Streetwise Professor

October 25, 2008

Today’s Reading

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:37 pm

Is from Bruce Porter’s War and the Rise of the State (1994):

The Russian historian VasiliKlyuchevsky maintains that overtaking the West militarily was the undeviating goal of the entire Petrine reform program, even of those administrative innovations that were not directly military in nature. The obsession was passed on to his successors as well, catapulting Russia on a three-centuries-long course of Herculean efforts to keep pace with Western military advances. Because the Western powers interacted far more closely with one another in commerce, diplomacy and war–and because of the more rapid progress of capitalism, and later industrialization, in Western Europe–the West achieved rapid rates of technological innovation that Russia found difficult to match. The effort to catch up was a constant leitmotiv of Russian history from the time of Peter the Great onward. In attempting to match the West while rejecting Western values and refusing to liberalize Russian society, Russia only reinforced its autocratic course; state-driven innovation was substituted for social initiative, and despotism became an instrument for containing the social forces unleashed by modernization.

This passage struck me because a similar theme was raised by MIchel in one of his comments on “Russian Interlude.” I also found the last couple of sentences suggestive of current developments; rejection of Western values, refusal to liberalize, state driven innovation (e.g., Russian Technology Corporation, SC Rosnanotech, the declaration of anything that moves–even internet marketing companies–as “strategic”), the use of information control to “contain social forces. It all worked out so well before, so why not try it again?

Have at it, folks.

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  1. Well, there are other strains that I would add to the theme of state-driven development.

    Historically, some of the major bursts of development in Russia were built on forced (I would call it slave) labor. St. Petersburg was built in a marsh and countless thousands died when building Peter the Great’s city. He could call upon the labor of the serfs to build his empire. The same can be said for Stalin’s industrialization drive: much was built by using the slave labor of the GULAG’s to build railroads, and bridges, and dig mines.

    The fact of the matter is that you can force people to work physically, but how can you force them to think? The GULAG labor built roads, but it did not lead to any new breakthroughs in science.

    Yes, the Soviet Union did produce great physicists and chemists and others outside of the GULAGs. However, the other component was state secrecy. The state could develop new technologies using secret labs, in secret cities to develop new weapons. You needed some specialists working on specific projects to achieve needed breakthroughs in certain fields. The Soviet space program is a good example of this. However, can anybody name any notable Soviet inventions that were not military or para-military (as in the Soviet space program)? Nothing comes to my mind.

    Now, we say that we are in the information age. What does this mean? In my opinion, modern innovation and prosperity is built upon the effective and rapid dissemination of information and the easy access of the masses to that information. The ability to think and to share knowledge is what enables new inventions, new breakthroughs, new forms of prosperity. The problem is that this free flow of information goes counter to the the goals of authoritarian states to control information. If your population has free access to information, then they can also learn that the good news touted by the state is not so rosy. They can think for themselves and challenge what the state says, and this is what authoritarian states fear most.

    States, I would argue, must sacrifice innovation and future economic success if they are to control information and limit the freedoms of its population. Russia will try to emulate the West, but until it accepts Western freedoms fully, it will never rise above parody, and Russia will never be more than a pale and somewhat kitschy imitation of the West.

    Comment by Michel — October 26, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  2. Your post assumes that Russia’s rejection of the West was one-way, whereas in fact the West played a prominent role in pushing back integration with Russia – from Sweden/Poland’s denial of trade routes via the Baltic Sea for West European good and technologies in the 15th century, to keeping it out of Western-dominated institutions (WTO, EU, NATO) today. Given permanent Western hostility is it not surprising that military modernization and consequently the state has played such a prominent part in Russian history.

    Comment by Da Russophile — October 26, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  3. Western hostility? My dear Russophile, you overlook one thing. Various kingdoms and states in the West were always eager to trade and do business with Muscovy and later Russia. During the reign of the first Elizabeth, for example, English merchants sailed into Arkhangelsk which was Russia main port before the construction of St. Petersburg. They were looking for trade with Russia. If you travel to Arkhagelsk, you will see in the historical old city a number of building that are a testament to this early English presence in Russia. Da Russophile, you voice the typical Russian nationalist worldview: the West is always out to diminish and bring Great Russia to its knees, when in reality there were always competing powers in the “West” and some were very open to relations with Russia. The Princes and Tsars were not always open to this foreign influence, but that is another story….

    Comment by Michel — October 26, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

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