Sunday, January 17, 2021

Putin’s Power Preservationist Approach Echoes That of 19th Century Tsars, Vyugin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 14 – Vladimir Putin’s focus on retaining autocratic power rather than working to develop the country economically and socially is nothing new, Oleg Vyugin says. All Russian tsars in the nineteenth century with the exception of Alexander II, adopted exactly the same approach, one that ultimately opened the way to revolution.

            The Higher School of Economics professor of economics picks up on the argument of Vladimir Pastukhov that Putin is seeking to restore something like a serfdom-based state and expands it to focus on the policy choices the last tsars (; for Pastukhov’s argument, see

            In the Asiatic despotisms with which it is sometimes compared, autocratic rulers set as their task not only the maintenance of form central control but also economic growth. As a result, China, Taiwan and South Korea among others have raced ahead, while Russian leaders who have been concerned only about preserving their power did not have that effect.

            “In contrast to Asian histories,” the Moscow economist continues, “Russian monarchs with only the possible exception of Aleksandr II did not put at the top of their agendas any far-reaching economic strategies but rather saw their chief task as the preservation of the autocracy.” Nicholas II, for example, said exactly that when he ascended the throne.

            Despite the approach of the tsarist government, between 1890 and 1914, the Russian economy grew so rapidly that it expanded its share in the world’s industrial production from 3.4 percent to 5.3 percent as its acquired many of the advantages of capitalism after dispensing with serfdom decades earlier.

            In addition to the influence of such leaders as Witte and Stolypin, Russia’s economic miracle at that time was based on a flood of cheap labor into the cities, the importation of capital and technology from abroad, and the development of relatively good working relations between the government, the banks, and industry, Vyugin says.

            That experience provides five lessons for Russia going forward, including the need to end an isolationist approach, become welcoming of technological imports, establish an atmosphere of trust between the government and business, exploit relatively low labor costs, and demilitarize the economy in the absence of obvious threats.

            Those are not steps that the current Russian ruler seems inclined to take, and that means he is forced to consider the other model of industrial development Russia has provided in the past century: Stalin’s transformation of the economy in the 1930s and 1940s, the Moscow economist says.

            Despite its “shocking” and anti-humane characteristics, Stalin’s approach was based on many of the same foundations as the earlier tsarist period. He relied on low-cost labor, not only keeping wages low but using prisoners as well. He promoted technological transfers into the country by purchasing foreign factories. And he financed this by exports.

            Few would want to repeat in all details Stalin’s approach because today people expect more and would be more likely to resist. But “those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them,” Vyugin continues, either by taking steps that did produce a revolution or taking others that under current conditions would do the same.

            “For the successful development of the Russian economy, the very best variant now would be pragmatic and broad economic cooperation with the developed world,” something that requires dispensing with the mythology that the West is a threat. Unfortunately, since 2000, the Kremlin has been moving in exactly the opposite direction at its own initiative.

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