How Not to Network a Nation. The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

(Ben Green) #1

188 Chapter 5

best an “uneasy coexistence” or about how four decades after collectiviza-
tion, private (market) plots that comprised 3 percent of Soviet agricultural
lands managed to produce nearly 30 percent of the gross value of Soviet
agriculture.^61 To argue that market solutions would work better does not
begin to describe or distinguish what I believe the OGAS Project history
reveals to be the depth and range of private interests at work in human exis-
tence. It is just as easy, in what prominent economist Igor Birman endorsed
as Soviet “anecdotal economics,” to list examples of how the same kind of
private self-interest that put bread on the table of starving peasants also cor-
rupted socioeconomic life elsewhere. Anecdotes from everyday economic
life relate that 80 to 85 percent of gasoline, according to some estimates,
turned up on the black market;^62 construction workers built new apartment
buildings to state specifications but refused to connect the toilets to the
sewage systems until vzyatki and podkupki (bribes) were paid; maternity
nurses extorted 200 ruble notes from birthing mothers before using a sterile
needle and anesthetic; grieving families had to pay 2,000 rubles to bury
their mother, despite the guaranteed “free” state funeral and burial. The
fact that most numbers were anecdotal suggest how actively corrupt Soviet
economic life already was.
Self-interested corruption is so much a feature, not a bug, of Soviet eco-
nomic life that it cannot be the result of market absence or state failure
alone. Anecdotes of administrative cunning (not incompetence) abound.
In Grossman’s phrase, “the Four B’s: barter, black market, blat, and bribe”
summarize the economic engine of Soviet self-interest run amok.^63 An
entire biscuit factory once went underground in Georgia, producing four
times its planned quota through hidden informants, bribery, and social
screens;^64 a seat on the trade committee in Moscow sold for 50,000 rubles
in 1990 (and current prices for other positions can be found online today);
and Central Committee members filled foreign bank accounts by extracting
bribes from officials in the trade ministries.^65 The Soviet joke puts it well:
Brezhnev is showing his mother how well he’s done, and he shows her his
suite in the Kremlin, his dacha in the country, his Black Sea villa, and his
Zil limousine. “All very nice, dear,” she says. “But what will you do if the
Bolsheviks come back?”^66
These anecdotes constitute what we might call revolts in miniature. They
are an expression of private unrest—of local resistance to a society whose
public institutions did not have to serve the public. A liberal economic
analysis to these problems might describe the informal networks of com-
peting private interest as variously productive or rent-seeking, depending
on whether the activity at hand created or depleted economic resources.

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