Get Bent, Ivan


Hardly a surprise.

Russia has been making noise over the past few years like they are still a world power. So far, it is tough to take them seriously.

The Russian economy is doing pretty well right now due to oil exports to Europe, but only if one compares the present situation to what happened at the end of The Cold War. Russia is still having a great many problems, and more than a few pundits have suggested that it is pretty much a 3rd world country. They’re making a big deal about increasing their defense spending to around $40 billion USD per year, but the US spends about $500 billion a year. There isn’t much reason to take Russia seriously.

In fact, the last link will take you to an article that describes the only real card Russia has left to play in order to get any respect.

“Russian weapons are still considered second rate, and it’s the nuclear arsenal that provides Russia with whatever military power it really has.”

Oh, so that’s why they don’t like the idea of a missile shield! If we install the system in European countries friendly to the US, then even Poland would ignore Russia!

For Russia it is sort of like being the schoolyard bully, and then one day the geekiest nerd on the playground announces that he has taken some karate classes and can kick your butt any time he feels like it. If your parents can’t afford to buy you lessons of your own, then you are forever going to be the red headed stepchild of the school.

If you want to understand Russian foreign policy, just assume that everything they do is a desperate attempt to avoid getting a wedgie.

Some Thoughts on Kosovo

The former Yugoslavia is a mess. It has been so since before the Ottomans ruled that part of the world, and judging from recent events, it will continue to be so long into the future. My blog partner CW is fond on quoting from Dame West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, because the pre-war Balkan region she describes in that book is remarkably similar to the situation today.

In “What Went Wrong”, Bernard Lewis noted the stark cultural difference between Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world in the period from roughly 1880 to 1922. When confronted with the reality of European dominance and success, the Turks asked themselves “What did we do wrong?”. The Arabs asked themselves: “What did they just do to us?” Turkey flourished, relatively speaking, and the Middle East today would be right where it was in 1922 if it were not for oil. In fact, it is pretty much where it was in 1922, just with more automobiles and guns.

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Stupidity–Communist-Style and Capitalist-Style

There’s an old story about a Soviet-era factory that made bathtubs. Plant management was measured on the total tonnage of output produced–and valves & faucets don’t add much to the weight, certainly not compared with the difficulty of manufacturing them. So the factory simply made and shipped thousands of bathtubs, without valves or faucets.

The above story may be apocryphal, but the writer “Viktor Suvorov” tells an even worse one, based on his personal experience. At the time, he was working on a communal farm in Russia:

The General Secretary of the Party set a task: there must be a sharp rise in agricultural output. So the whole country reflected on how best to achieve this magnificent aim.

The fertilizer plant serving the communes in Suvorov’s area resolved to do its part:

A vast meeting, thousands strong, complete with brass bands, speeches, placards, and banners, was urgently called at the local Chemical Combine. To a man, they shouted slogans, applauded, chanted patriotic songs. After that meeting, a competitive economy drive was launched at the Chemical Combine to harvest raw materials and energy resources.

The drive lasted all winter, and in the spring, on Lenin’s birthday, all the workers came in and worked without pay, making extra fertilizer from the materials that had been saved…several thousand tons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which they patriotically decided to hand over, free of charge, to the Region’s collective farms.

The local communes were told that all fertilizer must be picked up in 24 hours–the factory’s product tanks were full, and if the bonus fertilizer was not removed, production would come to a standstill. Suvorov was the truck driver for his collective, and it was his task to go to the plant and pick up the farm’s allocation. Problem: the truck could only carry 1.5 tons at a time, and a round-trip to the plant would take about 10 hours. The commune’s allocation was 150 tons. There was also a shortage of fuel for the truck. And Suvorov knew that if he didn’t complete his mission, the director of the commune would be replaced. While the man was not to everybody’s liking, his expected replacement was much worse.

What to do?

When Suvorov arrived at the plant with his truck, he saw that the other communal farms had faced the same problem, and had hit on a solution.

There was a long queue of trucks of different makes, dimensions, and colours standing outside the Chemical Combine. But the queue was moving fast. I soon discovered that lorries, which had only a moment before been loaded, were already returning and taking up new places in the queue. Every one of these lorries ostensibly needed many hours to deliver its valuable load to its destination and then to return. But they rejoined the queue in a matter of minutes. Then came my turn. My tanks were rapidly filled with the foul-smelling liquid, and the man in charge marked down on his list that my native kolkhoz had just received the first one and a half tons of fertilizer. I drove my lorry out through the Combine’s gates and followed the group of lorries which had loaded up before mine. All of them, as if at a word of command, turned off the road and descended a steep slope toward the river Dneiper. I did the same. In no time at all, they had emptied their tanks. I did the same. Over the smotth surface of the great river, the cradle of Russian civiliztion, slowly spread a huge poisonous, yellow, stinking stain.

