Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 1

By Tatyana Matsyuk

Since the events of 17 August, discussions of the causes of Russia’s crisis and of its present and future have become commonplace not just in the Russian press, but in the world’s media. These discussions were brought to a head, particularly, by the interview which the former Russian Vice Premier Alfred Kokh gave to the Russian-language radio station WMNB in the United States. Let us recall his more controversial points.

Alfred Kokh asserted that in the worldwide division of labor Russia was, is and will remain a raw materials appendage. The world’s economy was formed without Russia; nobody needs it and it only gets in the way, bringing prices down. Russia has nothing that cannot be found anywhere else. The hi-tech industries in Russia produce only weapons. Not many of these are needed, and thus thinking people leave the country. Russia is facing collapse, breaking up into a dozen small states. There are laws of economics which do not allow for a “separate path”. Russia’s economic woes stem mainly from seventy years of communism, which defiled the people’s soul and mind–creating a “homo sovieticus” who does not want to work but only wants bread and circuses. Russia should forget about great power status and join the ranks of Brazil, China and India. Just one parachute regiment would be enough to take away its nuclear weapons.

Most of Kokh’s opponents were disturbed not by the content but by the tone of his observations. I, however, am opposed to his views in principle and believe it is necessary to find different answers to the questions posed by recent events:

1. Who needs Russia, other than Russia itself, and for what purpose?

2. Is Russia facing imminent break-up?

3. Is there room for “separate paths” in economics?

4. What are the reasons for Russia’s woes and where is the way out?

I believe that the key to an analysis of the situation within the country and of Russia’s place in the international community lies in the phenomenon of globalization.

Globalization is generally taken to mean the single financial market, the Internet and other communications systems, the worldwide division of labor, the unification of Europe and so on. In other words, basically the informational and economic aspects of a process which mainly affect the more developed nations–and which, I believe, are only a partial manifestation of what is happening. Essentially, human society has flourished and developed to such an extent that no one country or group of countries can exist in isolation without taking heed of what is happening outside its zones of direct interest. Any significant human activity in one part of the world inevitably and palpably affects all other parts.

Despite Mr. Kokh’s assertions, Russia is not simply a nuclear power whose entire history demonstrates that taking anything from it by force is useless. Russia was a powerful industrial country which produced everything. And if all this, including nuclear reactors, chemicals, various types of weapons and so on, begins to collapse, begins to be pulled apart uncontrollably, then the consequences will be felt as far away as the South Pole.

Another reason why the situation in Russia cannot but affect everyone is the sale of arms, which are still superior to their foreign analogues in many respects. Corrupt Russian officials and hungry defense workers are unlikely to give much consideration to the trustworthiness of their clients, but clearheaded people cannot but be concerned by this issue–as they must also be by the prospect of national-radicals from the left or the right coming to power in an impoverished country.

Does this mean that developed countries need Russia only because they are afraid of it but also see it as a huge source of raw materials, sales market and waste depository? Many people here believe that this is so. But I think this view is superficial and shortsighted, for Russia’s role in a world which perceives itself as united is vital and even unique.

Russia is the only country which is comparable to the world in its size, the variety of natural and economic conditions and the cultures of its peoples. It is almost a miniature of the world. It has its own “Europe,” “Asia” and “Africa.” All levels of development can be found here, from tribal systems to post-industrial societies. Every economic structure can also be found here, from the primitive natural economy to the modern market economy.

Such unique variety within one country arose as a result of the consolidation of colonies and metropolises into a united whole. It is extremely difficult to stabilize the internal life of such a heterogeneous structure, whose individual peoples, territories and social groups gravitate towards different social models: There is perpetual upheaval. But there is also an enhanced stability with respect to outside influences.

Europeans cannot live without light, heat or salaries. For people in Afghanistan these are not the most pressing problems at the moment. But Russians, even those who live in European conditions, are capable of adapting, if necessary, to conditions closer to those in Afghanistan. The absence of one standard of living and the ability of its people to adjust to difficult circumstances explains the failure both of Russia’s would-be invaders and of its reformers.

