|Российская наука и мир|
(по материалам зарубежной электронной прессы)
AFP / 20 Aug 2010
Outrage as priceless Russian seed bank faces destruction
Арбитражный суд Москвы отклонил второй иск Государственного научного учреждения "Павловская опытная станция". Суд признал законным распоряжение Росимущества передать под коттеджную застройку Федеральному фонду содействия развитию жилищного строительства (РЖС) земельный участок станции, входящей в состав ВНИИ растениеводства имени Н.И.Вавилова под Санкт-Петербургом. На станции расположена уникальная коллекция плодовых и кормовых культур, основанная академиком Николаем Вавиловым.
PAVLOVSK, Friday 20 August 2010 (AFP) - "I could not imagine that this no longer exists. I've spent my whole life here," cries botanist Alexandra Kondrikova, looking out over the fields of Russia's Pavlovsk seed collection.
The fields of crops at the centre outside Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg contains Europe's largest field genebank of fruits and berries and dates back almost 90 years.
But within months the Pavlovsk Station could be reduced to a building site after courts gave the go-ahead to for the land to be handed over to a federal construction agency that plans to build cottages on the site.
The plans have already prompted international crop diversity groups to appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev to halt the planned development and save one of the world's most valuable crop collections.
"You would need years to move this collection and this would be fatal for the plants. This is clear," said Kondrikova, who has worked at the collection since 1981 and has already identified 28 new types of honeysuckle.
She earns just 8,000 rubles (260 dollars/204 euros) a month.
Two fields from the station covering a total area of 90 hectares have already been ceded to the federal construction agency and one of them will be auctioned off as soon as September.
"Officials are showing that they do not care about a collection that was formed in the last century and 90 of whose species are unique," the Pavlovsk station's acting director Fyodor Mikhovich said.
"The main thing for them is that they can earn one billion rubles (30 million dollars) by selling off the station's fields," he added.
To make matters worse, the law is stacked against the station's case, Mikhovich admitted.
He said the law states that land can be ceded if it is disused - and officials are claiming the Pavlovsk Station is disused land as "there is nothing but grass".
"But what to they want to see? Coconuts?" he asked.
Under another mind-boggling quirk, the fact that the land is deemed as "priceless" also gives developers a right to build there.
"To legally prove that we are using these lands, we need to put a value on the collection which is impossible. There are no methods for that.
How can we put a price on a collection that is unique and only exists here," he said.
From the outside, the vast fields of grasses, bushes and trees do not look particularly remarkable and contrast with the glitzy weekend homes being built in Pavlovsk by rich Petersburgers.
But the 500 hectares of the station contain 12,000 varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other crops.
Leading crop diversity group the Crop Diversity Trust has called on the Russian government to halt the planned development and the complaints have already brought acknowledgement from the Kremlin.
After receiving an appeal from Russia's civic chamber, Medvedev "gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised," the president wrote on his Twitter feed. However it remains to be seen how this will be pursued.
Ironically, the controversy has collided with Russia's worst drought on record which has seen one quarter of its crops destroyed and again underlined the importance of seed banks.
"This land is gold and I do not believe that scientists will be able to defend themselves against officials who are only worried about filling their own pockets", said Pavlovsk resident Anatoly Kuropatkin.
"I would not be surprised if they declared the Hermitage Museum unused to sell its land," he said, referring to the famed art museum and imperial palace in Saint Petersburg.
The Pavlovsk seedbank was established in the 1920s by Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov. In the siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany in World War II its scientists, according to locals, starved to death rather than eat the seeds.
Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.
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Le Monde / 23.08.10
Après les feux, la Russie face à la question climatique
Летняя жара и пожары в России могут изменить подход властей к вопросам окружающей среды. То, что Россия тоже может подвергнуться воздействию климатических изменений, теперь воспринимается в Кремле более серьезно, пишет Le Monde.
Quelles conséquences vont avoir sur la Russie la canicule et les incendies qui, en juillet et en août, ont ravagé 200 000 hectares de forêts, anéanti un tiers de la récolte de céréales et laissé 2 000 personnes sans domicile ? Si le coût économique de la catastrophe a été estimé à 14 milliards de dollars (11 milliards d'euros) - 1 % du PIB - son coût politique s'annonce inexistant : la popularité du tandem Poutine (47 % d'opinions favorables)-Medvedev (39 %) est inoxydable.
Mais la catastrophe est peut-être en train de changer la perception qu'ont les autorités des questions environnementales. Le fait que la Russie peut, elle aussi, être touchée par le changement climatique semble désormais mieux pris en compte par le Kremlin.
"Malheureusement, ce qui se produit aujourd'hui dans nos régions centrales est la preuve du changement climatique planétaire. Jamais dans l'histoire de notre pays nous n'avons subi de telles conditions", a ainsi récemment reconnu le président Dmitri Medvedev.
