There is nothing unusual about Russia's flawed transition, it repeats the experience of many other weak states plundered by their own corrupt elites. Utopian capitalist ideologues, inside and outside Russia, have made things worse by justifying corruption in the name of the greater free market goodby Anatol Lieven / October 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
A chinese communist diplomat once told me: “I always read the Financial Times, because capitalists cannot afford to lie.” If the ambassador later had the mischance to invest in Russian bonds, he may be feeling a bit less complimentary now. It is not that western reporters or commentators have lied about Russia’s liberal capitalist revolution. It is not even that they have believed Russian lies, although many have. The most striking and depressing aspect of much optimistic western analysis over the past seven years is that many commentators have seen and reported the evil of what was happening and yet have been prepared to justify it in terms of the onward march of free market ideology.
In some cases, their narrow dogmatism and moral ruthlessness has echoed the spirit of the communism they hate. Above all, the American press in general, and The Economist and Wall Street Journal in particular (with occasional lapses by the Financial Times), have suffered from an underlying teleology which has coloured everything they have written: either the development of a successful western-style free market economy or “reversion to communism.” This simplistic view has led them to ignore the reality not only of the greater part of the world today, but of the pattern of liberal capitalism’s frequent failures over the past 200 years, a history into which contemporary Russia fits all too well.
Thus, a foolish book by John Parker (The Economist’s former correspondent in Russia) and Richard Layard (former economic adviser to the Russian government) entitled The Coming Russian Boom, asks whether “Russian history” means that contemporary Russian reform and democracy are doomed. They reply: “The short answer is that ‘history is bunk,’ that the historical record provides no real guide to present behaviour and that historically-formed cultural characteristics do not necessarily stand in the way of a country’s ability to change.”
The boot is on the other foot. It is for the free market optimists to explain what special Russian characteristics prevent Russia from becoming some version of Mexico (if lucky) or Nigeria (if not). In the words of US economist Jim Millar: “The default mode in today’s world is not a market economy. It is stagnation, corruption and great inequalities of income.”