Thursday, March 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Three Revenants from the Soviet Past

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 12 – Three phenomena that characterized much of the late Soviet period – private plots for farmers, branch ministries as the basic organization of the government, and the use of psychiatric techniques and medications against dissidents – are making a come back in post-Soviet Russia, albeit in somewhat modified forms.
A week ago, Viktor Zubkov, the first vice premier of the Russian government, said in Stockholm that Moscow, after a less than fully successful program of promoting megafarms with large number of animals, has decided to promote small family farms which have proved far more effective (
“In certain regions of Russia, the basic quantity of milk is produced” in such small farms, he said, just as – and he did not say – in Soviet times, far more milk and many other agricultural products like eggs, were produced by the small private plots rather than the often gigantist collective farms.
Zubkov said that Russian officials have asked a Western firm to design what such a small farm should look like in terms of equipment, and he added that Moscow is prepared to subsidize through state-backed loans the purchase of such equipment up to 95 percent of its price, with repayment due only beginning after a year.
What the Russian minister also did not address in Sweden was whether Russia will be able to find a way to hold young people down on the farm even with such aid or to ensure the rise of a new generation of farmers in place of the one the Soviet system almost completely destroyed (On these problems, see
The second example of this “back to the future” approach was reported today by “Argumenti nedeli.” The news weekly reports that Duma deputies are “ever more often beginning to speak about an approaching reorganization of the government,” one in which “the new structure will recall the branch system of administration of the 1970s and 1980s.”
If this reform happens, it said, 20 to 30 ministries would be created and take the place of a variety of federal agencies and services, and the number of vice prime ministers would increase as well. And, the magazine notes, all of this would “completely correspond to an increase in the role of the government in the country’s economy” (
Moving to such a system would likely trigger new tensions not only between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, each of whom is certain to have his own preferred candidates for these new positions but also create new layers of bureaucracy, something that was the bane of Brezhnev’s time.
And the third “revenant” is something much worse: the increasing use by the Russian government of psychiatry as a political weapon against its opponents. There have been scattered reports about the use of punitive psychiatry against those who oppose the Russian government over the last several years, but now the number of such reports appears to be on the rise.
According to Roman Chorny, the president of the St. Petersburg Civil Commission on Human Rights, officials have subjected some members of the National Bolshevik Party to psychiatric treatment of the kind the World Psychiatric Association denounced in 1983 as a crime against humanity when the Soviet government did it.
The targets of such abuse, Chorny acknowledges, often are members of organizations that many people find offensive in the extreme, but he insists that the right to freedom of expression “must be absolute” if it is to be meaningful and that “hospitals must not play the role of prisons” (
And the St. Petersburg human rights campaigner asks in despair: “Are we heading back to the Soviet Union” in this regard? But there is one way in which this revenant too is different from the past: In Soviet times, the victims of such abuse could count on support from many in the West. Unfortunately, they now may find that backing far harder to come by.

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