Mark Steinberg is a professor of Russian History at the University of Illinois. He’s the author of many wonderful books including, Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925; Voices of Revolution, 1917; Petersburg Fin de Siecle; and with Nicholas Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, now in its 8th edition. His most recent book is The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 published by Oxford University Press.
Listen to my interview with Mark Steinberg on his St. Petersburg Fin de Siecle on the New Books Network.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, “Coma Girl,” Streetcore, 2003.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
The new issue of the New Left Review has two articles on Russia worth reading. The first, “Russia Redux?” by Vladimir Popov, examines the macroeconomic trends Russia has experienced since Putin became president. Though “there is more stability in Russia today than during the rocky 1990s,” Popov argues, compared to other post-Soviet republics “Russia’s performance is not that impressive.” Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, to some extent, Armenia all “reached or exceeded their pre-recession (1989) levels of output by 2006, whereas Russian GDP was still only at 85 per cent of the 1989 level.” Further he states the reason for Russia lax growth rate is due to the ruble’s overvalue and economy’s sandy foundations:
The reason for the 2001–06 deceleration in growth was the overvaluation of the real exchange rate—the typical Dutch disease that Russia has developed once again. It first arose in 1995–98, leading to the currency crisis of August 1998, and it now seems that history is repeating itself. Optimists argue that, unlike in 1998, Russia currently has large foreign exchange reserves (over $250 billion), but pessimists point out that if oil prices drop and capital starts to flee at a rate of $5 billion a week, as it did in July–August 1998, these reserves would be depleted very quickly. A future devaluation could take the form of either a currency crisis or a ‘soft landing’, but there is little doubt that it will eventually take place.
Besides, current growth is not based on solid foundations: wages and incomes in recent years have been growing systematically faster than productivity, so that the share of consumption in gdp has increased at the expense of investment. As a result, whereas Russian personal and public consumption has already exceeded the pre-recession level, investment is still below 40 per cent of what it was in the last year of existence of the USSR. Russian gross savings are large—over 30 per cent of GDP—but they have been funnelled away via the outflow of private capital and the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves; gross investment therefore amounts to less than 20 per cent of GDP.
In regard to where Russia is headed, Popov prognosis is that Russia’s future depends on how it chooses to reconcile one of its longest running historical conundrums:
Russia now needs more than anything to strengthen law and order and to restore the institutional capacity of the state. Democracy is also needed, but only later, when the rule of law has been established. There is, of course, a danger that the leadership will use political centralization to line everyone up along the ‘vertical of power’ and eliminate opposition in order to live in serene comfort at the citizens’ expense—and perhaps also to embark on the occasional escapade. This has happened in Russia before. But one must choose the lesser of two evils. Strengthening law and order is only possible under a centralized system. Without centralization, there is no chance at all of it happening; unbounded chaos and lawlessness would rule. This seems to be the choice facing Russia today.
Popov’s article is nicely supplemented by Tony Wood’s “Contours of the Putin Era.” Taking off from Popov’s economic analysis, Wood probes further into how Russian society has faired under Putin in terms of the distribution of wealth, the fissures in the elite, the reorientation of informal practices, and the costs of crime and the Chechen War.
One of the more interesting points Wood makes concerns the character of Russia’s ruling class. He notes that while “the melding of security services and political power is a salient characteristic of Putin’s Russia,” more striking is “the swelling presence of business in the state.”
Business has been a significant source of state cadres. This applies at all levels: a whole section of Putin’s Presidential Administration was drawn from the ranks of Al’fa Bank, while as Table 1 shows, by 2003 some 20 per cent of the government was drawn from business, which provided almost the same proportion of Duma deputies. The representation of business in the upper house of the Russian Federal Assembly was still higher: in 2002, almost a third of Federation Council members came from private enterprises. More than a dozen Russian regions, resource-rich ones prominent among them, are now headed by businessmen from major local companies.
Perhaps Andrei Illarionov charges that the Russian state is “corporatist” is not so far fetched after all.
