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Did The Soviet Union Drink Itself To Death?

Overly reliant on commodities and energy exports, and grossly out of balance on the agricultural front, Russia’s Soviet-era economy was doomed to collapse, argues Hungarian historian György Dalos. It didn't help that the USSR kept boosting alcohol production.


It’s been 20 years since the fall of the Soviet empire and hardly a year goes by without at least one new book offering to explain the collapse. This year is no exception. Berlin-based Hungarian historian György Dalos adds his views in the recently published Lebt wohl, Genossen (Goodbye, Comrades). But while the subject itself may be a bit old hat at this point, Dalos’ contribution – which contains some novel and very interesting details – is nevertheless worth paying attention to.

The Hungarian author starts his argument by quoting British historian Norman Davies: “The most noticeable thing about the Soviet collapse was that it followed a natural course.” Unlike the Roman Empire, the Soviet Union wasn’t attacked by barbarians. Nor was it carved up by hungry neighbors, or worn down by a major war. “It died because it had to,” said Davies.

Dalos spells out that “natural course” by sketching some political, cultural and everyday realities of late socialism that illustrate how Communism was not destroyed from the outside but simply disintegrated, came unglued at the seams, collapsed under its own weight. Die-hard Communists will no doubt resist Dalos’ arguments, but the number of examples he provides to illustrate his thesis is substantial.

Dalos mentions the work of Soviet economists working with Tatjana Saslawskaja and Abel Aganbegjan at the prestigious Novosibirsk Institute of Economics in Siberia. Those researchers showed early on that a controlled economy was the underlying reason for the stagnation of the Soviet economy.

Exports were particularly unhealthy: they increasingly consisted of commodities and energy and less and less of machines and manufactured products – a situation that Russia still suffers from today.

Things didn’t look much better in the agricultural sector, with imbalances that had the Soviets producing six times more tractors than the United States, which had more grain. Again, Dalos concludes, unless today’s Russia comes up with sustainable reforms, the rebirth of anything resembling an empire is not in the cards.

One of the most compelling arguments Dalos advances for the implosion of the Soviet Union is the role played by alcohol. Between 1936 and 1970, alcohol production rose by 157%. By 1975, it increased by 214%, and by 1976 it reached 327%. The state alcohol monopoly may have been pulling in 20 billion rubles yearly during the 1970s, and 40 billion in the 1980s, but the cost to the economy of lowered production due to alcohol-related causes, not least sickness, was far, far higher.

Read the full story in German by Thomas Speckmann

Photo - Leo Smith Photos / gaucho74

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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About this article source Website:

Die Welt (“The World”) is a German daily founded in Hamburg in 1946, and currently owned by the Axel Springer AG company, Europe's largest publishing house. Now based in Berlin, Die Welt is sold in more than 130 countries. A Sunday edition called Welt am Sonntag has been published since 1948.

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