Stalinism or capitalism, it's the poor who always pay

Share
Related Topics
Two weeks ago, I was looking up at Joe Stalin's statue at Gori, his birthplace in Georgia. He looked fine: full of fatherly confidence, ready for another day of signing death warrants and deporting minorities.

Nobody had even scrawled graffiti on his plinth. But you have to say something. I said: "You bastard! What about Katyn? What about the kulaks and the Tatars and the Chechens and Osip Mandelstam and Trotsky?"

"I feel good about all that," replied Stalin. "I can see the mountains from up here, and I forgive all my enemies for their errors. I'm not allowed cigarettes, being a statue, but apart from that I have no complaints."

"You bastard!" I repeated. "You sacrificed the happiness of a whole generation and told them their children would inherit a bright new world."

"Odd you should say that," the Marshal returned. "Haven't you noticed that the International Monetary Fund and the bankers are saying just the same thing - put up with a few decades of unemployment, hunger and poverty and then golden capitalist wealth will trickle down to you?"

Furious, I turned to march away. Stalin called after me: "I admit I was pretty rough with my fellow Georgians. I shot all the intellectuals - but at least I never insulted their intelligence..."

Stalin brought the Caucasus into the Soviet Union, with a brutality that shocked even Lenin. But travelling there now, six years after the fall of the Soviet empire, is the most haunting of post-imperial tours. Fifty years after the departure of the legions, the old Britannia province must have been like this.

The Roman roads did not decay as fast as the great Soviet highways. The main road connecting Armenia to Georgia, across the passes of the Lesser Caucasus range, has reverted to a pot-holed cart-track over which a Land Rover pitches and sways in its lowest gears. At the approach of each city the road passes between the silent hulks of abandoned factories; already some local people cannot remember what it was that they made. Inside these factories, the machinery halls have been looted for everything that could possibly be sold, burnt for fuel or hammered into a shanty roof. Refugee families squat in the administration offices. The lawns of the old Kombinat now grow vegetables, and pigs rootle among wrecked tanks left by a half-forgotten civil war.

And here and there you can find the remains of imperial inscriptions. In the faded Cyrillic script of the empire, in the Russian language which has vanished from the streets, they say: "We Love Our Profession" or "Soviet Power Plus Electrification Equals Communism". The broken tablets might as well say: "Londinium's Gratitude to the God and Emperor Hadrian". Stalin's empire is already archaeology.

The misery of the Caucasus republics has two sources. One is the fall of the Soviet Union, and the local wars which burdened the Caucasus with 1.5 million refugees. The great Soviet market around which the Caucasian economies had been built vanished. Armenia had specialised in computers. Georgia had prospered by exporting fruit, tea and wine to Russia, and by the tourist revenue from the Abkhazian coast. Then the continental planned economy disintegrated. Most of the road and rail links to Russia were blocked; trade with Russia dried up. Georgia suffered worst. Industrial production fell to a tenth of its output in Soviet times, and by 1994 inflation had reached the spectral level of 10,000 per cent per annum.

But on the heels of the collapse came the Reform - the transition towards the free market economy, under Western "guidance". Sometimes it is hard to tell the damage inflicted by the second from that caused by the first.

We now have seven years' experience of "privatising" Communist economies. Have we learnt anything? Some changes, certainly, have to be done fast and cannot be done without pain, like killing off inflation by letting the currency plunge to find its real international value. Imposing basic market discipline hurts, too. The old scarcity economy, in which people have wads of banknotes but the shops are empty, has to be reversed; the shops become well stocked with goods, while the commodity that is scarce is money to buy them with.

But there are avoidable pains, too. In Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, brightly lit but empty supermarkets are crammed with German or Dutch groceries at German or Dutch prices, while the average income is only about pounds 5 a month. It cannot be true that the only way to build a market economy is to destroy living standards for all but a wealthy few, and to pitch the majority of a nation into helpless, humiliating poverty. It cannot be right - as the IMF seems to think - to achieve balanced budgets by cutting off all state-subsidised welfare.

The health services in Georgia are an awful example. In one town, I found that only patients who turned up with their own drugs and bandages were being treated; the poor, however ill, were simply turned away. A woman who did get into a maternity ward found that the nurses charged her for a drink of water, even for watching the baby and keeping the rats away while the mother slept. Their income was so low that they could not possibly live on it. Others simply stole hospital equipment and ran illegal clinics from home.

In Armenia, IMF pressure on the government budget induced the state electricity authority to impose a "market price" for power and then cut off tens of thousands of families who could not afford it. To get reconnected, they have to pay three months' income for a new meter. And all over the region, there is almost no winter heating. The old Soviet system was "district heating": small local power stations pumped hot water through the radiators of thousands of offices and apartments for a nominal charge. This has been abolished. One day, maybe, those who can afford them will have personal furnaces. Meanwhile, with only a few hours of electricity a day, families wear many jerseys in winter and chop down trees in the park for fuel.

They say that the Georgian economy is "picking up". So it is, in economists' terms. There is modest growth this year, and a first vanguard of foreign investors has arrived in Tbilisi with high hopes. One day soon, somebody will be making lots of money in Georgia, the budget will balance and the international bankers will talk about "success".

Privatisation will go further. The land has already been parcelled out among small farmers - in contrast to Russia. But now state industry and bureaucracy will be cast adrift. The government employs 800,000 people in Georgia, 15 per cent of the entire population. Most are so badly paid that they sell their services illegally to the public. Now most of them will lose even that chance of a living.

In Communist times, life in the Caucasus republics was the best in the Soviet Union. Prosperity may come again, and it may even be general, but too late for those millions whose lives have been wrecked by the way this great change was driven through.

It could have been done differently, more gradually, in a way that preserved human dignity through inevitably hard times. But it is being done like a rape. In Stalin's time, the Five Year Plans shovelled a living generation into the furnace in order to smelt a heavenly future for their children. That future never arrived - and this one? From Gori, I hear a sarcastic laugh.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Liberal Left should stop feeling guilty about flying the flag of St George and have no qualms about celebrating Englishness, one of Ed Miliband’s closest advisers said  

Don't sneer at the white van driving flag waving man

Stefano Hatfield
A customer holds his new iPhone  

How magazine websites for young women are filling a gap in the market

Ian Burrell
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin