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December 14, 2008

Conversations with Cab Drivers

Since conversations with cab drivers are becoming a minor theme of this blog, let me add two more. In March this year I visited Berlin for the first time. Flying into Schönefeld airport, I had a long ride into the city centre and another back again a few days later.

On my inward journey, the driver was a young man with broken English. (I don't speak German.) I say young, but he seemed aged by anxiety. He was worried about the credit crunch, which at the time was gathering pace. The run on Northern Rock, the iconic event for British readers, was still six months in the future. My driver's worry was not about recession, which at that time lay below the horizon; it was about hyperinflation.

Central banks were printing too much money, he said, and this worried him. To emphasise this he took both hands off the steering wheel and clapped them to his head, which was balding. During our conversation he would do this again any time he was lost for words, or perhaps if he thought I was showing signs of complacency.

I wasn't complacent at all; I'd been concerned about the state of the financial world for some months already. I just thought he was worrying about the wrong thing. I tried to explain that when financial intermediation was unwinding demand would switch from other assets to cash, which only central banks could supply. The danger was that monetary conditions would become too tight, not too loose.

To support his argument my driver gave me a gift, the only one I have ever received in a taxi. This involved his taking a hand off the wheel and both eyes off the road to find his wallet in a jacket on the seat beside him and open it. He collected memorabilia, he told me, of the German hyperinflation after World War I. My gift was a 10-million Reichsmark note of 1923. I thanked him sincerely, and in truth it was kind of him, although I would have been happy for him to wait until he had stopped the car.

On the return journey my driver was wiry, short, and brown as a nut, with sharp eyes and a striking beard, white and very long. Because of the beard I thought at first he was very old, but as it turns out he was most likely younger than me. At first I thought we had no common language, but a few minutes of experimentation showed that we shared Russian. He was ready to talk, and he talked to me calmly and with emphasis. He kept his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel; all I had to do was ask a few questions, sit back, and listen.

The driver recounted: His family had left Germany for Russia late in the eighteenth century, at the time of the Empress Catherine the Great, settling in the region of Odessa. Caught up in Stalin's deportations of national minorities before World War II, they were exiled to Siberia, eventually resettling in Ekaterinburg. In 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl agreed on the right of ethnic Germans to return from the Soviet Union to Germany. His surviving relatives came first; he followed them reluctantly, after economic conditions in Russia had worsened.

I asked if my driver was satisfied with his life in Germany. He answered firmly: No. In Russia, as a German he had been treated with respect. In Germany, seen as a Russian, he was treated accordingly. Worse, the Germans had forgotten how to be German. Their politicians were corrupt and decadent. They were selling their own country off to the Jews. Their daughters were prostitutes, he said, waving his hand at a group of girls by the roadside. He would take a strap to them. He added, for clarity: not to the girls, but to their parents, who had failed to bring them up properly.

I asked him what he thought of Russia today. Putin, he told me, was doing the right thing for Russia. He was building a strong country that would once more command respect in the world. This was what Russia needed.

He dropped me at the airport in good time and good shape, but troubled. It was symbolic, I decided, that in Berlin, a city at the heart of Europe that already had too much history, I should find a Russian German that hated Jews and Germans and tended the flame of Russian nationalism in his heart.


December 11, 2008

Victims and Perpetrators

Writing about web page http://www.itar-tass.com/prnt.html?NewsID=13357267

I spent a long weekend in Moscow at an international conference on “The History of Stalinism: Research Problems and Results." The conference was an important public event, organized by liberal scholars to counter the conservative tendencies in government and popular culture. There were 400 participants including academicians, archive directors, professors, and members of the public. In addition to many Russians there were scholars from Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and Japan. The closing session was chaired by Nikolai Svanidze, Russia's Jonathan Dimbleby; Putin's minister for education and science Andrei Fursenko attended and spoke briefly.

Russia's citizens know little about Stalin. We are 55 years since Stalin's death, so no one younger than 60 can have a clear memory of the time when he ruled; the average life expectancy of Russian men today is 59 years. They know only what their parents and grandparents told them. A majority believes Stalin was a positive figure -- on balance, one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. There is nostalgia, inflated by conservative myth-making, summed up in the common perception that Russia needs strong, centralized leadership and should avoid the "excesses" of democracy.

