2020 (which will by then probably be stagnating in light of peak oil and intensifying competition for energy resources from other emerging-markets). This is a point I made a long time back in Towards a New Russian Century? and Education as the Elixir of Growth. Second, even if that were not the case there is still a lot to be said of the power and utility of positive, optimistic thinking – ambition is no sin in my eyes, and in the case of government a moral duty to their citizens. Hence this rebuttal. 😉

Two recent articles in the Moscow Times took issue with the “Kremlin dreamers” for their rose-tinted views of Russia’s destiny, alleging that the main goals of “Strategy 2020”, like becoming the world’s fifth largest economy or doubling GDP per capita, are nothing more than utopian pipe-dreams. Yet an objective look at key current trends – in educational attainment, economic growth, resource depletion and climate change – suggests that these “fairy tales” have the potential to become reality.

First, Russia’s educational profile resembles that of a First World country, unlike most of its emerging-market competitors. Around 70% of Russians go into higher education, compared with just 20-25% of Brazilians or Chinese. The quality of its primary education is substantially higher than in developing nations, as attested to by the results of international student assessments like PISA or TIMSS. For instance, in the 2006 PISA science assessment, only 15.2% of Brazilians possessed skills beyond those needed for purely linear problem-solving, compared with 47.6% of Russian and 51.3% of American students. A country needs to have sizable cadres of skilled workers to move into added-value manufacturing or complex services. Brainier nations will also assimilate technology more easily and thus their economic “rate of convergence” to developed-world status will be that much faster. In this respect, Russia and east-central Europe are in a different league from East Asia, let alone Latin America or the Middle East.

Second, while there’s no denying Russia is plagued by corruption, to suggest it is endemic like in a failed state, as suggested by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, is ludicrous – and would frankly be obvious to anyone who has visited both Russia and some of its neighbors on the list. Its problem is that it’s a survey of outsider businesspeople and their subjective perception of the situation, which differs markedly from the experiences of ordinary people. When asked, only 17% of Russians admitted to paying a bribe to obtain a service in 2007, according to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer – putting them in the same quintile as Turkey or the Czech Republics, i.e. slap bang in the middle of world corruption, not the end. The effects of corruption must also be set in context against a panoply of other, equally important growth factors. Goldman Sachs compiled an index called the Growth Environment Score, which aggregates a wide range of stats on macroeconomic, institutional, educational and technological conditions to assess a nation’s potential for economic “catch-up”. In 2007, Russia came in at 66th out of 181 countries, tied with China and ahead of Brazil and India.

Third, to fulfill one of the main goals of “Strategy 2020” – to become the world’s fifth largest economy, all Russia has to do is surpass Germany in purchasing-power parity GDP. Since according to the IMF Russia’s GDP was 2.26bn $ and Germany’s was 2.91bn $ in 2008, this can be achieved merely by maintaining an average growth rate of 2% points higher than Germany to 2020 – which seems entirely feasible considering that from 1999-2008 this difference was more than 4%. Doubling the GDP per capita over the next 11 years is trickier and requires continuing the average 1999-2008 growth rate of 6%. Though complicated by the current economic crisis, coming close is still entirely possible.

Fourth, Russia’s economy is not overly dependent on natural resource exports – they have stagnated since 2003 and the bulk of growth came from retail, construction and manufacturing. They are however crucial to replenishing government coffers, allowing the Kremlin to spend lavishly on things like military modernization, infrastructure expansion and prospective sunrise industries like nanotechnology – thus turbo-charging its plans for an “innovation economy”. (Granted, some is wasted like the 1bn $ project on the bridge to Russki Island, i.e. to nowhere). Fortunately for Russia, there’s no reason to believe oil prices will remain low. Even now, in the depth of the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, prices never fell below $40 a barrel and have now rebounded to over $60. With oil production close to or already past its peak and Chinese voraciousness unquenched, a second oil price spike is only a few years away.

Finally, according to researcher Trausti Valsson, further in the future global warming will unfreeze remote energy resources in the Far North to exploitation, open up the Arctic to shipping, bolster Russian crop yields and increase the carrying capacity of Siberia and the Far North. Russia could literally end up on top of the world.

