The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

TECHNOLOGICAL RETARDATION IN THE SOVIET UNION: GORBACHEV'S STRONGEST ALLY DECEMBER 1988

As in earlier snapshots, we see economic and technological concerns taking precedence over political and ideological differences. Ironically, the poor economy, which seriously threatened Gorbachev's support among the masses, may have been the only thing that saved him from his ideological opponents in the political elite.

In discussions regarding the future of Gorbachev's regime and the various threats to its survival, one very important issue is often neglected: Soviet society's dependence on Western technology. Such neglect is odd, given that this dependence may be Gorbachev's most effective weapon against his conservative opponents.

Since the reign of Peter the Great, economic progress in the USSR has been fueled by Western ideas concerning business, technology, and science-- Western ideas that have typically been carried out using Western equipment.

The gap between the overall levels of development in Russia and in the West has fluctuated considerably during this century. In the early 1900s this gap was relatively small. Before the Russian Revolution, a foreigner visiting St. Petersburg would have found life in the capital of the Russian empire quite similar to that found in Paris or London. At that time, the residents of the European capitals were able to enjoy the fruits of technological progress--such as electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, and streetcars--almost simultaneously.

This is clearly not the case today. Consider the following "necessities of life" that are taken for granted in New York and London: the profusion of computers in government, science, business, and the home; communications technologies such as cellular telephones, fax machines, and answering machines; entertainment media such as VCRs, cable TV, and FM radio; convenience items such as remote control TVs and TV dinners; even the Xerox machine, the sine qua non of the modern office. These are only a few of the Western "necessities" that are out of reach of the overwhelming majority of Muscovites, and are almost unknown in the rest of the country.

In the past, not even the most ardent detractors of czarist Russia (who, like Lenin, blamed her for Russia's retardation in comparison with the West)

____________________
This article originally appeared as "Gorbachev's Timely Debt to Peter the Great" in The Globe & Mail on January 19, 1989.

-90-

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