The Gadfly Bytes -- August, 1999
DEVOURING THE SEED GRAIN
The desperate problem now for the academic establishment in Russia is not intellectual freedom, but basic survival
Andrey K. Sokolov, Historian
My primary concern is that we over-invest in things and under-invest in people.
John Kenneth Galbraith
Garrett Hardin reports two cases of extraordinary altruistic sacrifice in Soviet Russia:
The first dates from 1921, a time of famine there. An American journalist visited a refugee camp on the Volga where almost half the people had already died of starvation. Noticing sacks of grain stacked in great mounds in an adjacent field, he asked the patriarch of the refugee community why the people did not simply overthrow the lone soldier guarding the grain and help themselves. The patriarch explained that the sacks contained seed for planting the next season. "We do not steal from the future," he said.
Much the same thing happened again in the Second World War. The siege of Leningrad by the Germans lasted 900 days, killing about a quarter of the population of three million. The cold and starving inhabitants had to eat dogs, cats, and dried glue from furniture joints and wallpaper. All this time truckloads of edible seeds in containers were in storage in the All-Union Institute of Plant Industry. The seeds were a precious repository of genetic variety for Russian agriculture in the future. These seeds were never touched, though hundreds of thousands of people died. (1)
The amazing courage and forbearance of these Russian citizens is not in evidence among their descendants - at least, not those descendants in effective control of the Russian government and economy today. Instead, these individuals are more than willing to "feast upon the seed grain," and thus to "steal from the future."
This attitude is not constant throughout the Russian population. It is deplored by numerous Russian journalists and commentators, as well as many academics and other individuals active in the non-governmental organizations of the emerging civil society. But these individuals are, by and large, the victims rather than the perpetrators of this "theft from the future."
The dreadful condition of much of the land of the former Soviet Union testifies to an earlier disregard of the future on the part of the Soviet government. Because I have elaborated on the environmental legacy of the Soviet Union elsewhere in this site (see "Russian Environmentalism") I will not repeat that account here. Instead, I wish to comment upon the squandering of the "human capital" - a resource that is essential to the future of any industrial society today.
The condition today of education and scientific research in Russia, previously one of the few triumphs (2) of the otherwise flawed Soviet state, is simply dreadful. Teachers and scientists, once at the peak of influence, prestige and income, are now impoverished and forced out of their profession -- and even, in alarming numbers, out of the country as they are enticed by incomes and working conditions in the West commensurate with their talent and training. Numerous personal friends in Russia, testify to these conditions. One, a research physiologist in St. Petersburg, earns the equivalent of $50 a month, and remains at her post only out of devotion to her profession, second jobs, and the income of additional members of her three-generational household. Another, a world-class biophysicist in Moscow, is similarly situated, surviving financially only on additional family income and grants from abroad. A third, an economist, lives quite well in Western Europe, "commuting" back to Moscow now and then to refresh his association as a researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In the current issue of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, Andrey Sokolov gives a vivid account of academic conditions in Russia. His description deserves a lengthy quotation:
After Gorbachev ... the pressure of communist ideology gradually lessened, censorship on political grounds was abolished, and international contacts increased. Any attack on academic freedom because a matter of public discussion and condemnation. Scholars and other supporters of academic freedom who had suffered under the Soviet regime, such as Andrey Sakharov, became academic heroes and moral leaders of the nation. The last years of Gorbachev's rule were a real golden age for academic freedom.
Afterward, in the market economy promoted by the post-Gorbachev reformers, the large research establishment inherited from the USSR came to seem superfluous and burdensome. Indeed, recent Russian leaders have demonstrated an inability to save and draw on the accumulated intellectual and educational potential of the Soviet period. Material conditions for scholars, which are not a government priority, are terrible. In recent years, scholars have endured a tenfold reduction of financial support from the state. In 1996, Russia spent only $4,400 on each researcher, but in 1997 that figure fell to $3,720... The academic community survives only by leasing its premises to commercial concerns, by taking part-time jobs not declared officially, and by engaging in overt commercial activities.... Paradoxically, then, the social group that most supported liberal reforms has suffered from them most severely.
Despite these complaints of the Russian academics, to the casual American visitor "the new Russia appears to be thriving." The appearance is compounded if, like this observer, one had to opportunity to visit a decade ago, during the final years of the Soviet Union. The transformation in that decade has been astonishing, to say the least.
Ten years ago, I had great difficulty finding as much as a sandwich for lunch in downtown Moscow. Finding something as simple as film for my camera, or a duffel bag for the trip home, was a day-long ordeal. Restaurants were virtually non-existent, and the stocks in the state stores were hit and miss, the result, not of consumer demand but of bureaucratic decisions "somewhere else."
In contrast, about a month ago I had the surreal experience of sipping on a quite acceptable strawberry margarita at the Moscow "T.G.I. Fridays," as I looked out the window at the wall of the Kremlin. The restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg were plentiful and, for the most part, quite the equal of any in my southern California neighborhood.
