Friday Object Lesson #28: Soviet war poster

Continuing last week’s military theme, this week’s object is a book entitled Soviet poster artists to the front! which was published in Moscow in 1985.


Among the 120 posters shown in the book is this one, originally produced in Kiev in 1945. ‘Glory to the Victor’, it says in Ukrainian.

glory to the victor




Stuffing the rebels back into Ukraine

Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinovo, two of the political leaders of the rebel Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), caused something of a stir earlier this week when they announced that the DPR and LPR were willing to accept ‘broad autonomy’ within Ukraine. ‘We proposed adding an article to the Ukrainian Constitution that the country’s regions have a right to self-determination. We are ready to carry out local elections,’ Pushilin said, although he added that, ‘If Kiev further breaks the Minsk agreements, the DPR will move to full independence.’

The Minsk 2 agreement signed three months ago obliged the Ukrainian government to enact constitutional reform by the end of 2015. The DPR and LPR have now submitted their suggestions for constitutional amendments to the Ukrainian constitutional commission as well as to the Minsk Contact Group. According to news reports about Pushilin and Deinovo’s statements:

Their proposals include the creation of detachments of people’s militia under the control of the local authorities, official status for the Russian language, and a special economic regime. ‘Also envisioned is the possibility of concluding a whole complex of treaties and agreements between the central powers and Donbass. Amendments to the articles of the Ukrainian Constitution on the justice system, the procuracy, local self-government, and the administrative – territorial structure of Ukraine, are proposed.’ … The draft also envisions a strengthening of Ukraine’s neutral status.

In Russian nationalist circles, Pushilin and Deinovo’s statements are proof that Moscow is preparing to surrender Donbass to the Ukrainian government. For instance, the well-known military commentator ‘El-Murid’ writes that Pushilin’s talk of a ‘move to full independence’ is an ‘empty threat’, and that ‘Pushilin continues to hold his post only because he pronounces exactly what he is told to [by the Kremlin].’ Moscow’s aim, says El-Murid, ‘remains the same, to stuff the DPR (and LPR) back into Ukraine as Kremlin puppet territories and to guarantee their existence with this status.’  ‘One must understand that the idea of an independent DPR and LPR has been eliminated once and for all,’ he concludes, ‘we are talking about an attempt to find a more or less honourable form of capitulation.’

Others disagree. The author of the popular blog Yurasumy notes that ‘Apart from the time of the announcement, there is nothing new. Both sides are weary of the [Minsk peace] agreements, but neither wants to be the first to break them. Thus there are beautiful gestures and beautiful phrases, but no real progress, as neither side is ready for it.’ Meanwhile, Boris Rozhin, aka ‘Colonel Cassad’, one of the best informed commentators on the war in Donbass, remarks that ‘it is practically impossible for these proposals to come to life,’ as there is no support for them either in the rebel republics or in the rest of Ukraine. Talk of ‘autonomy within Ukraine’ is ‘empty words’, he claims, ‘At present the objective circumstances are that Donbass will sail further and further away from Ukraine regardless of whoever wants to stuff it back into Ukraine in one form or another by military or political means.’ Russia, he concludes, ‘de facto supports the two unrecognized state formations, providing them with political, information, diplomatic, and military support.’ It is not about to surrender them to Ukraine.

I think that Russia’s preferred outcome is indeed for Donbass to remain within Ukraine, but with some form of autonomy. And it is true that the recent declarations are nothing new. Immediately after the Minsk-2 agreement, for instance, the head of the LPR, Igor Plotnitsky, made some very conciliatory statements about the LPR remaining within Ukraine as long as there was political reform in Ukraine. But it is also true that in practice this is unlikely. For, as Rozhin writes, Kiev wishes to ‘return Donbass into a unitary state with some abstract “decentralization”, where there is no room for “autonomy” and “federalism”, as these terms are considered the same as separatism.’ The head of the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, Iurii Lutsenko, declared yesterday that ‘Donbass must not receive any special status different from the rest of Ukraine.’ Donbass could only receive whatever powers were also decentralized to other regions in the country. This effectively rules out any possibility of Kiev making constitutional concessions which the DPR and LPR might consider acceptable.

And then there is the tricky question of what to do with the rebel army. Pushilin’s proposal of a ‘people’s militia’ under local government control suggests that he sees this army becoming that people’s militia. That way, the rebel republics could officially re-integrate with Ukraine while not losing their ability to defend themselves. But there is no way that Kiev could ever accept the existence of such an armed force under local government control. At the same time, though, it is simply unimaginable that the rebels would agree to disband it. It is, after all, their only defence against the Ukrainian government reneging on any agreement. While there may be some solution to this problem, I confess that I have no idea what it is.

