Paweł Krawczyk

USSR

For a few decades now there was an interesting model of #Russia statehood discussed inside the country, called the “theory of opers and operators”, created by Aleksandr Volkov.^2 Its name is a game of words: “operators” was allegedly term used by FBI to describe financial managers of KGB assets in the West. “Oper” is a Russian slang word for KGB officers.

Quoting directly from one of recent articles that describe the theory:^1

The gist of the theory is that in the early 1970s the KGB of the USSR set up a network of offshore companies to help foreign trade missions circumvent Western sanctions on the purchase of high-tech equipment. The oil crisis and the increase in the US discount rate to 20% under Ronald Reagan led to the accumulation of considerable sums in the accounts of #KGB offshore companies, which ended up in a grey area: the party organs no longer controlled them, while from the Western perspective they were normal capitals. Having both large sums and understanding of how they could be disposed of, officers in Soviet foreign offices began to invest money and make profits within the framework of Western economy. As a result, in the 1980s, the KGB's offshore capital rose to its feet and became independent of cash infusions from the Union.

While Soviet Union existed, the cash was kind of frozen – KGB officers couldn't spend it completely at their will, only steal fraction on various service-related expenses. But then comes 1991 and everything changed:

After the fall of the #USSR, these funds are partly returned home and used to buy up assets. In the framework of the theory, the nineties are a period of struggle between the KGBists, who have settled in the West, and the party-economic elite of the former USSR – a struggle for control of the assets of the communist empire. The Chekists, as a more consolidated group, having at their disposal large capitals, financial infrastructure and, most importantly, close ties with the security/law enforcement agencies on the ground – won this struggle by gobbling up both the “red directors” and the “new Russians” from the organised crime. By the late nineties and early 2000's, the process of redistribution of big business was complete. The offshore Chekists had taken control of the biggest assets and could have stopped their careers at this.

But history never stops at any given moment — the “old guard” could have earned billions by merely working in KGB/FSB, then why not us, thought young aspiring officers? The financial success of the KGB created a huge demand for jobs in the security services, but there were no longer any secret KGB stashes abroad. Another solution was found:

By that time, a mechanism had been developed for taking over businesses through quasi-legal mechanisms and, most importantly, a large layer of operatives had grown up who perceived racket as an organic part of their career development. Since the youngsters could not repeat the success their ancestors, they turned for the regular people: they started stealing first medium and then small businesses. In fact, the devouring of businesses by low-ranking Chekists (hungry operatives) is the main content of 2000-2010's. It is typical that during this period Putin systematically called for an end to the crackdown on business, but in fact did nothing about it, because he simply could not go against the backbone of the regime.

Widespread racket, takeover and stealing of businesses in Russia in 2000-2010's is a fact: all private media and TV stations were taken over this way — cases of Vladimir Gusinsky^3, VK^4, Hermitage Capital Management^5 were most reported, but there were thousands of other smaller and less known companies taken over this way.

The authors of the “theory of opers and operators” believe that this wave of cannibalistic takeovers, often carried out by people with zero experience in business, led to gradual decline of Russian economy and decline of its competitiveness.

There was nothing more valuable left to be taken over, but appetites of the “opers” were still high, and their cadres were still growing in numbers – I remember statistics where at some point ~15% of the working population in some regions worked in some kind of security services.

Grab for Ukraine

The authors believe the conflict with #Ukraine that started in 2014^6 is largely influence by the economic motives among the Russian security apparatus running out of businesses to steal in their own country, as described above. Having said that, authors interestingly point out that while annexation of #Crimea logically seems to be an extension of this “economic grab”, they argue motivation behind specifically Crimea was entirely political.

If we stick to economic determinism, we can assume that the return of Crimea was dictated by a desire to expand the fodder base of the KGBists. In fact, this (inherently Marxist) assumption is flawed. If Putin had been guided by this consideration, he would have taken not a single (and very small) region, but all or a significant part of Ukraine, redistributing property there and distributing fodder. This, as we know, did not happen.

I cannot but notice, that the article contradicts itself in this specific part: the authors argue that “the new aristocracy” (FSB) had no motives to start the whole “Crimean affair”, thus hurting their own interests, only to satisfy the appetites of their younger colleagues. Firstly, the economic decline in 2010's Russia was a fact, as was declining ratings of Putin (record low 62% in 2013), and constantly growing security apparatus.