All attempts to influence Russia by force or to make major changes in its life on the basis of ideas imported from outside have ended in failure. Suffering heavy losses, the country always returned to its original state, which can be identified as world average. Here a significant part is played by pre-capitalist nonmarket relations. The country’s rich human and natural resources–combined with the fact that people are used to adjusting to the vagaries of nature–mean that social upheaval is seen as a natural phenomenon and there is no need to put a lot of effort into looking for another point of equilibrium. Having visited Russia soon after the 1917 revolution, H.G. Wells wrote a book called “Russia in the Shadows.” “And that’s its geographical position, too,” a Russian contemporary commented. Unfortunately, up until now this has been the case. Russia’s troubles did not begin in 1917 (the revolution was just one of their consequences), but with Ivan the Terrible, if not earlier. The crisis model to which the country keeps returning is geared towards overcoming internal contradictions, using the image of an outside enemy–real or imagined. It is reminiscent of a Russian monastery with thick walls, a single ideology, a strict hierarchy, a natural economy, great common lands and peasant serfs. It is not the most worthy or devout who rule here, and there are plenty of layabouts, thieves and drunkards among the ordinary inhabitants (why this should be is a matter for interesting discussion). But it is not they who are the face or the engine of the nation. To help Russia is to help the honest professionals, who want to work and live in dignity, turn the situation to their advantage. But this is not easy, and Russia cannot do it on its own, because it is only a mirror of the world. The national character of its people and their culture (in the broadest sense of the word) are a result of adjusting to life. It is impossible to change them overnight just because “reformers” want to: The Bolsheviks simply destroyed anyone whom they deemed unsuitable for revolutionary change, but were still unsuccessful. To this day, Russia has only shown the world how not to do things. It has been a sort of research laboratory where the international community proved to itself the bankruptcy of the ideas for world social reconstruction and the inadequacy of the means for achieving it. It is the same today: The desire of academics, politicians and businessmen to change the world to suit themselves better is understandable and not unreasonable, but again problems arise with its implementation.

Alfred Kokh considers Russia’s break-up to be as inevitable as the collapse of the USSR. Is this, then, an objective process which is capable of improving the situation as a whole?

I don’t think so. First because shattering the mirror does not change the reality which it reflects. Democrats dislike the way that the relatively wealthy Russian capital cities shut themselves off from poor outsiders, but do Britain and the United States behave differently towards immigrants? Second, the collapse of the USSR and that of Russia are two completely different propositions.

The Soviet Union was basically an empire whose peoples–even if they had voluntarily united with Russia–were choosing the lesser of two evils. A single state of that type was bound to collapse sooner or later. In 1991, the mood of the national elites also accelerated its collapse: The intelligentsia was hoping for new opportunities; the local nomenklatura was afraid of losing everything it had. Moreover, most people this side of the fallen Iron Curtain idealized the West, counted on its total support and hoped that a new phase in international relations was beginning.

There are no illusions left now. Everyone now sees that the break-up of the USSR only aggravated the problems of the entire region. The CIS countries are still forced to gravitate towards each other, and will probably try to create a closer union again.

Russia’s regional leaders understand this situation very well, to the displeasure of the center. For all the multiplicity of its peoples, Russia is united by a common history and culture and the ubiquitous Russian-speaking population much more strongly than was the USSR. The most likely scenario, therefore, is that central power will be weakened to the advantage of the regions. The creation of a confederation is even possible, with the secession of certain regions (above all Chechnya). But the appearance of a host of crown principalities instead of Russia would not in the current circumstances be the best or the most likely scenario. This might be possible if national radicals came to power as a result of civil war, but as yet this can be avoided.

Globalization is characterized by the weakening of the role of the nation-state as an institution. On the one hand, supranational, interstate formations appear, but on the other hand tendencies towards autonomy and separatism gather momentum among separate territories and peoples within states. This means that the interests of large national formations and social groups should cede priority to the interests of mankind as a whole and individual personalities (the latter often express themselves through the interests of the local community). And in 1991 politicians the world over had a real chance to place relations in the international community on a new footing. For the first time in its history Russia could have been a positive example, a laboratory where ways could have been developed to solve the world’s problems by peaceful means, on the basis of an individual approach to each nation and region and finding the best balance of interests. But the chance was lost–but, fortunately, not irretrievably.