Wells may have ridiculed Lenin as a “Kremlin dreamer” in 1920, yet precisely a decade or so later the Soviet Union began to produce aircraft, tanks, trucks, machine tools and chemicals, boasting growth rates far higher than that of any other industrial nation. And though the USSR did set over-ambitious goals for the Five Year Plans, the achievements were impressive nonetheless.

By 2020, Russia will experience increasing problems due to adverse demographic trends, slowing growth due to (paradoxically) successful “catch-up”, and perhaps waning European demand for its natural gas and dissatisfaction with an increasingly atrophied and unresponsive descendant of the “Putin system”. As such, far from being a fairy tale, the “Kremlin dream” is a strategy for maintaining Russia’s geopolitical relevance well into a troubled 21st century.

Translation: The Case of the “Stalinist” Textbook

Ever since the publication of Filippov’s (in)famous textbook A History of Russia 1945-2006 in 2007, the state of Russian history teaching drew a fair degree of negative commentary in the West, some of it reasonably lucid, most of it superficial or hysterical. What the latter have in common is that they almost invariably haven’t read the actual, controversial chapter in question (Debates about Stalin’s Role in History), let alone the textbook itself, and as such can do little more than spout inane rhetoric about the imminent “rehabilitation” of Stalinism. As such I thought it fitting to do what the pundits should have done long ago, but couldn’t be bothered to – actually translate the chapter in question so that Anglophone readers could make up their own minds. Now that I’ve done so (scroll below), and bearing in mind the recent furor over Medvedev’s commission to battle the falsification of Russian history, I would like to make several comments of my own:

First, it is flat-out wrong to say that this textbook is the new standard of history teaching in Russia. It is just one of dozens of merely “approved” history textbooks (whereas the vast majority of Russian schools use a few “recommended” texts), has had only a very limited print run and was being trialled in only a few schools in four Russian regions as of the 2008-2009 academic year. Nor is it true that it received approval from the Presidential administration – in 2007 when it came out, Putin’s aide Dzhokhan Pollyeva criticized it for unprofessionalism (and I quite agree with her – the text is turgid and belabors its points using questionable examples). The most controversial authors, Filippov and Danilin (the latter of whom wrote the chapter on sovereign democracy), were not present at the meeting when Putin aired his views on how Russia was unfairly castigated for its history by professors and Westerners whose heads were filled with “porridge”.

Second, the book’s major sin is one of presentation – not omission. Dark chapters in Russia’s history like collectivization, the Gulag and political repressions are covered in both this chapter, and the preceding ones on Stalin’s postwar rule. As such, it is either dishonest or ignorant to focus on out-of-context sound bites like how Stalin was an “effective manager” or the “greatest Soviet leader”. The main issue the more serious critics have with it, is that instead of issuing blanket condemnations, it seeks to “rationalize” Stalin’s decisions within the as Filippov himself replies to this charge, “I was always annoyed by the belabored moralizing foisted on us in Soviet textbooks. I wanted to avoid this. And it seems I’ve over-succeeded in this, seeing as folks are now accusing me of amorality. I really wanted to avoid phrases like, “and this is the lesson we must take from this episode”, and it seems I may have tried too hard”. Though its inherent patriotic bias and you-can’t-be-neutral-on-a-moving-train-like approach is undeniable (in this respect, Filippov actually jumped Putin’s gun), it constantly urges its readers to make their own conclusions – an attitude far less Stalinist than that of some of his liberast and Western critics. Also, as Sean Guillory pointed out, many of its eyebrow-raising claims can act as good springboards for class discussion.

