Streetwise Professor

June 28, 2011

It May Rhyme, But It Won’t Repeat

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:12 pm

Ariel Cohen Leon Aron has an interesting retrospective on the fall of the USSR.  He dismisses material and materialist causes.  The Soviet economy, he notes, was not prospering, but it was not imploding either.  The Soviets had experienced some setbacks abroad, but nothing catastrophic.  Instead, Cohen says that the collapse was impelled by glasnost and perestroika, and these were in turn rooted in a moral revulsion at the corruption of the USSR, and what the Soviet system had done to the human spirit:

For though economic betterment was their banner, there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs. Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state’s relationship with civil society be?

Cohen Aron depicts a similar moral crisis today, and intimates that it may be the catalyst for a 1991-style collapse of the ruling regime:

Which is why today’s Russia appears once again to be inching toward another perestroika moment. Although the market reforms of the 1990s and today’s oil prices have combined to produce historically unprecedented prosperity for millions, the brazen corruption of the ruling elite, new-style censorship, and open disdain for public opinion have spawned alienation and cynicism that are beginning to reach (if not indeed surpass) the level of the early 1980s.

One needs only to spend a few days in Moscow talking to the intelligentsia or, better yet, to take a quick look at the blogs on LiveJournal (Zhivoy Zhurnal), Russia’s most popular Internet platform, or at the sites of the top independent and opposition groups to see that the motto of the 1980s — “We cannot live like this any longer!” — is becoming an article of faith again. The moral imperative of freedom is reasserting itself, and not just among the limited circles of pro-democracy activists and intellectuals. This February, the Institute of Contemporary Development, a liberal think tank chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev, published what looked like a platform for the 2012 Russian presidential election:

In the past Russia needed liberty to live [better]; it must now have it in order to survive.… The challenge of our times is an overhaul of the system of values, the forging of new consciousness. We cannot build a new country with the old thinking.… The best investment [the state can make in man] is Liberty and the Rule of Law. And respect for man’s Dignity.

It was the same intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride that, beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country’s past and present, within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991. The tale of this intellectual and moral journey is an absolutely central story of the 20th century’s last great revolution.

There is one major problem with this conjecture: Putin et al saw the same movie.  Worse yet (in their eyes)–they lived it.  They saw that the attempts at reform set off a reaction that led to the collapse of the system.  They may not have read de Tocqueville, but they understand what Cohen Aron takes from the Frenchman:

Delving into the causes of the French Revolution, de Tocqueville famously noted that regimes overthrown in revolutions tend to be less repressive than the ones preceding them. Why? Because, de Tocqueville surmised, though people “may suffer less,” their “sensibility is exacerbated.”

They certainly despise Gorbachev, most particularly for what they perceive to be his softness and sentimentality.

And they profit quite handsomely from the corruption, thank you.

Having lived the past, Putin and his ilk are not keen to repeat it.  Quite the contrary.  Hence the parallels Cohen Aron sees–notably, the widening belief that “we cannot live like this any longer!”–are exactly why things will play out quite differently.  Putin et al see that cry as a warning, and will not repeat Gorbachev’s mistake by reforming the system.  To the contrary, they will see it as a reason to redouble their efforts to atomize society, manage the politics, create a simulacrum of democracy and representation to gull the gullible, and lean on or suborn those who are less gullible.  No, Putin will make his own mistakes: he certainly will not repeat the mistakes he believes–knows–Gorbachev made.

The Russian state and Putinism are brittle.  They could collapse quickly and unexpectedly.  But they will not collapse in the way that the USSR collapsed.  The very fact that those in control today lived through what happened 20 years ago virtually guarantees that.

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  1. Ha, ha. Dream on, Cohen. I thought it was supposed to be the Democrats who overanalyzed everything until it lost all meaning. But thanks – that laughing jag really loosened up my obliques.

    Hear this, Putin. We can’t live with higher wages and doubling of healthcare expenditures and next to no national debt any more. Clear the decks, you commie bastard, and make way for the liberals who will privatize all the state assets and sell them off for short-term gain distributed among a select few, just like that liberal boozehound Yeltsin did last time, when we didn’t learn anything at all. That’s why the party that polls a distant second behind United Russia is the Communists.

    Comment by Mark — June 28, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

  2. Whatever Cohen has been smoking, the fact that the Soviet economy was indeed imploding was at the time painfully obvious to anyone able to see.

