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© PYOTR PATRUSHEV

Sydney Morning Herald

 

NEW SOVIET CAPITALISTS ARE TALL POPPIES

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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 Gorbachev's reform.

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 State-supplied ersatz.

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 wool.

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 the 1930s.

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 amounts.

Such obstacles affect not only the still marginal co-operatives but also the State enterprises that are trying to become profit conscious.

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 becoming clear.

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 consumer.

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 mutual hate.

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 talent.

 

 Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his website, www.russiantranslate.org

 

 

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