The great fertilizer production drive was undoubtedly marked down in government records as a tremendous success.

Don’t be too smug, though, fellow capitalists. My next example of institutional stupidity comes from the American private sector.

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Selected 2007 Posts, Part 2

On Tuesday, I posted a selection of my posts from 2007, encompassing the categories Education, Management/Leadership/Business, and Markets/International Trade. Here are the other categories, which are Policy/Politics, Media/Blogging, History, Thought Processes & Fallacies, and Books/Photography/Recordings.

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Retro-Authoritarianism in Russia

I’m reposting this here due to the interest in Russian and Soviet affairs among my CB co-bloggers:

TIME magazine, as most are no doubt aware, named Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2007 “Man of the Year. The editors explained their choice in a way that also attempted to articulate Putin’s stabilitarian “siloviki ideology”:

“But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin’s hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain-of freedom for security-appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes’ promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin’s popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. “He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.

Putin’s global ambitions seem straightforward. He certainly wants a seat at the table on the big international issues. But more important, he wants free rein inside Russia, without foreign interference, to run the political system as he sees fit, to use whatever force he needs to quiet seething outlying republics, to exert influence over Russia’s former Soviet neighbors. What he’s given up is Yeltsin’s calculation that Russia’s future requires broad acceptance on the West’s terms. That means that on big global issues, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former point man on Russia policy for the Clinton Administration, “sometimes Russia will be helpful to Western interests, and sometimes it will be the spoiler.”

Putin’s rule can (and typically has been) analyzed from the perspective of Sovietology and Russian history. Articles feature the usual, superficial, observations that Russians like a strong vozhd (supreme leader) in the tradition of Stalin, Alexander III, Nicholas I, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible; that Putin’s regime is a Cheka-KGB front (actually, KGB veterans are among the most competent and least ideological technocrats of the Soviet era officials – who would YOU hire? The guys who ran Soviet agriculture?); that Russians yearn for a return to the Cold War and so on. While there is some truth to these statements regarding the Russian national character and unhappy history, to use them as a fundamental explanation of Russia’s current political system is mostly rubbish. The truth is that Russia’s liberal and democratic parties self-destructed and discredited themselves among Russian voters in the waning years of Yeltsin’s tenure and that Putin enacted a moderately nationalist and anti-oligarchical agenda that catered to the tastes of the vast majority of his countrymen. When Putin centralized power in his hands as a quasi-dictator, he did so in a political vacuum.

This pattern is hardly uniquely Russian. We have seen populist, plebiscitary yet police-state regimes long before Vladimir Putin’s New Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte was the modern innovator, abolishing the decrepit Directorate and constructing a regime that offered a little something for everybody who wanted a glorious France; his cabinet included Jacobin Terrorists, Monarchists, Girondins, aristocracy, bourgeoisie and the chameleon-like Talleyrand. Napleon made use of “new men” and flattered the old nobility even as he created a broad class of “notables” and answered the desire of the French for both greatness and order. Propaganda was used liberally but so too were the police-spies of Fouche to cadge Napoleon’s impressive plebescitary majorities out of the electorate. How different, functionally speaking, is Vladimir Putin? Or for that matter, Hugo Chavez?

We could go back still further to the Caesars – Julius and his canny heir Augustus. Both men understood well that truly revolutionary changes in a political system were most placidly accepted when cloaked in the guise of adhering to old forms and restoring order and normality (it must be said though, that Octavian understood this better than his martial Uncle). After periods of disorder, want or uncertainty there have always been many people who are all too willing to trade liberty for economic security.

Whenever authoritarianism has the added attraction of marshaling competence and cultural values behind its standard, democrats should beware.


Thomas P.M. Barnett – “Putin Positions himself as Russia’s Lee Kwan Yew

The Guardian – “Putin, the Kremlin power struggle and the $40 bn fortune

The Russia Blog – “Why Russia Loves Putin

Michael Barone – “Putin: Odd Choice for Person of the Year

Cross-posted at Zenpundit