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  • Harry Kreisler: Welcome to a “Conversation With History.” I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of

  • International Studies. Our guest today is Anders Aslund who is a Senior Fellow at the Peterson

  • Institute in Washington D.C. His new book is Russia’s Capitalist Revolution. Dr. Aslund,

  • welcome to Berkeley.

  • Thank you very much.

  • Where were you born and raised?

  • I was born in [...?...], a small industrial town in Sweden.

  • Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

  • Well, they had pretty clear ideas of the importance of freedom, democracy and market

  • economy.

  • Was there a discussion of great interest around the dinner table about the Soviet Union, or

  • about international politics?

  • Yes. Something quite important was that my mother, who was a dentist, had a colleague who

  • was from Latvia, so I learned about the repression of the Baltic people at the end of the Second

  • World War, very much firsthand as a child from this dear colleague of my mother.

  • Living and growing up in Sweden, was there a greater sense of the forbidding of the Soviet

  • Union so close?

  • Sure. Sweden always had a pretty strong defense because it was neutral and because the Soviet

  • Union was so close. So, there was always a sense that there was a threat.

  • What did you major in as an undergraduate and then in your graduate studies, and where did

  • you get your degrees?

  • I had my main degree in economics from the Stockholm School of Economics, then I had

  • another degree in Russian/Polish history from Stockholm University, and I’ve done my doctorate at

  • Oxford.

  • What was your doctorate on?

  • Private enterprise in Poland and East Germany, why did the private sector survive and how did

  • it function.

  • When did you complete your degree and begin your formal role as a professor in relation to

  • the history of the Soviet Union? What year would that have been?

  • Well, you can say that I worked on Russia ever since 1972 when I started doing Russia, actually

  • at Uppsala University in Sweden, and I traveled to Russia the first timeor the Soviet Union in

  • 1972. And of course, to go to the Soviet Union then was a shock. It was a terrible third world

  • place. It was not only third world but it was cold, dirty, dark.

  • Once you had your economics training what impressed you the most? Was it the stagnation

  • and decay of the economy, the failure of the economy, or was it more the lack of political freedom?

  • Well, something different. I’m generally interested in political and economic systems and you

  • can say that the Soviet Union was quite different as in an economic system but culturally it was not

  • so far away. So, it was quite comprehensible at one level. At the other level it was just closed.

  • Students watch this program, in addition to the general public, and so I want to talk a little

  • about what skills are required to do what you do. What is the best training? It sounds like you have

  • to know everything from math, to Russian, to comparative history.

  • Yeah, I think that this is the kind of studies that I specialize in, where it’s more eclectic, that

  • you need a bit of everything and not going deeply into mathematical models, or such things. So, I

  • dowhere you have more the use of many different kinds of knowledge, a bit of politics, a bit of

  • economics, quite a bit of history, and also languages.

  • And it would seem that you need all of those together because it seems like you can really

  • misunderstand things if youre just looking at the economics.

  • Indeed. I think this was the big mistake for a long time, when U.S. knowledge about the Soviet

  • Union was dominated by CIA people who never visited the Soviet Union, because the analysts, they

  • stay home, it was the daring agents that were out on the spot, and they were, of course, not

  • contributing to the analysis.

  • Your book is subtitledWhy market reform succeeded and why democracy failed,” and so I

  • want to walk you through the main points, and let’s talk, first of all, about the situation during the

  • Gorbachev period, because your analysis requires looking at various things and one is this question

  • of Gorbachev and his inability to reform the system. Talk a little about that because we in the West

  • thought he would be able to do more than he wound up doing, although he did a lot.

