Sunday, August 23, 2015

In 1991, Russians Also Felt Themselves to Be a Colony of Moscow. Will They Again?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 23 – By 1991, Russians, “seeing empty shelves in provincial cities and the relative (by Soviet standards) wealth of goods in Moscow and certain other republics felt themselves being left behind,” leading to “a paradoxical situation” in which Russians as much as anyone else felt themselves to be “’a colony of the empire,’” Dmitry Migunov says.

            But this is not just a matter of historical interest, the commentator argues. That pattern must be taken into account in the course of any effort to re-unite the Soviet space lest steps in that direction produce the same outcome, one in which Russians will have to carry the others and suffer as a result (

            Migunov does not raise a more immediate possibility, that Russians beyond the ring road may come to feel themselves once again a colony of Moscow, given that they now face “empty shelves” while in the Russian capital there is “a relative … wealth of goods” to which they do not have access but see on television almost every day.

            In a comment on the anniversary of the August 1991 coup, Migunov points out that the causes for the demise of the USSR remain a subject of debate but argues that Moscow’s economic policies sought in many cases to equalize the standard of living across that country by transferring wealth from the center – Russia – to the borderlands.

            “It was in the USSR and not in the US that ‘affirmative action’ was born,” he says, implicitly drawing on Terry Martin’s 2001 book, “The Affirmative Action Empire” (Cornell, 2001). And that involved, he says, both financial transfers from the center to the periphery and greater flexibility in policy implementation than the communists permitted in the RSFSR.

            In many cases, in fact, Migunov says, “the sovietization of the economy in many territories proceeded according to a softer scenario. In the Trans-Caucasus, Central Asia, the Baltics and Western Ukraine often were preserved ‘survivals’ of traditional economic relations and greater elements of a market at least in agriculture.”

            For most of the Soviet period, Moscow hid the true extent of transfer payments among the republics, but near the end, more data became available; and while the nature of prices in Soviet times means that it is difficult to give precise figures, the overall pattern is nonetheless clear, Milunov says: Russia paid and the non-Russians mostly benefitted.

            By the end of the 1980s, “in fact every Russian was giving the USSR 209 rubles, an amount that exceeded the then average monthly pay.” At the other extreme, “Turkmens paid only about 11 rubles.” They and the others were subsidized by the center; that is, Moscow transferred wealth from the RSFSR to the other union republics.

            RSFSR officials knew about this and didn’t like it.  Mikhail Solomentsev, when Leonid Brezhnev appointed him head of the RSFSR council of ministers, told the Soviet leader that he had only one condition: the republics had to stop taking money away from Russia. Brezhnev responded by asking how that could be.

            Solomentsev said later that he told Brezhnev that “the branch departments of the Central Committee and the union government itself” were “guided more by the interests of the union republics than by Russia itself” and that Gosplan was acting in such a way that Russia was left “only with crumbs from the all-union table.”

            Despite some progress after that, the situation remained mostly unchanged: “In the final analysis, everything ended as it should have ended. The Soviet model turned out to be completely without the ability to survive either economically or politically.”  And that is why “in 1991, the majority [of the republics] voted with their feet to leave the single country.”

            And “one of the first,” Migunov recalls, was “the RSFSR.”

            According to him, “the statistics of the development of the independent states after the collapse of the USSR only confirm the unnatural quality of the economic policy which had been conducted in the Union.”  A few – the Baltic countries, Russia and Kazakhstan – have done relatively well; the rest, must less so.

            What that means is that in economic respects, Russia suffered far less from the demise of the USSR than many imagine, “although,” he adds, “the genuine social catastrophe” that flowed from that event “has not yet been adequately assessed.” 

            And then Migunov draws the following conclusion: “The Soviet example of the economic organization of the state is a good lesson for the future.” Sometimes integration can be a good thing, but it does not work as “a magic mantra” any more than did “at one time the word ‘privatization.’”

            “In point of fact,” he says, “not every integration brings benefits equally. And even a market economy does not guarantee the success of a unification project.”  Migunov is clearly talking about efforts to unite former Soviet republics with Russia, but the thrust of his argument may again cause some Russians to think about their integration inside the Russian Federation.

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