No Communism With Commies

One of the most memorable anecdotes from Stephen Cohen’s Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives is where he recounts a visit by Egor Ligachev, probably the second man after Gorbachev in the late 1980s USSR, to New York, in which he amazed his interlocutors by repeatedly asking who was responsible for organizing the food supply to the city. By all accounts, Ligachev was a nice man, not corrupt, a teetotaller unlike many of his chronically drunk colleagues… and yet he was what we would regard today as totally clueless.

And apparently this was a pattern. Commenter Dmitry recounts Gorbachev asking pretty much the exact same thing during a visit to Washington D.C: “He couldn’t imagine the logistical and organizational complexity of the Americans, to somehow supply so many different kinds of cuisine.”

You won’t particularly find this in Transition Economics 101 textbooks, but these anecdotes might be more telling than you might expect.

For instance, at explaining why the late USSR failed so hard at market reform.

Or why former KGB cadres, who were more clued in than the commies, ended up taking over much of the state.

reiner Tor writes:

There’s a materialistic explanation for this: [Gorbachev] was the first [Soviet leader] who never saw a normal country and political and economic system around himself, and even his parents only had some childhood memories of normalcy, and didn’t have much time to observe even the partially normal NEP system as teenagers. So he grew up totally clueless, only being fed propaganda. An ideology so far removed from reality will produce such totally clueless people. (I don’t think Gorbachev was malicious, not even in the sense of wanting to end the empire – he probably didn’t think it was all bad and thought it could be reconciled with the wishes of its subject peoples.)

So basically Bolshevism required that people educated outside of Bolshevism lead it. By the time they died out, the system started to collapse. For example I suspect Stalin or even Khrushchev wouldn’t have asked how New York restaurants were supplied, probably even Brezhnev had a foggy idea how it worked, but Gorbachev was already totally clueless.

As Egor Kholmogorov put it in a recent essay, Gorbachev was Soviet history’s “last man.”

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Puts up the whole Pizza Hut advertising thing in a new light. Now Gorby knows!

  2. Cagey Beast says
  3. The discussion continues in the Open Thread, apparently.

  4. 70 TRILLIONS , Putin stole 70 TRILLIONS!!!

  5. Housing wasn’t the government’s responsibility for the past three decades. We didn’t switch to market economy in order to babysit people who can’t buy a $150 water heater on their own.

  6. I doubt it is really so, but if Gorbachev were to be personally blamed, it would probably be because of his desire for approbation from the Western media. Something that Merkel was also prey to.

    Why did the USSR fall? No Tiananmen. Why none? Was it Gorbi? Well, isn’t he accused of being involved (through phone) in the massacre at the Vilnius TV station? Maybe that wasn’t enough bodies though. Maybe, he didn’t like the media response.

    I will explain it a different way though: there was a lot of cultural infiltration of the West, and the USSR was more prosperous and so softer than the Chinese. Also, the Chinese seem to have a model where the military leadership is well compensated through a large part of the economy being controlled by the military. Their past rates growth were a big incentive for stability.

  7. The story of Gorbachev & Ligachev asking questions about NYC food supply story is so important to you that you keep bringing it up over and over. So I’ll have to explain what was really going on there. But first, what would be your own answer to that question? Most likely it would be, ” it’s the magic invisible hand of the market,” or some ideological formula like that. But in the physical world there is an actual infrastructure of wholesalers who own a network of warehouses and employ people whose job is to estimate how many tons of cabbages (or whatever) will be needed next month, etc. How is it organized, what methods do they use to do their jobs, what do they do if they have loo little or too much? These were the kinds of questions that Gorbachev & Ligachev were really interested in, with a view of perhaps implementing the same at home.

    There was a long tradition going back to the beginning of the USSR of Soviet officials coming to America, observing American practices, learning about them, and bringing them back home. In the 1920s the Soviets tried to copy advanced American agricultural methods (many of them were bunk and eventually led to the Dust Bowl.) In the 1930s Stalin invited American engineers for his industrialization efforts. Then there was the infamous case of Khrushchev and maize. Many more examples like that.

    When Gorbachev came to power this process intensified. Perestroika era newspapers were full of articles saying, “Here is what Americans do. Isn’t it neat? We should do the same!” Gorbachev tried to learn as many specifics as possible during his visit. He saw it as a part of his job. It was not because he “didn’t understand how markets worked.” USSR had markets too. And trust me, everyone in the Soviet Union knew that if you let people make money things will get done.

    (Incidentally, East Asians were copying American best practices as well, and quite successfully too. In some cases more successfully than Americans. And note that they could do it without trashing their entire economic systems and replacing them with the American one.)

  8. Housing wasn’t the government’s responsibility for the past three decades. We didn’t switch to market economy in order to babysit people who can’t buy a $150 water heater on their own.

    There’s also the “small” problem that the whole comment is pretty much false, or at the very least extremely misleading.

    If it’s at all true that “20% of homes have no hot water,” that likely includes dachas etc., and the number doesn’t actually differ from many/most other Eastern European countries, i.e. it actually isn’t particularly low.

    Same with a doctor’s salary, wouldn’t that actually indicate a large increase from only a few years ago? It will probably also keep growing rapidly in the coming years, as Russia is prioritizing health care. His next point: Russia’s minimum wage is already above $200, IIRC. Even 14% wouldn’t be terrible, considering Russia includes North Caucasus. And with both of these you have to take lower prices into account.

    “Putler’s worth $70 billion!!!11” doesn’t even deserve a comment. I thought it was $200 billion the last time I checked…

    I can do cherry picking as well and list some actual facts. Look at Russia’s respectable PPP GDP per capita of 30K, its very high HDI, surprisingly low GINI that is now considerably below the US, its infant mortality rate and the fact that Russia’s reserves now fully cover the country’s internal and foreign debt. Atleast that gives you a much more accurate picture of this “gangster state”.

  9. Hippopotamusdrome says

    In the 1930s Stalin invited American engineers for his industrialization efforts.

    The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia

    Victor Herman

    Victor Herman…was a Jewish-American who spent 18 years as a Soviet prisoner in the Gulags of Siberia. He was one of thousands of Americans sympathetic towards Communism who went to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to work but who met tragic fates during the Stalin purges. He briefly held the world record in 1934 for the highest parachute jump and became known as the ‘Lindbergh of Russia’.

    Soviet authorities asked Herman to sign the World Record documents which included a blank space for citizenship which Herman filled in as “U.S.A.” After continually refusing to change it to the U.S.S.R., he was arrested in 1938 for “counter-revolutionary activities”

  10. London has 100% homes without hot water

  11. A Jewish-American sympathetic to Communism couldn’t have been but a Trotskyist.

  12. anonymous coward says

    Finally, a sane and knowledgeable reply.

    As far as the “NYC food supply” question goes — yeah, it’s actually a complex and interesting topic. I’d like to hear an in-depth answer too.

  13. The only tragedy is that this vermin was eventually allowed re-entry to the U.S.

    There are a lot of complaints nowadays from American nativist types about Jewish American attitudes towards Israel. Rightly so. But one should never forget that countless numbers of them were also pro-Soviet.