  • Yeah. I think that the fundamental problem was that the Soviet Union was deep frozen. It was

  • too petrified. So, there was a change [...?...] at the top and at the bottom but nothing could ever

  • change, and then Gorbachev and a few of his colleagues thought that this is not good enough, we

  • can change, we have to change. And first they tried with some economic reforms and they realized

  • that nothing happened because everything was sabotaged by the overwhelming bureaucracy that was

  • really the true dictator in the Soviet Union, and they did what they wanted. I’ll give you one

  • example. One month after Gorbachev had come to power – I was working at the Swedish embassy

  • then – I went up to see a top official, the Soviet minister of agriculture, and I asked him what one of

  • the first decrees about agricultural reform that had been issued by Gorbachev actually meant, and

  • this senior official said, “It doesn’t mean a damned thing. Why should I bother about a decree

  • signed by the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union? He’s not my boss. I

  • work at the Ministry of Agriculture.” So, I thought that this was one of these old fogies who would

  • soon lose out. Nothing of the sort. He just advanced. So, the point was that the bureaucrats felt

  • secure. They could attack even the Secretary General of the Community Party.

  • But in some areas Gorbachev did a great service, for example in foreign policy, because he

  • made it possible for the Soviet empire to endhe set the conditions for that happening.

  • Yeah, and you can also say that he saw that there was some low hanging fruit to be picked up in

  • foreign policy. So, his most successful period in foreign policy was really the first two years or so,

  • when he managed to get the INF Treaty with the U.S. – that is, the Treaty on Intermediary Nuclear

  • Forces in Europe. And this was very important, a breakthrough in 1987, and of course, Gorbachev’s

  • personal very high standing and the very good relations that he developed with virtually all countries

  • but partly I think that it was because he enjoyed it most of all because he saw this as a lever to do

  • the much more difficult changes that were needed at home.

  • And in a way, his failure over and above his skills, his skill set, which I think youre suggesting

  • was not as good as the ultimate in some respectsthat his failure that he saw himself as a reformer

  • and the system could not be reformed.

  • Indeed. His ultimate failure was that he thought that Communists could be reformed and it

  • could only be destroyed. On the other hand, if Gorbachev hadn’t tried to reform it, it would not

  • have gone away as peacefully as it did. So, he did a great service but his service was based on his

  • misunderstanding, and he doesn’t seem to understand it even today.

  • There’s a theme that runs through your book, which were going to touch on right now and

  • then were going to pick it up again, and that is the role of external actors. And it’s very important

  • to the foreign policy debate here, whether the Reagan policies with regard to Star Wars, the defense

  • challenge, pushed the Soviet Union off the cliff. What is your take on that? Is it a contributing

  • factor, or there were too many internal contradictions so this would have happened anyway?

  • The outside world was important, and of course, Star Wars was an important part of it, but I

  • think the fundamental issue was that Gorbachev and his allies felt that the Soviet Union was falling

  • ever more behind and something had to be done. So, I think it would be wrong to pick one specific

  • issue, but you can say that the Star Wars idea was very much a wakeup call.

  • Now as a comparativist, somebody who looks at different economic and political situations to

  • understand the course that revolution takes, there is a tendency to want to equate what’s happening

  • in Russia with what happened in China. Let’s talk about that. Why are the two cases so very

  • different, which is an argument you make in the book?

  • Well, theyre very different for many reasons. You can say that China started in a crisis

  • situation. Deng Shaoping came in when everybody thought that something must be done

  • differently. Gorbachev came in at a time when almost everybody thought that nothing must change.

  • And in the Soviet Union the officials didn’t obey, in China they were still afraid and they obeyed,

  • because they were not as firmly in charge as they were in the Soviet Union, and even today China’s

  • GDP per capita is one-quarter of Russia’s, in current dollars. So, China is a much simpler and

  • poorer economy, then [?] you can go about it in different ways, and part of that was that threequarters

  • of the Chinese worked in agriculture, to compare with one-quarter in the Soviet Union, or

  • less. So, they were totally different. In China you could leave the state owned industrial side. In the

  • Soviet Union you had to hit the industry hard because that was more than fifty percent of the

  • economy. In China you had manual labor and the actual entities of production were relatively

  • small. In the Soviet Union you could hardly find a cow shed without four hundred cows, everything

  • was large scale in the Soviet Union, so you had to break it up, and that made it so much more

  • difficult to reform in the Soviet Union. Also, Soviet products in manufacturing were awful. Living

  • in Moscow in 1985, you could buy only a few things that were available and of western quality, salt,

  • mineral water, vodka, bread, hardly anything else. And all these other products that were produced,

  • if it was cars, or if is was household machinery, or clothes, it was useless, while in China they didn’t

  • produce all that much, at the time when the reforms started.