The uneven development of the nations of the world, like the existence of different generations in the family, seems to be one of the conditions for the survival of humanity (at least until a certain point in its development). A child cannot and should not lead the life of an adult, but he should eat well and should have everything he needs. Otherwise (particularly if he is exploited), when he has grown up and become stronger than his now elderly relatives who are accustomed to comfort, he will make life very difficult for them. Making territories socially and economically equal while preserving their cultural diversity is the main condition for stability both of Russia and of the international community as a whole in the age of globalization (The new united Europe is a union of equals.) But an unregulated market oriented towards mass production and a single standard cannot provide this, neither on a worldwide scale nor just in Russia. The wealth of developed nations is built in many ways on the one-sided openness of their markets and the exploitation of countries with lower standards of living. The recent world crises convincingly demonstrated the imperfection and flimsiness of the existing system of international economic management and of the rules by which it functions. There are undoubtedly general laws of economics. But even the laws of physics have their parameters, and have different manifestations in different conditions; whereas here we are talking about human activity. Moreover, we need to distinguish between the laws themselves and our imperfect understanding of them, particularly if this understanding was formed during social, political and military confrontation and was not free of ideology on either side of the Iron Curtain.

It would be too bold, I think, to talk of the worldwide division of labor as an established system. The preconditions for the transition from an international division of labor, which does not imply a single system, to a truly worldwide one only appeared in 1991 and have yet to be fully taken advantage of.

What can Russia contribute to the world economy which does not exist in other places? In terms of the categories of industrial society, then the answer is only raw materials and arms. In the same way, India and China, the most populous countries, are not superpowers because in their thousand-year histories they have given the world Confucius, Gandhi, chess, yoga and porcelain rather than missiles, cars and the mass entertainment industry. But Russia can give a great deal more to the world in the post-industrial era of globalization.

Russia’s varied natural conditions and its natural wealth make it possible to produce very high quality and inexpensive foodstuffs, natural medicines and cosmetics using environmentally sound technologies. The climate of the central zone with its natural forests, medicinal springs, lakes, rivers, seas and mountains create unrivaled opportunities for developing health resorts and tourism. This will naturally require considerable investment in ecology, construction, transport and so on, but it would certainly be worth it. The conditions of life in Russia stimulate powers of analytical thought and creativity. Russians tend to think systematically, globally, often putting the search for the truth before short-term gain. Pragmatists think this is a disadvantage, but in the age of globalization this type of thought is the defining one. And it is thanks to this that, for all the monstrosities of the Soviet system, education and science in the Soviet Union really were the best in the world. They may have mainly served the defense industry, but not exclusively. If necessary, Russia could produce anything, albeit often for restricted use.

Real professionals, their brains and their hands–these are Russia’s main riches. Many of these people will not leave Russia, because they cannot (because they possess state secrets, or have no money, or are too old, and so on); others do not want to, because they cannot find an atmosphere conducive to life and creativity outside their homeland. I think these people now make up less than one-third of the country’s employable population, but each of them is worth several people. If they could be given help in dealing with the nomenklatura and crime which slow everything down, and if their creative abilities could be supplemented with Western practicality and funds, then Russia could reveal to the world possibilities that it does not even suspect exist.

While looking for investment projects in the field of science, I have discovered a large number of prototypes of highly competitive developments–from supercomputers to a naturally-occurring insulin substitute. It should also not be forgotten that Eurasian Russia is a natural bridge between the often opposing cultures of the two parts of the Old World and is really in a position to facilitate understanding between them.

The following conclusions can be drawn:

1. Russia’s problems did not appear in 1917: They are a reflection of the problems of the entire international community and they can only be dealt with in a civilized manner by joint effort.

2. The break-up of Russia would only aggravate the situation, and so should be avoided. This is still possible at the moment. The path to stability lies in making the regions more equal socially and economically as they become more independent.

3. In order to help Russia it is not enough to give the government money and make individual investments in the economy; a special set of measures is required.

4. If the Russian reforms are successful, the returns will greatly outweigh the costs, but failure will hit everyone very hard.

5. While humanity has the chance for a better future, so does Russia.

Tatyana Matsyuk is chief scientific officer at the Institute of Employment Issues of the Russian Academy of Sciences.