    Comment by Ivan — June 29, 2011 @ 12:40 am

  3. > there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs

    Yeah, that’s what they were telling us. And we should believe them because the bolsheviks would not lie, they never did. They were not trying (quite successfully, I must say) to save their asses and assets seeing the imminent collapse – oh no, it obviously was all about moral virtues.

    Comment by Ivan — June 29, 2011 @ 12:55 am

  4. IMO, whenever there is a gradient, a potential, change will happen sooner or later. The elite hit a glass ceiling. They were at the top of the pyramid, yet weren’t “prospering”. Dacha, special shop, special hospital, black Volga were pretty much it. Status was begging to be converted to material wealth. (I remember reading some journo’s impression of visiting Brezhnev’s old dacha a few years ago. He was irked by its modesty. “Even an office drone middle manager has a better crib these days”, or something to that effect). The cultural elite was also restless. Thanks to the Soviet Union’s respect of copyright, many were multi-millionaires, but had quickly run out of things to spend money on. “If only they’d loosen things up, I’ll show them! (with gratuitous display of bling)” in some ways infected all strata of society. Scientist and engineers were the best paid during the Steel Tyrant’s reign. By the late 80s their pay had not increased for 30 years, while that of everyone else did. “My dad is an engineer” jokes abound.

    But when the hammer fell, most were screwed of course. Some factory managers managed to privatize their fiefs, others had their brains blown out. Some apparatchiks upgraded their Volgas to Mercs, others were retired. No, Hollywood wasn’t waiting. Copyright meant nothing. Some top-tier scientists and athletes did OK though. After fighting so hard for the Jewish right to emigrate (and still fighting! – see Jackson-Vanik), amazingly the US abruptly shut the door. So Aliyah turned from a pretext to the one and only option. (Careful what you wish for!)

    The moral of the story is uravnilovka doesn’t work in the long term.

    Comment by So? — June 29, 2011 @ 12:59 am

  5. This time around, many Jews (and people claiming to be such) have returned to Russia.

    Gorby and Shevardnadze recollect inheriting a ship that was about to sink.

    Ariel the overrated ego is intellectually spoiled.

    Comment by Abe — June 29, 2011 @ 4:30 am

  6. By the late 80s their pay had not increased for 30 years, while that of everyone else did. “My dad is an engineer” jokes abound.

    When I first told my mother-in-law-to-be that I was an engineer, a look of sympathy came over her face. Perhaps nobody told her that in the west, engineers don’t end up in complete du…erm…um…maybe I should stop there!

    Anyway, I don’t think Russia will collapse, nor even go backwards. But like one of those multi-engined machines you see in redneck tractor pulling contests, the resistance to its moving forwards will require ever greater power to overcome and will reach a point of stagnation whereupon for the umpteenth time in its history people will wonder why Russia never achieved its potential.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 29, 2011 @ 11:51 am

  7. I prefer this Leon Hadar narrative from the recent American Conservative magazine, which makes the Gorby = Obama comparison. And as SWP is probably aware since I’ve seen his comments occasionally over at the Belmont Club, no less a Pajamas Media eminence than Glenn Reynolds has asked repeatedly: after America’s Gorby, who will be our Putin? We may not ever elect a drunk like Yeltsin to the White House, but my guess is Obama would already prefer to be selling Louis Vutton bags and cruising the world in NGO style ala Gorby right now rather than having to deal with the messy reality of imperial implosion. Let Michelle Bachmann become the Two Minutes Hate figure and the Queen of Austerity.

    And yes SWP, to confirm what your other commenter said, it’s hard to respect Mr. Cohen when I’ve heard so many stories through acquaintences about his saying one thing to please his masters in D.C. and another thing for itching ears in Moscow. Perhaps we all are guilty of that at one time or another, but there’s a big difference between outright kiss-assery and merely not being pedantic.

    Comment by Mr. X — June 29, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  8. MR. X – “it’s hard to respect Mr. Cohen when I’ve heard so many stories”

    LOL, nobody here seems to have read the article – if they had, they’d know that SWP made an error. It’s actually by Leon Aron, not Ariel Cohen.

    Comment by Tristan da Cunha — June 30, 2011 @ 12:01 am

  9. Actually, Cohen seems to be borrowing heavily from Leon Aron:

    They are right that the democratic – or national liberation – movement(s) in the USSR were fighting against injustice and lack of human dignity. But I don’t agree that the economy was “okay” – and indeed, in a few years the USSR went bankrupt.