  • Before we talk about the revolution and how the levers of power were seized to make the

  • economic reform possible, I want to ask youbecause you had this unique opportunity to be both

  • an observer analyst but also a participant, and not just by your many visits but you actually at a

  • critical point were advising the then Russian government. Talk a little about that. Does your work

  • as a scholar greatly enhance your insight, and do those insights have important policy implications?

  • I think it is quite important to see how things are actually being done, and in particular what

  • you can do and what you can’t do. For example, if you see the Prime Minister of Russia and youre

  • acting as a policy advisor, not as a foreign dignitary, then you do take more than fifteen minutes of

  • his time. You have a clear message, you want to get it through, and you want to get more meetings.

  • So, then you have to be focused, sharp, clear. There’s no time for a lot of nuances, certainly not

  • exceptions. You have to have a policy message and you must have strong arguments for it so that

  • you can convince the policy maker. And of course, it’s important, also, to see how the government

  • operates, simply how the mechanism of a government functions, what works and what doesn’t work,

  • and that’s often quite surprising. For example, in Russia, on the one hand things are very formal, on

  • the other hand many of these formalities, but not all, can be thrown overboard in certain

  • circumstances.

  • And you have your feet in terms of your scholarship in both the economic realm and the

  • political realm, and before we talk about the differences in the revolutions, is there a difference that

  • you would make as an analytical observer between politics and economics, and economic policy and

  • the policies related to political reform?

  • Well, I would emphasize that the economists are more keen on being aboard in actual

  • economic policy. You can say that there’s more demand for economists in government jobs, while

  • it’s more uncommon that political scientists go for political jobs, outside of foreign policy.

  • Is that because economists have better theories?

  • No, I would say it’s because there are simply more functions of government that require

  • economists, as simple as that.

  • Okay. So, what we have in this period of the end of Gorbachev and then the rise of Yeltsin is a

  • revolutionary situation. Talk a little more about it. You touched on it, but what made it really

  • revolutionary upon which a good leader could take action?

  • Well, you can say that a revolution is when the constitution order ceases to function, and when

  • you go beyond the roles [roads?]. Some people argue that there must be violence. I would argue

  • that is not part of it. So, the fundamental issue is that the institutions cease to function, and that

  • means two things. One the one hand, it means that very little can be done by the state, there is no

  • state capacity. Typically the bureaucrats are just sitting and theyre rolling their thumbs and are not

  • working. And the other issue is that nobody stands up, if the [?] top policy makers are making

  • fundamentally new decisions. So, this is the time when you can think big but you can’t think small.

  • You can’t do the small things, you can’t improve the healthcare system, but you can change the

  • constitution.

  • And the situation was truly revolutionary because the Soviet empire collapsed, the regions, the

  • provinces, were not submitting money to the treasury, so there was a real opportunity and it was

  • seized by Yeltsin. You enumerate the elements of what a leader, a true leader, in a revolutionary

  • situation should do, and you believe that a lot of this happened between October ’91 and January

  • ’92 under Yeltsin’s presidency. Let me just enumerate these items that you mention in your book.

  • Your ideas must be clear, simple and relevant; the ideas must be translated into a set of policy

  • actions; the political leader must take the lead and make authoritative policy declarations; the leader

  • needs to appoint a group of policy makers who can execute the reforms, you must have

  • parliamentary support, and there is a brief window of opportunity for extraordinary politics.”