Third, contrary to Western claims, the fact of the matter is that history is politicized everywhere – and I’m not even talking of Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge its war crimes in the “East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”, or Turkey’s de facto criminalization of Armenian genocide affirmation. Closer to home, as argued in Patrick Armstrong’s essay Airbrushing History, the Visegrad nations, Ukraine and the Baltics are busy rewriting their histories to create national victimization myths based on Russian occupation – while airbrushing prominent local Communist collaborators and anti-Semitism out of their rosy, kitschy paintings of the past. An example is Latvia calculating a bill of Soviet-incurred losses to present to Russia, while eliding over the contribution of the Latvian Rifles and non-Russian internationalists to the establishment of Communism in Russia; or Ukraine’s criminalization of denying the genocidal nature of the Holodomor, a risible view in light of the fact half its casualties were in non-Ukrainian black earth regions. Even in Western nations there is a strong prevailing belief in the absolute validity of their historical missions that frequently diminishes their less positive manifestations (though it is true that they are modulated by anti-colonialist, Marxist and postmodern views on the part of some of their intelligentsia, they do not present an existential spiritual threat as in Russia).

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Putvedev is Russia’s White Rider

In April 2007 Peter Zeihan of Stratfor wrote a thought-provoking article The Coming Era of Russia’s Dark Rider, which tries to pin down the metahistory of Russia’s socio-political evolution and perhaps even inspired a book. The basic idea is that following its cyclical collapses (the Mongol conquest, The Time of Troubles, the Civil War and the post-Soviet transition), there eventually emerges a messianic “white rider” who heavy-handedly restores order and national morale (the early 16th C princes of Muscovy, Peter the Great, Lenin). Putin is the current white rider, intimately cognizant of Russia’s weakness from his intelligence background and determined to once again play state-driven catch-up to the West.

Disappointed by slow and stunted progress, the white rider  “realizes that the challenges ahead are more formidable than he first believed and that his (relative) idealism is more a hindrance than an asset”. In steps the “dark rider”, who unburdens himself of the white rider’s moral restraints in an all-out drive to fulfill the state’s goals through strict internal controls, subjugation of the economy and military expansionism. The most famous examples are Stalin and Ivan Grozny in their later years. Yet the dark rider sows the seeds of destruction by overextending his realm, ushering in a period of stagnation and increasing socio-economic strains. Half-hearted attempts at reform fail and the country slides from decline into a new collapse, thus closing the cycle.

Mostly agreed so far, even despite the latent simplifications and semi-mystical approach to history, but we diverge on the interpretation of the current situation. Zeihan now writes “Putin’s efforts to stabilize Russia have succeeded, but his dreams of Westernizing Russia are dead. The darkness is about to set in”. The main evidence? The crackdowns on liberast protesters in Moscow and St.-Petersburg, in the same month that the article was written. But as I’ve pointed out many, many, many times, these folks are by and large jokers who enjoy no support from mainstream Russian opinion – points that Zeihan actually concedes. Yet though undoubtedly heavy-handed, there is absolutely no evidence for interpreting this as an omen of impending despotism.

Instead, I think the Putin circle of siloviks (Sechin, Ivanov et al) and patriot-liberals (Medvedev, Surkov, etc), constituting an organic whole whom I’ll henceforth refer to as Putvedev – was, is and will remain a white rider for at least the next decade. In support of this view I’ll draw in the ever incisive Nicolai Petro, or rather his most recent article The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan Altered Russian Society.

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Russia’s Demographic Resilience

In this post I look at the (surprisingly good) Russian demographic data for Jan-Mar 2009 and argue in more depth that the economic crisis is unlikely to have a very major negative impact on short-term fertility, or any but a very minor impact on long-term demographic trends. I make some falsifiable predictions, estimating a birth rate of 11.5 / 1000 and a death rate of 14.5 / 1000 this year, changed from 12.1 / 1000 and 14.8 / 1000 in 2008, respectively.

In my April article Rite of Spring: Russia’s Fertility Trends, I argued that in the next few years Russia is going to experience a minor demographic resurgence to fertility rates of around 1.7-2.1. This is based on a) relatively high fertility expectations, similar to those seen in the late Soviet Union and Western Europe (France, UK,…) which had / have near replacement-level total fertility rates, b) a little-known indicator called the “average birth sequence” implied the natural long-term fertility rate, absent birth postponement, is around 1.6-1.7 and c) a new spirit of confident conservatism. I also dismissed the idea that the current economic crisis is poised to derail these developments

Furthermore, the post-Soviet collapse was an unprecedented hyper-depression, surpassed only by the Civil War in its social costs. Though on paper recovery from the 1998 crisis was rapid, newly severe budget discipline undercut social spending that left many classes and regions destitute for years. It is telling that in the first six months of the 1998 recession, the proportion of people who could hardly afford even food rose from 29% to 40% of the population; in stark contrast, in the five months since the Russian economy began collapsing in October, this figure rose from 9%…to just 10%.

