Alexei Bayer, independent Russian economics analyst based in New York, writing in the Moscow Times:
In the mid-1960s, there were pundits on both sides of the Iron Curtain who predicted that the Soviet and U.S. systems would eventually become identical. The Soviet Union was then in a relatively liberal phase, whereas the United States, with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program full speed ahead, seemed to be moving toward social democracy.
By the 1970s, such talk ceased when the Kremlin tightened the ideological reins. But economic similarities did emerge in one aspect: The formidable U.S. economy, stifled by government intervention and overly bureaucratic corporations, began to stagnate almost as badly as its Soviet counterpart. The 1980s then became a period of renewal for both countries, even though the responses — and results — were very different, underscoring the contrast between the two political systems.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan proved to be the right man for the times. The United States was able to generate new ideas and find new sources of growth, which resulted in a quarter century of robust economic gains, technological and industrial innovation and spreading prosperity.
In the Soviet Union, where reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev became leader in 1985, change had been long overdue. The rest of the world — “a consumption society,” according to Soviet propaganda — produced goods of increasing variety and better quality, whereas the Soviet economy struggled to produce enough food, clothing and other staples. The sheer contrast between consumer choices abroad, even in poor countries, and empty shelves in Moscow was enough to refute any ideology of the Kremlin. The Soviet Union was bankrupt not only economically, but also morally and ideologically.
As soon as Gorbachev began altering the Communist system to make it more open and more efficient in providing consumer goods and services, it collapsed under itself. The Soviet Union was like a listing house where all the beams had rotted. Such houses can sometimes remain standing unless somebody tries to right them.
Today, the United States once again faces a major economic and political challenge. It is impossible to say whether President Barack Obama’s program, a combination of public spending on infrastructure and investment into new technologies, will succeed. But the odds are favorable.
Many people in Russia, having been raised on the few uncomplicated Marxist tenets, tend to dismiss U.S. democracy as an underhanded ploy to help the rich keep down the poor. They also paint the United States as a young, childish nation. Yet the U.S. political system — with its genuine, bottom-up self-rule and healthy system of checks and balances — has been remarkably resilient and has lasted for nearly 250 years. The United States is one of the oldest continuously functioning governments on Earth that most people around the world have tried to emulate.
It is also the exact opposite of the Russian political system. All the wars, revolutions and purges since World War I have benefited, expanded and enriched one class only in Russia: the bureaucracy. Russia remains an incorrigibly top-down society in which an enormous layer of unproductive, corrupt bureaucracy rules over the passive people.
Even though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia rivals Obama’s approval ratings in the United States, the Russian system has none of the resiliency of America’s democracy. If the Kremlin introduces political or economic reforms in response to the economic crisis, the system may crumble — even if such reforms, on paper, should have benefited the country.