BOOK REVIEW / A dinosaur and a chudo: Russia 2010 - and What it Means for the World - Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson: Nicholas Brealey, pounds 12.99: Mary Dejevsky applauds an unorthodox, optimistic reading of Russia's likely future

DANIEL Yergin and Thane Gustafson are brave men indeed. They have ventured not only to ask one of the most important and intractable questions of the Nineties, but also to answer it. The question is 'whither post-Communist Russia'. And their answer is structured as four separate scenarios, the last and most optimistic of which - the Russian economic 'miracle', or chudo - could, they suggest, be the one to bet on.

A year ago, when their book, Russia 2010 - and What it Means for the World (Nicholas Brealey, pounds 12.99), was being written, the view that Russia had any sort of a future, let alone a hopeful one, would have seemed even braver than it does now. Then, the Russian president and his parliament were at loggerheads, the legislative process was at a standstill, and social tension was high. The danger of outright war, which erupted briefly in the shooting and bombing in Moscow last October, seemed real.

Even now, after nearly a year of sometimes uneasy peace and a measure of economic stability, the idea that Russia may not be a basket case is hardly conventional wisdom. The dominant view of Russia in Western academic circles is pessimistic: if Russia is not destined for civil war, it is doomed to penury or Fascism.

The continued prevalence of this gloomy view is what makes this book so brave: it is swimming against a very powerful tide. If its authors' credentials were not so sound - Yergin is president of a leading US think-tank, and Gustafson a respected scholar of the Soviet period and professor at Georgetown University - they would have been dismissed as innocents. As it is, they and their arguments deserve to be heard - before Western leaders wake up to find a serious Russian economic power and start complaining that nobody warned them.

Yergin and Gustafson accept that failure is not impossible - Russia is, after all, embarking on three epic changes simultaneously: from dictatorship to democracy, from command economy to the free market, and from empire to nation state. But they present the chudo option only after rejecting or limiting three other scenarios. The first, 'muddling down' is more or less a continuation of the present; this, they believe, can only be transitional. The second, the 'two-headed eagle', is authoritarianism that would seek to recover much economic centralisation but would lead on either to liberalisation or to a heftier clamp-down. The third is a 'time of troubles' which would be resolved in either a de facto break-up of Russia or an aggressive anti-Western dictatorship. Yergin and Gustafson judge neither of these to be likely for historical and sociological reasons. They also rule out, repeatedly, any return to Communism, as utterly discredited.

But it is their arguments for the 'miracle' that make this book so valuable for anyone with even the most fleeting interest in the future of Russia. Many of these arguments bear repeating, since they are rarely noted in print.

First, a new economy is growing up alongside the old, but the statistics do not reflect this: 'in the old Soviet economy, managers had an incentive to exaggerate their production; today managers have the opposite incentive. They underreport high output to avoid high taxes'. Official GNP is thus 'an inadequate, incomplete and increasingly misleading measure of people's actual welfare'.

Second, there is very little alternative to democracy. The army will not be able to take over because 'the ranks of military and security officers are deeply split'. Organised crime is not about to take over because it is 'a symptom, not a prime mover'. Legality of commerce is a problem, but only 'because the law has not caught up with the new fact of private enterprise'. Nor will the extremist 'red-brown' (Communist-Fascist) alliance succeed: it is 'badly divided'.

Third, Russia is unlikely to collapse or break up: 'No modern society has gone through such high inflation and depression, the ravaging of its population's living standards, the destruction of its political system and the collapse of its official ideology, not to mention the breakup of its borders . . . yet . . . life goes on.' 'At the moment what gets attention is the divisive forces in Russia, but there are also reintegrating elements.' These include 'the Russians' sense of national identity based on language and shared history'.

Fourth, any change for the better will bring greater benefits than expected: 'The command economy was so inefficient . . . that any improvement at all quickly brings benefits.' Less production does not necessarily mean less happiness, if what is produced is wanted, not wasted. The decline in investment may not have as severe an effect as predicted, as investment is not going into dinosaur industries.

Fifth: 'Western aid cannot save Russia. Only Russia can build the Russian economy, but Western aid can help . . . by supporting the transition at critical points.'

These arguments are all crucial to any assessment of Russia's prospects. Yet how often are they voiced? Yes, Russia is currently chaotic, weak and unpredictable. But it is also a huge and potentially very rich country, with an educated and often ingenious work force - they had to be to make Communism work for as long as it did. They will not be on the sidelines in poverty for ever.

I offer only two criticisms. The second chapter, setting out the historical background up to the fall of Soviet Communism, is peppered with inaccuracies. This is a pity because it is bound to cast doubt on facts, figures and judgements adduced later - whose accuracy seems mostly unimpeachable. Second, the four potential future scenarios emerge as less clear-cut than the book suggests. Yet the thesis that a Russian economic miracle is, albeit by a short head, the most likely outcome to emerge from the current chaos must be helped to come across loud and clear. There are a great many influential people out there who do not want to hear it.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea