RUSSIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Medvedev's desperate drive to modernise Russia
, December 12, 2009
The post-Soviet Kremlin has been compelled to acknowledge another of the late Nobel prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn's criticisms of Russia that he regularly highlighted during his 20 years in Europe and America as an unwilling exile.
Solzhenitsyn spent eight years (1945-53) in Stalin's slave labour camps, described his experiences in numerous books and finally, in 1974, after years of persecution by the Soviet secret police, was expelled to the West.
Unlike many Western left-wing academics, Solzhenitzyn regularly condemned the Stalinist enforced economic development approach and Russia's over-reliance upon exploitation of natural resources to pay its way internationally.
His most damning condemnation was made during his July 9, 1975 address to leaders of America's peak trade union body, the AFL-CIO, in New York.
Solzhenitsyn gave an example of how clumsy the Soviet economy was. He said: "What kind of country is it, what kind of great power, which has tremendous military potential, that conquers outer space but has nothing to sell? All heavy equipment, all complex and delicate technology, is purchased abroad.
"Then it must be an agricultural country? Not at all; it also has to buy grain. What then can we sell? What kind of economy is it? Can we sell anything which has been created by socialism? No! Only that which God put in the Russian ground at the very beginning, that's what we squander and that's what we sell. When all this comes to an end, there won't be anything left to sell."
Now, a third of a century later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been forced to reiterate and confirm Solzhenitsyn's 1975 assessment.
During last month's state of the nation address, Medvedev said Russia was over-reliant upon naturally acquired resources - forest products, oil, gas and non-ferrous minerals - and had shown itself incapable of producing and marketing sophisticated high-tech products.
"Instead of a primitive economy based on raw materials, we shall create a smart economy, producing unique knowledge, new goods and technologies, goods and technologies useful for people," Medvedev said.
Sounding more like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan than a post-Soviet Russian leader, Medvedev went on to say: "We need to launch modernisation of the entire industrial base. Our nation's survival in the modern world will depend on that. Inefficient enterprises must go through bankruptcy proceedings or leave the market. We won't be protecting them forever."Worker unrest
He said Russia needed to strengthen democratic institutions, but warned that any attempts to disrupt national stability with "democratic slogans" would be stopped. These ominous warnings are seen as being prompted by fears within the Kremlin that worker unrest, such as broke out across Iranian cities after last September's disputed presidential election, may emerge in Russia too.
"Freedom means responsibility and I hope everyone understands that," admonished Medvedev.
The BBC's Moscow correspondent, Richard Galpin, said: "
It is highly unusual to hear the Russian president launch such a scathing attack on governments past and present. It must have made uncomfortable listening for the hundreds of top officials gathered in the Kremlin. Some sections of Medvedev's speech seemed particularly critical of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's legacy as president between 2000 and 2008."
Time will tell how far Medvedev is prepared to depart from the Putin approach, which relied upon a handful of Kremlin-picked wealthy and loyal oligarchs, an arrangement observers have dubbed "crony capitalism" - something Solzhenitsyn certainly didn't endorse.
Medvedev revealed that over a million Russians were at risk of losing their jobs. This comes on top of an estimated 6.5 million unemployed in Russia in July, or nearly 10 per cent of the workforce.
His warning that social distress now confronts Russians is in line with a just-released assessment by American Enterprise Institute economist Leon Aron, who argued that Russia's outdated manufacturing sector has been dominated by 460 company towns, or "monotowns", where conditions have been rapidly deteriorating since the collapse of oil prices last year. Aron said these increasingly derelict centres arose from the Stalinist industrialisation drive of the 1930s and after 1945.
"Russian company towns were built around a single plant or factory … often by prison labour in the middle of nowhere and with complete disregard for long-term urban viability and economic geography, not to mention the needs and conveniences of workers and their families," Aron said.
"In addition to being the single employer, the so-called town-forming (or main employer) enterprise … is responsible for providing all social services and amenities, from health care and schools to heat, water and electricity. With populations ranging from 5,000 to 700,000, the monotowns seem frozen in the 1930s to 1950s. The fat years of 2000-2008 have passed them by.
"Like virtually all of the real Russian economy, they were untouched by Putin's ‘modernisation', despite the drumbeat of official propaganda that promised to ‘bring industry into the 21st century' by making it ‘science-and innovation-based'."
He said the monotowns had the potential to become centres of nationwide protest. He warned: "The Kremlin thus far has been helped by the censorship's iron grip on national television. … Yet, as the Iranian protests recently proved, in an age of cell phone cameras and the Internet, the media's deliberate neglect of the monotowns' growing desperation may fail one day, igniting a wave of nationwide protests."Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and freelance writer.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Solzhenitsyn Speaks to the West
(London: The Bodley Head, 1978).
Leon Aron, "Russia's "monotowns" time bomb", AEI Outlook Series
(American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC), October 2009.