Streetwise Professor

February 28, 2010

Unclear on the Concepts

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:15 am

Last week I mentioned Vladimir Balaeff, remarking on a rare moment of (partial) agreement.  In this week’s Russia Profile “Expert’s Panel,” Balaeff provides a pitch-perfect illustration of what passes for serious Russian commentary, which serves to demonstrate why we seldom agree.  Speaking of Medvedev’s proposals to reform the police, he says:

Two factors are critical to the success of any kinds of reforms, in any country, and especially in Russia today: obedience to law by everyone and abatement of corruption in all parts of social activity.
One must point out that disregard for the law and extensive corruption are not exclusively Russian, nor endemic to the Russian society. American history up to the present is replete with examples of major corruption – Tammany Hall and the Teapot Dome are just a couple of egregious examples from the past. Bernard Madoff and the present misdemeanors of the American financial community are good examples of how the “rule of law” is fictitious in the very country that claims to be its staunchest adherent.

. . . .

The status quo of Russia’s Interior Ministry is indefensible and reform is unavoidable. However, it is unreasonable to propose that the Ministry is 100 percent corrupt and completely useless. To suggest its complete dismantling is pedestrian – there are no credible proposals of how the much-needed functions fulfilled by the Interior Ministry in Russia would be allocated in a future configuration, without such a ministry. Proposing the United States as an example is not valid – in America police functions are largely located at the state level, using organizations which in the aggregate are even larger and more costly than the entire Russian Interior Ministry (and also exhibit corruption and propensity to police brutality – consider the current prosecution of New York police officers involved in the Mineo case).

This is self-satirizing.  The irresistible compulsion to soften any criticism of Russia with a barrage of whataboutism is particularly, and tiresomely, characteristic.  I mean, Tammany Hall (19th century)?  Teapot Dome (1921-1922)?  When do we get to the part about the Trojan War?  Yes, there are corrupt police in the United States.  But on the corrupt-o-meter where Russia scores 11 on a scale of 10, the US barely budges the needle.  And what difference does corruption in the US make, anyways, as to deciding what Russia should do to address its “law enforcement” (as if) issues?  Do two wrongs make a right?

And even the examples that Balaeff dusts off to say whatabout (or should it be whaddabout?)  don’t necessarily make Russia look good by comparison.  Consider Teapot Dome.  In that episode, a government official Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased oil properties in no-bid contracts to companies run by men who had given Fall large loans.  The scheme was uncovered.  It was the subject of a very public Senate investigation.  Fall was convicted of bribery and spent a year in jail.

Contrast that with the pervasive corruption in the modern Russian energy business, and the complete lack of any public audit thereof by the legislative or judicial branches of government.  (Unless, of course, you happen to run afoul of the power structures for having the temerity to challenge them politically.)  The US comes off quite well in comparison, I think. Russia could very much use a Teapot Dome scandal.  The underlying pattern of misconduct is rife in Russia: all that is missing is the scandal.  And that is the real scandal.

Balaeff’s invocation of Madoff in an attempt to discredit the rule of law in the United States is either despicable, or merely shockingly ignorant depending on Balaeff’s true understanding of what “rule of law” means.  Contrary to Balaeff’s insinuation, “rule of law” does not mean that nobody breaks the law, so the existence of sleaze like Bernie Madoff does not show the rule of law to be a lie in the US.  Like, duh.  The rule of law means, in part, that those who who are accused of violating the law are tried according to a set of standards and procedures that are applied equally to all, irrespective of rank or position or person, and that one may not be deprived of life, liberty, or property by the state without due process.  Of course, in the event, adherence to the standard is imperfect, as is everything in this fallen world.  But the very fact that Madoff is incarcerated, and was so after a regular and relentless application of legal procedure is an illustration of how the process should and can work.  Again, contrast this with what passes for Russian justice for wealthy alleged malfeasors in Russia is quite illuminating.

Sean’s Russia Blog provides another interesting example of fundamental Russian misunderstandings about some basic economic and political concepts.  SRB reproduces an editorial from an editorial in, a “part of the small but emerging Russian New Left which uncompromisingly seeks to restructure Marxian theory and praxis for a new century.”