    And I don’t think a moral fight for human dignity was enough. People were traveling and seeing uncensored images of the West on TV; they wanted the dignity of a full pantry, a VCR, and nice clothes they didn’t have to stand in line for. More importantly, the bureaucrats wanted that (and more), too. It was in their financial interest to go along with (allow, not protest) the break up of the country and dissolution of the old system.

    Putin and Co. learned that lesson. They have made it in the interest of the bureaucrats (and cops, security guys, military brass, etc.) to support the present system of unfettered corruption. In the old system, the guys in power hit a cement ceiling of privilege; now the sky is the limit.

    But Putin and Co. are making the mistake that every other corrupt leader in every other country and every other era has made. They think they’re smarter than everyone else. And they think their game will never end. But it will, because it always does.

    Comment by mossy — June 30, 2011 @ 2:49 am

  10. Hmm… hit your link, Professor, and got the Aron article. Did you confuse names or the link?

    Comment by mossy — June 30, 2011 @ 3:00 am

  11. I’m sure Putin realizes that he’s not invincible.

    The use of “corrupt” can get overly subjective. It’s okay to receive “donations” as a US politician, unlike the “bribes” that others abroad.

    Ariel Cohen might have a genuine disagreement with the necons on some matters like Chechnya. He comes across as a conservative (not neocon) pro-Israel advocate.

    RT has diven him a good amount of air time.

    Comment by Abe — June 30, 2011 @ 4:31 am

  12. I guess Leon Aron and Ariel Cohen are like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

    Comment by So? — June 30, 2011 @ 6:00 am

  13. No, Abe, it’s not all right for a US public servant to receive donations in return for favors. If you get caught, you get in trouble. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but in most places it’s not the standard. In Russia, it is the standard pretty much everywhere. And the sums — even by government estimations — are huge.

    Comment by mossy — June 30, 2011 @ 6:07 am

  14. Yeah. . . my bad. Cohen linked to it on FB, and I wrongly assumed it was his. Corrected.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 30, 2011 @ 7:16 am

  15. One needs only to spend a few days in Moscow talking to the intelligentsia or, better yet, to take a quick look at the blogs on LiveJournal (Zhivoy Zhurnal), Russia’s most popular Internet platform, or at the sites of the top independent and opposition groups to see that the motto of the 1980s — “We cannot live like this any longer!” — is becoming an article of faith again. The moral imperative of freedom is reasserting itself, and not just among the limited circles of pro-democracy activists and intellectuals.


    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — June 30, 2011 @ 8:36 am

  16. Mossy, a timely article on bribes/corruption in the US:

    Comparatively, I don’t deny that Russia has the greater corruption problem in a number of sectors.

    Comment by Abe — July 1, 2011 @ 12:45 am


    Here’s Daniel Larison’s take on Cohen’s weak attack on the ‘reset’. Very lame, especially if you support continuing the Afghan war. For that, Russia is indispensable, unless we want to keep paying huge bribes to Karachi port operators and all manner of Pashtun tribesmen and watch our truck convoys get blown up at the Khyber Pass anyway.

    Like the Spetsnaz officer asked the 9th Rota in the movie, “Sto delet vi Afghanistanye?”

    “Comparatively, I don’t deny that Russia has the greater corruption problem in a number of sectors.” Yes, but Russian corruption (i.e. what SWP calls ‘resource rents’) is an ongoing and acknowledged thing. It’s not like a massive ponzi scheme is at the heart of the entire global financial system i.e. Gubm’t Sachs, Turbotax Timmy and the Fed.

    Comment by Mr. X — July 1, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

  18. i.e. if the world economy blows up, SWP won’t be able to blame Russia for it. Probably the Kremlins had very good sources on the Street, in Boston, or were smart enough to bug the Goldman boys at some point along the line. It’s a pity they could never solve the structural problem of Russian companies needing to borrow hugely abroad while oil rents got sent to…Goldman Sachs and crappy Fannie paper! But at least the Kremlins remember Soros pillaging of Russia and have no problem exposing his proxies trying to do a repeat of their rape of Russia on Greece, the U.S. etc.

    Comment by Mr. X — July 1, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

  19. “That’s why the party that polls a distant second behind United Russia is the Communists.”

