No going backwards to the future in Russia

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded in December 1922, and the inspiration behind the 1917 revolution, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, died just over a year later. Huge political and economic problems besieged the infant workers’ state and a bureaucracy eventually took power under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.

Professor Evgeny Pashentsev

From 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, began a political revolution in an attempt to defeat the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore Soviet democracy. In August 1991 an attempted coup d’état by the Stalinist old guard collapsed, but the populist Boris Yeltsin forced Gorbachev aside to become Russia’s president. He banned the Communist Party and in December 1991 the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.

Remnants of the bureaucracy connived with a new oligarchy to expropriate Russia’s vast resources and restore capitalism. This process was presided over first by Yeltsin and from 1999, Vladimir Putin.

A World to Win caught up with Professor Evgeny Pashentsev at Moscow state university’s philosophy faculty to ask him his views about today’s Russia and how things have changed.

What is the situation in Russia now compared with 1991?

In general, 20 years suffice to see how things have actually changed. For example, if you compare Russia in 1937 to 1917 after the revolution, it increased its GDP (gross domestic product) more than 15 times. Today, according to official data, present-day Russia has not achieved the level of industrial production of the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia, which was part of the Soviet Union in 1937, for example.

Now Russia has become quite backward. If we compare the industrial output today to what it was in 1991, it is around five or ten times lower. Widely available statistics – not from left-wing sources at all – show that today’s labour force is only one fifth of that 20 years ago. Many branches of industry have simply vanished. Some industries do still exist – but whereas in Soviet times they were independent world leaders in various sectors, now they just provide components to manufacturers outside Russia. For example, in the aircraft industry we see Russians only supplying parts to the civil industry of the West. Aeroflot was the world’s biggest airline in 1991. Now, it’s just one of many such companies.

A comparison of people’s living standards also shows a deterioration. In most European countries life expectancy has improved. But in Russia, it has fallen over the last three to five years especially amongst men, due to alcoholism. Vodka is much cheaper compared to the Soviet period. GDP has risen since the 1990s, but is still lower in many spheres than 1991.

First and foremost, people are the measure of how progressive a society is. Now people are less literate – illiteracy has reappeared even though it was eradicated in Soviet times. At that time the Soviet Union was in second place in the production of scientific publications, but now it has fallen to twelfth place.

What is the situation for young people?

The main problem is how to find a job which pays enough not only to survive but to develop their professional skills. How to combine education and work is a big issue. I see students who are really tired after they have worked night shifts. Others miss studies because they are obliged to earn money. Educational standards have fallen. The quality is lower than in the Soviet times despite a big investment in the technical infrastructure and equipment at many universities. But far less is being invested in human beings. A student at Moscow university, for example, must pay $9,000 in fees per year - $45,000 for the normal five-year course.

Books can also be very, very dear. It’s hard for a student to be on a budget. 40 roubles per month in the Soviet period – which was what a student would get – was then worth around $70 per month. Now a student may earn around 1,000 roubles which is $30. For a Soviet person to travel from Moscow to Samara by train would cost 15 roubles for a seat – around $22 – with a monthly salary of $250. Nowadays a one way journey costs 3-4,000 roubles. For a student that is more than four times their monthly allowance.

What, if anything, remains of the achievements of the Soviet era?

Not everything has been lost, far from it. It’s now an interesting situation. Everyone – even the Russian elite, like Putin, Medvedev – now praises the past. Some even idealise Stalin. Most people do not understand how the crisis can be overcome in a rational way. It’s comparable to what happened in France in 1849 when Napoleon III proclaimed himself as Emperor. It is the idealisation of a leader which gives people a chance to find some kind of support, a saviour or a God. That’s why we’ve seen the revival of religious faiths in the East and West.

The rule of secular regimes in Iran and elsewhere has been followed by a religious revival. When there is no rational explanation of problems, people reach for religion – even in the form of Marxism!  A new religion in Russia appeared in one city. Lenin was turned into a god. This may be the logical outcome of the dogmatic interpretation of Marxism-Leninism!

The Western media often remarks that corruption is widespread in Russia. But it developed as a result of the redistribution of property supported by the West. It could not appear independently. The big capitalists in Russia – not only the jailed former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky – operate in off-shore zones and are not controlled by Russian people.

What kind of class society exists in Russia today?

The early 21st century saw the consolidation of a class state based on an alliance between the new oligarchy and the old bureaucracy – on a new basis. It has been a long period, but under the conditions of the growing crisis of the global capitalist system. Russians did a strange thing – the bureaucracy made a step forward to capitalism just at a time when capitalism has entered into the most serious crisis in its history since the great Depression. The slump may well have been delayed by a decade or so, due a huge slice of Soviet GDP being exploited in the interests of capitalist accumulation. Resources like the intellectual labour forces from the USSR and former Eastern Europe may also have helped delay the crisis.

Analytical researchers involved in business and the real economy are aware that the present mode of production simply cannot continue. They see all the contradictions, the data and dangers and they are very pessimistic.

Is there a desire for an alternative?

There is a kind of retro-mood. People do want to see an alternative. In Moscow, several bookshops have appeared which sell Marxist literature on a commercial basis and they are really successful. A so-called “alternative science fiction” has become very popular in Russia. Authors who often are not professional writers – some are from business or other spheres of life – describe what might have happened if the Soviet Union had continued to exist, if Stalin had continued to be a leader until 1961, for example. They write their books as a kind of vision – a kind of podcast – of what might have been. It’s nostalgic, yes, but young people are buying these books.

But what about the so-called Marxists?  They simply repeat old dogmas, they are very far from the real economy, from the real new mode of production, the capitalism of the 21st century. They are not interesting to the masses, to young people, to anybody. They were the sectarians of the new epoch. That is why we have seen the decline of many left parties in Russia. It was not because of repression or the problems of the past. First and foremost there has been a lack of intellectual capacity to analyse the new situation and to develop concepts for a system in the interests of the working people.

The 1990s saw a new state appear and the collapse of the older one – the Soviet Union. Not everyone, even now, has understood all the reasons and the nature of that collapse. A new left opposition did appear – they tried to analyse the roots of the crisis. But it still has not been properly done. It’s not that important to know who is responsible. But what does count is how to escape from today’s problems and build a new, more progressive society. It is important to draw some analytical conclusions and to put them into practice.

We are now 11 years into the 21st century. Simply to repeat the old Marxist disputes and positions – however interesting and correct they may be – and not to create something new, makes Marxism into a new kind of dogma. To develop the theory and at the same time not to lose the progressive elements embodied by the theory – that should be the agenda. Marxists must analyse the world around them. This should be a point of discussion amongst all the progressive forces and all those who call themselves Marxists – that is just what Marx himself tried to do.

What is the way forward in your view?

For me, it’s important not to collaborate just within small groups with this or that preacher, but rather to analyse the present day realities. It’s important not to be afraid of people from different groups being in touch with each other to find a way out of this global crisis, which is very dangerous. New findings should not simply repeat this or that theory, even the best theory. Something new must appear, but on the basis of the former good theoretical ground. It’s impossible to create something new if you do not accumulate the positive experiences of the past as well as analyse the present-day realities.

7 November 2011

Evgeny Pashentsev has taught politics and communications at Lomonosov Moscow State University for many years. His most recent book, The Left Parties in Russia 1989-1992, (Lambert Academic Publishing) is about the political parties that came into being in the aftermath of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost.

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