The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

And This Is Why You Don’t Screw Up Post-USSR Russia


These days most Russians regard the loss of the USSR as a negative event. A poll conducted this month by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent see the collapse “negatively” while just 14 percent think it was a “positive” event. Asked which type of political system they would prefer to live under, 13 percent named “Western democracy,” 23 percent said the present Russian setup was best, while 37 percent said the Soviet system would be most desirable.

As the article itself says, the USSR was a superpower, it produced consumer goods Russia does not (produced, not bought from other countries) and it claimed to seek to create a better world.

This wasn’t necessary. But we, the West, deliberately chose to wreck Russia through shock therapy: We sold everything off as fast as we could, dismantled industries, allowed oligarchs to rise, and generally plundered the country. Russian mortality actually exceeded births, the average age of death dropped, and so on.

It was a terrible time.

The joke back then, was, “Everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie. Unfortunately everything they told us about Capitalism was true.”


The stage is now set for a new ideology, claiming to fix the failures of Communism, but keeping its ideals.

This was easily enough avoided; we could have eased them in the way we did Poland, for example, and ensured that they thought Capitalism was ace. If we’d given them European social democracy, by now they’d be asking to join the EU (because any elites competent enough to follow this policy wouldn’t have borked the EU the way the last 20 years of EU bureaucrats and European officials have.)

Geopolitically, this would have left China isolated, ensured American dominance for a few more decades, and so on.

A world that never was to be, but could have been, had we not been run by neo-liberal ideologues and carpetbaggers.

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  1. V. Arnold

    This was easily enough avoided, we could have eased them in the way we did Poland, for example, and ensured that they thought Capitalism was ace. Give them European social democracy, and by now they’d be asking to join the EU (because any elites competent enough to follow this policy wouldn’t have borked the EU the way the last 20 years of EU bureaucrats and European officials have.)

    Good god man, are you saying what we offered Russia was better than what they have now?
    I for one, do not want China “isolated”, nor do I want Russia Isolated.
    The bloody (literally) country I want isolated is the U.S..
    Boy oh boy, I hope you can clarify your post.

  2. Hvd

    I think he is talking about the strategic failures that result from neo-liberal shortsightedness from the perspective of what they claim to want. I don’t think given everything else he has written that Ian thinks this would have been a desirable result.

  3. Ian Welsh

    That’s NOT what we offered Russia, obviously. Quite exactly not is the point of the article.

    Social democracy in Russia, of the European type, without having Europe turn sick, yeah, I’ll take it.

  4. Tom Allen

    If only we’d shown Russians how fluffy and cuddly capitalism really was! With competent elites and non-predatory oligarchs and benevolent US dominance. And no horrid Communist ideals like the common ownership of the means of production, or the absence of social classes. Why, it would have been ace!

  5. Peter*

    The statement that ‘we’ the West wreaked Russia and sold everything off and allowed oligarchs to rise paints a picture of a US invasion and the Russian leadership of that time as little more than frightened Babushkas being circled by the rapacious Sharks from Chicago.

    The West developed these ideas but Russian leaders such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubias were economic Free Marketeers long before the collapse of the USSR. They made the decisions and pushed shock therapy and privatization vouchers knowing that the corrupt, connected and powerful Nomenklatura were waiting to pounce on these opportunities. Those old Soviet power brokers, now Oligarchs still control much of Russia’s economy except for Khodorkovsky who crossed the most powerful oligarch of them all, Putin.

  6. Jeff Wegerson

    Watch Cuba. Can it morph into a decent version of “social democracy” without creating a nouveau-riche nouveau-ruling class. Of course that is not a good comparison as it will likely be difficult just on account of its proximity to the U.S.

    I’m not sure I believe that the European Union could have constructed a federal version of social democracy from the foundations that existed at the time of the Soviet dissolution. Maybe. It all comes back to ownerships of means’ of productions. If nationalizations of corporate bureaucracies combined with distributions of stakehoods could have been pathed out then yes maybe.

    The problem is that such changes depend upon socializations of populations that take time. It’s a meta problem of the sort a bunch of us faced when trying to take people (kids really) socialized to survive in nuclear families even by parents that had experienced extended families and throw them into hippie communes and expect us to work effectively and happily together.

  7. highrpm

    the problem with the neo-liberals is their biopolarness: laizze faire economics and social welfare otherwise.

    as the past several decades post billy boy clinton has showed us, is the marketplace does not/ cannot police itself. it must have well defined rules of the game AND enforcers to keep the cheaters in check. and, unfortunately, the joo in all societies (hell, our neighbor mexico is full of thieves and rule breakers) seems naturally inclined to break the rules to collect as much of the winnings as they can, spoiling the game for the rest. the tragedy of the commons.

  8. EmilianoZ

    The Russian people are the ones most responsible for the collapse of the USSR. They made the decision to end the USSR and they ended it effectively by withdrawing collaboration with the system.

