Boris Altshuler: "On the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Total Monopoly in Economy and Politics as Cause of National Calamities, Past and Present"

posted 3 Dec 2017, 12:40 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Dec 2017, 10:47 ]

7 November 2017 

By Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of Right of the Child; member of the Moscow Helsinki Group; member of the Working Group for the right to affordable housing of the presidential Human Rights Council and the Ministry of Construction, Housing and Utilities 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

“Governmental monopolistic capitalism is, pure and simple, material preparation for socialism,” “the grain monopoly, bread ration cards, universal compulsory labour service,” “… far from all peasants understand that the free trade in grain is a government crime,” “Organizing accounts, turning the entire mechanism of government into a single large machine, into an economic organization working in such a way that hundreds of millions of people are governed through one plan – that is the sort of gigantic organizational goal that rested on our shoulders,” “Money – it’s witness to the acquisition of social wealth, and the multimillion [!] layer of small property-owners hold on to this evidence tightly,” “Carry out a ruthless, terrorist [!] battle and war [!] against peasants and other types of bourgeois,” “The courts shouldn’t remove terror but as a matter of principle should provide a basis for it, legalise it, in a clear way, without falsehood or embellishment,” “Hang (no matter what, hang, so that the people see) at least a hundred known kulaks, rich people, parasites. Publish their names. Take away all their grain. Take hostages – in accordance with yesterday’s telegram.”

—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

People are concerned with all kinds of issues. The nonprofit organization “Right of the Child” deals with poverty among families with children, chronically hungry children, homeless families with many children, and in general the extremely difficult housing conditions of a great many families with children. We are also concerned about monopolism as a deep-seated reason for this societal problem in the country with the greatest quantity of natural resources in the world.

The reason for this was legitimized in our country one hundred years ago — see the epigraph. Many might object that the cited extremely harsh quotations from Lenin (although it would also be possible to type into a search engine the two words “Lenin shoot”), relate to a very difficult period of armed opposition and are therefore partly justified. If only.

Monopolism in economics, which kills economic initiative, and the complete monopoly on power of the government and party bureaucracy, not limited by any accountability before the population is what has remained of the USSR forever, and, in a somewhat modified and openly criminal form, what has already been ruling the New Russia for the last twenty-five years. In this regard we have to admit that Lenin was a genius – he created a system that turned out to be impossible to destroy. And the terrifying, pagan symbol of the system’s stability is the corpse of the leader, glorified in Russia and lying in the mausoleum on the country’s main square.

And if, nevertheless, you don’t lose hope (which, as is well known, dies last) and look to the future, then it makes sense to ask the question: Why, in neighboring Finland, for example, which in contrast to Russia has no natural resources, is there one of the highest standards of living in the world? And maybe it is worth noting that Finland is the only province of the former tsarist empire that effectively implemented Alexander II’s reforms, such as the rule of law, the creation of local self-government accountable to the people, and an independent judicial system. And they went several steps further, such as by ensuring the independence of law enforcement agencies from politics, and the organization of their work in such a manner that excludes the very possibility of police corruption, and so on. That is an example worth learning from!

The entire history of the USSR speaks to the tragic consequences of the monopoly of power, with the inevitable omnipotence of one person. My father, Lev Altshuler, one of the pioneers of the Soviet nuclear project, along with Sakharov and other colleagues, believed in the ideals of the Revolution almost up to perestroika, but he routinely refused to join the Party and would always openly and harshly express himself regarding the "perversions of socialism" that outraged him. Spring 1947, several months after the Nuremberg Trials ended. At the birthday of his close friend Veniamin Zukerman (a brilliant engineer and also a participant in the nuclear project, who, being blind, was in charge of the branch in Arzamas-16, in Sarov) my father made a toast: "I'm happy that I lived to see the Nazi leaders hanged. I hope to live to see our Nuremberg Trials." This was said in a room in a communal Moscow apartment in the presence of many guests, and no one reported it. But his friend Venya, an ideological party member, remarked: "Well, Lyovka is shooting his mouth off again." I asked my father much later why he, a believer in socialism, spoke so outspokenly. He explained that he couldn't forgive three things: (1) collectivization, bringing with it famine, and the senseless destruction of millions of able-bodied peasants; (2) the execution of Red Army commanders before the war and the utter unpreparedness on 22 June 1941, which resulted in the swift destruction of an army of three million and Hitler reaching Moscow and the Volga; and (3) the mediocre leadership because of whom more than a million people died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad.

