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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Great, Rich Land with Lots of Piles

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In the twilight years of communism, I took an American friend around Moscow. On our prolonged excursion, she was struck less by the beauty of its historical sites than by the city's frightening chaos, by the mindless mixture of residential buildings, fumes-spewing factories, building sites, 19th-century mansions, metal-working shops inside old churches and grass-covered vacant lots.

Then I mentioned that the development of Moscow was governed by a general plan. Actually, several, starting with Stalin's comprehensive 1935 blueprint and lasting until 1971, when the last Soviet plan was drafted. You should have heard her laugh.

Under Mayor Yury Luzhkov, reappointed for yet another term, an intense building campaign also supposedly toes a development plan, this one running to 2020. Walking around Moscow these days, I'm reminded of an anthropological study I once read. It dealt with the intrinsic difference between the Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal. When archeologists find early human settlements, they note a logical arrangement, where habitations are placed rationally in relation to each other and to the surrounding landscape. Neanderthals, on the other hand, located their nests haphazardly, in the manner of other primates. I'm sorry to say, Moscow generally resembles the latter model.

It wasn't always the case. Old photographs show that before the Bolsheviks began their scientifically minded planning activities, Moscow had been a wholesome, harmonious conurbation, expanding organically from an ancient core. It was clearly built by the Homo sapiens. Pointless destruction of churches, palaces, monuments and other civic and private structures deprived the city of its inner logic. Subsequent rebuilding campaigns only compounded the problem.

Moscow is a microcosm of the country. Its woes present a visual metaphor for what was done to Russian society at large. It seems that the way various societies have developed during the five millennia of civilization -- complete with money, private property and attendant inequalities of wealth -- followed a natural historic path. An attempt by the Bolsheviks to destroy the existing order and to rebuild society based on what they believed to be a set of rational organizing principles could only have led to a perverse social arrangement.

Fridrikh Gorenshtein wrote a short novella titled "The Pile-Kucha." Gorenshtein is known for his screenplays for such popular films as "Slave of Love" and "Solaris," but he was also one of the most brilliant fiction writers of the late Soviet period. In this novella, a Moscow mathematician traveling through provincial Russia suddenly begins to see everything around him as meaningless piles. He compares Russia to undifferentiated primordial chaos, which is how the world must have appeared to humans before the development of mathematics. At its origins, mathematics is a means of separating one pile of pebbles from another -- an attempt to impose order upon the physical world.

The Soviet Union became the first country in history to be ordered entirely by the exercise of human reason. Yet, according to Gorenshtein's protagonist, it was a place where everything existed in the form of disorderly piles -- gravel, bricks, coal, building materials, residential neighborhoods, humans and human relationships.

Russia's blessing during the 1990s was the do-nothing government of Boris Yeltsin. By maintaining a hands-off attitude -- whether intentionally or by default -- it allowed society to start returning to normalcy and order. The current regime, however, has revived Soviet-style political activism, creating meaningless parties in the State Duma, tampering with the electoral system, controlling the media and, in general, managing democracy. Not surprisingly, preposterous Soviet-style projects are starting to pop up, such as holding the Winter Olympics at a summer resort, probably destined to be known as the white elephant by the Black Sea.

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