On est loin du ton badin de son prédécesseur Vladimir Poutine, prompt à affirmer, en septembre 2003, lors de la conférence de Moscou sur le changement climatique, qu'un "réchauffement de deux à trois degrés ne serait pas grave et peut-être même bénéfique : on dépenserait moins pour les manteaux de fourrure et les vêtements chauds".
L'ancien officier du KGB, aujourd'hui premier ministre, n'a jamais vraiment été sensible aux arguments écologiques. N'a-t-il pas, peu après son arrivée au Kremlin en mars 2000, supprimé d'un trait de plume le ministère de l'environnement ? Il faut dire que le mouvement écologique en Russie a une vraie dimension politique et populaire, à ce titre, il ne pouvait qu'être perçu comme un danger par Vladimir Poutine, qui gère le pays comme une caserne.
A la mi-août, alors que Moscou sortait péniblement d'une semaine de suffocations sous un épais nuage de carbone venu des tourbières en feu, Alexandre Berditski, conseiller du Kremlin et président de l'Organisation météorologique mondiale (OMM), a reconnu que "la chaleur anormale de l'été 2010 était le résultat du changement climatique". Pire encore, elle risque "de devenir un fait ordinaire".
Il fallait bien ramener les esprits à la raison, des commentateurs s'étant mis à gloser sur la responsabilité des Etats-Unis, soupçonnés d'avoir lancé sur la Russie une nouvelle arme climatique via leur station météorologique en Alaska.
En réalité, la vague de canicule (des températures avoisinant 40 °C en continu pendant six semaines, du jamais-vu depuis cent trente ans) et les incendies illustrent à quel point la Russie est dans une position difficile, coincée entre sa dépendance aux matières premières et sa vulnérabilité aux effets du réchauffement climatique.
Quatrième plus gros émetteur de carbone au monde, la Russie s'est engagée, en novembre 2009, à réduire ses émissions de 20 % d'ici à 2020. Mais les promesses restent floues. Pour l'heure, les pétroliers russes restent fidèles à la pratique du "torchage" des gaz sortis des puits de pétrole. Brûler le gaz puis le rejeter dans l'atmosphère est considéré comme une solution relativement efficace pour se débarrasser des gaz liés à la production pétrolière. S'ils étaient relâchés dans l'atmosphère, les gaz non brûlés, chargés méthane, s'avéreraient bien plus néfastes que le CO2.
Le "torchage" augmente les émissions de CO2, mais il représente aussi une perte considérable d'énergie ! Selon un rapport rédigé par la Cour des comptes en mars, les neufs majors russes ont "torché" en 2009 quelque 20 milliards de mètres cubes de gaz, soit l'équivalent de la quantité de gaz acheté chaque année par l'Italie à la Russie.
En janvier 2009, le gouvernement russe a donné aux compagnies jusqu'en 2012 pour utiliser 95 % du gaz issu des puits de pétrole (ce qui est la norme pour les compagnies occidentales), tout en prévoyant des pénalités financières pour celles qui ne s'exécuteraient pas. Le journal des affaires Vedomosti constatait toutefois il y a quelques mois que "jusqu'ici, le gouvernement russe n'a pas été en mesure d'obliger les compagnies pétrolières à procéder aux investissements nécessaires" pour mettre fin au "torchage".
Avec les incendies, les autorités ont dû faire face à un autre problème, ignoré pendant des années, celui posé par les anciennes tourbières. Concentrées dans les régions du centre et autour de Moscou, elles ont été le principal foyer d'incendie (comme en 1972 et en 2002). C'est à cause des tourbières et de leur combustion lente et profonde, impossible à maîtriser, que la capitale russe s'est vue recouverte d'un brouillard toxique à couper au couteau.
"Toutes les fenêtres sont ouvertes, la fumée est aussi épaisse dans les couloirs, les chambres, les cabinets d'examens, les salles d'opérations que dans la rue. Seules les fenêtres de la salle de réanimation sont fermées mais il y règne une odeur de brûlé ainsi qu'une odeur pestilentielle due à la putréfaction des pansements à cause de la chaleur ambiante : 40 °C", écrivait un médecin moscovite anonyme sur Internet au pire moment des feux.
Inexploitées depuis l'époque soviétique, les tourbières asséchées représentent une réserve énorme de carbone prêt à se consumer à la moindre étincelle, d'autant que les canaux d'inondation ne fonctionnent plus, les pompes à eau ayant "toutes été volées", a confié Viktor Chouroupov, chef de la défense civile de Chatoura (périphérie de Moscou) au magazine New Time.
Le gouvernement a fait diligence débloquant 300 millions de roubles (7,7 millions d'euros) pour inonder les tourbières. C'est paraît-il la solution la moins coûteuse et la plus efficace pour prévenir les incendies à venir. Certains pourtant y sont opposés, tel le gouverneur de la région de Tver, Dmitri Zelenine, qui a déclaré récemment à Vedomosti qu'il serait plus sage de les donner en exploitation à des firmes privées pour garantir leur entretien.
© Le Monde.fr.
