Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It's Not True That No One Saw 1991 Coming

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In response to "Economic Crash No One Saw Coming," an article by Igor Semenenko, Aug. 13.

Editor,
I think you did a service by publishing the piece by Igor Semenenko, but there are some issues which I touch on below that need to be discussed. Although there was a lot that I liked in this piece on what I consider to be an important subject, there was also a lot that I found disappointing in it, especially its title, "The Economic Crash No One Saw Coming."

While I was pleased to see mention made of the (unjustified) suspicion which both Naum Jasny and Igor Birman received from the profession here, a real scandal if one looks at the record, I was very disappointed that Birman was not given credit for seeing the crash coming, which he in fact did. I know, because in the late 1970s and early 1980s I paid a lot of attention to what Birman was saying and writing on this and supported him in both my published and unpublished writings. I also had him over twice during the two years I taught at Dickinson College in the late 1970s and early 1980s to speak with students about his views on the Soviet economic situation. If anyone doubts that Birman had it right, I would simply recommend looking up the record of what he wrote in the journal Russia, which he edited himself in part because the profession here refused to engage him in real dialogue and, worse yet, refused to allow him to publish his views in our journals -- as Birman himself has pointed out.

With all due respect to Professor Kantorovich, I do not believe from his comments -- as related in the piece by Semenenko -- that the professor really understands what actually happened in the area.

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
While it may be true that the people in the field were "a very small group ... who knew each other closely and who did not criticize each other," the problem was that they would not allow their critics -- be it Jasney, G. Warren Nutter or Birman -- to engage in any real honest academic exchange. I know of these cases from anecdotal information, given to me by a former student of Nutter's, from very considerable documentation in the case of Jasny's biography/autobiography, which was published posthumously, and from what I myself saw in the case of Birman.

A lot of the problem here, which does not get discussed, originated with Professor Abram Bergson of Harvard and his prot?g?s. It was Bergson -- as Abraham Becker rightly pointed out in an article defending the CIA estimates, in Post-Soviet Affairs -- who originated the model that was eventually taken over by the CIA as the basis for studying and making comparisons with the Soviet economy. I would submit that if one looked at the record, especially Jasny's experience, which I know from what I have read and been told greatly troubled the late Alex Nove, it is clear that Bergson's approach had it wrong from the beginning and that those who questioned it like Jasny, and later Birman, were treated harshly by the profession for doing so.

In both cases, the retaliation involved efforts to deny these men support for their academic work in terms of grants and employment. A number of years ago at one AEA meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, I was told by a professor at a southern school who had been in the Air Force of a situation in which the CIA fought tooth and nail to prevent Birman from getting a contract with a department within that agency to do work for it on the Soviet economy.

In my opinion the Bergsons, Beckers and James Millars have a lot to answer for, as does the academic community which has been so reluctant to give an honest account of what went wrong and why. In the case of Bergson, I heard a talk he gave at the AEA convention in New Orleans in 1992 on communist economic efficiency and was simply appalled. I recall after the talk mentioning to the wife of Janos Kornai, who was at the session, that Bergson did not seem to know that the data was bogus. From her reaction, I would judge that she understood what I was saying and agreed with me. The problem with Bergson is that he does not seem to have the intellect, or perhaps honesty, to admit that he had it wrong and tell us why -- something that surely would be quite useful in terms of future comparative work.

In the case of Becker, he can write a -- to my mind not very convincing -- defense of CIA estimates (published in Post-Soviet Affairs) and not have it challenged in that journal since, as Birman commented to me, the editor would never publish one for political reasons.

In the case of James Millar, who headed a task force evaluating the CIA's analysis of Soviet economic performance, one can have an assessment of the CIA's performance without any honest dealing with Birman and his works (the report was published in Comparative Economic Studies).

From what I recall from the comments I saw on Johnson's Russia List of the meeting earlier this year in the Spring at Princeton, those like Robert Gates who claimed that the CIA performed well in evaluating the Soviet economy simply do not understand what the problem was. I find the argument that the CIA identified Soviet difficulties early on to be totally irrelevant.

To my knowledge, all data -- be it Soviet or otherwise -- indicated a clear slowdown. The real issue was not one of a slowdown, but of how serious the Soviet economic difficulties were and on this score I would argue that the CIA did not have a clue, although clearly Birman did. Furthermore, based on my analysis in a joint statement on the Afghanistan situation written in July 1980 and circulated at the Republican Convention in Detroit, I would argue that I understood as well.

To my knowledge, at the time of the Afghanistan invasion the CIA had no clue as to its significance for the future of the Soviet system, as my analysis would argue it clearly did. The failure of the CIA and the profession at that time was inexcusable if one knew Soviet reality.

Semenenko did a service by raising some of the issues here once again. But it is unfortunate that it still seems impossible to get an article published here outlining the serious failures that occurred in the area of our economic and political evaluation of the Soviet Union in its last 20 years.

John Howard Wilhelm
Ann Arbor, Michigan



Focus on Racism



In response to "Racism in Russia and the World", a comment by Peter Rutland, Sept. 3.

Editor,
Peter Rutland is right in arguing that ethnic hatred, and not just racism, contributes to war, violence and oppression around the world. Xenophobia is certainly a problem in Russia, as Rutland notes; however, I disagree with the suggestion that racism does not exist as a separate form of xenophobia. Racism is hatred based on skin color. We should not conclude that Russians cannot be racist simply because their social scientists have not developed a theory of racial differences, which Western social scientists constructed to disastrous results. Russians commonly make distinctions on the basis of skin color: The more "chyorny" a person is, the less respect he or she deserves. This is the essence of racism.