In 2013 there was a strong pressure on Ukraine for “economic integration” with Russia and the very direct cause for #Euromaidan was specifically the surprising decision of Yanukovych to turn away EU association agreement^7 and instead join Russian economic zone. If the latter happened, FSB could simply continue expanding their “fodder base” into Ukraine unhindered, as it did in Russia. But that was prevented by mass-scale protests of Ukrainians, by order of magnitude larger than Russian protests against Putin's “re-election” in 2012.^8

And as the fodder has been taken away from FSB, they had a strong motivation to at least grab Crimea, which would both provide some consolation to the hungry elites, punishment for Ukraine, and rating boost for Putin.

Crimea certainly provided a wealthy trophy, as wave of business takeovers demonstrated shortly after it was annexed, with plenty of new private, fenced beaches in the most attractive places.^9 How does war in #Donbass fit into this hypothesis? It's interesting case, because politically war in Donbass has been a complete failure, leading to no political wins and instead a lengthy, frozen conflict and plenty of troubles for Russia.

Was there anyone gaining from war in Donbass? Of course — only in the first two years of the war over 50% of large industrial enterprises have been looted by occupiers^10 and, noted by many people, the absurd separation into two — Luhansk and Donetsk — “People's Republics”, has no political purpose or explanation. But it creates perfect “zones of exclusive economic rights” between organized crime controlled by FSB and GRU respectively. And, as with every organized crime groups competing for resources, there were a number of assassinations of top LPR/DPR heads and even shootings between LPR and DPR militias.

FSB and the war in Ukraine

Returning to the Ukrainian extension of the “theory of opers and operators”, authors believe this orientation of Russian elites exclusively on its own wealth and welfare explains lukewarm attitudes towards the victory. Make no mistake, the authors represent 100% Russian nationalist view and definitely support the idea of forcible submission of Ukraine, they are just critical of how Putin does it.

They believe what others call “incompetence” is simply result of different than official actual goals of the conflict: they argue, the “economic vector” explains the vague and frequently changing official objectives of the “special military operation”, lack of any specific description of what “victory” would mean for Russia in this war, but also demoralisation inside Russia itself — widespread corruption in the army, theft of military equipment that would otherwise help war effort and even shutting down of specific military industries when they are most needed.

In essence, the Chekist regime seeks not so much to win as to adapt to conditions new to it (in fact, the conditions of a forced and unnatural confrontation between bees and honey). Within this logic, the population and the economy continue to be viewed solely as fodder (and hence there is nothing strange about the sawing up of a factory needed for the front), and the military defeat and destruction of Ukraine does not look particularly attractive.

The advantage of an extended war, for Russian “elites” following this logic, is not only the mobilization effort which allows continued theft on the generously allocated military budget (30% of overall state budget now!), mobilization of the poorest parts of the society (who had been likely kept in this state for the last decade for purpose) with the perspective of generous military compensations^11 but also unrestricted looting of the newly occupied territories.

Looting on mass scale allows to at least for a while satisfy not only individual “entrepreneurs” on all levels, from regular soldiers stealing electronics or jewellery from Ukrainian homes, large scale theft of Ukrainian grain and up to professionally organised theft of artwork from Kherson museum^12, but — most importantly — the FSB that likely takes share of every item brought back to Russia.

— Paweł Krawczyk https://krvtz.net/ Fediverse @kravietz@agora.echelon.pl

In late 1910's the Western views on the #Bolshevik Revolution in #Russia were, as usual, divided. Criticism from anti-communists was quite predictable, while people with broadly socialist views at minimum saw it a chance for an actual social change and watched curiously, granting it the benefit of the doubt, even if a bit concerned about its violent character. Reports about Red Terror atrocities were well-known in the West, but if you believed in the revolution, it was easy to dismiss them using popular fallacies such as “but both sides are violent” or “but violence is just a transitional step in the eradication of the bourgeoisie”.

The more respect should be paid to the voice of Bertrand Russell, who being an active member of British socialist movements, produced a painfully honest record of what he saw during his 1920 trip to Soviet Russia (there was no #USSR yet). His position is not anti-communist at all, quite the opposite – he openly declares he's “one with Bolsheviks” as it comes to their goals, but their political reality he saw, and the impression of the leaders he had, seem to be both largely repugnant to him.