Overall, therefore, I think that the view that Moscow is preparing to ‘capitulate’ and sell the rebels down the river seems a bit far-fetched. Even if those in power in Russia do indeed want to ‘stuff the DPR and LPR back into Ukraine’, it is unlikely they will be able to do so, for that plan relies on the co-operation of the Ukrainian authorities and co-operation does not appear to be forthcoming. Although one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of reintegration, de facto independence for the DPR and LPR remains a more likely outcome. The rebels have made their constitutional demands. How Kiev responds will determine the future of the country.

The Self-Hating Russian

In recent years a new archetype has arisen – the ‘self-hating Russian.’ A well-educated person with liberal political opinions, the root of his or her hatred of Russia lies in his or her dislike of Vladimir Putin’s government. This requires him or her to deny that there is anything positive about modern Russia. Furthermore, since the Putin government appeals to history to support its legitimacy, the self-hating Russian has to deny anything positive about Russian history as well. Dislike of the existing order thus translates into contempt of everything to do with the person’s own country.

A striking example of this appeared in last Saturday’s New York Times in the form of an article by novelist Mikhail Shishkin, entitled ‘How Russia Lost the War’. It is a very poor article, not only because of its rambling, ranting nature, but also because what appears to be the central argument – that victory in the Second World War was really a defeat for Russia – reveals a remarkable lack of concern for historical context.

‘What would constitute a victory for my country?’, asks Shishkin, adding that, ‘Each one of Hitler’s victories was a defeat for Germany. And the final rout of Nazi Germany was a victory for the Germans themselves, who demonstrated how a nation can rise up and live like human beings without the delirium of war in their heads.’ Perhaps it seems like that to Shishkin now, but I am sure it didn’t seem like that to Germans at the time. Defeat meant over seven million German dead, the destruction of most of Germany’s major cities, the loss of significant amounts of territory, the forcible deportation of millions of Germans from the surrendered lands, and perpetual national shame. This was hardly a ‘victory for the Germans themselves.’

Moreover, by saying that defeat was good for Nazi Germany, Shishkin implies that defeat would have been good for Russia too. Speaking of his father, who served in the Soviet Navy, Shishkin opines that, ‘He and millions of Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen, virtual slaves, brought the world not liberation but another slavery.’ This is a remarkable piece of historical revisionism. Faced with a genocidal threat of unprecedented magnitude, the Soviet people were quite literally fighting for their lives. Defeat in the Second World War would have been catastrophic for them. Not just Russia, but all the nations within the European boundaries of the Soviet Union, would have ceased to exist in any meaningful way. To be sure, because of its flawed economic system, the Soviet Union subsequently did a poor job of reconstruction after the war compared with Western Europe. But that does not mean that it lost the war, or that winning it was a bad thing. ‘The fruits of this victory were less freedom and more poverty,’ writes Shishkin. No they weren’t; they were survival.

Shishkin’s inability to see this says a lot about the ineptitude of contemporary Russian liberals, who seem to be unable to find a way to express opposition to the current government without simultaneously expressing contempt for their own country. Given this kind of talk, it is no wonder that they are unable to gather more than a couple of percentage points of support in national polls.

The views expressed by Shishkin represent the attitudes of a tiny minority of the Russian population. Far more representative are the 500,000 Russians who marched in Moscow on 9 May carrying pictures of relatives who died in the war (the ‘Immortal Regiment’). There is a serious lack of mutual understanding between Russia and the West at this point in time. Overcoming that problem requires that both Russians and Westerners listen to the voices of the other side, which means listening to those who best represent prevailing public opinion rather than just those who echo one’s own prejudices. Why then does The New York Times always choose to print the opinions of the latter but never of the former? Shishkin’s diatribes about living in ‘a country where the air is permeated with hatred’ serve only to spread misunderstanding further.

Institutions rule, but which ones?

A couple of pieces published last week – one by John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council, and the other by Forbes’ Russian affairs blogger Mark Adomanis – provide a neat contrast which aptly displays the illusions of many Western liberals about the prerequisites of economic progress. Before getting to them, however, we first need to make a little digression into economic history.

As I explained in my book Aiding Afghanistan, in the 1950s, 60s, and to a lesser extent 70s, economists on both sides of the Iron Curtain tended to believe that economic development was a simple matter of capital accumulation. The reason why underdeveloped states were poor was thought to be that they lacked the capital to get the process of accumulation going. Development assistance therefore consisted of providing them with financial capital (normally in the form of loans) or physical capital (dams, roads, factories, etc) in order to kick-start the process.

