The Long Path to Present-day Russia

Two accounts of growing up communist

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As a newspaperman covering the economics of transition after 1989, I became interested in the Russian experience of the Nineties, especially after a young Russian immigrant who, having become a Harvard economics professor, took advantage of his appointment as a US State Department adviser to the government of Boris Yeltsin to enter the Russian mutual fund industry with his wife and their pals.

Since then I’ve followed the story of US-Russian relations as it has gradually widened into front-page news. A friend pointed me to a fascinating book by a young philosopher about her and her family’s  experience in Albania in the early Nineties. That book, in turn, reminded me of a somewhat older account of coming-of-age as an economist in communist Hungary during the Sixties and Seventies.

Free: A child and a country at the end of history (Norton, 2022), by Lea Ypi, a professor of political philosophy in the government of the London School of Economics, is consistently engaging, at least until its chapter on Albanian civil wars of 1997 (at which point it turns horrifying),  though it offers very little interpretation of the historical Marx. This Lunch with the FT feature, by Alec Russell, describes Ypi and her views very well, but fails to tell how she   pronounces her name. (It’s Ee-P, just as you would say the name of this weekly.)

The older story is By Force of Thought: Irregular memoirs of an intellectual journey, by János Kornai (MIT, 2006). Kornai died last year, at 93. For an account of his hard, heroic, ultimately distinguished career, see Klaus Nielsen’s obituary in the Guardian, or Eric Maskin’s tribute for  Econometrica. More is the pity that, though often nominated, Kornai failed to be included in the Nobel pantheon; he left behind the best account that we possess of the economics of chronic shortage in centrally-planned economies.

Perusing these books led in turn to Tony Barber’s review of Stalin’s Library: A dictator and his books (Yale, 2022), by historian Geoffrey Roberts. As its dictator between 1922 and 1953 (when he died), Stalin created the modern Soviet Union, killing millions of his fellow countrymen in the name of “class struggle,” while delivering victory over the Nazis at Stalingrad (previously Volgograd) in World War II, occupying half of Europe afterwards, and producing the nuclear weapons and missiles that stood off the West in a Cold War lasting forty years. It turns out that Stalin was quite the reader, possessing a personal library of 25,000 books, including more than 400 that he personally annotated.  Barber writes,

Of exceptional interest are the pometki, or markings, on the books that Stalin read most closely. Using red, blue and green pencils, he scribbled expressions of disdain or disagreement: “ha ha”, “hee hee”, “gibberish”, “nonsense”, “rubbish”, “fool”, “bastards”, “scumbag”, “swine”, “liar”, “scoundrel” and “piss off”. Yet the author he read most was Vladimir Lenin, and there is not a hint of criticism in his markings on Lenin’s works — or, indeed, on those of Karl Marx.

As this suggests, Stalin was no skeptical thinker weighing up all sides of a question. He started from the premise that Marxism-Leninism had the answers. Roberts makes a convincing case that the key to understanding Stalin’s capacity for mass murder is “hidden in plain sight: the politics and ideology of ruthless class war in defense of the revolution and the pursuit of communist utopia”.

Through the tumultuous Eighties and the smash-and-grab Nineties, Russia found its way to a market economy. See Greg Ip’s well-informed appraisal of stakes the nation is facing in the current situation. Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin, but he is a gambler. Keep that in mind as you read about the show-of-force bargaining now taking place over the future of Ukraine.

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Conflicting demands and poor planning this week left EP with less to say than he had hoped (and three days behind in posting last week’s Still the Free World!). But the six main links this week (Ypi’s lunch, Kornai’s obituary, Roland’s appreciation, Maskin’s tribute, Barber’s review, Ip’s appraisal) are all worth reading. Everyone has an occasional off-week!