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Russia’s Jurassic Capitalism (Pt. 1)

Part 1 of Aleksandr Buzgalin’s presentation on Russian Economy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

Aleksandr Buzgalin, the Russian political economist, described Russia’s economy and political system as a sort of hybrid between a caricature of Western neoliberal capitalism, some remnants of the Soviet system, with a dose of feudalism. He calls it Jurassic capitalism. And he now joins us to talk about why he says all of this. Thanks for joining us, Aleksandr.

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN, PROF. POLITICAL ECONOMY, MOSCOW STATE UNIV.: And thank you for opportunity to talk to you, because it’s extremely important to explain what kind of society and economy we have in our country, in my country.

JAY: Right. Let me just—a little further introduction. Aleksandr teaches, at Moscow State University, political economics. He’s the editor of the independent magazine Alternatives. He’s also coordinator for the Russian social movement Alternatives. He’s normally based in Moscow, but he joins us now from the PERI institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s lecturing in Amherst.

So this is going to be a little bit different than our normal interviews. Aleksandr has prepared a PowerPoint presentation and—where he really elaborates his whole analysis of Russia today (no pun intended). And so we thought we would actually go through the PowerPoint with Aleksandr. And if I have some questions as we go, I’ll ask him. If not, he’ll kind of keep going. And sometime soon we hope to have a live phone-in show with Aleksandr so you’ll be able to ask your own questions about his analysis of what’s happening in Russia today. So, Aleksandr, just to kick us off, what is—why are you calling Russia Jurassic, Jurassic capitalism?

BUZGALIN: So I decided to use parallel with well-known movie Jurassic Park, where different dinosaur are fighting between themselves and people are like a small element under the pressure of these terrible, I don’t know, animals—I am not specialist in biology—so these huge monsters. And in my country we have domination of huge corporations very integrated with bureaucracy, and this is a key political and economic force in Russia.

But I want to start from introduction, because very often all explanations of specific features of Russian economy are interconnected only with so-called unknown Russian soul or something like that. And really we have very interesting and very contradictory prehistory, which is extremely important for understanding of modern situation, and I want my PowerPoint presentation from this introduction.

There is very beautiful poem—. I’m sorry for my barbaric Russian English. I hope you understand me. There is very good poem of Mikhail Lermontov, well-known Russian poet of early 19th century, where he says that it’s possible to love Russia, but it’s very difficult to express what is the essence of this love, what is a mental, logical understanding of this love. And that’s why I want to show that there are some spiritual, maybe, maybe coming from the heart, from soul, vision of Russia, and there are some really very logical theoretical explanations.

So first of all, a few images. Mikhail Lermontov, wonderful, beautiful young officer, and in the same time, thinker. Leo Tolstoy, who is absolutely well-known as fantastic person, who said that peace must be the alternative to war, who said that tsar and king in Russia is enemy of ordinary people, who was real humanist, but with a lot of internal contradictions. Dostoevsky, another writer, who was thinking and writing about personality, about internal contradictions of personality, and who was terrible critic of any revolution. From other side, Gorky, Mikhail [Maxim] Gorky, who was, if I can say, worker’s writer, writer who said that socialist revolution must come and it will be liberation of people—but again with a lot of contradictions.

If we look to another person, this is Generalissimo Suvorov, who is, for Russians, symbol of our strong army, of our patriotic decisions, of our victories. But from other side, Suvorov was a person who started attacks on bourgeois, more or less democratic Europe, and it was really not very positive for historical development. Again, new contradiction.

Another person, Ulyanov Lenin, the man who changed the world, at least for 20th century. What are your opinion, those who are looking on me, those who are thinking about topic which we are discussing? Please try to find the answer. Without Soviet Union, what kind of society will be or could be in our planet in 20th century? Better? Worse? This is big question mark. But for our country it’s definitely one of the key persons and one of the key problems.

We have a lot of pictures where we have more or less funny caricatures on our past, but we have also fantastic landscapes which I like and which are associated with my motherland, with my real native soul. And for us this is not simple, yeah, but this is part of our real spiritual life. And this spring—for majority it will be winter, but for Russians this is spring, because this is sunshine. And all churches and wonderful three strong men who are protecting Russian now, you can see them in the PowerPoint presentation.

But also we have another history, history of the Soviet Union, with red flag. And this red flag was typical—was the symbol not only for our country but for the whole left opposition, with a lot of different elements, contradictions inside, and so on. It was a huge country, territory, one of the biggest in the world, and it was second superpower in the world. And this was very contradictory superpower, because from one side we had solidarity, we had real friendship. We have—we have—we had—I’m sorry. We had comrade relations. But another part of this contradiction, another side of this contradiction was awful Gulag and repressions, political and ideological terror, authoritarian system. This is also a reality of our country.

And another contradiction. We had very deep disproportions in technology. From one side, it was first man in space, fantastic cosmos ships, wonderful education, very good fundamental science. But from other side, we do not have normal jacket—we didn’t, I’m sorry. It’s—I’m partly maybe in the past still. We didn’t have normal jackets. Blue jeans were symbol of prosperity and wealthy person. We had economy of shortage. And you can see on the photo the line, and this is line to buy normal shoes. So it is another contradiction of Soviet past which is still important for us.

Then Soviet Union was collapsed and 1990s came. For many people who are supporters of free-market liberal ideas and, let’s say, abstract model of capitalism where everybody’s for himself and private property creates so-called efficient owners, for them, after Soviet Union, we received free economy, liberation, privatization, and so on.