Russell also avoids the trap of many anti-communist intellectuals, that is tribalism: while seeing the whole “cruelty, perfidy or brutality” of other, predominantly capitalist countries, he doesn't allow himself drift into the instinctive position of defending Bolsheviks as the only major political force able to oppose them, which was one of the primary forces driving pro-Soviet denialism in the West through 20th century.

For start, Russell makes one more interesting observation: he describes Bolshevik's approach to #Marxism as “religious”, if not “fanatical”, including “elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures”. Oh, irony – one of the most anti-religious movements in history is being described as yet another quasi-religious one:

Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures. When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does so, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Engels. A full-fledged Communist is not merely a man who believes that land and capital should be held in common, and their produce distributed as nearly equally as possible. He is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty.

There's another fragment that perfectly combines two observations: that Soviet communists have already moved (we're talking about 1920!) to a “life after life” mode of justification of their miserable choices and methods; and that the Western communists, left with Soviet propaganda as primary source of information, are much more inspired by the Bolshevism than the people on the ground there:

The effect of Bolshevism as a revolutionary hope is greater outside Russia than within the Soviet Republic. Grim realities have done much to kill hope among those who are subject to the dictatorship of Moscow. Yet even within Russia, the Communist party, in whose hands all political power is concentrated, still lives by hope, though the pressure of events has made the hope severe and stern and somewhat remote. It is this hope that leads to concentration upon the rising generation. Russian Communists often avow that there is little hope for those who are already adult, and that happiness can only come to the children who have grown up under the new régime and been moulded from the first to the group-mentality that Communism requires.

And then this rather outright criticism on hypocrisy of Western communists justifying Soviet methods:

Western Socialists who have visited Russia have seen fit to suppress the harsher features of the present régime, and have disseminated a belief among their followers that the millennium would be quickly realized there if there were no war and no blockade.

Russell also dismisses a popular (even today) argument that the Bolshevik violence was somehow provoked by opposition of the “White” supporters of the Tsar, and by the Allied intervention in Russia:

The expectation of such opposition was always part of Bolshevik theory. A general hostility to the first Communist State was both foreseen and provoked by the doctrine of the class war. Those who adopt the Bolshevik standpoint must reckon with the embittered hostility of capitalist States; it is not worth while to adopt Bolshevik methods unless they can lead to good in spite of this hostility. To say that capitalists are wicked and we have no responsibility for their acts is unscientific; it is, in particular, contrary to the Marxian doctrine of economic determinism. The evils produced in Russia by the enmity of the Entente are therefore to be reckoned as essential in the Bolshevik method of transition to Communism, not as specially Russian.

It's also worth placing the Allied intervention in a context: when it started, the rightful government of Russia was pluralist Russian Provisional Government, which was recognized internationally, and it was that Government, not Tsar (who abdicated earlier), that Bolsheviks have overthrown in October Revolution, and then left Allied forces fighting Germany. Therefore the Allied intervention was intended primarily on preventing German return to power by strengthening the “White” army who at the same time was fighting Germany and Bolshevik on the orders of the government perceived as rightful government of Russia.

Most importantly however, Russel in that paragraph made a fundamental observation about the type of people that most revolutions bring to power:

A condition of widespread misery may, therefore, be taken as indispensable to the inauguration of Communism, unless, indeed, it were possible to establish Communism more or less peacefully, by methods which would not, even temporarily, destroy the economic life of the country. If the hopes which inspired Communism at the start, and which still inspire its Western advocates, are ever to be realized, the problem of minimizing violence in the transition must be faced. Unfortunately, violence is in itself delightful to most really vigorous revolutionaries, and they feel no interest in the problem of avoiding it as far as possible. Hatred of enemies is easier and more intense than love of friends. But from men who are more anxious to injure opponents than to benefit the world at large no great good is to be expected.

About the delusional perception of Western supporters of Bolshevik he has to say this:

Friends of Russia here think of the dictatorship of the proletariat as merely a new form of representative government, in which only working men and women have votes, and the constituencies are partly occupational, not geographical. They think that “proletariat” means “proletariat,” but “dictatorship” does not quite mean “dictatorship.” This is the opposite of the truth. When a Russian Communist speaks of dictatorship, he means the word literally, but when he speaks of the proletariat, he means the word in a Pickwickian sense. He means the “class-conscious” part of the proletariat, i.e., the Communist Party.

Just remember, Bertrand Russell wrote these words in 1920, less than three years after the October Revolution, already predicting the direction in which the Soviet system was heading, as well as its ultimate collapse.