Wood’s conclusion is an answer to Popov’s notion that Russia must choose between a lesser of two evils:
Popov concludes by emphasizing the need to choose the lesser evil of centralization and potential authoritarianism over the inevitable unravelling and chaos that will accompany any other course. Stability is the prime consideration; democracy can wait until more favourable circumstances develop. The question that immediately arises is: stability for whom? From the foregoing analysis, it should be clear that Russia’s rulers have little interest in the fortunes of the general populace; the current priority is rather to use the country’s natural resources to leverage a greater role in global affairs, and so carve out further opportunities for the internationalization of Russian capital. Entry into the wto will assist in the latter goal, though it will also bring with it a dismantling of the protections that have served Russian industry well, and undermine recent attempts to revive manufacturing in the automobile and aviation sectors. To the dangers Popov lists, then, we should add the exposure to international capitalist pressures and widening of existing inequalities that inevitably accompany WTO accession. These forms of destabilization will, of course, largely bypass the fractions of business and state most actively seeking them.
Finally, there is the matter of the lesser evil. Popov poses the alternatives in stark terms: the status quo or utter disaster. Such logic has long helped to rally critics of various kinds to otherwise unpalatable governments. But it is precisely the immunity from challenge or debate that enables crime, coercion and corruption to flourish; conversely, it is the availability of alternative proposals for future paths of development that constitutes the political health of a nation. Popov’s analysis presents many points from which such a discussion could begin.Post Views: 1,003
By Sean — 2 years ago
Russell Martin is a professor of History at Westminster College focusing on autocracy, marriage, power and the Romanov dynasty in early modern Russia. He is the author of many books and articles. His most recent book is A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia.
Russell Martin, “Eulogy for Ned Keenan.”
Greg Afinogenov, “Breaking Muscovy’s Silence: Edward Keenan, 1935-2015.”
Russell Martin, “Dowries, Diplomacy, and Marriage Politics in Muscovy.”
The Smiths, “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” The Queen is Dead, 1986.Post Views: 2,187
By Sean — 11 years ago
When I was in Russia last October I met a woman named Alexandra in the Komsomol archive. Last year, I wrote about how she was researching “Komsomol capitalism” for an article she was writing for Der Spiegel.
One of the things I didn’t mention was her claim that her father, who turns out to be Lev Besymenski, had been one of the Russian officers to search Hitler’s bunker. Like many Russians, he took souvenirs back with him. But Besymenski didn’t simply grab cutlery and other trinkets. He took something closer to his passion: music. More specifically, 100 shellac specimens from Hitler’s private record collection.
Alexandra claimed that one summer she stumbled upon a collection in their dacha’s attic. The collection consisted of classical and opera music by Russian and Jewish composers. I remember who she expressed disgust at the at Hitler’s hypocrisy at being a fan of those he considered subhuman. I didn’t know what to think of this story at the time (In addition to the Hitler record story, she also said that she was friends with Condoleezza Rice among other things). Frankly, I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. To be polite and for the sake of interesting conversation, I went with it and told her that these records were probably quite valuable. She seemed surprised that anyone would have any interest in these artifacts.
It turns out that Alexandra was telling the truth. Lev Besymenski died in June and Alexandra made the collection available to Der Spiegel for perusal. Here is what they found:
Hitler’s second passion, after architecture, was music. He went to the opera house almost daily during his time in Vienna to listen to the music of Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt or Brahms. But to him, only German music counted. Yet Besymenski’s collection astonishingly contains works by composers the Nazis considered “subhumans,” including Russian composers such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin and Sergei Rachmaninov. For example, the item with the inventory number “Führerhauptquartier 840” contains a recording by the Electrola company labeled “Bass in Russian with Orchestra and Chorus” — a recording of the aria “The Death of Boris Godunov” by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, sung by Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin.
Another album contains nothing but works by Tchaikovsky with solo performances by star violinist Bronislav Huberman, a Polish Jew. “I feel this is a sheer mockery of the millions of Slavs and Jews who had to die because of the racial ideology of the Nazis,” a stirred-up Alexandra Besymenskaya remarks today.
It just goes to show that you never know who’ll you’ll meet, let along hear, in a Russian archive.Post Views: 550