Power in the former USSR

After reading the thread on Communism, I got to thinking. How powerful was the Soviet Union? I ask since I was in St. Petersburg a few summers ago, and the economy was in a state of great decline, to say the least. I know that was a byproduct of the fall of communism and the rise of the free market, but I just wondered how the Soviet Union compared to the United States during the Cold War. Were they really just as powerful, or was it all (or mostly) propoganda?

They had an arsenal of thousands of ICBMs, conquered eastern Europe and held it for forty-four years, subsidized Marxist guerilla movements around the globe. By guaranteeing that the North Vietnamese and by extension the Vietcong had plenty of weapons and ammo, they contributed to the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. Most people believed that the Soviet Union would endure as a totalitarian power for centuries (I can’t count how many pre-1990 science fiction stories featured the USSR as a block within the overall earth government).

Don’t forget their stock of the world’s-most-advanced subs.

From what I understand a lot of their power came from being ready to handle nuclear war. While western technology may have often been superior it wasn’t meant to handle armageddon. It was meant for exactly what NATO is doing now, minor conflicts. MiG’s could land on an open field and be fixed by a 17-year-old with a hammer & screwdriver. This would come in handy about 2 hours into WW3, once most of the world’s runways had become craters.

Add to this a populace trained for the event, a huge land mass with lots of hidden bases, spies all over the world, and soldiers used to tough conditions. So the USSR was a major military power in that way. But while it was preparing for war, the west was mostly preparing for peace. So now Russia isn’t as powerful because their entire philosophy was based on preparing for one big conflict and it can’t easily deal with minor ones.

They never needed to worry about PR before. After all, who’s going to be worried about a couple million dead here or there in the middle of WW3? So now they’re having a tougher time dealing with situations like Kosovo and Chechnya where they can’t just go in and kill everybody that opposes them.

They probably lost as many subs as some countries have, one nuclear sub for sure.

I can’t resist this question. During the 90s, in my professional capacity, I have spent almost 6 years inside the former Soviet Union (FSU). I’ve read dozens of books on the nation and met hundreds of people. I’ve gotten drunk on vodka with Russian soldiers. I’ve landed in an airplane on a clear day at a major bomber base. I’ve met a lot of very interesting former KGB officers and hung out with a retired Green Beret and various other security specialists in the FSU. I have what you might call a very serious common-law education on the former Soviet Union. There are people more academically qualified to answer this, perhaps with more accurate statistics, but, in the spirit of the Straight Dope, let me comment:

The Russians have been fighting wars for a thousand years. From the repeated invasions of the mongol hordes, to the trenches of WWI, to the more than twenty million dead in the appalling brutality of WWII. Russians hate war passionately. They have always been very patriotic with an ancient national identity. Their history has made them very defensive, as in military self-defense, almost to a point of paranoia.

As mentioned in the “communisim” thread, communists had a philosophical global agenda and were very expansionist. They globally financed any disruptive terrorism, no matter how outrageous. I think it was the Bulgarian KGB that supported the attempted assassination of the Pope. The IRA was always backed by the communists.

The combination of an obsession with self defense and a political philosophy of expansionism created a powerful military. I believe the communists devoted as much as 75% of their economy to the military. They had a huge nuclear program as well as unrestricted chemical and biological warfare programs. They were truly armed to the teeth.

During the 20th century communists (not necessarily Russians) (a) grabbed a huge chunk of Europe during WWII, (b) fought the UN in Korea in an attempt to expand, © put missiles in Cuba, (d) invaded Afghanistan to support a puppet communist government, (e) fought several border wars with China, (f)encouraged terrorism and revolution globally.

My personal opinion is that the Russians are the toughest people I’ve ever seen. They just keep on going and can overcome any obstacle. They can endure unbelievably tough conditions. This isn’t racism. Other civilizations have suffered but the Russians have a long established track record of tough times. They hate war but if they are convinced they must fight (not a big challenge for an efficient propaganda machine) they can handle war.

The Russian communists have a long history of dumb decisions and corruption. Remember Brezhnev? Have you seen Yeltsin on TV? Before the Nazis invaded Russia they had an intelligence operation to trick Stalin into thinking his military officers were disloyal and he slaughtered them.