These three "perversions of socialism" are the obvious result of undivided authority that was not limited in any way, shape, or form. When speaking of the monopoly of power, there is much to recall—for example, Khrushchev's decree introducing tax on fruit trees, which resulted in the cutting down of all gardens on a single night in central Russia. And a planned Leninist economy meant tractors that ploughed the sands of the Karakum Desert, and much more in the same vein, resulting in inevitable economic stagnation.

But back to today. The extreme poverty and intolerable living conditions of many families with children are a direct result of the monopoly of power and economic monopolism, which are closely related.

Indeed, it is precisely trade monopolists, the intermediaries between rural producers and consumers, who are responsible for the unfathomable "premiums" on the cost of essential goods, which, along with the monopoly dictate of agro-oligarchs led by the Minister of Agriculture, is killing the rural producers en masse and is the reason for the chronic degradation of the village.

Likewise in housing construction. All the affordable-housing programmes that stipulated price restrictions on the cost of a square metre will enabling builders to receive a reasonable profit have failed. Despite the huge need for housing, with tragic manifestations that we encounter every day, only highly lucrative housing construction is flourishing in the country, carried out by construction monopolies closely associated with regional authorities. We are working with the Russian Union of Builders, that brings together thousands of builders whom the "generals" are keeping out of the business. Nonetheless, given modern industrial construction methods, the housing problem could be solved in no time and with a minimal budget. Such proposals were developed in 2014 by the Presidential Council's Working Group on Affordable Housing jointly with the Russian Ministry of Construction. But, despite the authority of the Presidential Council, all of our efforts to implement, even as pilot projects, such a regional programme have been met with resistance from regional authorities (in Moscow, Moscow Region, and everywhere else), which are closely associated with "their own" construction monopolists (I quote the words of Putin at the State Council on Housing Policy, 17 May 2016). Meanwhile, just a week ago, at a government cabinet meeting on 31 October 31 2017: "Putin called the situation in the construction sphere a disgrace. Small and medium-sized businesses in the construction industry continue to face colossal problems" (RIA-Real Estate).

We have written many times elsewhere that Article 178 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Restrictive trade practices”) is not working. Economic monopolism and State corruption are the main reasons for the poverty and difficult living conditions of families with children. As we have reported, for some reason the president’s chief advisers have been silent on these key problems.

This year, however, the ice suddenly broke.

On 1 March, the head of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) Igor Artemev declared that there was “a universal cartelisation of the economy”.

On 6 June, Rossiiskaya gazeta [the Russian government newspaper, ed.] reported on the draft version of the annual report by FAS, presented to the government, which stated: “In the Russian economy there are very few sectors where there are no cartel agreements. Most complaints to FAS are about medical supplies and equipment, and the construction sector…. The FAS report notes that a peculiar feature of anti-competition agreements in Russia are their affiliation with government bodies.” (There we have the anti-democratic and anti-market Leninist symbiosis of political monopoly and economic monopoly.)

On 8 August, the Russian president Vladimir Putin commissioned FAS, in partnership with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor-General’s Office, to join forces against cartel price fixing.

On 11 September, a specialist committee of the Russian Security Council announced that cartel agreements threaten the economic security of Russia and that international co-operation was essential to combat them.

On 20 October, I sent a letter to Chuck Grassley from Iowa, the President of the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate [for the text of the letter, see below - ed.]. After thanking him for the “smart sanctions” against highly influential corrupt Russian individuals, I followed the wish of the Russian Security Council commission and appealed for international co-operation, including between the USA and Russia, to combat corruption and monopoly that are problems in many countries, including both Ukraine, the USA and others.

I hope that the centenary of the October Revolution will mark the moment when Russia turns away from Lenin’s legacy of total monopoly and will begin the construction of a normal state, characterized by competition in the spheres of both politics and the economy. In such a state, the main criteria of success will be consumer choice in the economy and public opinion in politics.

P.S. See also my two recent letters to the Russian president on these very issues in the blog of the Moscow Housing Waiting List of 1 November 2017:

Translators include Frances Robson and Julie Hersh