    Actually, the reason is massive, very well documented electoral fraud being perpetrated by the Kremlin. Nobody except the lowest of the low and stupidest of the stupid fail to accept this basic fact about Russia.

    “doubling of healthcare expenditures”

    If one visit to a qualified doctor costs $100 per person and Russia was spending $5 per person and then it raises that to $10, healthcare spending has doubled but still nobody can afford a qualified doctor. The imbeciles who write this gibberish simply can’t think at all, or can’t tell the truth. They ignore the fact that Russians under Putin still don’t rank in the top 130 countries of the world for lifespan.

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 1, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

  20. For once, I agree with Phobie/aka crazy Ekaterina Fitzpatrickeva (she is until the real deal steps forward and denies it). Merely doubling health care expenditures does not improve outcomes. If that were the case, Obamacare should be a smashing success.

    And Phobie, how’s that eating cat food in Manhattan retirement plan coming along when your days of getting paid to run the planet’s 1,500,000th most popular website are done?

    Comment by Mr. X — July 2, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

  21. Mr. X:

    Why are you spamming this fine blog?

    Does it occur to you that your comment is solely motivated by a response to our comments, and meanwhile you are calling us insignificant? Isn’t that a ludicrous contradiction of truly neo-Soviet scale?

    Isn’t it rather odd to question somebody’s identity when you are called Mr. X?

    What more successful blog do YOU write for?

    Are you aware that La Russophobe has been quoted by such major publications as the New York Review of Books?

    Can you name ANY English-language Russia politics blog that is more successful than La Russophobe?

    Are you aware that LR’s founder has regular columns about Russia on both Pajamas Media and the American Thinker? Have you checked their rankings recently?

    There’s no doubt that most people in the world care nothing about Russia, it is a nasty, dangerous, boring hell-hole of a country with third-world living conditions and nothing of even remote interest to most normal people. LR isn’t written to generate a mass audience, it’s written to influence those who influence Russia policy, and at that it is more effective than any other Russia blog on this planet.

    Well, to put it another way — your jealousy (and immaturity, and bitterness) are showing, as well as your stupidity. Isn’t it a bit late in LR’s august tenur for such silly jibes?

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 4, 2011 @ 7:08 am

  22. Ms. Fitzpatrick,

    I stand by my comment, despite many people who normally agree with me insisting that Catherine Fitzpatrick can’t possibly be LR. The NYC location, general loopiness, waaaaaay too much free time on her hands, no obvious means of support in one of the world’s most expensive cities — all match up too well.

    And the critical difference between you and me is I don’t hide behind my anonymity to Google bomb people or otherwise libel them. Mr. X doesn’t need to keep his identity hidden to avoid libel suits in New York State court. I merely disagree. But I’ve never suggested all Kremlins critics are Berezovsky/Khodorkovsky paid hacks, nor personally insulted the host of this site. I merely point out to him that if he doesn’t trust Washington to run his state or his life, perhaps he should take their foreign policy views with a bigger chunk of skepticism.

    Comment by Mr. X — July 6, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

  23. Live by the Google-bomb, get Google-bombed in return

    Catherine Fitzpatrick = Prokofy Neva = La Russophobe

    Comment by Mr. X — July 6, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

  24. Mr. X: But that’s what you are doing right now! Except, of course, that nobody cares what you say while LR shakes the earth.

    Meanwhile, nice job ignoring all the direct questions, you’ve proven your Kremlin colors quite clearly.

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 7, 2011 @ 5:59 am


    “LR shakes the earth” with its girth.

    Comment by Pietro — July 7, 2011 @ 7:24 am

  26. Just to help you look foolish —

    Step 1: LR publishes an original translation of the latest Nemtsov white paper.

    Step 2: Nemtsov, former First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, republishes the translation on his blog.

    Step 3: The Washington Post cites the translation when reporting that Nemtsov has just been banned from international travel for half a year.

    Question: What other Russia blog can say the same?

    Answer: None.

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 7, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  27. Phobie/wacky Fitzpatrickeva,

    Your stuff got picked up by The Washington Post because as Eugene Ivanov has documented, it’s Pravda on the Potomac when it comes to Russia, subject to all sorts of hackery. The Post’s ombudsman couldn’t be bothered to enforce the Post’s own rules in early 2009 regarding anonymous letter writers when ‘Kim Zigfeld’ wrote in to libel/defame some Russian girl speaking up in defense of her country as a Kremlin stooge. Unfortunately, they never bothered to follow up on an email suggesting that Fitzpatrick might be Zigfeld.