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The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2010
Russia fires caused by global warming? Maybe not, say scientists
The Kremlin's top meteorologist said that Russia's recent spate of extreme weather and wildfires "are signs of global warming". That's not quite right, say climate scientists
Александр Бедрицкий, советник Кремля по вопросам климата и президент Всемирной метеорологической организации, назвал экстремальные погодные условия в России и ряд других природных катастроф "признаками глобального потепления". Климатологи считают, что это не совсем так. Нельзя с уверенностью сказать, вызвано то или иное событие антропогенным изменением климата, хотя на частоту этих событий оно определенно влияет.
Russia's heat wave, drought and wildfires, by themselves, are not signs of global warming, according several leading climatologists - despite widely reported claims this week by a Russian scientist.
But experts agree that overall, the climate indeed shows signs of human-induced warming. Alexander Bedritsky, the Krelim's weather adviser and president of the World Meteorological Organization, said that Russia's recent spate of extreme weather, along with other natural disasters, including the recent flooding in Pakistan and France's 2003 heat wave, taken together, "are signs of global warming," according to the Associated Press.
"I don't think they got it quite right," said climatologist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "I believe the correct interpretation is that nowadays everything has a component of natural variability and also global warming." The difference comes up often when global warming's proponents - or detractors - try to base an argument one way or the other on a single event.
"We can't say for sure that each event was due to human-caused climate change," said climatologist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University. "But the fact that the events are occurring more often, we can attribute to human-caused climate change."
So for instance, climate scientists could say a stretch of time with more intense or more frequent hurricanes is attributed to global warming, but couldn't decipher whether one of these intense hurricanes can be linked with the warming temperatures. "We are at the point where we can detect global warming in statistics, but not in individual events," Ken Caldeira, global ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., told LiveScience today.
Mann said to think of the occurrence of these extreme events as rolling a loaded die. Rolling a six is like having a record-setting high temperature. With global warming, the die is loaded so that sixes come up increasingly more often - as if the numbers one, two and three were slowly being replaced with sixes.
Rolling a six, or having an extreme weather event, will become more common as the climate changes, Mann said. But rolling back-to-back sixes by chance alone will always be possible, regardless of global warming.
These double sixes, however, will come up far more often than would be expected in the absence of human-caused climate change - a trend that scientists are already seeing.
The number of daily heat records, for example, is already outpacing the number of daily cold records by double the amount expected in the absence of climate change, Mann said.
"The key observation is that these events are becoming increasingly more common," Mann told LiveScience. "The Russian heat wave was by some estimates a one-in-a-thousand-year event, but with global warming perhaps it's only a one-in-10-year event now."
But when trying to link multiple events to global warming, the picture is much more complicated.
"It is difficult to establish all these links well, and even more difficult to quantify them." Trenberth said. "But the evidence strongly suggests that global warming is playing a role.
"The way to think of it, though, is that global warming exacerbates the other conditions that would be occurring anyway: The droughts are more intense, last longer and thus elevate wildfire risk."
© The Christian Science Monitor. All Rights Reserved.
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Le Figaro / 24/08/2010
Débat écologique autour des gisements du lac Baïkal
En Russie, un exploitant minier s'oppose aux défenseurs du réservoir d'eau douce le plus profond du monde, classé au patrimoine de l'Unesco
Месторождение Холоднинское в 70 км от Байкала содержит 30% общероссийских запасов цинка и 15% - свинца. Однако если компания "Метрополь", которой принадлежит месторождение, начнет работы, экология Байкала окажется под угрозой, так как значительно увеличится объем загрязненной свинцом и цинком воды. "Метрополь" же считает, что разработка месторождения как раз устранит угрозу загрязнения Байкала, поскольку настоящие источники загрязнения - дикий туризм, пластиковый мусор, слив канализаций из деревень и неконтролируемая вырубка лесов.
Une saignée grise et beige dans la forêt de pins, des amas de planches, une ébauche de voie ferrée et des eaux saumâtres qui suintent d'anciennes galeries: voici tout ce qui reste du gisement de Kholodninskoïe, autrefois cité minière du bout du monde qui attira les pionniers de l'URSS.
Du village de Nijneangarsk, situé à la pointe nord-est du lac Baïkal, l'endroit, infesté de moustiques, est accessible en cinquante minutes d'hélicoptères et de véhicule amphibie conduit sur une piste défoncée. "Il est vivement conseillé de ne pas boire cette eau", prévient un responsable du site, Baïr Tsyrenov, allusion aux résidus de plomb et de zinc qui la contaminent. Un peu plus bas, le filet de couleur rouille s'échappe dans la rivière Kholodnaya qui, elle-même, au bout d'une course de soixante-dix kilomètres, se jette dans les eaux bleu turquoise du lac sibérien.
Réserves de plomb et de zinc
Ici, il y a trente ans, au milieu de cette nature sauvage, s'était édifié un village s'appelant Pereval avec ses 350 habitants, son école, son hôpital et sa salle de sports. Les géologues y foraient le sous-sol, pour des salaires supérieurs à ceux de Moscou, jusqu'à ce que cet éphémère combinat minier sombre dans les ruines de la perestroïka.
