A group of private entrepreneurs has recently
built a small pig farm near Moscow, to supply the local populace with
fresh pork. They have managed to overcome the usual bureaucratic
barriers that still make many co-operatives uncertain ventures.
But they have overlooked one factor. The locals
would see them not as the long-awaited saviours from lines and
shortages, but as "tall poppies" who need to be cut down.
After three arson attempts and despite a
round-the-clock vigil by the co-operative members, all that was left of
the farm were cinders and burnt pig carcasses.
The Moscow News, which described the incident in a
recent issue, points to a "happy end"; a nearby collective farm with
some unused property allowed the co-operative to carry on its work.
But the fiery debates over the virtues and
pitfalls of private economic initiative continue unabated. In fact,
judging by the vehemence of the arguments and the space they are
allotted in the press, this problem - which is really a problem of
influence and, ultimately, power in Soviet society - is at the centre of
In the end, its resolution will determine the
success or failure of perestroika (restructuring), as it determined the
fate of Soviet economic and political life half a century earlier.
A number of respected Soviet economists and
historians agree now that small-scale private enterprise, introduced by
Lenin in 1921 as "new economic policy" and later abolished by Stalin,
was instrumental in rebuilding the Soviet economy after the ravages of
revolution and the civil war.
By the end of 1922, the young Soviet republic
could even contemplate grain exports. By 1925-1926, the economy was
growing at an astonishing rate of almost 30 per cent a year. However,
Stalin's reintroduction of punitive taxes, levies and restrictions on
private enterprise, and the almost wholesale deportation and destruction
of productive peasantry during the late 1920s and 1930s, have put an end
to this spiral of growth.
Widespread pilfering, wastage and abuse of natural
resources became the norm. The high quality butter from Siberia, derived
from cows grazed on mineral-rich hay (the delight of gourmets abroad and
a source of valuable foreign currency) was replaced with a rancid
The nightmare of the forced collectivisation has
meant not only a great personal tragedy to millions of families, but
also the relegation of one of the richest lands on Earth to the status
of an impoverished agricultural wasteland.
During the past 20 years alone, something like 3.5
million hectares were lost to erosion and salinisation.
In Uzbekistan, the indiscriminate use of
pesticides (at up to 50 times the permitted levels) led to an
unprecedented increase in the levels of infant mortality and
miscarriages and the number of deformed babies.
Yet the huge "agromachine" rolled on. The USSR, if
one is to believe official statistics, has produced more tractors per
capita than any other country. Yet its productivity was so dismal that
one Soviet writer advanced the idea that these numbers were a pure myth
or that the missing tractors might still be found in some deserted
paddock, grazing peacefully among some scrawny kolkhoz cows and horses.
Instead, it was the minuscule number of private
plots that supplied 51 per cent of potatoes and vegetables, 71 per cent
of milk, 71 per cent of meat, 70 per cent of leather and 43 per cent of
However, during the 1930s, it was neither the
economic priorities nor the needs of the population that determined the
future direction of the country; it was the personal struggle for power.
In 1932 a group of the most dedicated,
far-thinking and rational party members, who were protesting against
Stalinist "excesses" (the adherents of the so-called "Ryutin platform"),
were rounded up, branded as "enemies of the people" and eliminated.
The current economic reform in the Soviet Union
will need to address the lack of incentives, the high taxes on
co-operatives and the preference for State needs in terms of supplies
and resources. As one Soviet writer points out, an empty machine-oil
barrel still costs more than a tonne of co-operative grain, as it did in
Another problem is how to spend the hard-earned
rubles? The average person has no access to the hard currency shops
that sell coveted imported goods. The official exchange rate for the
ruble is viewed even by the Government economists as an embarrassment.
Thus, a complicated system of "hard currency adjustment coefficients"
exists, which, in practice, devalues the ruble by widely varying
Such obstacles affect not only the still marginal
co-operatives but also the State enterprises that are trying to become
However, as in the 1930s, underneath these
economic reforms a fierce struggle for personal power goes on and is
sometimes referred to in the press. The "Rashidov Mafia" investigation
into the extent of corruption in the southern republics is viewed by
many as a test case that will establish the limits of current attempts
to "break the backbone of the corrupt bureaucracy" (in the words of a
prominent Soviet jurist) there and elsewhere.
The extent of the corruption is only now gradually
Behind the facade of the command-style economy was
the actual reality of private accumulation of wealth and privileges and
arbitrary rule that could make Western mafiosi dream of emigrating to
Kazakhstan. Important party and industry sinecures were raffled to the
highest bidders among the growing hordes of the new party millionaires.
All opposition was silenced. Even now, attempts to unravel the extent of
the "planned mafia" are met with obstruction and resistance.
But the problem is deeper still.
It is not only the corrupt and entrenched
bureaucrats who are making the outcome of the reforms uncertain. There
are reports of unscrupulous, or simply inefficient, private enterprises
that have filled a vacant niche in the marketplace only to prove to be a
source of further vexation and loss to the already beleaguered Soviet
And, as we have seen in the case of the fire-prone
pig farm, the consumer, who has by now grown used to the grey uniformity
of egalitarian squalor, needs to be reassured that the reforms will not
simply lead to the replacement of the arbitrary rule of the State by the
iron fist of the emerging "new capitalists".
The problem is, thus, in the education of the
Soviet population, at all levels, in the delicate art of checks and
balances, pluralism and negotiation, lobbying on behalf of the various
interest groups and protection of the poor and the underprivileged. In
other words, in pragmatic, everyday democracy.
This will be no easy task.
If history is anything to go by, the wild swings
between liberal reforms and oppression are as much a peculiarity of the
Russian soul as its penchant for hard drinking and emotive poetry and
music. In a recent novel (ominously titled Fire) by a prominent Soviet
writer, Valentin Rasputin, the forces of good and evil in the Russian
psyche, are exemplified by an overly idealistic night-watchman and a
psychopathic marauder, who die together, locked in a deadly embrace of
To steady the proverbial Russian troika (which is,
alas, powered nowadays by rockets, not horses) on its wildly undulating
course, Mr. Gorbachev and his associates will need more than clever
economics and political and legal safeguards, essential though they are.
They need to appeal to the symbol-starved Russian
psyche and to the yet embryonic sense of democratic fairness and
moderation, only now beginning to emerge on a political landscape
scorched almost to the ground by decades of purges and denunciations.
This delicate balancing act will require a
combination of spiritual breadth, political acumen and moral sensitivity
only rarely encountered in the land of "victorious proletariat" that,
over the years, bled itself of some of its best political and managerial
Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his