My taxi driver to the airport, a man in his 50s, told me that his family was rooted in the trading class of Riazan, to the south east of Moscow. In the 1930s relatives of his grandparents' generation were arrested and executed. But when I asked for his personal view of Stalin he told me Stalin was too far away and high up for him to care. "The most terrible tsar," he said, "is the one that is nearest to you -- your boss at work or the neighbourhood bully." Between Stalin and the victims were many layers of perpetrators, who were also responsible.

That's true, of course. One statistic I heard quoted in the meetings was that, by the fall of the Soviet system, the KGB had 25 million informers -- a tenth of the whole Soviet population.

But, while true, it doesn't do justice to Stalin. One feature of Stalin is that he was an effective dictator. He had an exceptional talent for orchestrating the activities of those under him. As master of the ruling party and state, he ran an army-like command system that directed the lives of everyone. One thing that he orchestrated was the murder of three quarters of a million "potential enemies" in the Great Terror of 1937. When he gave the order, the shooting started. He ordered the creation of lists of numbers to be executed by region and category. He accepted or rejected the amendments proposed by those below him. When he was satisfied that enough had been shot, he gave another order and the shooting stopped.

So, who was more terrible: the man that fired the bullet, or the one that gave the order?

For the sake of justice, to bring the facts into the open, and to reconcile the state with its victims, both the man that fired the bullet and the man that gave the order need to be held to account. Not only Stalin but those who followed his orders. Not only those who followed orders, but Stalin himself. As South Africa has shown, it is possible to have truth and reconciliation without revenge, but without truth there can be no reconciliation.

One participant in the meeting noted that the crimes of Stalinism have produced victims but no perpetrators. Some real perpetrators were punished in Stalin's time, because Stalin was not satisfied until he had "cleaned out" his own secret police in addition to the rest of society. But Stalin is dead; since the collapse of communism not one executioner or torturer has been brought to account. The archives protect them from history, since files relating to living persons may not be disclosed and the families of dead persons retain the right to prevent disclosure.

On a different note, as an economist I was interested in discussion of the efficiency of forced labour. There is a debate about how effectively Stalin's GULAG labour camps used their resources. At various times Stalin held between a million and two and a half million people in the labour camps of the GULAG, but since most sentences were relatively short the throughput was much higher. During Stalin's time, maybe 25 million people passed into the GULAG -- and most came out again. In peacetime the annual death rate averaged around 30 per thousand, rising to 200 per thousand in the worst years of the war when there was not enough food to go round. Most forced labourers were engaged in logging and mining in the remote regions of the far north and east, and in construction around the country. A few were engaged in research and development, as Solzhenitsyn described in The First Circle.

How effectively were the forced labourers used? To some participants in the meeting, this question was clearly a source of anxiety.

By the end of Stalin's lifetime senior officials saw the GULAG as a financial loss-maker and an economic and social burden. They wanted increasingly to abolish it, but couldn't persuade Stalin. Conditions were awful and labourers were paid little, but even behind barbed wire it was hard to force effort out of people who had little or nothing to lose, so even in the labour camps there were cash incentives and better food for hard workers. A million forced labourers required a hundred thousand guards. In short, forced labour was not as cheap as you might think. Productivity was probably low on average, but some camp commanders may have been better at forcing or inducing effort than others. Or perhaps some were better than others at inflating reports; that is also possible. There are many details in the evidence, and as yet there is no summary.

So what? Here's what. More than 30 years ago there was a debate on the profitability of American slavery before the Civil War. Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross settled it, showing clearly that slavery was profitable. What did this mean? It meant that slavery would not have withered of its own accord. It was necessary to fight a civil war and spill blood to destroy it. That was how the American debate went.

Here is how the Russian debate goes: if the GULAG labourers were unproductive, if the GULAG was a burden on society, well and good that it is gone. But if it was productive and profitable -- well, then it worked! In that case, why not restore it? If only parts of the GULAG were efficient, why not study those parts to find out the secret -- and copy that? In short, on one side of the Russian debate, the price of forced labour paid in liberty lost and blood and tears spilt is seen as unimportant, compared with patriotic pride in the success of a great national effort carried out within barbed wire and under armed guard.

