Archive for February, 1992

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus.]

A people unused to responsibility

In early January, authorities in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) moved toward converting their systems into market economies.  They began to let some prices find their own levels.

We applaud this change as a step toward making their systems functional.  In doing so, our assumption is that CIS citizens want to live as we do and that they are willing and able to accept the negative, interim consequences of such a difficult transition .  They have been told that the road to a good life is through a market economy.

They want the good life, but will they accept the hardship inherent in getting there?  We have decided that what is good for us must be good for them.  Maybe it is, but let’s take a look at the people whose futures we are trying to influence.

”We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”.  That statement typified the relationship between Soviet citizens and their employer, the state.

CIS citizens have functioned in master-slave relationships for centuries.  On one of the few occasions when they had a free choice, after the abolition of serfdom (peasant slavery) in 1861, the peasants did opt for privately owned farms, they joined together in collectives which continue to exist today.  The “collective” is part of the national psyche.

CIS citizens are the product of centuries of evolution.  They are non-competitive, knowing they have to blend in to survive.  They are jealous, resentful and vindictive toward those who try to get ahead.  They are highly paranoid and with good reason!  Life has taught survivors to keep their heads down.

Fifteen years before slavery was abolished, the great Russian writer (and landowner), Lev Tolstoy decided to unilaterally free his serfs and give them their own land.  They refused his offer, believing he was somehow trying to trick them!

The psychological imprint from this deep seated distrust of freedom and authority affected the workplace in important ways, giving rise to an incredibly inefficient Soviet system. In the workplace, this incredibly inefficient Soviet system has created a workforce that is essentially disinterested in what it does.

Workers do what they are told to do and no more.  Initiative and self-improvement are dirty words.  The system has never demanded excellence from them, only mediocrity.  They are lazy, escapist, unmotivated, inefficient, incompetent, apathetic, indifferent and impractical.  They have no work ethic.

CIS citizens are unquestionably and unavoidably as much a product of their recent Soviet past as they are of their national heritages.  Many cheat and steal whenever possible.  “Why not?  We take from the state, but we own the state.  You can’t steal from yourself!”

A tractor driver in an MTS (an organization providing mechanized support to collective farms) once described to me his way of doing business.

In order to earn his daily pay he had to plow 5 hectares (11 acres) to a depth of 30 cm (12 inches).  If he plowed more, he got a bonus for “overfulfilling his daily work norm”.  So he set his plow at 20 cm., was able to plow an extra 1-2 hectares and got a fat bonus.

His work was never checked and it was of absolutely no concern to him that he was damaging the subsequent harvest.

It can be argued that the Soviets designed and built some very sophisticated military hardware.  However, they did not build those weapons because their system was inherently efficient or competitive, but because their centrally controlled economy allowed them to concentrate unlimited resources in a linear fashion on specific goals.  Lacking a competitive system, the work was done at extraordinary expense by individual special design bureaus working in virtual vacuums.

Reaping the consequences

Stories are already appearing in the press about the movement of Soviet-made arms and equipment to Iran.  Certainly that is compatible with what we know about the character of CIS man.  In these very hard times when just about everything is for sale, it is to be expected that arms will be exported for personal or “collective” gain.

Our major concern should be that nuclear weapons, materials and know-how might be exported to countries that would like to use them.  With their feet to the fire, there are elements in the CIS who would do that even knowing that they might be used.

One certainly hopes that the Bush administration has a policy for and is dealing with that potential problem.

You can safely bet that the stories appearing in the press right now about the lack of food in the stores is the result of someone, somewhere running some kind of scam.

The theory behind letting prices float was that higher prices would bring more goods to the market, which in turn would bring down prices.

That has not yet happened, possibly because someone is holding back goods, hoping to see prices rise even higher.  One short year ago in the USSR, this act was a serious punishable crime called profiteering.  Today’s consumers are in the impossible position of not having enough income to cover their basic needs.  Many of them long for the “good old days” when this was illegal.

We will see more of that.

On a personal level, many CIS citizens can be said to want the benefits of democracy without the attendant responsibility.  A KGB defector of the 1970’s used to berate us, his CIA contacts, for telling him what to do (not drink so much!), just as his former KGB boss had done.  In the next breath he would complain that we refused to tell him what job to seek!

CIS citizens probably do want all the trappings that democracy and a market economy would bring them.  We have to wonder if they will accept the privation they will have to go through to get there.

Knowing the Problem

Understanding how life has conditioned CIS citizens and their ancestors over 500 years should give us a better feel for whether or not they are equipped to travel the road which we think they must.  They have lived under a succession of repressive totalitarian governments which have told them what to do and how and when to do it.  They have never had any say in the governance of their own lives.  They are not conditioned to desire or seek choices.

What kind of a citizen does that produce?  Is he good raw material for a democratic market economy?  Does he really want the freedom of choice and responsibility that comes with such a system?

Is he even capable of understanding such a system?   Remember that almost no one alive in the CIS today has any practical personal experience with either  democracy or a market economy.

If the world is very lucky, the CIS will succeed in making the transition to a democratic market economy.  The West can probably help by providing enough short term humanitarian aid to smooth out the coming year’s radical changes.

On the other hand, there is ample historical evidence to fear that it will be an extremely difficult and complicated transition, one that may bring out the people’s basest traits and instincts.  If things do not go well, it is quite possible that the people will seek or accept leadership more in harmony with the authoritarian models of their past.  If that happens, we should not be surprised.

Unfortunately, there is very little we can do to influence the matter.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA officer who specialized in Soviet and East European operations with the agency from 1956 to 1980.  He lives in Brookfield.

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