Competing With a Bare Behind

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Marxism-Leninism, the official Soviet ideology, was based on strict scientific principles -- or so its founders claimed. They believed that they discovered the universal laws of human history, much like physicists or chemists identified the laws that define the material world. Communists were militant atheists, dynamiting houses of worship, jailing and executing clerics and inculcating into generations of Soviet kids the belief that God doesn't exit.

But communism itself was often called a 20th-century religion. Like most religions, it tried to explain the meaning of life. It provided its version of salvation and its own vision of paradise. But the happiness it promised could only be achieved in this world, and even under best circumstances one couldn't hope to enjoy it longer than one's lifetime. And communism was going to provide happiness to all of its citizens, not just the few chosen ones.

Communism had an almost Talmudic reverence for the written word of its founding fathers and prophets. It had a large pantheon of saints and heroes, as well as the black list of persecutors and heretics, whose books were strictly proscribed.

But, for all its scientific claims, communism, like most religions, encouraged belief in miracles among its followers. Nothing supernatural, of course. Unlike the incorruptible bodies of early Christian martyrs, Lenin's flesh was kept from putrefaction by science, not divine intervention. But the miracles of communism were no less improbable than those in medieval hagiography.

Communism offered a miraculous, easy solution to a variety of problems that bedeviled humanity for most of its history. By abolishing private property, it would automatically eliminate the exploitation of workers, abolish greed and even put an end to prostitution.

Miracles would not cease there either. Communism was supposed to have transformed Russia, a backward agrarian nation, into an industrial powerhouse virtually overnight. Enthusiastic labor by liberated coalminers, known as Stakhanovites, would allow them to increase productivity 10-fold using nothing more than old mining tools. Collective farmers were expected to boost crops and milk production in defiance of genetics, which was declared a "bourgeois pseudoscience" by no less of an authority than Josef Stalin.

Marxism-Leninism seems to have been tailor-made for Russia, where the favorite fairy-tale character has always been Ivan the Fool, a ne'er-do-well who accidentally catches a talking goldfish and gets all his problems solved miraculously.

The Communist ideology is gone, but not the belief in miracles. Listening to Vladimir Putin at the end of his second presidential term, I could never shed the impression that he now believes that high oil prices and his policies of enriching his cronies under the guise of selective renationalization have transformed Russia into a thriving economy. I would bet that he believes that all of those shiny Porsche Cayennes racing around Moscow represent the real Russia. I wonder, though, whether he knows that the country's economy is less than 1/10th of the size of the U.S. economy, that its manufacturing industries are not competitive or that, by some measures such as life expectancy, Russia is closer to sub-Saharan Africa than to Europe.

And now, the same mistake is being made by his successor. President Dmitry Medvedev spoke about Moscow becoming a global financial hub at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. True, Medvedev has introduced some welcome changes to the way the country is governed, but they don't begin to create the judicial system or a streamlined, efficient bureaucracy that an international financial hub requires.

In the early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev promised to catch up to and overtake the United States, a popular joke made the rounds: "We can catch up to America, but we must never overtake it. If we do, they'll see our bare behind."

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.