This is notwithstanding that the rate of decline from Q4 2008 to Q1 2009 was even sharper than during H2 1998. However this time round, both state and society have much bigger surpluses to fall back on during the lean times. As such, the probability that the crisis will have a significant longterm effect on Russian fertility is extremely low.

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Best Designed Russia Blogs

Here is a 100% subjective list of the best (and worst) designed blogs in the Russia-watching blogosphere.

My main criteria for a well-designed blog include: ergonomics (fast load, little clutter, efficient search and archives); utility (easy navigation, explanatory information, contact, social network integration) and aesthetics. I will do my best to discount ideological bias.

This is a celebration of the efforts of individual bloggers, or at most small groups of bloggers, and as such I am excluding bigger organizations, or their affiliates, like Russia Today, Other Russia and The Power Vertical. Though they do not have to focus exclusively on Russia, it certainly must figure prominently – this is after all about the Best Designed Russia Blogs. Sorry, Registan. Finally, they must be alive and contain a substantial body of work, which rules out blogs like The Parallax Brief with its minimalist elegance.

That is all. Now clear the catwalk for the beauties…

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Victory Day Special: The Poisonous Myths of the Eastern Front

За нас за вас и за десант и за спецназ! The Red Army was the single greatest contributor to the defeat of Nazi Germany sixty-four years ago, a truly evil empire based on slavery and oppression, and responsible for the genocide of millions of Slav civilians, Jews, Soviet POW’s and Roma by gas, bullets and starvation.

Yet ever since the first days of the Cold War, there has been a concerted campaign to whitewash the Wehrmacht of participation in war crimes and to rehabilitate the generals who participated in it as enthusiastically as Hitler and the upper echelons of the Nazi Party. This resulted in the promulgation of many poisonous myths about the Eastern Front that are only now being laid to rest. I already wrote about several of these myths in my Top 10 Russophobe Myths

MYTH I: Heroic Americans with their British sidekicks won World War Two, while the Russian campaign was a sideshow.

REALITY: Although Western Lend-Lease and strategic bombing was highly useful, the reality is that the vast majority of German soldiers and airmen fought and died on the Eastern Front throughout the war.

Rüdiger Overmans in Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg estimates that from the Polish campaign to the end of 1944, 75-80% of all German armed forces personnel died or went missing in action on the Eastern Front up to the end of 1944. According to Krivosheev’s research, throughout the war, the vast majority of German divisions were concentrated against the Soviet Union – in 1942, for instance, there were 240 fighting in the East and 15 in North Africa, in 1943 there were 257 in the East and up to 26 in Italy and even in 1944 there were more than 200 in the East compared to just 50 understrength and sub-par divisions in the West. From June 1941 to June 1944, 507 German (and 607 German and Allied) divisions and 77,000 fighters were destroyed in the East, compared to 176 divisions and 23,000 fighters in the West. The two pivotal battles, Stalingrad and El Alamein, differed in scale by a factor of about ten.

This is not to disparage the Western Allied soldiers who fought and died to free the world from Nazism. In particular, the seamen who enabled Lend-Lease, at high risk of lethal submarine attack, to transport indispensables like canned food, trucks and aviation fuel to Russia, possibly played a crucial role in preventing its collapse in 1941-42. And the bomber crews massively disrupted Germany’s war potential at the cost of horrid fatality ratios, significantly shortening the war (albeit it is currently fashionable to castigate them for killing 600,000 people who by and large had no problem with waging a war of extermination responsible for tens of millions of deaths on the Eastern Front).

MYTH II: The Russians just threw billions of soldiers without rifles in front of German machine guns.

REALITY: The vast majority of German soldiers were killed, taken POW or otherwise incapacitated on the Eastern front. The Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1 and the USSR outproduced Germany in every weapons system throughout the war.

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