By the 1980s it had become blindingly obvious to almost all concerned that this wasn’t working. Economists therefore had to revise their theories. Rather than capital, what matters, some concluded, is ‘institutions’, a word which is somewhat misleading as it includes not just what ordinary people consider to be institutions (government, banks, etc), but also less tangible matters such as laws and culture. You can pour almost any amount of capital into a country, but if the correct institutions are not in place, it won’t make a jot of difference.

But which institutions? To those in the West, the answer was evident – Western ones. Clearly, the prerequisite for economic growth must be the establishment of a set of institutions similar to those in Western Europe and North America. That meant that in order to prosper, underdeveloped states first had to introduce democracy (multi-party elections, a free press, transparent government, etc), liberalize their economies (via privatization, elimination of price controls, the opening of borders, etc), and liberalize their societies (granting equal rights to women, racial minorities, etc). Success would surely follow.

Following the collapse of communism, the purveyors of institutional economics found a market for their ideas in Eastern Europe. Things did not quite work out as planned. Institution-building is a slow process and inevitably involves a transition period in which some institutions are present and others are not. This can create some strange incentives as well as significant distortions in the economy. Meanwhile, the establishment of a new set of institutions requires the destruction of the old set, but if these are destroyed too rapidly before the new ones are in place, economic and social collapse may ensue. This is indeed what happened in many post-communist countries.

At that point, the logical response might have been a pause to reflect whether one size really does fit all. Instead, the West has by and large chosen to redouble its efforts in the same direction as before. If institution-building hasn’t worked as planned, then that must be because it wasn’t pushed hard enough. Thus, the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine obliges Kiev to liberalize faster, to accelerate the building of the institutions which will make Ukraine a Western, and thus prosperous, country.

It is here that John Herbst fits in. According to Herbst, commentators are mistaken in viewing Ukraine as facing a choice between Russia and Europe. Rather the choice is between the past and the future. As Herbst says:

Civil society in Ukraine which has been a factor since the first days of independence, or the pre-days of independence, has driven this country towards Europe (in a current phrase). But it is really driving this country towards openness, towards empowerment of its citizens. That is precisely the opposite direction that Mr. Putin has been leading Russia for the last ten years. Since he’s not an idiot, he poses this as a question of Russian values versus Western values. But it is really reaction versus the future. … Russia only has the GDP per capita that it has because of hydrocarbons. Without hydrocarbons  its GDP per capita would be less than Ukraine’s. Because talent there is not allowed to develop.

This is, in essence, an institutional argument. Ukraine will succeed where Russia is failing, because it has more liberal institutions. Only ‘openness’ and ‘empowerment of citizens’ can foster economic growth.

In theory, the argument is compelling. However, Mark Adomanis demonstrates that Herbst’s facts are wrong. It simply isn’t true that ‘Without hydrocarbons [Russia’s] GDP would be less than Ukraine’s.’ In a recent post, Adomanis analyzed how large Russia’s economy would be without ‘resource rents’ from the oil and gas industries. He concludes that, ‘Russia, despite what you often hear, is more than just a gas station. … after adjusting for resource rents, Russia’s GDP per capita would be roughly $19,000, a level that is broadly similar to post-communist countries like Bulgaria ($15,600), Poland ($22,800), and Romania ($18,000).’ In contrast, according to the World Bank, Ukraine’s GDP in the period 2010-2014 averaged a measly $3,900 per capita. In other words, without hydrocarbons Russia’s per capita GDP wouldn’t be less than Ukraine’s, it would be more than four times larger!

This is a troublesome conclusion. For in many respects Herbst is right when he says that Ukraine has a more vibrant civil society than Russia. Certainly, its elections have always been far more competitive, and its press (until recently) more varied in its political opinions. Ukraine can indeed be described as more ‘liberal’ than Russia. And yet it is much, much poorer. If ‘openness’ and ‘empowerment of citizens’ was what mattered, then Ukraine would be richer than Belarus – the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’. Yet Belarusan per capita GDP averaged $7575 in 2010-14, almost twice that of Ukraine. Despite being illiberal, Belarusan institutions clearly work better than Ukrainian ones.

None of this is to say that Western institutions are not desirable. They are. But they are a product of development as much as a prerequisite for it. Nor is it to say that institutional economics is completely wrong. It isn’t. Institutions matter enormously. But the question of which institutions best fit any given country at any given time is more complicated than many Western liberals are willing to admit.

Friday Object Lesson #26: Russian Scrabble

This week’s object is the Russian version of Scrabble. I can’t remember exactly, but I think that I bought this some time in the 1980s in the socialist bookshop Collet’s in London. At the time, Collet’s was the go-to place for anything associated with countries behind the Iron Curtain.


It is my turn and I have the letters below. Now what?


Russia, the West, and the world

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