In summary, expansionist, armed to the teeth, opportunistic, motivated, xenophobic, tough, a track record of very dumb political decisions, this was a very respectable enemy. If the USA had not treated Russia as such communism would have agressively expanded and the USA would have become more and more isolated from the world. Mexico, Canada, the Carribbean could all have theoretically slid into the communist camp. Conquest of the USA, the symbol of capitalism, was a legitimate communist target. Their philosophy was that they were freeing the workers and bringing them a better life.

It’s up to you. If you think democracy and free enterprise are worth defending then the USA was absolutely right to treat communism as a dangerous enemy. If you contemplate a utopia where everyone serves the greater good (the state) and private property is criminal you might think the inevitable downfall of the USA a good thing. The communist revolution underwent a lot of evolution, unfortunately often in the form of murderous purges. One radical I spoke with felt that every five or ten years a political culture needs to kill about 20% of its politicians to keep things honest. It’s worth a moment’s amused contemplation. I don’t think we will ever know what communism could have eventually evolved into. As I said in the “communisim” thread, liberal democratic capitalism seems to be the leading contender for best political system. Communism was too extreme and unnatural, but its influence on capitalism was felt, and true liberalism is its legitimate successor.

Al Zheimers sez:

Ah, that explains your interest in the “Resistance to cold” thread!

I studied the Russian language for a couple years, and read a teensy bit of Russian lit, so I don’t quite have the background you do, but I just had to say that appreciated the mention of the word “suffer” here.

At least as expressed in literature, suffering seems to be a universal and almost noble idea in Russian culture. There seems to be a major obsession with suffering there. While I’m not a major Woody Allen fan, I loved Love and Death, which kinda hit that point. I also found it aptly named, since just about every piece of Russian lit that I read, (including pieces shorter than a page, used in language classes) centered around love, death or quite often both.

This doesn’t apply to the OP, but it seemed like a good place to ask it: now that Russia has free enterprise, what are they doing with it? I mean, they don’t seem to be making cars, TV’s or anything. I know they have a lot of natural resources, and they probably have a lot of industrial might, but why are they just limping along instead of becoming a major industrial power?

Russian aerospace is still chugging along.

Many Russian industries are pretty inefficient, being helped along by government subsidies. So it’s not quite the free market ideal. Sure, businesses in the West get subsidized a lot, but not to the same degree, and for good reason: a lot of the owners of Russian industries are former Communist nomenklatura with good contacts in the government.

Russia still has healthy export of various commodities, but their value-added (finished/high tech/processed) products aren’t really hitting their stride in foreign markets. The only big high-tech export I can think of are Sukhoi jet fighters, but I’m sure there are a few more.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

“Russia has free enterprise, what are they doing with it? I mean, they don’t seem to be making cars, TV’s or anything.”
They make cars, and have been exporting them for decades. They are the cheaoest small cars you can buy, and the only ones the Russians, most of them, can buy. The top 10% buy German cars.

WARNING - long post

As the resident amateur Russia expert I guess I should comment on Russian free enterprise but I am reluctant because books could be written on what is going on there.

The Russians have it all. More natural resources than any other country. A highly educated population (there’s no bullshit there about “girls and math” - the female students take the same maths and sciences as the males). Lots of experience at organizing and running things. Lots of factories, heavy equipment, good transportation networks.

If one word can describe their problem it is CORRUPTION. From the bottom to the top of their society it is rampant. Communism was also dishonest and corrupt as hell but now it is wide open. People compare Russia to Chicago in the 30s or the Wild West or The world’s biggest Indian reservation, but it is unique. There’s some quote by Churchill that “Russia is an enigma wrapped in a mystery”, or something like that, and it’s true; you peel back a layer and there’s another layer to be peeled back. It’s like something out of science fiction - an environmental disaster, crawling with bureaucrats, dirty cops, and gangsters. People are starving to death in Moscow but you can go to a casino and see someone bet $25,000 on a hand of blackjack or drop $5,000 for a meal in a restaurant. You can go to a Chuck Norris night club and Kim Bassinger flogs “golden lady” stockings on TV. Everybody and everything is for sale. I should have shorted “Planet Hollywood” stock in 1997 when I saw tons of sweatshirts from the restaurants for sale in Moscow for $10 each. Nobody else was buying them, flog 'em to the Russians.