    And yes Phobie, I can name plenty of English-language sites that frequently report on Russia that have more regular readers than your sorry libel/Google bombing blog, even within that admittedly narrow ‘niche’. Chicago-area writer Daniel Larison at the American Conservative’s Eunomia gets more viewers, for instance. So does former BusinessWeek reporter Steve LeVine over at FP’s The Oil and the Glory, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. None of them cower behind anonymity to defame/libel real people who use their real names.

    Here’s a great Larison post quoting Congressman Ron Paul — who yes Phobie, while a favorite interviewee of Russia Today, has received vastly more votes and raised far more money than U.S. stooges in Russia like Garry Kasparov could ever dream of doing in their homelands. So in that sense, the Russians are giving us a bigger dose of our own propaganda medicine, but it’s less propagandistic than even some of the stuff RFE/RL churns out. And you can see how much the usual suspects in D.C. like it — commissioning a group of Columbia U grad students to post hit pieces on RT, while giving high praise to Al-Jazeera. Hmmm, could it be that the latter represents a country allied with the U.S., Qatar, while the former is dishing it out as well as taking it?

    I wish to emphasize that I take this position not because I am in support of the regime in Belarus, or anywhere else. I take this position because it is dangerous folly to be the nation that arrogates to itself the right to determine the leadership of the rest of the world. As we teeter closer to bankruptcy, it should be more obvious that we need to change our foreign policy to one of constructive engagement rather than hostile interventionism. And though it scarcely should need to be said, I must remind my colleagues today that we are the U.S. House of Representatives, and not some sort of world congress. We have no constitutional authority to intervene in the wholly domestic affairs of Belarus or any other sovereign nation. ~Rep. Ron Paul

    Presumably Phobie will resume her default setting of asking whether Ron Paul should be provoking a nation as big and powerful as the U.S. which can squash Belarus and Russia like a bug. Because we’ve done such a bang up job thus far (illegally) waging war on Libya and removing Gaddafi from power. let’s never discuss whether all the money is going to run out and fast to fund the NRI/NED/Soros front groups and all the rest and keep Phobie at least able to buy cat food in Manhattan. Let’s not ask if it’s our turn to crackup due to imperial overstretch.

    Comment by Mr. X — July 7, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  28. LR chumped out of a live panel discussion on the BBC.

    That some give that rag kudos is an indictment on the crappy coverage of the former Soviet Union.

    Comment by Pietro — July 7, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

  29. You are a true Russiann P-S-Y-C-H-O-P-A-T-H.

    LR is not remotely like “The Oil and the Glory.” We ALWAYS report on Russia, you braying jackass, not “frequently” as does TOATG. LOTS more people are interested in “oil” than in “Russia.” It’s also not a stand-alone blog, it’s part of a gigantic website funded by a major organization. And your suggestion that TOATG has “more viewers” than LR is both totally undocumented and oblivious of the fact that there are virtually no comments on TOATG while LR has innumerable posts with hundreds of comments.

    Your sick, childish, ignorant neo-Soviet lies only make you look that much more ridiculous. LR has seen blogs like Russia Blog, even though promulgated by the Discovery Institute, into their graves. It is by far the most influential Russia blog on this planet, as can be seen from the simple fact that if LR did not matter, you would ignore it. Instead you are utterly obsessed with it, and can only respond to facts with bizarre hallucinations.

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 8, 2011 @ 5:30 am

  30. Few readers will fail to notice that you don’t even try — don’t even try! — to name an example of how ANY other RUSSA BLOG’S reporting was embraced by the Russian opposition and then reported on by one of the world’s leading newspapers, or achieved any remotely similar accomplishment. You don’t because you can’t.

    Likewise, you ignore our vast body of work on other, much bigger generalist blogs:

    Like Russia itself, in other words, you simply cannot face or tell the truth.

    Comment by La Russophobe — July 8, 2011 @ 5:37 am

  31. Freaks like yourself can get a following, due to the interest that msny have for the bizarre.

    Your lack of knowledge and intelligence is crystal clear when put into a reasonably moderated panel situation. That’s why you chumped out of a BBC appearance.

    Comment by Pietro — July 8, 2011 @ 6:00 am

  32. And you can’t stop hiding from a libel suit in New York court, Phobie.

    Comment by Mr. X — July 8, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

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