"T.G.I. Fridays," that little corner of America, was situated in a brand new shopping mall in "Okhotnii Ryad," adjacent to Red Square. In the three levels of that underground mall, resplendent with fountains, marble floors and hardwood panels, are luxury shops that would be entirely appropriate to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. And the corridors are jammed with Muscovites, wandering from shop to shop.
But it is all a Potemkin Village. Look closer, and you will see very few people inside those shops, and those that are in all probability are either foreign visitors or members of the very elite and very few Russian nouveau riche. All shops accept credit cards, owned by very few Russians. Assuming that Okhotnii Ryad in Moscow, or the Gastini Dvor shopping center in St. Petersburg, attest to a healthy and just economy is equivalent to visiting Peter the Great's summer palace at "Petrodvorets," or Catherine's winter palace "the Hermitage," and assuming therefrom that all was well in the land of the Tsars.
The new Russian capitalism thrives, parasitically, on the education of the labor force, achieved either abroad or at the expense of the fallen Soviet regime. Unless that education is renewed in the generation to come, the apparent prosperity (for some) of "new market economy" in Russia is fated to be short lived, as the new leaders discover, too late, that no "seed grain" remains.
There is no cause for us, the more fortunate Americans, to be smug about the generational myopia of the Russian leaders, for we are repeating their errors here at home.
In a wry comment, not at hand but well remembered, the liberal economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, thus summarized "supply-side economics." According to this theory, he noted, the economy is stagnant because the wealthy do not have the surplus funds needed for capital investments, and furthermore that due to welfare programs, the poor lack the incentive to work. In short, says Galbraith, according to "Reaganomics," the problem with the economy is that the rich don't have enough money and that the poor have too much money.
If that is the problem, we have had about two decades of "remedy" as the wealthy few have become richer, and the middle and lower economic groups have either held ground, if lucky, or more often have declined in income - as we have moved, that to say, toward an economic distribution more characteristic of Central America or Tsarist Russia. Do I exaggerate? Consider a calculation by a New York University economist, Edward Wolff: Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, has a net worth that is greater than the combined net worth of the poorest 40 percent of Americans. (3)
Meanwhile, at this writing the conservative US Congress has passed a tax plan that will use the budget surplus, not to reduce the 6 Trillion (that's with a "T") national debt (and subsequently, with the reduction of interest payments on that debt, reduce taxes across the board), nor will it "invest in people" and in the future through Social Security, medical services, research and education. No, instead they propose a massive tax cut that will primarily benefit the wealthy.
This follows from the weird "free-market" dogma that "all public benefit issues from private greed." Everyone should just "go get theirs," and "the invisible hand" will take care of the rest - health care, research, education, civility - and the future. In Saratov, Russia, a young Finnish ecological-economist gave us the perfect word for this dogma: "Ego-nomics." According the jargon of "neo-conservative economics," behavior designed to maximize personal want-satisfaction is called "rational." By implication, the behavior of saints and heros such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandella is "irrational." Also "irrational" is the behavior of my young Russian friend who prefers the impoverished pursuit of scientific knowledge to the financial rewards of "bizniz" in "the new Russia."
If "ego-nomics" is to be the prevailing dogma among the leaders of "The New Russia," or of "the old United States" for that matter, then the future prospects of both are bleak.
For nothing whatever has altered the basic truth of Alfred North Whitehead's reflection:
When one considers in its length and in its breadth the importance of this question of the education of a nation's young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which it is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage. In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit nor all your victories on land or at sea can move back the finger of fate. Tomorrow science will have moved forward yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated. (4)
Despite all this, I remain hopeful - both for the Russians and for ourselves. A nation that produced Dostoyevski, Vernadski, Sakharov, and today, Yablokov, Zabelin, and Nikitin, (and I could list hundreds more) is a nation unlikely to be confined by such foolishness as prevails today, and unlikely tolerate the forfeiture of its future. The wisdom, dedication and tenacity of the Russian intellectuals that I know both by reputation and personal acquaintance, is of the sort that endured and prevailed over seventy years of Soviet rule. They did not overthrow that regime only to quietly tolerate the kleptocracy of today. Russia, and the many nations within it, is far greater than the political-economic system which now dominates it. Though the outcome is not certain, I fully expect that Russia will endure and will prevail.
2. A partial "triumph" at that. Disciplines that supported national defense and prestige, such as mathematics, physics and chemistry, flourished. But other disciplines that were "ideologically sensitive," such as economics, philosophy and sociology, stagnated under the weight of Marxist-Leninist dogma. Other scientific fields that should have flourished were also occasional stymied by state dogma. The most noteworthy case was Agronomy, which was notoriously devastated by Trofim Lysenko's bewitchment of Josef Stalin. Given the chance, academic and intellectual freedom became an intoxicating brew. During my first visit to Moscow, during the heyday of "glasnost" in the winter of 1989, I was struck by the excitement among the young scholars at the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy, who were allowed, at last, to study "mainstream" Western philosophy, and to travel and study abroad. Sadly, many of these have since left the scholarly life for more lucrative careers in business.