When communism collapsed the currency collapsed. What do you do when your pension is $30 a month and it costs $50 a month to heat your apartment?
Economics was always 100% political under communism and there is not even the most fundamental knowledge of business practice or efficiency. The same communist bureaucrats still run everything. They were trained in their diapers that all business men are thieves, profit and private property are criminal, and now they have to be criminals. The communist manager of the airport is now the capitalist owner of the airport. They have a rudimentary education in the western system from watching Hollywood videos.

Banks: I could tell you bank stories. Just one - if you are an ordinary Russian and you receive some money, perhaps from a relative in the US, and you (foolishly) put it in the bank, the bank manager will inform his mafia of choice and they will show up at your door and inform you that you will give them half the money or they will cut off your mother’s head.

The tax regime is brutal. A business cannot survive without breaking the law.

A couple of news stories and some other facts.
(1) Last November/December, after the latest economic collapse, a plea went out for humanitarian aid to stop starvation during the winter. North America and Europe pledged things like 250,000 tons of chicken and started delivery. The first convoy of food trucks was stopped at the Russian border and customs officers demanded $500 cash duty for every truck. The trucks turned back. This is a true story. Do you know what else? Those customs officers were right! If those trucks had entered there’s no way it would have been aid. 100% certainly someone would have taken ownership and sold that food.
(2) The US is suddenly realizing this year that IMF and world bank money provided to Russia has been stolen, in the billions.
(3) 150 billion dollars has been pumped into Russia over the last ten years and there is nothing to show for it. It has all been stolen.
(4) It is a fact that Russian hockey players in the NHL send a piece of their multi-million dollar salaries back to Russian mobs to protect their families.
(5) In 1993, 70% of bottled drinks sold in Russia did not contain what the label claimed. 100% of dairy products sold did not meet Russian health standards.
(6) If you have a factory in Europe or Asia and you produce a bad lot of something that is unfit for human consumption, you can mark it for disposal, but there is a market for it. Russian entrepeneurs will take it off your hands.

Under the communist system there was zero unemployment and everyone had jobs for life. There are factories with 60,000 people on the payroll. Not a problem. Most employees haven’t been paid for years. They just go to work because they don’t know what else to do. If they work in a tire or a brassiere or something factory (Russians produce everything, TVs, trains, planes, automobiles, rap musicians, ballpoint pens, watches, lighters) they can usually take some product home and sell it to their friends or on the street.

How do you create zero unemployment? “Anything that is more complicated, takes more time, and involves more people is good for communist society”. Also there is the added benefit of delaying any decision or action so that individuals can’t be blamed for mistakes and brutally punished. Efficiency is unnatural in the former Soviet Union and is fundamentally offensive to their vestigial communist ideals.

Theoretically, they could be the richest most powerful nation on earth in less than ten years. Don’t worry, America, they were so screwed up by communism that it is going to take generations to bring them a decent standard of living. The most likely scenario is a steady gradual breakup into dozens and dozens of little independent states. Another possibility is an iron-fisted police state dictatorship.

How do they eat? To survive you must have a vast network of friends and relatives. Everybody must have rural connections or dachas (country shacks) and everybody tries to grow potatoes and cabbages. They fish, poach game, barter for meat, scrounge. A friend of mine’s mother works in Moscow. She never gets paid but she goes to the office every day. A woman in the office stopped coming to work last year. After five days someone went to her home and found her in bed dead. She’d used up all her connections and been a burden long enough. She went home to bed and starved to death.

You guys have no idea how bad it is. I spent a lot of time in different cities there and I still really have no idea.

I just re-read my post. Pretty heavy topic. I’ve only scratched the surface. I mean no offense to the hundreds of good-hearted, strong, decent, hard-working, well intentioned, Russian people I met. The conversion to democratic capitalism is a huge problem. Democracy requires respect for rule of law. Capitalism’s great crusade for the millennium may be to get one billion Chinese driving cars but do not neglect Russia. They run fairly honest elections there and they dearly want to be a democracy.