The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 9: Call me Milton

May 27, 1993

The Cold War Victory

I recently finished yet another book by George Orwell. It is titled The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, and I'd been looking for it for some time. It turns out that I already owned the component chapters among my set of Collected Essays, but the Collected Essays are in Washington, and I'm here, so I bought it anyway.

Written after the fall of France and before the invasion of Russia, the book attempts to show how Britain could survive the German onslaught. Orwell argues that the old Britain of the 1930s, with all its anachronistic inequalities and inefficiencies, could not possibly match a modern, twentieth-century Germany. He writes, "on the fields of Norway and Flanders. . . once and for all it was proved that a planned economy is stronger than a planless one." He continues, "the mere efficiency of [a planned economy], the elimination of waste and obstruction, is obvious. In seven years it has built up the most powerful war machine the world has ever seen."

The flaw in Orwell's argument is that while planned economies may well prove more efficient producers of military goods, unplanned economies are much better at producing consumer goods. The reason behind this is not mysterious. Ask the Army what color shirt it will want to wear on September 12, 1995. Answer: green. Ask me, the consumer, the same question, and I will have no idea. The same goes for food--the Army on that date will want for dinner beef stew, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken a la king. I don't know what I want to eat tomorrow for lunch.

It's not that the military never changes its preferences. But when it does, moving, for example, from .45 caliber sidearms to 9mm, it does so slowly, deliberately, and with plenty of warning. And it will keep using the stocks of .45 ammunition until they are depleted. Consumers are far more fickle, and the strength of a free-market economy is that it can react swiftly to changing tastes. Orwell's attempt to apply a military model to a civilian one--like Peter the Great's militarization of the Russian bureaucracy, the Salvation Army, and the Wars on Poverty and Drugs--fails because it ignores the profound uniqueness of war as a human enterprise.

All of this bears direct relevance to the situation in Russia today. Basically, the market economy of the United States and Western Europe has triumphed over the planned economy of the Eastern Bloc, partly by creating smaller, planned economies within the greater economies to produce war goods, but also by letting the market economies do what they do best and produce consumer goods. Thus, the West won the Cold War by changing the rules of war, to make Snickers bars count more than bullets. And Russia has been carpet-bombed with Snickers bars, produced in seemingly endless quantities by America's chaotic, yet efficient, economy.

Of course, a victory is not complete until the victor's infantry occupies the loser's territory. And where are the Western foot soldiers, come to plant the flag on Russia's sacred soil? That would be me, I guess.

Sometimes the result is very ugly, like the swastika flying over the Eiffel Tower. When Josh was here, we visited VDNKh, the Exhibit of National Economic Achievements. A few years ago, it was the Soviet version of the Smithsonian Institution, Disneyland, and the Wisconsin State Fair all wrapped up together. Now most of the elegant museums remain only as splending architectural shells, as their treasures have been sent back to the breakaway republics, put in storage, stolen, sold, or lost. Capitalism abhors a vacuum, and the merchants have moved into the empty buildings. In the House of Culture they sell embroidered skirts; in the House of Fruit they sell expensive foreign cars, including a beautiful Lamborghini.

The worst were the airplanes--the Soviets had parked two Aeroflot jets in front of the space museum, so that people who had never flown on the world's largest airline could see what it was like. Well, when we got there, one of the jets was just plain locked up. You could go in the other, but only for a fee. It turns out that some enterprising fellow had bought a few Sega home video game sets and had set them up in the seats of the plane. He was charging people a few dozen rubles for 10 minutes of play, having set up his business in one cranny of the empty shell of Soviet glory.

The other night, Boris Dolgonos (Harvard '91, Editor, Let's Go: France 1992) was over for dinner. Boris was born in Russia, but emigrated with his family as a child. Now he's back for a month or so, doing some work for an American law firm. Boris says that there are two types of Western companies here. The first are those selling consumer goods--fast food, sneakers, shaving gel--to the Russians. The second are those hoping to use Western technology to exploit Russia's natural resources, particularly oil and gas. The first type, according to Boris, is just a tease, since only the richest fraction of the Russian population can afford any of the goodies, while the vast majority trudge along on $25 a month, assaulted with advertisements for and displays of things they can't possibly afford. Only the second type of company, he says, actually creates wealth.