The expatriate community in Moscow certainly perceives a difference in how xenophobia and racism are expressed. Occasionally a xenophobe uses obscenity to tell a white American to go home. Black Africans receive much harsher treatment: Verbal lashings are more frequent, and physical attacks are distressingly common. Last spring the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy began gathering reports about attacks on Africans in the city, and our small community learns of a few such incidents every week.

Last week [Russians] beat up a Sierra Leonean man; this week they have already stabbed two Ethiopians. The Russians do not attack Sierra Leoneans and Ethiopians because they believe them to have a common descent "primarily understood in cultural and historical terms." I am quite certain that the thugs who attacked my friends did not bother to learn about their ethnicity. They attacked the Africans because they were "chyorny."

Questioning the existence of racism in Russia can unintentionally feed what is already a widespread complacency about the problem of racial violence. Instead, the conference in Durban invites us to pay attention to this particular kind of hatred. I think Russia and the rest of the world are right to give racism this focus.

Noel Calhoun
Moscow



Crime and Punishment



In response to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Moscow this week.

Editor,
I believe that the attached letter to the editor, based on first-hand experience, may be of interest to readers of your newspaper, especially in connection with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent visit to Moscow.

The Hasav-Yurt treaty granted to the Chechen administration everything they requested from the Federal Government, including the promise to negotiate the issue of statehood in the future. General Lebed returned home triumphant. No more war, no more oppression of another people, no more atrocities.

Within a short time the war spilled across the frontiers of the rebel Chechnya. The multi-faceted, explosive Dagestan became an arena of the warfare. Residential buildings in Moscow and Buinaksk were blown up. Daily casualties mounted both among the military and civilian population. Hatred and fear spread universally. A "peace of the brave" did not work. Why?

It would be all too simple to resolve conflicts by a simple arbitration: Choose a reasonable point between the demands of the two belligerent sides and force each one to go an extra mile until spirits are calmed down and mutual trust develops. The Clinton patent, buy one, get one free (remember Camp David, Kosovo?). Calling things by their proper names is discouraged: It would be difficult to negotiate afterwards with a partner if he was earlier delegitimized.

The results of this immoral evenhandedness can be seen in abundance. Instead of smoothing the stymied wheels of various peace processes, this policy adds a constant flow of oil to fuel daily killings.

The more innocent civilians from both sides are killed, the more the international community would side with the oppressed, the underdog. Killing one half of your own population merits a first prize, international recognition, and perhaps a military protection by NATO quick-harvesting forces.

Sharon came to Moscow in search of understanding, if not direct support. Of course, diplomatic language is more fit to conceal emotions than to expose them, so it would be naive to count on a quick turnaround of the official Russian position concerning the Middle East crisis. It is important that at least Russian public opinion be able to distinguish between the law and its offenders, between the crime and punishment. There are indeed no magic solutions for achieving the peace overnight. There should be a national resolve to avoid a staged suicide by yielding to terror.

Sergei Yakovenko
Moscow



Ultra-Liberalism



In response to Global Eye, a weekly column by Chris Floyd, appearing Fridays.

Editor,
I want to express my dissatisfaction with the continually biased opinions of Chris Floyd. I do not wish to suppress his ultra-liberal views, but only ask that a conservative columnist be given equal time to voice a different point of view. If it is impossible to find a conservative voice among all of the far-left noise you inundate yourself with, I will be happy to supply conservative points of view free of charge.

Greg Ferney
Idaho, U.S.



Officer, Not Agent



In response to "No Stasi Reunions for Putin on Dresden Trip," a Reuters article on Aug. 31.

Editor,
The article in The Moscow Times about president Putin coming to visit Dresden, former East Germany, contains an error that I find is often made by respected journalists and equally respected papers such as The Moscow Times. Putin is called a former KGB agent. In fact, he is a former KGB officer (he was in fact a lieutenant colonel by the time he left active service, I believe). "Intelligence officer" is also a term often used in such cases. An agent in the intelligence business is practically always a foreign national who works for a particular intelligence service. The term "agent," in other words, refers to people like the late Kim Philby or Aldrich Ames. It is easy to see that the position and work of such people is fundamentally different from that held at the time by the present president of Russia, whose job was to recruit the likes of Philby and Ames.

Ben de Jong
Netherlands



No Sensible Censorship



In response to "Measuring The Merits Of Sensible Censorship," a column by Vladislav Schnitzer, Aug. 27.

Editor,
I must admit that as I read the article I thought, "This is absurd!! This should never be in the paper!!" There are some things that a paper should just say no to. But then I thought, "Who is to decide this?" As much as I would like certain things left to the imagination, I would be afraid for someone else to decide for me what I can and can't view. We in America are paying a high price for this. But how much higher would the price be if we did censor? At least I can turn the page. No one stands beside me telling me, "Read!!"

I wish Russia the best. I wish I could tell you how to obtain it. Things world-wide have changed drastically since we formed our country. It can only be harder now. But be of good cheer. You can do it!!

Michael D. Williams
Trussville, Alabama



Baltic Development



In response to "Finland Visit Gives Hope For Future," an editorial, Sept. 5.

Editor,
I read with interest your morning editorial. You mention the need for a regional summit associating the countries of the region. The Baltic Development Forum is a regional non-governmental organization, whose aim is to develop integration of the Baltic Sea Region. The president is former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Denmark Uffe Ellemann Jensen.

This year St. Petersburg will be the venue for the Baltic Development Forum's third annual summit. Participants are coming from all over the region and premiers from the three Baltic states. The prime ministers of Denmark and Finland have confirmed participation.

Guillaume Parent
St. Petersburg