Did The Soviet Union Drink Itself To Death?

Overly reliant on commodities and energy exports, and grossly out of balance on the agricultural front, Russia’s Soviet-era economy was doomed to collapse, argues Hungarian historian György Dalos. It didn't help that the USSR kept boosting alcoho

Did The Soviet Union Drink Itself To Death?


It's been 20 years since the fall of the Soviet empire and hardly a year goes by without at least one new book offering to explain the collapse. This year is no exception. Berlin-based Hungarian historian György Dalos adds his views in the recently published Lebt wohl, Genossen (Goodbye, Comrades). But while the subject itself may be a bit old hat at this point, Dalos' contribution – which contains some novel and very interesting details – is nevertheless worth paying attention to.

The Hungarian author starts his argument by quoting British historian Norman Davies: "The most noticeable thing about the Soviet collapse was that it followed a natural course." Unlike the Roman Empire, the Soviet Union wasn't attacked by barbarians. Nor was it carved up by hungry neighbors, or worn down by a major war. "It died because it had to," said Davies.

Dalos spells out that "natural course" by sketching some political, cultural and everyday realities of late socialism that illustrate how Communism was not destroyed from the outside but simply disintegrated, came unglued at the seams, collapsed under its own weight. Die-hard Communists will no doubt resist Dalos' arguments, but the number of examples he provides to illustrate his thesis is substantial.

Dalos mentions the work of Soviet economists working with Tatjana Saslawskaja and Abel Aganbegjan at the prestigious Novosibirsk Institute of Economics in Siberia. Those researchers showed early on that a controlled economy was the underlying reason for the stagnation of the Soviet economy.

Exports were particularly unhealthy: they increasingly consisted of commodities and energy and less and less of machines and manufactured products – a situation that Russia still suffers from today.

Things didn't look much better in the agricultural sector, with imbalances that had the Soviets producing six times more tractors than the United States, which had more grain. Again, Dalos concludes, unless today's Russia comes up with sustainable reforms, the rebirth of anything resembling an empire is not in the cards.

One of the most compelling arguments Dalos advances for the implosion of the Soviet Union is the role played by alcohol. Between 1936 and 1970, alcohol production rose by 157%. By 1975, it increased by 214%, and by 1976 it reached 327%. The state alcohol monopoly may have been pulling in 20 billion rubles yearly during the 1970s, and 40 billion in the 1980s, but the cost to the economy of lowered production due to alcohol-related causes, not least sickness, was far, far higher.

Read the full story in German by Thomas Speckmann

Photo - Leo Smith Photos / gaucho74

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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