Survivors’ History

Survivors’ History

The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin
by Stephen Cohen
PublishingWorks, 2010, 224 pp.

WE ALL have a few moments of culture shock when we first get to college, and I had mine the day university president Larry Summers, who under Bill Clinton had overseen American economic policy in the former Soviet Union, addressed the incoming class. The unrepentant privatizer who nearly destroyed my country was mobbed like a rock star by students. Other champions of Russia’s neoliberal economic reforms had also become campus heroes. How many undergraduate fans of the development crusader Jeffrey Sachs, for example, knew of his far more significant contribution—as the father of Russian shock therapy—to the poverty he was now famously fighting? They certainly wouldn’t have learned about it from economics professor Andrei Shleifer, Summers’s former shock therapy lieutenant. Later, when Shleifer and Harvard were sued by the U.S. government for insider trading on the very Russian stock market that they had been helping set up, a settlement worth $26.5 million of university funds was negotiated by Shleifer’s boss, Larry Summers.

Shleifer not only kept his job, but made it onto our syllabus. Stephen Cohen was not on the list of required reading. The victors’ history, which stressed Russia’s tough but necessary, unavoidable, and generally successful transition to capitalist democracy had nothing to do with the experiences of my own family and our friends.

The transition, to me, was associated with very specific memories. Around the age of eleven I went to wash my hands in a friend’s bathroom and was shocked to see his tub filled to the brim with chicken legs. My friend’s dad worked at our local poultry farm, and he hadn’t been paid in months until the management handed him his “shares.” And they were the lucky ones. A study by the Lancet linked the post-Soviet privatization to a 43 percent increase in male death rates. The trauma of witnessing the things they had worked for their whole lives stolen, broken up, and left to rot; of being told, on top of it all, by the architects of privatization and their Western advisers “Good riddance! Your Soviet dream was useless to begin with, the whole project was a lie, and you were fools to believe it” continues to devastate an entire generation.

My father’s defining interaction with privatization consisted of seeing the overnight plunder of the firm he had worked at his whole life: the Murmansk Trawl Fleet. When I was growing up, he would describe bitterly how privatization actually took place at the shop floor level: one day, workers were asked to form a queue, and managers handed everyone a pack of strange vouchers worth a few rubles: Congratulations, you are now shareholders! Immediately afterward, the same managers would announce the formation of another queue, for those wishing to exchange their useless pieces of pape...

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