En 2005, Mikhaïl Slipenchouk, ancien géographe reconverti en stratège de la finance, a mis la main sur ce gisement pour 33 millions de roubles (840.000 euros) après une vente aux enchères. Bon vivant, l'homme dirige une société d'investissement à Moscou baptisée Metropol. Il a également acheté sur un coup de cœur un petit hôtel de luxe, la Vignette Haute, à Auribeau-sur-Siagne (Alpes-Maritimes), fréquenté par Madonna et Michael Schumacher. Aujourd'hui, il se rêve en exploitant minier.
Kholodninskoïe contient respectivement 30% et 15% des réserves de zinc et de plomb de toute la Russie. Le début des premiers forages n'attend qu'un feu vert du Kremlin. Mais, sous la pression de l'Unesco, qui a inscrit le lac au patrimoine mondial de l'humanité, le gouvernement russe tergiverse. "L'exploitation de Kholodninskoïe aurait de graves effets sur l'environnement du lac Baïkal", s'inquiète l'organisation onusienne.
Alimenté par 300 rivières et abritant près de 1900 espèces endémiques, le lac le plus profond du monde contient 20% des réserves d'eau douce de la planète. "Si Metropol exploite le gisement, le volume des eaux souillées de plomb et de zinc augmentera de mille fois et ce joyau de la nature sera menacé", affirme Sergueï Chapkhaev, l'un des principaux responsables écologiques de la région de la Bouriatie.
Seule l'exploitation de ce gisement écartera la menace de pollution du lac Baïkal, estime au contraire Metropol. Dans le cadre du chantier est prévue la construction d'un convoyeur permettant au minerai, une fois extrait, d'être traité en dehors du périmètre protégé. "Ces écolos sans aucune formation à l'environnement ignorent que ce sont en réalité le tourisme sauvage, la prolifération des ordures en plastique, le déversement des égouts des villages et les coupes sauvages de bois qui constituent les vrais facteurs de nuisance pour le lac", s'emporte Mikhaïl Slipenchouk, qui se voit comme un entrepreneur au service de la collectivité et promet la création d'au moins 1300 emplois.
Poutine en sous-marin
À Oulan-Oude, capitale de la petite république désargentée de Bouriatie, dont la seule richesse vient des sous-sols, l'homme d'affaires est accueilli à bras ouverts. Outre ses promesses d'emplois dans l'exploitation du gisement, Metropol commence à construire des hôtels de standing au bord du lac, où l'offre touristique reste insuffisante. La société a fait ériger un temple bouddhiste à Ozernoïe (au nord-est d'Oulan-Oude) qui ravit les nombreux fidèles de la région, ainsi qu'une église orthodoxe à Nijneangarsk. Elle a même embauché les éleveurs de rennes qui campent à proximité de Kholodninskoïe, achetant leurs récoltes de baies sauvages et de champignons. "Le Baïkal n'a pas besoin de la reconnaissance de l'Unesco, il se suffit à lui-même", souligne le ministre des Ressources naturelles de Bouriatie, Baïr Angaev.
Avec des arguments économiques similaires, l'oligarque multimilliardaire Oleg Deripaska avait déjà obtenu de Vladimir Poutine la permission de relancer, sur la rive occidentale du lac, la production d'une usine de cellulose très polluante, provoquant l'indignation des écologistes et d'une partie de la population.
Avec une fortune évaluée à seulement 380 millions d'euros et l'absence de pedigree politique, Mikhaïl Slipenchouk ne concourt pas dans la même catégorie que le numéro un mondial de l'aluminium. Mais, en Russie, l'influence peut s'acquérir rapidement. Parallèlement au lobby engagé par Metropol pour assouplir la loi relative à l'extraction des minerais du Baïkal, l'entreprise sponsorise une expédition écologique chargée d'explorer les profondeurs du lac, conduite par des experts de l'Académie des sciences. Récemment, Poutine a même embarqué à bord du sous-marin…
© Le Figaro.fr.
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The Guardian / Saturday 7 August 2010
Red plenty: lessons from the Soviet dream
16 августа в издательстве Faber (Великобритания) выходит книга Фрэнсиса Спаффорда "Красное изобилие" (Red Plenty by Francis Spufford). Книга посвящена науке и экономике СССР - прежде всего, периоду 1957-1964 гг., названному автором "моментом величия". Фрэнсис Спаффорд о спутнике, Карибском кризисе и советской мечте - в The Guardian.
1962. At the airport, Harry Palmer - not yet played by Michael Caine, not in fact even named in Len Deighton's original novel - stocks up on his reading. For the flight he buys the New Statesman and History Today. And then he adds a copy of the Daily Worker. Not just because our Harry (as we might as well call him) is a British spy, keeping up with the communist enemy, but also because Harry, unlike the uppercrust nitwits he works for, is classless and intelligent and up-to-the-minute, and so in a menacing way at this moment in the 20th century does communism seem to be, thanks to the public image of its homeland the USSR.
For Harry, knowing about the Soviet Union is a way of keeping the sad old, creaky old, shabby-genteel world of England ironically in its place. He's fighting it, but its existence is an asset to a grammar-school oik on the rise, like him. Out beyond the bedsits and the stale crumpets and the golf-club ties, there's a giant waking, and it's proof positive that the old order of things is shiftable, that there can be novelty under the sun. Two years later in the sequel to The Ipcress File, an eggyolk-stained has-been explains pityingly to Harry that there's no way a low-rent place like England is ever going to induce a Soviet scientist to defect. "Simitsa works with refrigerated ultra-centrifuges. They cost around Ј10,000 each. He has 12 of them." That same year, 1964, the classless and up-to-the-minute Harold Wilson makes it part of his pitch to the electorate that the sad old, creaky old British economy should be supercharged with some Soviet-style scientific efficiency. And the voters buy it, white heat, "National Plan" and all.
This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (It was already going, in fact, at the time of the 1964 election; it was a piece of Wilson's appeal that was premised on a fading public perception and was dropped from Labour rhetoric shortly thereafter, leaving not much behind but a paranoid suspicion of Wilson among egg-stained, old-school-tie spooks.) But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture.
It was not the revolutionary country people were thinking of, all red flags and fiery speechmaking, pictured through the iconography of Eisenstein movies; not the Stalinesque Soviet Union of mass mobilisation and mass terror and austere totalitarian fervour. This was, all of a sudden, a frowning but managerial kind of a place, a civil and technological kind of a place, all labs and skyscrapers, which was doing the same kind of things as the west but threatened - while the moment lasted - to be doing them better. American colleges worried that they weren't turning out engineers in the USSR's amazing numbers. Bouts of anguished soul-searching filled the op-ed pages of European and American newspapers, as columnists asked how a free society could hope to match the steely strategic determination of the prospering, successful Soviet Union.
President Kennedy's aide Arthur Schlesinger wrote a White House memo sounding the alarm over "the all-out Soviet commitment to cybernetics". While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.
Which didn't happen. Which didn't happen so thoroughly that the way the Soviet Union seemed to be between 1957 and 1964 or thereabouts has been more or less displaced from our collective memory. In the quick, associative slideshow that assembles itself in our heads these days when the USSR (1917-91) is mentioned, the bits with the flags and with Stalin's moustache now lead on directly to the images of the country's dotage, when old men in ugly suits presided over an empire of antiquated tractor factories before Gorbachev came along and accidentally put the whole thing out of its misery. The era when the place seemed to be in a state of confident, challenging, expansive maturity has fallen off our mental carousel. If in the 70s the USSR turned out to be only "Upper Volta with rockets" - in the words of an American diplomat unimpressed with the way the metalled roads ran out only a few kilometres outside Moscow - then it must have always, and only, been Upper Volta with rockets.
The idea of an enviable Soviet Union utterly fails to compute. We tend to assume therefore that the Soviet moment must have been pure illusion. Perhaps a projection of western fears; perhaps a misunderstanding of what the headline feats such as Sputnik implied about the rest of Soviet life. It had been a reasonable assumption, for nervous western onlookers in the early 60s, that a society which launched satellites must also have solved simple everyday problems such as supplying lettuces and children's shoes. When it turned out that it wasn't so, that the Hemel Hempstead branch of Start-Rite would have represented unimaginable luxury in a Soviet city, the space rockets stopped signifying a general, enviable "high technology". They started looking like some pharaoh's pet project, a pyramid scraped together on the back of poverty, cruel and a bit ridiculous.
But the image of the USSR that the west briefly nurtured in the late 50s and early 60s was not a pure illusion. It was an exaggeration of something real; a report of a real confidence, a real feeling of success in Moscow which the west helped falsify by translating it into western terms and tricking it out with the west's expectations. Something really did go right or go well, then, for the Soviet Union, which we're in danger now of tidying away, like all episodes in history that point in a direction not taken and which therefore refuse to fit into the hindsighted narrative we make out of the past for our convenience. The truths learned later about the Soviet economy were quite real, of course. It did indeed prove to be wasteful rather than efficient, cack-handed instead of strategic, alarmingly incoherent rather than terrifyingly rational. But if we tell ourselves only a case-closed story of communism as an inevitable disaster we miss other parts of the past's reality and foreclose on the other stories it can tell us.
Give your imagination permission to engage with some unlikely facts: in the 1950s, the USSR was one of the growth stars of the planetary economy, second only to Japan in the speed with which it was hauling itself up from the wreckage of the war years. And this is on the basis not of the official Soviet figures of the time, or even of the CIA's anxious recalculations of them, but of the figures arrived at after the Soviet Union's fall by sceptical historians with access to the archives. The Soviet economy grew through the second half of the 50s at 5%, 6%, 7% a year. As Paul Krugman has mischievously pointed out, the USSR's growth record in the 50s elicited exactly the same awed commentary as Chinese and Indian growth does today. Admittedly, "growth" did not mean exactly the same thing in the Soviet context that it did in, say, the American one (average for the period 3.3% a year) or in the British one (average: 1.9%; have a stale crumpet). Soviet growth was counted differently, was biased massively towards heavy industry and did not necessarily imply a matching growth in living standards.
Yet there had been a palpable transformation in the way Soviet citizens lived. In 1950, as in 1940 and 1930, they had been wearing hand-me-downs and living for the most part in squalid, crowded "communal flats" carved out of antiquated pre-revolutionary buildings. In 1950, you could be director of a major Moscow hospital and live behind a curtain in 1/17th of a Tsarist ballroom. Ten years later, Soviet citizens were wearing new clothes and moving in ever-increasing numbers into new apartments with private bathrooms; they owned radios and pianos and were beginning to own fridges and televisions too. In 1960, the hospital director would be sitting pretty in a sunny new-build out in the Sparrow Hills and driving to work in a well-waxed sedan with the leaping-stag logo of the Gaz company gleaming on its bonnet. Going by the measure of the capitalism of the 30s, which is what the Soviet Union had first set out to beat in terms of living standards, Soviet life was now spectacularly prosperous. The USSR could now feed, dress, house and educate its people better than depression America or Nazi Germany. If capitalism had remained unchanged, the Soviet Union would at this point have looked like a reasonable, if tyrannous and polluted, version of the earthly paradise.
Mission accomplished, materially speaking. Instead, of course, capitalism had unfairly shifted the target by doing some growing of its own. Which was why, even on a generous estimate, the average Soviet income still only amounted to 25% or so of the average American one; not bad at all, compared with the recent Soviet past, and positively inspiring from the point of view of (to pick two Soviet allies) India and China, yet not really economic victory. But the Soviet march to wealth was not finished. This was only the halfway stage on the road to a far greater abundance.
According to Marxist theory, the USSR had been on a long, strange detour ever since the October revolution. Marx had predicted that communism would come in the most advanced of the capitalist countries, not in backward, roadless, shoeless, illiterate Russia. He had supposed that the plenty of the socialist future would be built on top of all of the cruel-but-necessary development work of capitalism - that socialists would inherit a machine they only had to perfect and to direct towards the satisfaction of everybody's needs, rather than the needs of a few top-hatted owners. The Russian situation was utterly different, and so the Bolsheviks had been obliged to operate a socialism which was doing capitalism's job for it. They'd bootstrapped an industrial base out of virtually nothing, to produce the steel and cement and machine tools on which any further advance depended. They'd trained a workforce and disciplined it in the rhythms of industrial life. They'd educated a peasant society till it was bristling with science degrees. They'd also killed several million people, and massively out-brutalised the capitalist version of the industrial revolution, all in the name of humanity; but their information was limited, thanks to the paranoically limited bandwidth of the channel through which they viewed the outer world, and the vision of capitalism with which they compared their own record was Marx and Engels's portrait of Manchester a century earlier as a laissez-faire heart of darkness. They could point out to themselves that while they had the smokestacks and the squalor and the cruelty and the black grime on every surface, they also had palaces of culture offering ballroom-dancing lessons and opera at low, low prices.
In any case, the job was now done, and history could resume its rightful course. Atop the steel and cement could grow the pastel pagoda of utopia; Marx's utopia, that deliberately underdescribed idyll where wonderful machines purred away in the background, allowing the human beings in the foreground to "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind . . ." So rich and comprehensive would be the flow from the mechanical horns of plenty that it wouldn't even be necessary to measure out the goods in proportion to the work people did. Everyone could have anything and be anything. If you've ever read one of Iain M Banks's "Culture" novels you'll recognise the setting, except that this post-scarcity paradise was to be run on the advanced technology of the mid-20th century, rather than the science of a galaxy far, far away; spun up from artificial fibres and pneumatic mail and computers made of glowing radio-valves.
The Soviet state did engage in a certain amount of expectation-management. An eminent academician published a paper explaining that the happy citizens of the future would have all the shoes and socks and underwear they needed, "but this in no way presupposes superfluousness or extravagance". And First Secretary Khrushchev himself reproved intellectuals who might think the future held limitless "freedom" (which he clearly associated with sloppiness and disorder). "Communism is an orderly, organised society," he said in March 1963. "In that society, production will be organised on the basis of automation, cybernetics and assembly lines. If a single screw is not working properly, the entire mechanism will ground to a halt."
Yet the reason for insisting on the caveats was that the Soviet Union had gone ahead and promised Marx's plenty anyhow. Not as a vague aspiration for the future, either - not as a conveniently floating goal designed to keep the present hopeful. Nope: as a timed, detailed, schedule of events, with 1980 picked out as the date that the "material-technical" basis for full communism would be complete and the cornucopias would be switched on. The 1961 party congress adopted the imminent end of all scarcity as its official programme, thus making possibly the rashest and most falsifiable promise in the entire politics of the 20th century. An act so foolish can only be explained through idealism: Khrushchev's own, for he was a man whose troubled relationship with his conscience required a happy ending to give him retrospective absolution, but also the idealism coded despite everything into the structure of the régime. It was the same heedless true-belief at work which would manifest itself a generation later in Gorbachev.
