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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Overtaxed in '17, '98




For the second time this century the West is making the same fateful mistake in its relations with a friendly Russia.


The first time was at a crucial juncture of World War I, when Russia's economic, social and military structure was verging on the point of collapse. Although the Western Allies had an intelligence network in Russia, as well as many knowledgeable diplomats and observers who had started to doubt the strength of the Russian military, they still pushed Russia into major battles even though the country had already lost 2 million soldiers.


By putting loyalty to the West above an instinct of self-preservation, Russia reached its breaking point during the offensives of 1916 and 1917. Britain's Prime Minister David Lloyd George later conceded: "Russia was given an assignment which could not be fulfilled ? Russia was crushed at the end of 1916. Prolongation of the war meant a senseless slaughter."


This prolongation also stimulated the process of revolutionizing Russian society, and helped transform Russia into an anti-Western country. Those who managed to discern the country's dying pulse were allowed to come to power. Consequently, the West's most trusted allies in Russia f members of the ruling nobility and elite who were tied to the West by relatives, education, sympathies and interests f vanished from the Russian political scene and receded into historical nonexistence.


Now we are facing the second drama. Seven years ago, Russia rejected communism and started to drift in an unknown direction. The main beacons on the horizon were the market and democracy. But after the lightning privatization of state property, the process of change then lost all visible guidelines. Predictable problems appeared in the new Russian state: how to restore a stable mechanism of government and a vertical ladder of subordination; how to determine the character of land property and regulation of state capitalism; matters of taxation.


But the most important questions fell outside the focus of attention: how to preserve the existing industrial base; how to stimulate a technological upsurge; how to preserve and develop fundamental science; and how to determine the strategy of the Commonwealth of Independent States.


Instead, everyday banalities blocked the view f the budget, inflation and ruble convertibility. Crisis management substituted for the introduction of real reforms, the prospects of which soon faded into the background. As a result, the very notion of "reform" was devalued. Today, people call the casual and trivial changes of economic tactics "reforms" when, in fact, they are little more than the intrigues of clerks. In recent years, "reform" has had little to do with the reality of industrial decline, the decay of science and the generally chaotic state of Russian society.


And in this context the West is pushing Russia forward again. This time it is not a military advance on the Carpathian mountains but one in a no less dangerous direction.


As in distant 1917, the West has turned a blind eye to Russia's real problems by promising help and loyalty only in exchange for a continuation of the movement started in 1992 that has all but buried Russia's industrial inheritance. It would be interesting to know the West's reaction if Russia were to propose drastic changes that reduced a Western country's gross national product by half, cut the standard of living by two-thirds and the average life expectancy by 10 years f or that produced millions of unemployed, and sent a huge number of specialists to the bottom of the social ladder.


There's little point in a road that leads to an abyss. This road starts to instigate a real hatred even in the hearts of people reared in love for Western humanitarian values and culture, and hatred for the cold-blooded snobs who consider the rules of their beloved economic game to be more important than a catastrophe that is consuming an entire country.


And as in 1917, our people are losing their orientation and feel for what is going on f while the silence of Russia's leaders compounds their consternation.


The calls of Lloyd George and others for renewed Russian offensives during World War I were perhaps understandable because the German high command was transferring troops from the Eastern front to the Parisian suburbs. Each day the "Big Bertha" supergun dropped shells on the city. But it is less easy to understand today's Western leaders, since the present day NATO region is secure. And if metaphoric notion of "reforms" is so important to the West, then it should know that for Russia "reforms" in their present form signify the degradation of society, death of the economy and the danger of a deadlock involving much more than Big Bertha.


Like 80 years ago, the West is again delivering an unintended blow to its best friend in Russia, this time the Russian intelligentsia, who for many years have tried to instill in the Russian people a respect for the rationality and humanitarian values of the West.


In 300 years of rapprochement with the West, Russia has tried to swap "Potemkin villages" for realistic assessment. Genuine reform is generally welcomed as a way for our society to develop. But the blind acceptance of "reforms" without decoding what they mean, simply to keep the International Monetary Fund and Western leaders happy, is as dangerous a formula as the one that precipitated the communist outburst 80 years ago. Lloyd George should have come to his conclusion much earlier. We can say the same of his successors today.


Anatoly Utkin is the head of the foreign policy department at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.