The editorial’s diagnosis of Russia’s problems is, in a nutshell: 1990s liberalism:

In short, the current backwardness of Russia is a direct, natural, and logical result of liberal reforms in the past 20 years. And if we want to overcome this backwardness, we need to first of all overcome the conditions which reproduce it. Namely the social and economic system that we have built over the past two decades and consign its ideology and politics to the dustbin of history.

It is precisely our social and political system that produces and reproduces backwardness, blocks development and makes whatever novations that are really meaningful and useful to society unnecessary, dangerous and impossible. Attempts to substitute change with ridiculous “innovation” essentially boils down to the implementation high-cost projects based on the introduction of fashionable foreign technology, the viability and relevance of which is even more called into doubt in the West. Instead of a new society we are getting new toys.


Whatever the grand problem of the Soviet era, we have not reckoned with the fact that the attempts to solve it with liberal capitalism have made the situation worse, not better. De-industrialization, which has occurred in the West under the slogan of the transition to an information society, has also turned into a serious socio-economic crisis that has undermined the foundations of their traditional way of life and the purchasing power of their population.  Almost all of the innovative potential of society has been given to the invention of various high-tech toys, financial speculation and promotion of self-destructive parasitic consumption. But whatever the costs of this process, it was accompanied by the undeniable progress in many areas of life.

This leftist critique of Russia’s current problems is, ironically, quite consistent with the rightist critique advanced by Surkov, although their remedies are different: Surkov claims that it is necessary to preserve and extend the existing state driven system, whereas the neo-Marxists claim that a systemic change is necessary.

But whether from the left or the right, the critique is clearly off-base.  Certainly some of what happened in Russia in the 90’s was done in the name of liberalism, but to call it liberalism (in the classical sense) is laughable.  In part, what happened in Russia was a reflection of the misunderstanding of liberalism by its proponents (recognizing a pattern here?); in part it was the result of a cynical exploitation of the concept; and in part it was due to failures in implementation (likely inevitable given the Herculean nature of the task).  But whatever the explanation, a truly liberal, law-based society never came close to being born in Russia in the 1990s, and under Putin whatever tentative steps had been made in that direction were reversed. But Rabkor’s frequent statements about the system of the “last 20 years” make it plain that they think that Putinism is liberalism.  Clueless or Orwellian?  Your call.

The Rabkor editors also argue that liberals deny the necessity of fundamental systemic institutional change in Russia:

It is precisely our social and political system that produces and reproduces backwardness, blocks development and makes whatever novations that are really meaningful and useful to society unnecessary, dangerous and impossible. Attempts to substitute change with ridiculous “innovation” essentially boils down to the implementation high-cost projects based on the introduction of fashionable foreign technology, the viability and relevance of which is even more called into doubt in the West. Instead of a new society we are getting new toys.

We don’t need to swap computers, but the system. Support for science and education requires more than increasing the budgets of bureaucratic agencies, but a crackdown on these very agencies and the cessation of their guiding policies. Industrial development is possible, but not at the expense of state subsidies to oligarchs, but based on the expropriation of oligarchs’ capital and property.

Society can, and in historical perspective must, formulate its own project of modernization because the only alternative to change is the decline and the actual transformation of Russia into “Burkina Faso with missiles”. And then, really without missiles. But changes require a base – and it’s far from those who offer us chinovniki who distribute money to national projects. Before anything new is done, its necessary to get rid of the old people and organizations responsible for the current situation.

When the president talks about the modernization of Russia, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. But can the leader of its political system implement the changes necessary for the country?

But the gravamen of the liberal critique is, well, that the “social and political system . . . produces and reproduces backwardness” and that more fundamental changes in these systems–starting with the political and legal systems–are required to move beyond backwardness.  The criticism of technocratic solutions is better directed at the Surkovs than liberals.