But let’s look on statistic. You see only two tables. I decided to use only two tables. One is characteristic of democratic processes. Life expectancy decreased radically, dramatically in our country. For men it’s now 65 years; for women, little more. But before it was more than 70.

And we had growth of mortality and decline of birthrate. And you can say see two curves. Red is mortality, blue is birthrate.

The same with production and incomes, second table below, the decline till -50 percent from Soviet period—and this is from Russian Federation as part of the Soviet Union to Russian Federation as independent state, -50 percent. And this is tremendous decline.

And blue line on second table below is a characteristic of average incomes. And average incomes were declined not so dramatically, because we were eating our wealth, we didn’t renovate our basic technological capital. And that’s why we had only 35 percent—only 35 percent decline of real incomes.

But what does it mean in Russia, where we had, during these liberal reforms or so-called shock therapy, terrible growth [incompr.] It was absolute terrible circumstances for majority, and creation of fantastic wealth, first oligarchs, for absolute minority. And on the photo you can see empty enterprises—no equipment, no work. And it was the truth for many, many branches of economy. It was also a period of criminal—growth of criminality, mafia groups.

Nineteen ninety-three, October, this is terrible time. This is attack of Yeltsin, President Yeltsin, on first democratically elected parliament. And you can see on the photo tense shooting to the parliament in the center of Moscow. And thousands of people were killed in favor of democracy. And that caricature shows how everything was stealing from Russia.

And final, very funny caricature on modern Russian situation, prostitute with symbol, three [“bÊŠgÉ™tÉ›ri’as], three strong men. You saw them in the picture. But now this is only caricature with prostitute as advertising, and caricature on Russian battles, and caricature on Russian countryside life for tourist, and so on and so far.

So this is first chapter. This is introduction. What we have now: how can we give academic, theoretical analysis of Russian economic and political situation and system? This is end of first chapter.

JAY: So you focus on those infant mortality rates and longevity rates and compare that to the time during the Soviet Union. You’re finding the situation this many years after the fall of the Soviet Union is actually worse. So just focus on that again.

BUZGALIN: So the problem is that real demographic problem of Russia after collapse of the Soviet Union was decline of life expectancy because of terrible problems for young generation, for kids, for children because of bad medical care, terrible problems for elder people, especially men, who were jobless, who were drinking, unfortunately, a lot because of that, plus criminal terror, plus a lot of stresses for even relatively rich people who had to work terribly hard, 12, 14 hours a day without weekends. And this is key question, key—not even question—key reason why we received this Russian cross. The rate of birth has gone down, the rate of mortality is going up. Russian cross. It is new demographic category, which took place in 1990s.

JAY: And what is the situation now? Is the trend getting better now or not?

BUZGALIN: Only last two, three years. We have some improvements. But still we have negative tendencies and we do not have internal growth of population. We have immigration, but for native Russians of different nationality, situation in general, in average, is bad.

JAY: And the—but in terms of the trend, do you see it that the trend is trending better? Or is it—are the numbers more or less static or stagnant?

BUZGALIN: It’s only the beginning, and maybe they have some improvements, but I am not sure, because of economic crisis and many other problems. So we have some hopes for the best, but it very dependent from economic policy and what kind of economy and society we can have and will have in the nearest future.

JAY: So I know it’s a very complicated question I’m about to ask, but I think it needs to be talked a little bit about here, and perhaps at another time we’ll do it in much more depth. But when you say the Soviet system collapsed, what were the main reasons for that?

BUZGALIN: Of course, this is very complex question. From my point of view, it was very deep contradiction of these, interconnected with attempt to build qualitatively new society on the old technological and cultural basis. And, finally, it could be done only on the basis of real social creativity of the masses. But Soviet system finally had another revolution, and it was growth of paternalistic authoritarian tendencies, decline of social energy of the masses, growth of bureaucracy as result of these contradictions.

And, finally, we received terrible contradiction. We didn’t have our internal socialist basis for growth, for activity, for innovations. And attempts to integrate market forms in the bureaucratic system led to collapse, because we were trying to build new consumer society or old consumer society in the circumstances of economy of shortage and without real enthusiasm of masses, without real social creativity as basis. And it was internal contradiction. Of course, it was also influenced from outside, and this also was very important.

But the key question is evolution of our top officials of bureaucracy, who decided to transfer their power into the wealth; and second, apathy of ordinary people, who finally went from enthusiasm of creation of new society towards very conformist behavior of people who wants only to have new dress, new food, good food, beautiful or maybe fashion dress, and new car. That’s the contradiction.

JAY: And how much did—how big a role did the external factors play? A lot of people, you know, have and are suggesting that this sort of form of capitalism that exists in Russia was sort of imposed on it by the U.S. and because of American interference and such.

BUZGALIN: So it’s really very big question. Extremely briefly and in very primitive form because of these short time limits, I can say that we had all time, all 70 years of Soviet Union, very strong pressure from capitalist countries—and this is not abstract word; this is real problem for us—permanent pressure and attempts to destroy a system which, with all their contradictions, was alternative to capitalism. And this pressure could not destroy our country before internal contradictions led to the collapse. And, of course, external influence increased these contradictions but didn’t create these contradictions. This is my very brief answer.

As far as 1990s is concerned, I want to add that shock therapy was introduced mainly by criminals, by black marketeers, but by our nomenclaturan bureaucracy. But, again, so-called advisors from United States, International Monetary Fund, and so on, they helped a lot to create this shock therapy—or shock without therapy—with terrible collapse of economy in 1990s.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview and your presentation, we’ll take a trip to the Russian Jurassic Park capitalism. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Aleksandr Buzgalin.

End

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