Never hope for normalcy

More than fifteen years ago, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman published A Normal Country: Russia After Communism in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They argues that against the view that Russia was extraordinarily, uniquely corrupt or ill-managed in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Rather, they said, Russia’s flaws were typical of a middle-income country transitioning from a dictatorship and a state-controlled economy to a more liberal political and economic regime.

Both in 1990 and 2003, Russia was a middle-income country… with GDP per capita comparable to that of Argentina in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. Countries in this income range have democracies that are rough around the edges, if they are democratic at all. Their governments suffer from corruption, and their press is almost never entirely free. Most also have high income inequality, concentrated corporate ownershipand turbulent macroeconomic performance. In all these regards, Russia is quite normal.

I blame unrealistic expectations. So many Russians expected the country to become a poorer version of Central Europe within a few years of the fall of communism, and so many Westerners seemed to share in this optimism that the inevitable ugliness of the transition – the birth pangs of a new society – was misdiagnosed as an incurable genetic defect. Putin later capitalized on this, claiming to have brought order when an order was already emerging from the chaos of the first post-Communist decade.

To make things worse, few realized how deeply the Soviet regime damaged societies, especially in the core republics of the USSR. When Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms in 1978-79, it had only been 30 years since the PLA had taken Beijing, corresponding roughly to the year 1950 in Soviet history. Plus, there’s some evidence that Mao, for all his bloodiness, did not devastate old elites the way his Bolshevik teachers did in Russia.

To quote again from Shleifer and Treisman:

Most middle-income countries are not secure or socially just places to live. Nor are all middle-income countries alike. None of the others has Russia’s nuclear arms or its pivotal role in international affairs. Yet other countries around Russia’s level of income – from Mexico and Brazil to Malaysia and Croatia – face a common set of economic problems and political challenges, from similarly precarious vantage points. Russia’s struggles to meet such challenges closely resemble those of its peers.

“Russia’s nuclear arms” and its “pivotal role in international affairs” have made possible the rise of Putinism. But not just them. Shleifer and Treisman – and they were hardly alone in this – made no allowance for path dependence. Russia evolved from a rural to an urban society under Communist rule. This shaped its cities – where history happens – and shaped them in a way that needs to be understood as a prerequisite to further discussion of Russia’s future.

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