`A Dead Mechanism': Interview on the Soviet Economy

ELENA IVANOVA is a research economist at the Institute of the USA and Canada in Moscow. She spoke recently with independent writer Mark Sommer.

Public support for perestroika seems to be rapidly eroding, with some factions demanding more radical economic reforms and others demanding a retreat or even reversal. Why is this happening?

Because the old system has been half dismantled but nothing new has been put in its place. As a result, nothing works anymore. If we had started the radical reforms that are now being proposed several years ago, people would have supported them. If our people had even just a slight improvement in their lives, just to prove that perestroika would lead to something, they'd be ready to suffer for years. But now I'm afraid that people won't, because by now they're too tired to wait and they don't believe anymore in political results.

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This government keeps trying to apply principles of socialism that never existed. This is Gorbachev's most awful mistake. Western economies are vivid living organisms with economic laws that really function just as natural laws do in biology. But in our country there is no economy at all; there is no organism that can be regulated and administered. We've done everything according to some kind of silly abstract ideas.

We have created a dead mechanism, a mechanical monster. And we are trying to make this mechanism work, to bring it to life. But it will never come alive. We're failing with all our laws because we're trying to introduce these reforms into a dead mechanism. You can put water on a tree that's alive and growing. But it's useless to put water on a tree made of artificial materials. That's what we're doing with our reforms. We need to establish the market mechanisms to create an organism that will live of itself.

What went wrong? Was there a fundamental error in Marxist theory about what motivates human behavior?

Our tragedy and the tragedy of Eastern Europe was that our ideological leaders tried to force this society to live according to a fixed set of utopian ideas. That's the most immoral thing, when people kill other people for their ideas. Even now our leaders can't give this habit up. They still think they can decide what kind of society we should live in. They still don't allow our people to choose their own way of living ... though I'm not sure that our people are ready to choose correctly.

Seventy years of pushing these ideas into the mentality of this society did a great job, so that now it's one of the main obstacles in the way of perestroika. That's one reason why I'm rather pessimistic about our future and our people. They'd rather see their neighbors fail than try to improve themselves. That's a great danger for our future development. We have to accept the idea that our private interest is the main thing, that my family is the main thing. We were brought up from early childhood to believe that my family is nothing, the interest of my collective is everything. We have to overcome this mentality.

It's much easier to introduce these reforms in Eastern Europe, because there are generations of people there who still remember the life they lived under capitalism. And it was not so bad. But in our country there are no generations who remember this capitalist society. Those who remember were simply destroyed, killed, abolished.

It was only after traveling abroad that I realized deeply that we're really living in the Stone Age, that we'll never be in the same position as you in the West. In this country most people have never even had the experience of being free. The only hope for me is that they won't close the door. Let us remain in the tail-end of civilization, but let us live among civilized societies.

Sometimes I have such a fear that they will close the door - even though I realize that the process of democratization has gone too far in our society, that it's impossible to do some things anymore because the resistance of the population would be so great. Our leaders are no longer so powerful. It's impossible now just to give an order to the army to block everything.

But sometimes I'm really afraid because ... who knows?

These last attempts to reverse the reform process, they might really lead to something. But I do believe that they won't.

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