    They saw the good life we had in the West and they wanted it. They craved the consumer goods, the Levi’s jeans, the washing machines,, the TVs, …

    What they didn’t understand is that we had the good life in part because they existed. Our leaders made concessions to us because they didn’t want us to become communists. But once communism ceased to exist, there was no alternatives anymore. Our leaders no longer had any reasons to be nice with us or with them. They began to dismantle the welfare state in the West and implement Neoliberalism in Russia.

    Soon all the little people of the world will be equal under Neoliberalism.

  9. Peter*

    I agree with some of what you write but the Russian people were never in control of their government’s decisions and the USSR collapsed from its own contradictions with a final push from crashing oil prices. It is strange that the USSR could send rockets to the Moon but couldn’t reverse engineer a pair of Levi’s.

    When my sister visited Russia in the ’70s they counted the pairs of Levi’s in her luggage and counted them again when she left to be certain she didn’t leave behind any Western decadence. I’m sure Russians recognized this kind of behavior by their government as somewhat insane but had little power to do anything but shake their heads.

  10. Hugh

    I remember reading an article back in the 80s about a guy named Murray Fishbach who lived in NYC. He was a sort of blogger before there was an internet. He not only collected all the economic series the USSR put out. He analyzed them. When he put out one of his reports or summaries, the Russians would be first in line at his door because they realized that he often knew more about their economy then they did. I have always thought it odd how difficult it is to track down information on the web on Fishbach and that article, given just how presecient he was. He predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s important to remember that the USSR did not collapse. It broke up, or more accurately it was broken up by Yeltsin. Yeltsin was a drunk and corrupt, but he also was a Russian nationalist. And one of the primary takeaways from Fishbach’s work was that the Great Russians, i.e. Russians were on the point of becoming a minority in the USSR, the largest minority to be sure but still a minority. It was principally for this reason he moved so decisively to end the USSR even at the cost of leaving many loose ends including a lot of Russians stranded in the other SSRs.

    Yeltsin’s corruption, the greed of the Russian nomenklatura, and Jeffrey Sachs, Larry Summers, and Andrei Schliefer (the Harvard mafia and their shock therapy) ensured Russia’s transition to kleptocracy and oligarchy. But this is not the whole story. We need to realize that by1992 when Yeltsin pulled the plug on the USSR, both the US and the EU were well on their way to becoming kleptocracies. Western capitalism and social democracy as models were nothing more by that point than convenient fictions. Then too there was the strategic angle. The President at the time was ex-CIA director George Bush (soon to be followed by Bill Clinton who would continue his Russian policy). Bush and Washington’s elites still lost in the Cold War left Russia slowly turning in the wind precisely to so weaken it that it could never represent a strategic threat to the US again.

    While many Russians may say that they would like a return to the USSR, I don’t think they have thought this through and realized this would mean embracing minority status. And this minority position would only worsen in the next 35 years as the Russian population enters a period of significant decline even as population in many of the non-Russian former SSRs continues to grow. I think Putin has realized it and this explains why he is going for an economic association dominated by an imperial Russian Federation.

  11. Peter*m

    I wonder how much dominating Putin can do with an economy comparable to Mexico but more dependent on oil. At its height the USSR’s GDP was 1/2 of US GDP, today it is about 1/15 of the US’.

  12. GrimJim

    “I wonder how much dominating Putin can do with an economy comparable to Mexico but more dependent on oil.”

    Considering that he is trying now to make Russia independent of the need to trade much, if he is successful to even a moderate degree, he can do much.

    If he enables Russia to be self-reliant on all basic goods — food, water, oil, etc. — and concentrates the efforts of trade toward things that Russia does not need but others do (rather than remaining a petro-state), he and Russia will be way ahead of the game than the vast majority of the neo-liberal states that concentrate their economic efforts on trade, rather than self-reliance and self-sustainability.

    Basically, if Russia can build an economy that has no need for imports, all their exports will be gravy… and everything Putin has been doing for years is geared towards breaking away from the neo-liberal tribute machine an enabling his country to be self-reliant and independent.

  13. Populists always go for dramatic and ideological solutions, replete with names such as ‘capitalist’ or ‘neo-liberal’ (whatever any of them means – does anyone actually know?). The extreme results always produce backlashes which make them unsustainable, such as during the French Revolution when power yo-yoed between Left and Right but never settled in the middle. Eventually Napoleon stepped in and they were right back where they started with absolute monarchy.

    So far as I can judge only moderate centralist creative gradualism actually works. Trouble is, nobody ever votes for it! When times are bad society polarises, and when they are good apathy sets in.


  14. Peter*


    I doubt Putin wants to turn Russia into a hermit kingdom but some self sufficiency is good especially to counter the effects of Dutch disease. It is going to be very difficult for them to reach these goals now that the capital needed for development is gone not to return any time soon and the West doesn’t seem to be offering to finance these expensive projects.

    Russia’s largest imports are machines, electronics and vehicles and replacing them with local production is a massive project. The only things the world seems to want from Russia is their oil/gas, weapons and Nukes so unless they can produce some other high value export their economy will continue to decline.

  15. Petey

    “This was easily enough avoided, we could have eased them in the way we did Poland, for example, and ensured that they thought Capitalism was ace.”