The historian Stephen Kotkin describes the USSR as an edifice "booby-trapped with idealism", and that seems about right.
The great grey tyranny ran on, in some sense depended on, hopes big enough to counterbalance the country's defects. Khrushchev really meant the promises that were spelled out with such excruciating frankness in the programme. Dialectical materialism was to imply denial and self-sacrifice no longer. The philosophy was going to pay off in the most literal and direct way; it was going to do what it said on the tin, and bring the materialists their material reward.
It was going to make first Russians and then all their friends the richest people in the world. Naturally this would involve zooming past the United States. "Today you are richer than us," Khrushchev had told a bemused dinner-party in the White House. "But tomorrow we will be as rich as you. The day after? Even richer!" Now, in 1961, he laid it all out, hour after hour, to an auditorium stuffed with delegates from all over Moscow's half of the cold-war globe. Soon, he told the assembled Cubans and Egyptians and East Germans and Mongolians and Vietnamese, Soviet citizens would enjoy products "considerably higher in quality than the best productions of capitalism". Pause a moment, and consider the promise being made there. Not products that were adequate or sufficient or OK; not products a little bit better than capitalism's. Better than the best. Considerably better. Ladas quieter than any Rolls-Royce. Zhigulis so creamily powerful they put Porsche to shame. Volgas whose doors clunked shut with a heavy perfection that made Mercedes engineers munch their moustaches in envy.
So the confidence that allowed Khrushchev to quip and hector and shoe-bang his way across the world stage was founded partly on a truth about the present, partly on a profound mistake about the future. That the Soviet dream didn't work out, that in 1980 Soviet citizens were not going to be strolling in the pleasure-garden of red plenty, we all know. (Khrushchev's own colleagues worked it out very quickly. They ousted him from the Politburo in the autumn of 1964 and consigned the 1961 programme to unmentionable oblivion.) What we've forgotten is that anyone ever took such a thing seriously; that it was ever anyone's sober expectation (or giddy expectation) that the grim, spartan one in the superpower duo was planning to win at hedonism.
Given that it was an error, a mirage, an astonishing mass delusion, what do we gain if we do remember it? Well, for a start, irony enough to glut even the greediest palate. Alongside our well-documented, well-founded knowledge that Soviet history was a tragedy ought to run a sense of it, too, as a comedy; a comedy of ideas and of things; a comedy in which material objects spin out of control, like the production line running awry in Chaplin's Modern Times, and refuse more and more catastrophically to play the roles assigned to them by bossy human intentions. Think of Laurel and Hardy pushing the piano up flight after flight of stairs until, right at the top, it gets away from them and slides right back down. That's the economic history of the Soviet Union in a nutshell: ascent, followed by pratfall.
But this shouldn't be the kind of comedy in which we laugh from a position of comfy security at the fools over there; and not just because the ascent of the Soviet piano was achieved at a monstrous price in human suffering. It should be the comedy of recognition we register, at this point in the early 21st century, when we're in mid-pratfall ourselves. Our own economic arrangements are currently generating not one but two complete sets of disastrous unintended consequences. Our failure to price the externalities of our energy use is baking the climate; our romantic indulgence of financiers has imploded our finances. We should be laughing at the Soviet disaster ruefully - with sympathy.
Don't get me wrong. The Soviet Union was a horrible society. Even once it had stopped purposely killing its citizens in large numbers, it oppressed them, it poisoned them with a toxic environment, it stuffed their ears continually with nonsense, it demanded their absolute passivity. It wasted their time. This last item sounds trivial. It wasn't. It had been one of the main points of the Marxist indictment of capitalism that it obliged people to bleed their labour-time into producing things they could feel no connection to, commodified things which had no real qualities except their price. Capitalism, Marx had argued, was a meaning-vampire, sucking away lives. Yet the Soviet attempt at an alternative came up with something worse: a form of work so divorced from usefulness that it condemned people to squander their finite store of weeks and months and years on churning out stuff you couldn't even be sure they were willing to pay for. By trying to concentrate directly on the use of things instead of their prices, the Soviet system lost hold of the one guarantee that anyone needed what was being manufactured. Result: futility, on the grand scale.
And when Soviet citizens went home from their pointless toil with their roubles in hand, they were then systematically disadvantaged as consumers. Soviet planners had done this deliberately at first, as a matter of strategy, to maximise the resources available for future investment, but under Khrushchev they tried to stop, and found they couldn't. The logic of the whole system compelled it. In a world where you'd get into trouble if you inconvenienced a factory waiting for its supply of widgets (so long as the factory had good enough connections), you could inconvenience a shopper looking for cheese with impunity, with no bad consequences at all. So the cheese, and the shopper, were always last on the list - an afterthought in an economy that was supposed to run entirely for human benefit. Contemporary joke: the phone rings at Yuri Gagarin's apartment and his little daughter answers it. "I'm sorry," she says, "Mummy and Daddy are out. Daddy's orbiting the earth, and he'll be back at 19:00 hours. But Mummy's gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when we'll see her again."