In brief, whether from left or right, it is pretty clear that critiques of liberalism in modern Russia are wide of the mark.  Not that I think that substantial progress towards liberalism in Russia has a snowball’s chance in Burkina Faso.  But it would be preferable if those who declaim on the subject had a clue as to what they are talking about.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. An old Soviet-era joke: An American hotel guest in Moscow, shocked by the appallingly crude conditions of his accommodation, complains to the manager. The manager responds: “Yes, but you lynch blacks.”

    And so hotels remained just as they were throughout the Soviet period, and foreigners went on laughing at backwards Russia, until the whole society simply collapsed.

    Encore une fois? Apres moi le deluge?

    Comment by La Russophobe — February 28, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  2. I am an Oxford grad and was told a joke by a Moscow graduate, as follows:

    A graduate from MGU and one from Oxford are taking a pee. The Oxford graduate washes his hands, the MGU one doesn’t. The Oxford grad turns to the MGU one and in a superior tone of voice informs him that in Oxford they are taught to wash their hands after taking a pee. The MGU grad replies, quick as a flash, that at MGU they’re taught not to piss on their hands. [Much hilarity ensues].

    The intention is to put down Oxford grads but all it does is disclose a blithe misunderstanding of basic hygiene.

    Comment by Gaw — February 28, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

  3. The Madoff example is a bad call on Balaeff’s part; more appropriate would have been the investment banks’ fleecing of the taxpayer.
    How is that different from the Kremlin’s subsidies to its oligarchs?
    The US has rule of law, but it seems for some more than for others.

    That is a disgusting, ignorant, and culturally insensitive Russophobic “joke”. Russians in the UK are frequently disgusted by the British habit of picking up food they drop to the ground and continuing eating it.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — February 28, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

  4. S/O: if you haven’t noticed my anti-bailout stance, you haven’t been paying attention.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 28, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  5. I have noticed your anti-bailout stance; I am questioning why the Kremlin’s bailout of the oligarchs is considered “worse” than the US bailout of Wall Street.

    Another question I have is to what extent can the US be considered to have rule of law when if you steal billions, you are celebrated, but if you’re a small-time crook, three strikes and you’re out. Hence the comment about the US having rule of law, but for some more than for others.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — February 28, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  6. I think the point is that America was pretty corrupt back in the robber baron days, but got cleaned up eventually. So one can certainly learn from her experience. (I know that Teddy screwed Russia by secretly backing the Japs, but he seems like a great president otherwise. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to see the blowback. Neither did Reagan’s mind, alas.) WRT the urinal shenenigans, the stuff is pretty clean when it’s right out of the “tap”. Can also be beneficial . Personal disclosure: I stopped washing my hands after #1’s (the only ones I do there) at work about a year ago. I figured that touching the taps would put me at risk of getting whatever my colleagues may have after washing their hands post-#2.

    Comment by So? — March 1, 2010 @ 2:52 am

  7. “Certainly some of what happened in Russia in the 90’s was done in the name of liberalism, but to call it liberalism (in the classical sense) is laughable.

    I recall a variety of whiny academic Marxist saying much the same about the USSR.

    Comment by rkka — March 1, 2010 @ 5:42 am

  8. +++That is a disgusting, ignorant, and culturally insensitive Russophobic “joke”.+++

    No. This joke is as old as United States Navy and Marine Corps are since the classic version involves a sailor and a marine.

    How on earth did it morph into a joke about an Oxford and an MSU students, only God knows…

    Comment by LL — March 1, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  9. LL–

    My favorite Navy/Marine Corps joke has the punchline: “Yes, but we invented it with women.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 1, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  10. The British laughing at Russian hygiene, I think I had seen enough. 🙂

    Comment by Leos Tomicek — March 2, 2010 @ 1:18 am

  11. My friendly Russian interlocutors:

    The joke was told to me by an MGU graduate. He was laughing at British hygiene.

    I merely point out that his appreciation of the rationale for not washing one’s hands after a #1 seemed insufficient. Not everyone possesses permanently pristine johnsons that have never been lodged in dark and unsanitary places.

    The whole thing seemed analogous with being lectured about liberalism by Russians.

    Next up: the Russian sense of humour and proportion.

    Comment by Gaw — March 2, 2010 @ 4:31 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress