Doctor and activist

Political Change or Economic Change? Which comes first?

14 October 2017

There is an interesting book review in the SMH today entitled ‘Endgame for the Russian Revolution’ in the print version.  The book is ‘Gorbachev: His Life and Times’ by William Taubman. 

It points out that Gorbachev was a hero in the West as the man who modernised the Soviet Union, but he was and is vilified in Russia as the man who destroyed the empire.  He brought political reform to a sclerotic system, but the Soviet Union fell apart.  This is contrasted with the Chinese authoritarian system which kept political power in the Communist Party, but did economic reform and now has China as a rising world power, while Russia, for all it military power has a GDP less than Australia’s. (See

I visited Russia and the Ukraine in 1989 because I wanted to see Russia before the Berlin wall came down, which it did 3 months later.  It was hard to imagine Russia using its low wages to outcompete the West.  Nothing was happening, most of the shops had no stock and people seemed totally demoralised with no faith in anything the government did.  Waiters just asked if you were paying in anything but roubles, and if not, you got no service.  They were paid the same whether anyone came to the restaurant or not, so actually they had an easier life if you did not return. 

As Russia was opened to the West, corrupt cronies or government officials, especially the KGB grabbed the resources at bargain basement prices and remain as oligarchs, not rocking the system that now favours them.  So it is hard for me to imagine that Gorbachev could have reformed the economy as the Chinese under Deng Xiaoping did.  But hey, I was a tourist on an InTourist programme for a few days, what did I know of the political movements or the economy?

So the question is not answered, but the different histories of Russia and China are food for thought.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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