In turn the permanent state of shortage warped and deformed human relationships. The smooth impersonality of money-exchange in our society is so embedded that we take it absolutely for granted. If you've got the cash, you can have the thing. In the Soviet Union, having the cash was the mere beginning of the campaign to acquire the thing. Every transaction became personal, and not in a warm and fuzzy way. Since the scarce goods weren't rationed out by ability to pay, they were doled out in proportion to clout, influence, connections, ruthless calculations of mutual advantage. Soviet society was a tangled web of bullying, sycophancy, arm-twisting, back-scratching and emotional blackmail. Everyone made life as difficult as possible for those they dealt with, in order to be able to trade the easing of the difficulty for something else. You want a restaurant table, a dress, your phone repaired? Then find me some roofing felt, a Black Sea holiday, a private tutor for my son. Instead of post-capitalist freedom and sophistication, the Soviet Union offered pre-capitalist barter, with a large helping of robber baron-hood on the side.
The loudest and most important lesson of the Soviet experience should always be: don't ever do this again. Children, don't try this at home. Leave alone forever, please, this particular authoritarian recipe for bootstrapping a peasant society to wealth, because it only gets you halfway there, and leaves you surrounded by crumbling concrete and rusting machinery.
Yet we'd better remember to sympathise with the underlying vision that drove this disastrous history, because it is basically our own. As the ideological conflicts of the 20th century recede, it becomes clearer that the Soviet project for red plenty was just one in the 20th-century family of projects to hoick humanity out of its ancestral scarcity. The Soviet version is the cousin of ours; the loony cousin with blood "up to the elbows" (as Khrushchev put it, when asked in his forced retirement what he regretted most) but still one of the family. Through luck rather than virtue, for the most part, we happen to live in a variant that has succeeded better, so far. Our version isn't costless either. The steel and concrete required to sustain it are created for us elsewhere, out of sight, leaving us free to stroll around our pastel pavilion, on the side of which glimmers the word "Tesco". Inside are piled, just as Khrushchev hoped, riches to humble the kings of antiquity. But terms and conditions apply.
More surprisingly, there is something specific to sympathise with in the intellectual ambition of the Soviet moment. I'm sorry, you may say, thinking of the well-censored dullness of official Soviet thought - the what? Yes, for much of the 80 years during which the USSR was a unique experiment in running a non-market economy, the experiment was a stupid experiment, a brute-force experiment. But during the Soviet moment there was a serious attempt to apply the intellectual resources of the educated country the Bolsheviks had kicked and bludgeoned into being. All of the perversities in the Soviet economy that I've described above are the classic consequences of running a system without the flow of information provided by market exchange; and it was clear at the beginning of the 60s that for the system to move on up to the plenty promised so insanely for 1980, there would have to be informational fixes for each deficiency. Hence the emphasis on cybernetics, which had gone in a handful of years from being condemned as a "bourgeois pseudo-science" to being an official panacea.
The USSR's pioneering computer scientists were heavily involved, and so was the authentic genius Leonid Kantorovich, nearest Soviet counterpart to John Von Neumann and later to be the only ever Soviet winner of the Nobel prize for economics. Their thinking drew on the uncorrupted traditions of Soviet mathematics. While parts of it merely smuggled elements of rational pricing into the Soviet context, other parts were truly directed at outdoing market processes. The effort failed, of course, for reasons which are an irony-laminated comedy in themselves.
The sumps of the command economy were dark and deep and not accessible to academics; Stalinist industrialisation had welded a set of incentives into place which clever software could not touch; the system was administered by rent-seeking gangsters; the mathematicians were relying (at two removes) on conventional neoclassical economics to characterise the market processes they were trying to simulate, and the neoclassicists may just be wrong about how capitalism works.
But if the horrible society of the Soviet Union left any legacy worth considering, if a pearl were ever secreted by the Soviet Union's very diseased oyster, this is it. And so follows the oddest implication of the Soviet moment. It may not be over. It may yet turn out to be unfinished business. For, from the point of view of "economic cybernetics", the market is only an algorithm. It is only one possible means of sharing out and co-ordinating economic activity: a means with very considerable advantages, in terms of all the autonomous activity and exploration of economic possibilities it allows, but not the only one, and not necessarily the best either, even at allowing autonomy and decentralisation. In the 20th century, devising the actual apparatus for a red plenty was an afterthought to the ideology. In the 21st century, it may be the algorithm that appears ahead of a politics to advocate it. In which case, the contest of plenties will be on again. And every year our processing power increases.
Francis Spufford's Red Plenty is published by Faber on 16 August.
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