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Book Review February 19, 2004
Never Trust A Real-Estate Agent
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4
What's really droll, in a grim way, is the fact that the most dramatic European example of the instability of the term "country" is the very state Hill and Gaddy propose to subject to Zipf's law: Russia, aka the Soviet Union. Yeltsin divested Russia of all the non-Russian republics of the USSR -- which also happened to occupy most of the warm-climate regions. In the process, "Russia" lost what would have been its third, fourth and fifth largest cities: Kiev (2,800,000), Kharkov (1,600,000) and Minsk (1,700,000). All these were part of the USSR, and all were bigger than Novosibirsk, Nizhniy Novgorod and Yekaterinburg, all of which hover around the 1,400,000 mark.

Now Hill and Gaddy come along and blame evil Soviet planners for making Nizhniy Novgorod and Novosibirsk Russia's biggest cities, ignoring the fact that those Soviet planners were thinking in terms of a hierarchy of cities which included Kiev, Kharkov and Minsk.

The Siberian Curse barely bothers to mention these Soviet cities. When they come up at all, it is as examples of the Soviet/Russian appetite for conquest -- which Hill and Gaddy are of course bound to condemn: "From the 1860's to the 1890's, the [Russian] Empire began to expand south and 1900 Russia's frontiers ran west from Moscow to the Baltic Sea and to the territory around the cities of Kiev and Warsaw." Hill and Gaddy concede that this drive to the South was driven by Russia's hunger for more warm, fertile land. As such, it was a perfect example of what they would seem to consider logical, market-driven expansion. The real disaster, by this sort of historical model, would seem to be Yeltsin's divestment of all the temperate, arable land in the USSR. It was this that left Russia "out in the cold."

Of course, Hill and Gaddy would not dream of reaching such a conclusion, which would stink of Russian nationalism. So they have created a mad argument that blames Russia for doing the right thing: giving its balmier neighbors their freedom, retaining only the frigid Siberian belt for itself.

Gosh, you sure get some lucky breaks when your thesis strokes the right folks! A few years from now, Hill and Gaddy's argument will be remembered, if at all, as a classic case of disingenuous manipulation of statistical argument. But at the moment, the West is so addicted to scolding and lecturing Russia that any Soviet-bashing legerdemain can get published (if only in a house press like the Brookings Institute's), and Hill and Gaddy can get an "Amen!" for every ridiculous claim.

It's somewhat surprising to see an argument so totally illogical praised as "highly original" and "a welcome and important contribution" to Russian studies--until you see who's praising it. Then the book's success makes a sordid kind of sense. The book's back cover features blurbs by Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Pipes, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Sachs is, of course, the paradigm of the incompetent, sleazy Western consultant who did so much to destroy Russia in the 90s. Pipes is a mad reactionary who has been shrilly whitewashing serfdom and vilifying the Soviets for what seems like centuries. And Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's East Bloc specialist, is a Russophobe from way, way back, a man who makes Pavel Felgenhauer look like a Rodina deputy.These men have long since jettisoned any conscience or nagging sense of intellectual rigor they may once have possessed. They apportion praise or blame not by the quality of the book but by its ulitity to them, in their grimy Beltway wriggle to influence. And it's very easy to see why The Siberian Curse serves their ends. By blaming bad Soviet planners for Russia's fall, this book helps get a sleazebag like Sachs get off the hook, confirms Pipes' one endlessly repeated argument that Soviet = evil, and endorses Brzezinski's conviction that the further east you go, the more Russian and evil everything becomes.

Another blurb-writer, Niall Ferguson of Oxford, states with naive clarity the real reason this book is doing well: "Those still wondering why market reforms have achieved only limited success in Russia since the collapse of Communism cannot afford to overlook this timely and original book."

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