  • Yeltsin saw that and acted in a way, in most instances, along these lines. Is that correct?

  • Yeah, very much so, and you can see it particularly in Vasic [?] and part of Izmamars [?] where

  • he discusses the events as a revolution. He saw what he thought was truly important and he

  • emphasized these two things, to dissolve the Soviet Union and to undertake market economic

  • reform. What he did not understand was what to do about the political system, because he thought

  • that the political system somehow worked. He wanted to have a new constitution but that was not

  • his prime issue.

  • And so, let’s look first at the economic revolution. Walk us through briefly the steps that were

  • taken, and the goal is very clear, a market economy, and there are clear indicators of what that goal is

  • like when you reach that point.

  • Yeah. So, it was very much an idea that we have to do it now, if we don’t do it now well fall

  • into complete chaos, and we don’t know what will happen. The danger of civil war was always in

  • the background and the economy was truly collapsing. And the idea was also not to do something

  • that was original but to do something that was standard, and a standard market economy, you can

  • say, raised on three pillars, free trade and pricesthat’s the first. The second is privatization. You

  • need a predominance of private property. And the third is reasonably stable prices, to get the state

  • finances and monetary policy under control so that inflation is limited.

  • And these were all done in this environment, but what about the reactions you get when you

  • do this, I mean if you had had a different leader? Because you have chaos, you have a kind of

  • breakdown of institutions, but the consequences of what youre doing as policy is unclear at the

  • time. Correct? The theory tells you itll work but that’s different than convincing people that it will

  • work.

  • Yeah, and of course, therere many problems and shortcomings. The first is that the old elite

  • knows different things, they know a socialist economy and they think that this is wrong, they say

  • that this is unprofessional, and they put forward all their outstanding economists. So, the only

  • problem was that it was the wrong economics that they knew. So, that’s part of it, and then you

  • have all the politicians who have come up in one way or the other, in the revolutionary chaos, and

  • they think that they should have the top jobs because they did the revolution. And now instead,

  • there are people who knew economics who are getting the top economic jobs, which makes them

  • very upset. And then you have a lot of operators who utilize the chaos to make money for themselves.

  • That actually turned out to be the biggest danger, but eventually all these forces

  • colluded and caused a lot of trouble.

  • One has the sense, as you read through your book, that there is really an evolution of the

  • economic groups that rise and fall. We begin with the insiders who benefit, you move to the

  • oligarchs, and so on, but for whatever reasons there was a resiliency within the Soviet Union so there

  • was movement forward. How did that happen? One would think that at any one point one of these

  • groups would have stopped the revolution in its tracks.

  • Yeah, and also there werelet me take one thing. I spent a lot of time in December ’91 in

  • Moscow, and I walked around, and the people had a sense that the sword of Damocles was hanging

  • over them and that a terrible catastrophe would come over them. So, they were all of a sudden very

  • kind. Moscovites are normally not very kind but they were kinder than ever before because they felt

  • that there was a great danger hanging over them, and the stranger thing was that everybody

  • continued to go to their jobs. Soon enough they didn’t get salaries but they continued to go to their

  • jobs anyhow and they didn’t really work, but there was an amazing social calm which, of course, the

  • authorities tried to maintain. But this was the backdrop, so while events were very dramatic on the

  • surface it was surprisingly calm. After 1990 there were no mass demonstrations. It was a social

  • demobilization. When the prices were liberalized nobody took to the street. It was the same in

  • Russia as everywhere else. If you liberalized the prices, you changed the paradigm. People

  • understand that it’s something new, theyre worried, but they don’t take to the streets.

  • And is this because under the Soviet system they had become passive? Is it something with

  • historical roots in Russian character and culture?

  • No. On the contrary, this is the dynamics of a revolution. In February 1990, Moscow saw the

  • biggest demonstrations. The liberals, the democrats, had 500,000 people out in demonstrations a