Russia’s Frenzied Struggle Against The Rising Tide of Global Freedom
There is one nation today that is being swallowed by a social sea.
Russia is fighting against a trend to democracy that has engulfed almost the entire world…a tidal wave now rising up over the last lonely outpost of Asia.
The prospect of democracy is frightening to a country that has never experienced it. That underlying fear has led Russia to take actions that others would call insane.
Truly, Russia and China are the only remaining significant countries that have not yet been submerged in a democratic sea. And China is the only one that really counts in terms of economies, because Russia has an economy that is under-performing on the level of a developing nation.
The current face of Russia did not have to be. There was a leader called Kerensky, and after the overthrow of the Tsar in WW1, he led a parliamentary Russia! A free Russia!
His government was overthrown by the Communists after a few months. The Reds make a propaganda movie about their attack on the democratic parliament. More people were killed making the movie (Battleship Potemkin) than were killed in the actual attack. That’s called “Socialist Realism”.
Kerensky roamed the world thereafter, giving lectures on what-might-have-been.
One of his stops was in Connecticut, at the Institute of World Affairs. It was run by my father. When I was a baby, Kerensky held me in his arms. And that is my personal connection with democracy in Russia! I was held in the arms of the only person to bring freedom to Russia, in its thousand-year history!
Today, I also have a personal connection with the tides. When I leave my house, I walk by a “tide clock” at my front door. It tells me which part of the 12.5-hour tidal cycle we are in. This matters where I live, because we have the highest tides in the world. They have an appetite for roads.
There is an even fiercer tidal force with a much longer cycle. Many people do not see it or appreciate it…maybe because it happens on a clock whose hands sweep in generations instead of hours, or because they are more interested in the passing parade of celebrity news.
But your grandfather or great-grandfather would have noticed that tide, because they lived in a different world. 140 years ago, Authoritarian governments ruled the planet. It was the norm to see events shaped by Kings, Queens, Tsars and Kaisers.
In fact, that was true for almost all of human history — before the masses of people could read!
The current flame of democracy that has engulfed the world got its start in the place where the literacy rate was higher than anywhere else: America. This was a partly a heritage of the Puritans, who wanted to communicate and study new subjects.
The fact is that these most educated people in the world began to think that they could govern themselves! If the population is aware of the folly of Kings, perhaps they will want to take the reins. And once self-rule became a demonstrated fact in America, other areas began to smolder: ”perhaps we are able to do that as well…”
(To give credit where it is due, the Americans learned from the Brits, who were also quite literate and were evolving their own path to democracy…a great model for America).
In 1880, some 60% of the world was ruled by autocrats of one kind or another. By 2020, that had dropped to 25%, and three-quarters of the world was free.
It is in democracies that economic progress happens fastest. That is because 90% of economic progress today is based on innovation, and innovation is a networked activity between free-thinking people.
You might object and say, well, China has done OK, and I would agree. China, however, has a partly-free economic system. And in comparison with the innovation in free Taiwan, it is not that impressive. The big innovation driver today is computer circuits, which run fastest on boards with the smallest integrated circuits. The components are measured in nanometers (nms): a billionth of a meter. Your hair is 100,000 nms across. Shaquillle O’Neal is 2.1 trillion nms tall. (I hope that helps). The best China can do is to get down to 25 nms. In the meantime, free-economy IBM invented a 2 nm circuit, and free-country Taiwan is building it. It might not surprise you that in Taiwan, the GDP per person is $50,000; in China it is $18,000.
Russia is not even experiencing that rate of growth.
This is reflected in the Russian military. Even spending more than it should — and about one-third of its budget goes into security, broadly defined — Russia lacks the cash and transport capability to equip, train and move its troops. Putin is aware of this and also of the fact that his unfree economy is smaller than that of Texas. To be treated as one of the great world powers, he relies on bluff and threats. He is the man behind the curtain of OZ, projecting a dangerous visage of someone who should not be challenged.
Ukraine has not been free long enough to build a lead over Russia — in fact, its economy is one-tenth that of its much larger neighbour. BUT the GDP in Ukraine’s relatively free economy has been growing at 70% (2015–2020) while Russia’s only grew 8.8% in the same period.
In fact, when you discount Russia’s oil and gas industry — which the rest of the world is doing as we speak — Russia does not create much that is in demand. Its manufacturing sector is small, and its business sector is non-existent. Almost half of the government’s revenues come from oil and gas.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s innovation performance has been shrivelling. The number of inventions has tanked and currently lags ten-fold behind the number of inventions in the U.S.
Now, extrapolate that over a decade and see where Russia would be in 2030. It must be terrifying to Putin.
There is another option: the Kerensky option.
If Russia was free, we would not be witness to this panic attack on Ukraine.
And in my view, we have a chance to stop the attack. We are already dedicating billions to send weapons to Ukraine. What if we told Putin that we were going to extend that money to Russia in the form of development credits? Could we make a deal, saying that development depends on freedom?
The Marshal Plan after WW2 did that very thing. Democracy was an assumed component of our largess. It worked; Europe grew.
This may be simplistic, but could we offer Putin growth and freedom, for an end to the war?
We’ll be spending the money anyway. Why not give Russia a chance to join the Freedom Club?
And yes, BTW, I am aware of the threat to freedom in the United States today. I try to take some solace from the nonsense that is going on with book-banning etc., with my memories of America during the Vietnam War era. If America can come back after that — which tore at the country to a degree equivalent with current events — then America can come back from anything.
I think of America as a place that swings between two poles, and always manages to find the middle again.
America has a different kind of courage than that found in Autocracies. The tidal kind. Rising courage, in a world made by its own example.
Three quarters of this planet is free. That’s on you, America.
I say this last piece as a Canadian, just so you know it’s not self-serving: Forget the angst for a moment, and take a bow, America.