Professor Emeritus of Economics La Salle University Philadelphia
The opposition that I have felt over U.S actions in Ukraine could "stand alone” – an opposition not resting on historical considerations. It can be better understood, however, as particularly ugly when the history of US relations with the former USSR and current Russia are taken into account. My desire to understand the Soviet Union extends back to the 1950s. I remember the air raid drills at school and Saturdays at noon when our local fire station would conduct tests of its excruciatingly load air raid siren. Once when I was playing street football the siren mistakenly went off. I ran home frightened, but was grateful though embarrassed to find out it was a technical foul-up that triggered the false alarm. I also recall reading excerpts from the novel On the Beach that appeared at the bottom of the front page of the Detroit News over an entire month in 1958. It followed the last months of life for Australians in the far south of their country, fated to be the last to perish from the radiation unleashed by nuclear war.
A decade later my political beliefs took a sharp leftward turn. I went from being a 16 year-0ld Goldwater supporter in 1964, to one well left of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Vietnam and a number of college classes had a strong effect. I studied Russian for two years, and had a political science course taught by a Professor-in-Residence from the Soviet Union.
Still a decade later, a month prior to beginning my 35 years as an Economics Professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, I travelled to the Soviet Union when Brezhnev was president, bent on gaining a sense, however limited, of life in the USSR. Some stereotypes were clearly false (I recall having much more mobility than I was told to expect) and some were true (young Russians offering me money for some of my clothes for better made US products). But overall the USSR seemed not so awful as to merit nuclear annihilation.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, I thought that finally democratic socialism might have a chance. Gorbachev clearly had aspirations to shape Russia in a way closer to the Northern European "capitalism with a friendly face” than to the then emerging neoliberal ideology. The disastrous 1990s destroyed any such illusions. Shock therapy prevailed over the gradual, nuanced transition advocated by many (most?) economists including Joe Stiglitz and James Tobin. Tragically, the economists who played the largest roles in Russia’s transition had been apparently won over by the neoliberal "cowboy capitalism” that had had taken off in the Reagan-Thatcher era. The young star economist Jeffrey Sachs, among others, supported shock therapy, a position he now greatly regrets. Russia’s disastrous lost decade revealed the weaknesses of insufficiently regulated capitalism. And as Boston-based economics columnist David Warsh revealed, members of the Harvard elite – Larry Summers among them – behaved like carpetbaggers, seeking to enrich themselves rather than guiding Russia to reasonable reforms. (As Warsh reported, Harvard made a major settlement with the Russian government that was hardly mentioned in the American press.)
Early this year, just prior to my retirement, and soon after Stephen Cohen’s powerful article in the Nation, my university sponsored some speakers to discuss events in Ukraine. I did some sleuthing and discovered that one of our recent graduates was a panel participant and had been in Ukraine at the time of the overthrow. I further found that in his year since graduating he had been employed by the National Endowment for Democracy. When the floor was opened I read some short passages from the Cohen article. Whether my modest actions could be called whistle blowing is debatable. That I experienced what the whistle blowers so often report is not. Unlike the well- known cases when the whistle blower could face her challengers, in a very local case such as mine, simple shunning was the reaction I most experienced. Two outstanding students with whom I was close avoided me and we have not talked since. Another student thought it would be interesting to participate with me in putting together a counter- narrative that might be presented during the university’s "free period.” He backed away out of fear that this might jeopardize future job prospects. I understood his decision and we talked about how reminiscent this was of what was so common in the former USSR.
Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the decade when Stalin’s purges probably reached their peak. Exposure of these atrocities 20 years later resulted in the Webbs – who had praised Stalin’s economy – becoming the symbol of naïve liberalism. How could one be so duped? I raise this to acknowledge the caution I had to practice in my recent visit to Russia. My goal was to compare what I saw and experienced with the picture presented by the US media. Although my visit was short, what I did see supported not at all the US portrayal of Russia. I plan to return next year to see much more and, if possible, to present my progressive views on the economic path that Russia might follow. The neoliberal path pushed by the US and the EU is truly a dead end.