    You do know that Poland did extreme Shock Therapy too, right?

    I entirely agree that ‘the West’ didn’t perform particularly well in the aftermath of the USSR’s breakdown. But conditions in the USSR were dramatically different than in the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

    Forget about all the civil wars on the periphery, and focus on the way members of the Party and KGB were stealing and stashing absolutely monumental amounts of state and Party cash during the Gorbachev years to build up oligarchical positions for the breakdown they foresaw.

    And that’s not even getting into the fundamental political differences between a systems breakdown in occupied states and a systems breakdown in the ‘home country’. Russia was the only part of the Warsaw Pact where the Communist Party had very significant popular support in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. Who knows how rigged the ’96 campaign was, but suspicion is that the Communists won.

    In short, ‘the West’ certainly could’ve handled Russia better, but there were severe limits to how much they actually could’ve influenced things in a better direction.

  16. brian

    ‘neo-liberal’ is a form of liberalism where equality is more important than freedom. Liberalism in general holds both equality and freedom in high regard. Classical liberalism holds freedom as more important then equality. Straight from wikipedia.

  17. Peter*

    It’s easy to look at what happened in Russia from a Western POV and be harsh and judgmental because it was crude and often criminal. The problem is that the same massive transfers of wealth to the elites has happened in the West at a slower pace and usually but not always through legal means, which means the elites had the laws changed to meet their needs.

    The lives of working Russians improved dramatically after Putin assumed power but those gains are threatened by the realities of the slowdown in the world economy especially China’s. Working people in the US have been sliding towards third world status for forty years and the recent acceleration of wealth transfer to the already wealthy guarantees that trend will continue.

  18. TG

    Ah, what might have been. Yes, agreed. Well said.

    Perhaps the big picture is this: the western elites just do not care anymore. They have been living in a bubble where billions fall out of the sky and into their pockets, there is no financial blunder so gross that they cannot bail themselves out at the public’s expense, there is no geo-strategic failure so gross that they cannot clap themselves on the back as the reincarnations of Bismarck and Polk and be made distinguished faculty at Harvard and pass the champagne…

    The western elites are smug in their financial, political and social invincibility. Their actions are of two kinds: unrestricted looting, and playing with nations and armies like a spoiled rich kid plays with toys, if they break no worry, daddy will always buy me more…

  19. Peter*


    The Ruling Class certainly don’t care what the non-Ruling Class think because only they create reality, the rest if us just have to swallow what we’re fed or choke on it. Viewing them as clueless, detached or just spoiled rich kids is dangerous, never underestimate your adversary. They are firmly in control and are implementing their programs in a determined and organized way. The only thing that gets broken when they play/gamble is other classes of less importance and power.

    The latest insurance of their survival is that when the next financial crisis happens the TBTF banks will be Bailed In by confiscation of depositors accounts. I didn’t know that when I deposited money in a bank that I no longer owned that money, the bank does and I’m only a lienholder.

    They may not always be successful in their ventures especially internationally but the arc of history is still pointing in their chosen direction with no real powerful force standing in their way.

  20. This was easily enough avoided, we could have eased them in the way we did Poland, for example, and ensured that they thought Capitalism was ace.

    Poland did just elect a far-right government. Does the left exist in Poland at all?

  21. VietnamVet

    Internal contradictions, exacerbated by the ruling elite’s grab for wealth, forced the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the fear of a communist’s worker revolt gone, the transfer of wealth to the powerful is taking place in the West. Climate change, the refugee crisis, the forever wars, negative interest rates, and a contempt for the lower classes; all reinforce the reigning chaos. There aren’t many options left. Perhaps there is still a chance for the restoration of social democratic governments run by and for the people; otherwise; the apocalyptic end of time (Conquest, War, Famine and Death) envisioned by the monotheistic evangelists is here.

  22. Tom W Harris


    Phuque off and die, Nazi filth.

  23. Yildo

    The stage is now set for a new ideology, claiming to fix the failures of Communism, but keeping its ideals.

    Ideals of Russian Communism:

    – All nations are equal. Ethnic Russians are the most equal.
    – Military hardware is awesome. Let’s throw a parade.
    – Elderly are awesome. They defeated the Nazis. All non-Russia countries are probably Nazis.

    It’s a very tiresome ideology for which to set a stage.

  24. S Brennan

    Agree Ian,

    Or as I succinctly put to NeoNuts*; “WTF do you think Nixon went to China?”. The people who rule my country always put themselves first…greedy dumb asses.

    *anything with a prefix of “neo” is neither new, or humane

  25. I'm Not Murray Feshbach

    Hugh and anyone else interested, it’s Murray Feshbach.

  26. As much of a total cock up Iraq and Middle Eastern policy has been I’ve been harping that the West’s clusterfuck of a response to the collapse of the USSR – basking in the glory of unfettered capitalism over the corpse of that beast and pushing the neoliberal response to the floor instead of a rational policy of engagement and honor with the Russians – will be seen as the greatest policy failure in the West in general and of the US in particular. People have stared at me for decades blinking when I’ve said this like it doesn’t even register and mumble something about terrorists.

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