— Paweł Krawczyk https://krvtz.net/ Fediverse @kravietz@agora.echelon.pl

As of 2020 in the political discourse on social media there seems to be only two paths: “socialist” or “capitalist”. In reality, the true choice lies between pragmatism and dogmatism, but the line of division between these two is not exactly where most people expect it to be.

What can we learn from rise and fall of USSR?

There's little doubt that USSR was “socialist”, as it not only had “Socialist” in its name, but also, and most importantly, pursued policies of socialist thinkers, specifically #Marx, #Engels and #Lenin. In their socialist economy private for-profit trade was replaced by a transitional solution to #communism, still involving prices and money, but with state owned means of productions and central planning. For-profit private trade was actually a crime (of “speculation”), punished under article 154 of criminal code of USSR.

As result, #USSR experienced a fast growth, shortage of goods, strong industrial production, flourishing black market, free high education and public health, stagnation and secret loans from the “imperialist” powers it condemned in official propaganda.

An important checkpoint was the New Economic Policy of 1922, when Lenin decided to relax the ideological position of the Soviet state and allowed for-profit enterprises, specifically with the objective of stimulating economy.

That certainly was a pragmatic decision and it resulted in accelerated growth of agricultural and industrial production.

Then however #Stalin decided it was too much of a “compromise” and reintroduced harsh collectivisation and nationalisation in all sectors. This step marked USSR's return from pragmatism back to dogmatism.

Was USSR policies dogmatic? Certainly so, placing all private trade and production in criminal code was dogmatic. Was it sustainable? At the time of its dissolution in 1991 USSR owed over $70m to the Paris Club, and was unable to pay not only installments, but even salaries and pensions internally.

Capitalism... or what exactly?

While Marxism-Leninism was a very detailed, even prescriptive ideology that described both social and economic relations at every level of society, most definitions of “#capitalism” are based on presence of a few typical features: private ownership of means of production and for-profit trade.

There's however nothing in “capitalism” that precludes operations of other forms of economic activity: cooperative, state-owned, non-profit enterprises are all widespread and coexist along with private for-profit ones. Pragmatic “whatever works” approach seems to be at the very core of capitalist economies.

As result we have extremely diverse world of economies, that are very different in their social and political organisation, but all share the common features of capitalist economy: Russia, USA, France, China, India and practically all others.

Wait... communist #China? Yes, China is an interesting case because in spite of the country being run by Communist Party of China, it's hard to argue that a country with 60% of GDP produced in small and medium private for-profit enterprises is indeed “communist”. It just defies all postulates of communism, at least in the economic sphere.**

As result of this diversity, when talking about “capitalism” we need to be quite precise which one we mean: French, Russian, some other? Because all of these systems differ dramatically in their policies on income and inheritance tax, social welfare, social housing, public healthcare and dozens of other policies.

A frequent counter-argument here is that Western Europe was forced to introduce socialist elements as result of Soviet Union inspiring workers in the West. In the first place, it's not quite true as social policies predate Soviet revolution by a century.*** But even if it was the case, so what? These policies were introduced specifically because of the “whatever works” attitude and lack of any specific ideological rigidity as seen in USSR.

Dogmatism in capitalist economies

Make no mistake, capitalist economy can drift towards dogmatism just as well: US political discourse is the best example of it.

When people start talking about “#socialism” or “#communism” in response to any suggestion that barely mentions the word “public” (as in “public healthcare”), you know that they have abandoned the pragmatic approach and turned into ideology.

Now, if it's done against outcomes of process efficiency analysis (“ok, at this point having public healthcare might be actually cheaper”), then we are facing precisely the same bias that led USSR to ban private trade against all the experience that suggested otherwise.

This particular bias has its own name and it's called “#neoliberalism”.

Footnotes

  • * Nikolay Shmelyov “Credits and debts” (1987) explains in great detail the state of Soviet economy in mid-80's.
  • ** China started to abandon its hard Marxist-inspired economic policies starting from 80's, shortly after death of Mao. These changes were said to be inspired by Soviet NEP, and are a great example of economic pragmatism that made China the industrial power it is today.
  • *** In case of UK, first labour and what we would today describe as welfare laws were introduced in 18-th century. Public schooling and healthcare were proposed by no one else than Adam Smith around half century before Marx.

— Paweł Krawczyk https://krvtz.net/ Fediverse @kravietz@agora.echelon.pl