Russia past and present (in 1992)

Russia past and present

by Jack Lane

The Financial Times had a supplement called The Reforming of Russia on May 13th. It appeared with an introductory piece by John Lloyd saying, in effect, that he had nothing to say:

“A Russia reforming is a vertiginous place. So many questions are open, so many issues are not resolved, the resolution of so many of these seem unattainable; so many movements and trends point to deepening chaos; and yet, so many signs of hope and optimism now appear from beneath the rubble of the collapsed Soviet imperium.

“The best of times for chroniclers, it is the worst of times for forecasters: who, either Russian or foreigner, could weigh with certainty the competing masses of threats and possibilities?”

While Lloyd went on to say nothing in particular in a very long-winded way, a colleague was making very sweeping statements about the past. This was done with a comprehensive ignorance of Russian history. Leyla Boulton claimed that the present situation

” … returns Russia roughly to where it was at the beginning of this century, when Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist tsarist premier, started land reforms to break up the prevailing communal system and develop a class of private farmers. Before that had time to make real headway, the reforms were interrupted by World War One, and then buried by the Bolsheviks.”

The Bolshevik revolution was a political coup in St Petersburg by a minuscule group. Their slogan of land to the peasants was the easiest reform of all to carry out because they could do absolutely nothing to stop the peasants taking the land. They could not “bury” these reforms even if they had wanted to do so. After the overthrow of the Tsar the land was up for grabs, and grabbed it was. Suddenly peasant owners appeared who had the power of life and death over their fellow non-owning peasants. And they were not slow to use their power. Proudhon’s slogan that Property is Theft appeared literally true.

For centuries the peasantry had lived through the communal system known as the Mir, which together with vodka and the balalaika made life bearable. The virtues of the market in land were not immediately obvious to the majority who had lost out in the land grabbing. A civil war developed among the peasantry.

This became serious for the Bolsheviks when the towns were not being fed, for the very good reason that they had nothing to pay the peasant producers. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market never appeared to sort out the problem. After a period of indecision by the Bolsheviks, the Stalin faction took the decisive step of siding with the landless majority and carried through collectivisation. To the smart alee ideologues of the pure free market, this was an awful solution. However it gave the peasantry the human attractions of the Mir plus the efficiency of modem tractors. The philosophy of the Enlightenment was spread through Russia via Marxist ideology. On this basis Russia was fed and industrialised, the Nazis beaten and Russians put into space.

These achievements proved to be a hard act to follow. The achievements of the market, by contrast, are still not blindingly obvious to the Russians. In the same article Boulton describes the case of Ms Galena Knitchkova, a nurse who decided to become a farmer by buying a house and machinery and borrowing money to buy land.

“Since then her house has been burned down and she has run out of money to buy seeds”.

We are not told if the disasters were accidents, but it seems likely that they were not. In other words, entrepreneurs in Russia face the same problems today as they have always faced, If the market is to be brought to Russia it would need the ruthlessness of a Stalin to impose it, or it would have to be a very well-planned evolution of market forces from within the system that existed.

Gorbachev could not decide what he wanted, and seemed to have become a sort of sleepwalking alien from another planet. Maybe he had become dependent on Financial Times journalists for his ideas about Russia.

This article appeared in July 1992, in Issue 30 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at