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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Poor Development Model

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Soviet literature programs in middle school used to include a 1920 poem by Nikolai Tikhonov called "Sami." Set in British India, it features a servant boy who runs away from his cruel colonial master. Sami then returns imbued with Bolshevik propaganda and tales of the great "Lenny" -- Lenin -- that he picked up in bazaars in the city of Amritsar.

As revolutions in the industrial world tarried, the Soviet Union early on sought disciples in colonial and less developed nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Some, including China, embraced the communist utopia, and communist parties were strong in many democratic countries as well. Even now, the Communist Party of India participates in the ruling coalitions of a number of states.

Of course, the Soviet model proved to be a sham. There may be nostalgia for it in Russia and in other former republics, but few people around the world wish to emulate the late Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, today's Russia still presents, if not an example, at least a cautionary tale for the so-called emerging economies. During the Soviet period, the country was subject to extremely rapid forced industrialization. Enormous resources, financial as well as human, were pumped into building factories, power plants, infrastructure and new cities without regard for human, social or environmental costs. An agrarian nation underwent a form of bastard urbanization, its people swept en masse into barracks-like temporary housing. (Most Soviet-era residential construction, the prefab neighborhoods that comprise every city and town, consists of these buildings.)

With the Soviet collapse and the disintegration of communist industry, Russia ended up with the worst of both worlds -- the underdevelopment associated with poor countries and the social ills, urban blight and environmental woes of postindustrial societies. This is why the population keeps shrinking, losing, as one alarmist web site recently calculated, 100 people per hour. Marooned in factory towns and dead-end cities, its masses cope with hopelessness, family crisis and self-destructive behavior, while the rudimentary, skin-deep social infrastructure, including health care, that could have alleviated the situation has all but disintegrated.

Today, largely agrarian India and China are undergoing breakneck modernization in much the same way Russia did after 1917. Unlike the Soviet case, it has not been accompanied by episodes like the Great Terror. The movement of the rural population to cities has been voluntary.

After Stalin's death, the depopulation of the Russian countryside also took on a more voluntary character. Economic development in India and China, driven by free market forces instead of bureaucratic fiat, has actually been far more efficient and rapid, but in some ways just as crude as that experienced by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

Prosperity has been on the rise in India and China. There is plenty of wealth and even some hope for those who do not yet share in it. But the lesson of the flexible, rapidly moving modern economy is that only change is constant. China has become a global manufacturing power by relying on cheap labor. But technological progress, which has already reduced the demand for unskilled labor, is likely to create laborless production in the near future. It will then make sense to build manufacturing plants closer to consumer markets and in places where political and currency risks are lower.

India and China, and to a lesser degree rapidly growing countries in Asia and Latin America, have been industrializing in the same haphazard way pioneered by the Soviet Union. Swings in the global economy could turn call-center boomtowns in India or, even more likely, industrial parks along China's eastern seaboard into the blighted postindustrial hell-towns so common in Russia.

But there might at least be population decline, which might not be so bad for two countries accounting for 40 percent of the world's population.

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