To conclude, we need to research the facts about Stalinism, but we also need a moral compass. A former comrade once said (I paraphrase, because neither the ideas nor the words were mine): "we study what happened in history, not to criticize history in the light of our ideals, but so that we can criticize our ideals in the light of history." I go along with that; communism is a nice set of ideals, but it is because of knowing what has happened in history that we can see its consequences. Evidently, to draw conclusions from the economic record of Soviet forced labour is a test not only of our knowledge but also of our political morality.


November 23, 2008

My President is Black

Writing about web page http://www.forbes.com/opinions/2008/11/20/obama-shelby-steele-oped-cx_pr_1121robinson.html

On a trip to Washington and Philadelphia, it seems like everywhere there are Obama T-shirts on sale. Sometimes it's Obama on the front, sometimes with his smiling family, and often they are all wrapped up in the Stars and Stripes. Captions: "My Commander in Chief." And "My President is Black." I liked that one so much, I tried to get it for my wife, but they didn't have her size. I wondered why I wasn't trying to get one for myself, but they so much more didn't have my size, and anyway I thought the sequins wouldn't suit me.

Out on the street some black kids had set up a stall and were noisily telling a small audience not to fall for the Obama illusion. I looked at a placard and saw something about the lost tribes of Israel. I didn't read too closely because it seemed like a bad place to linger. A colleague wondered if they knew Al-Qaeda was trying to put the same message across. There must be hope -- Christians and Muslims coming together before Christmas!

Later, I read "An interview with Shelby Steele." Steele, like Obama, has a mixed racial heritage, but he resents Obama's victory. He rejects the proposition that Obama was a post-racial candidate. (It's a fact: I Googled "Obama" and "post-racial" and got 528,000 hits in 0.19 seconds.) Steele says white folks voted for Obama to prove they were not racist, and black folks voted for him to prove they were not inferior to whites. So, he says, Obama got elected because he is black.

I agree Obama is not "post-racial," whatever that means. The polls show clearly that black voters favoured him more than white voters. Still, Obama got a lot of white votes. The TV pictures showed clearly that a huge number of people around the world, black and white, are inspired that "My President is Black" -- even if for many Obama is not, strictly, their president. In fact, I am one of them. I think it's inspiring that Americans have elected Obama. But to claim that Obama was elected because he is black seems to me to have a firm grip on a seriously wrong end of the stick.

Let's think:

  • Would the voters have put in anyone who was black? I don't think so.
  • If Jesse Jackson had been the Democratic candidate, would he have won? Surely not.
  • Politics aside, did Obama have to demonstrate a lot more competence and leadership than McCain to win? Probably. 

So, Obama was not elected just because he is black. Being black was not enough. Most likely, being as good as the white guy was not enough either. That's the down side: Obama had to be twice as good as the white guy to win. But there's an upside, too: being black did not stop him winning! So, my conclusion is: there's a double bonus in this. Good for Obama, and good for America!

All Obama has to do now is govern America and lead the free world for four years without messing up in a context of financial and environmental meltdowns, a military quagmire in the Middle East, America's global unpopularity, and an undefeated terrorist threat ... And, if he can do that, he can be reelected and get to do it again!

One more reason to be hopeful of America: The cab driver from my hotel to the Union station in Washington DC was talking on his cellphone in a language I could not begin to recognise. When he finished, I asked where he came from. "Afghanistan, seven years ago," he said. I asked how he liked it here. "You know," he said, "I feel at home. This is my country now."

I told the driver he was lucky not to have sought refuge in England; seven years on, he would be living miserably in the British equivalent of a refugee camp in Peshawar, and complete strangers would call him a Paki. That set him off in another direction, saying that Peshawar belonged to Afghanistan until the conniving British gave it to Pakistan. Later, I looked this up on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peshawar and the story does seem a little complicated, but it notes that "to this day many Afghans claim large swathes of Pakistani territory, including the bustling frontier cities of Peshawar and Quetta, rightfully belong to Afghanistan."

My driver said he was reading The Kite Runner, so in his honour and in honour of America I bought it at the next bookstore to read myself. At my conference in Philadelphia I told this story to an old friend. He told me he'd refused to read The Kite Runner, although his wife had read it, because the small midwestern college town where they live had adopted it under the slogan "One Town -- One Book!" Isn't that called totalitarianism? I asked. He smiled uneasily and changed the subject.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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