Musings of a Russophile: Statistics know everything!

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The weapon of the economist is statistics. Competing economists seem to always find the numbers to make their point appear true. I can’t help but think of the hilarious lines in Soviet-era The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov. “Statistics know everything,” they write.

On my first tour of Russia in 1991, the tour director told a joke which still, in principle, rings true today. “President Mitterrand has one hundred mistresses. One of them has AIDS - and he doesn’t know which one. President Bush has one hundred body guards. One of them is a terrorist and he doesn’t know which one. President Yeltsin has a hundred economic advisors. One of them is right - but he doesn’t know which one.”

The weapon of the economist is statistics. Competing economists seem to always find the numbers to make their point appear true. I can’t help but think of the hilarious lines in Soviet-era The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov. “Statistics know everything,” they write.  “How much life, full of fervor, emotion, and thought, there is in those statistical tables. You can never hide from statistics. They have exact information not only on the number of dentists, sausage shops, syringes, janitors, film directors, prostitutes, thatched roofs, widows, cabdrivers, and bells; they even know how many statisticians there are in the country. But there is one thing that they do not know. They do not know how many chairs there are in the USSR.”
Economists seldom agree, and it seems that a country’s leader, especially if he is a dictator or autocrat, always has the pleasure of choosing economists who agree with him. This is so everywhere, but truly so in Russia. The Soviet Union was a country of statistics. From top to bottom, statistics were created and recorded to prove a point and impress the people and the outside world. The point could be that the economic plan was working, or failing, that the factory was producing or not producing, or that a certain Comrade should be given a medal or shot—or both. It has surely improved today.

Since the present political rulers in Russia were mostly born to understand the workings of a centrally controlled society, the main difference between them all is - who will control the economy? The constant contest between power groups, oligarchs, ex-KGB, whoever, regardless of political label, is about who will control the vast wealth of Russia.

In the post-Soviet period, the West naively had no trouble deciding which Russians to back and call “Democrats”—anyone who spoke English, in other words, and then convincing them of the rightness of their views. The opposition, many of whom also call themselves “Democrats,” even the most vitriolic nationalists, seek the same thing: power. Remember, Lenin and company never loved people, only The People― meaning their collective selves, the State.

One Economist was Right

“The economic system of Russia has undergone such rapid changes that it is impossible to obtain a precise and accurate account of it. Almost everything one can say about the country is true and false at the same time.”
                                                                                                  John Maynard Keynes 1925

The famous economist John Maynard Keynes said the above at the very time the Soviet Union was trying to find itself. It is still true today. When Keynes made that observation, Russia was nearing the bloody end of the cruelest and most senseless civil war ever to ruin a promising country. It was Lenin’s twisted dream, his untried political theory which he perpetrated on a people he did not love, in order to satisfy a selfish penchant for proving himself right— and power. It was like trying to balance a pencil on its point. It took seventy years for its wrongness to become evident to all. Such a waste of human potential the world has never seen!

From the standpoint of economics, the view from the top during the years since 1989 is indeed changing, but slowly. It is amazing to witness the power of economics as it is freed, albeit slowly and even mixed with corruption, but practiced enough to begin balancing a society. That is what haltingly is happening, in a rudimental, primordial, sometimes violent, and often unfair way in Russia. And the people are, or will in the end, benefit from it. But, oh, it takes so much patience and time.

When you think it is changing, it isn’t. When you think it is stable, it is changing.

 

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The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.

Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.

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