But thinking it over, I disagree. I think that the consumer-goods companies are helping Russia, in three ways.

First, the availability of Gilette shaving gel is of direct benefit to any Russian who can afford it, since it gives you that clean, smooth, fresh feeling at the beginning of the day. (How many Russians can afford it, at $2.25 a can, no one really knows.) Second, the Russians who can't afford it now may be inspired to work a little harder; the incentive system that I have mentioned before. Sure, this is tough on pensioners and people who are locked into low paying professions (like medicine). But this is the only way Russia will raise the crop of entrepreneurs it so desperately needs.

Finally, the Western-managed businesses are small business schools in themselves. Particularly McDonald's, which is a joy to visit not only for the decent beef, but also to be in a place where the free cashiers raise their hands for more customers, where the floors are perpetually mopped, and where they cheerfully say "do svidanniya" as you leave. It has the only public bathroom I've seen in Moscow that has toilet paper, soap, and working hand dryers all at once, and you don't even have to pay extra. Now if I were starting a business in Russia, particularly one that involved service (movie theater, clothing store, rental cars, savings bank), but really anything that required reliable, friendly workers, I'd want to recruit my entire staff from people who had received honorable discharges from the McDonald's workforce.

So while I must admit a tinge of sorrow as I see Moscow's crumbling but dignified old buildings plastered with gaudy signs for Reebok and McDonald's (which opens two new branches on June 1), I still think it is all for the best. I came here worshipping Orwell, and desperately wanting to believe that there was some other system, somewhere, that would avoid the evils of Soviet socialism while remedying the wrongs described in The Road to Wigan Pier. Clearly there are still gradations; the American economy, with its enormous public sector, is far from a pure market economy, and Western Europe is even farther. But ultimately, I have acquired a profound respect for the invisible hand. I am a capitalist.

Escape from Russia

Russia is a hard country to love and an easy country to despise. In 1839, the Marquis de Custine wrote, "Whenever your son is discontented in France, I have a simple remedy: tell him to go to Russia. The journey is beneficial for any foreigner, for whoever has properly experienced that country will be happy to live anywhere else." One hundred and fifty-four years later, J. Andrew Stanford, former editor-in-chief of the Moscow Guardian, wrote, "Russians have no clue what they want because 1) they've never done it right, and 2) most have never even been anywhere that has done it right."

These are cheap shots by snotty Westerners, but it is so, so easy to take cheap shots at this place, these people. You can be as tolerant as you want, accepting what you might call inefficiencies as cultural differences, understanding the disadvantages Russians have faced, finding individual Russians you like, and keeping in mind at all times Russia's great achievements: The Nutcracker, War and Peace, Stalingrad, and Sputnik.

But each busy signal, each hour-long line, each shout from a "service" employee, each drunk on the Metro, each swastika scrawled on the urine-stinking elevator rubs off a little bit of that armor, until the true awfulness of this place begins to scrape your naked soul, and you get out of the hour-long line, grab a chair, jump on top of it and in your glorious, non-inflected, hard-currency native Enlgish shout:

That's it! To hell with it! To hell with Russia! Phooey, phooey, phooey! A bas la Russe! You can all rot here without me, 'cause I'm getting out of this Godforsaken, God-forsaking place, RIGHT NOW!

And indeed I am. On Sunday evening I will board a train to Vilnius, a train known for the laxness with which exit visas are inspected. By Monday night I should be in Tallinn, Estonia, where I will get a new Russian visa; write a couple of travel articles for the new (scab) Guardian and its new, more tolerant, editor; and, best of all, breathe the air of what is becoming a Western, capitalist, rational, decent nation.

I'll be gone for about six days, returning to Moscow on Saturday morning. So if you have anything you urgently want to tell me, send it now. Otherwise, I'll be back on line in June.

Until then,

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