Cleaning the Slate

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Every once and I while I get emails from editors of magazines and newspapers alerting me to their articles on Russia.  The intent of their communique is clear: Can you plug this?  They rarely say this outright.  Usually the request is masked with statements like “this might interest you” or “your readers might like . . .” Sometimes I give the story a mention if it is worthy.  Most of the time I don’t.  Why should I advertise the big corporate media for free? I gotta eat too.

I got one of those emails today from Slate saying that I’d “be interested” in Julia Ioffe’s “Nano-Potemkin Village” (There’s your plug, Slate.)  To wet my palate further, the Slate rep added that the article’s thesis was on “the wildly ambitious Russian tech initiative, Rosnanotech, and why it’s absolutely doomed to fail.”  I suddenly got the feeling that I’ve read this article before . . .

Nevertheless, I decided to check it out.

I know nothing about nanotechnology.  Nor do I really care much about it beyond its appearance in X-Men comics and sci-fi movies.  And I’m certainly in no position to objectively evaluate whether Russia’s attempt to modernize via nanotech is “ambitious” or is “doomed to fail.”  Nor do I really give a shit.  My problem is with the whole tone of the article.  You see when it comes down to it, Russia is doomed to fail even before it starts.  The implicit suggestion is that Russia shouldn’t try at all, or at least not try in its own Russian way.  It’s a total set up for one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios.  Because if nanotech becomes the big thing in ten or twenty years and Russia isn’t lock step, it will be called backward and hopeless, followed by the usual condemnations of its failure to reform. If Russia tries to develop nanotech, like it’s doing, the effort will be castigated, as Ioffe does, as “little more than an elaborate a PR stunt designed to make the Kremlin appear to be forward-thinking and reform-oriented while shunting wads of cash to its friends.”

Sadly, you don’t just have to go to Russia to find (state-)capitalists using the public coffer as an limitless ATM. In America, this practice gets softer labels like “tax breaks” or “bailouts” and shrouded in “committee hearings” where the politician and industrialist/financier put on their own kind of “production.”  The truth of the matter is, as the recent financial crisis has proven once again, that the state and capital are Siamese twins joined at the heart and the ass.  The heart because of their symbiotic relationship, and the ass because their shit tends to fall in the same direction: on the heads of the public.  But I digress . . .

When it comes down to it, the only thing the Kremlin is really good at doing is building “Potemkin villages.”  It’s too bad it doesn’t figure out how to market those.  They could name the state corporation Rospotemselo, or something like that.  To explain why Russia is doomed from the get go, Ioffe turns to the wisdom of the great Russian semioticians Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky.

Historians Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky once noted that Russia does not do gradual change well. Rather, its leaders have long approached reform as a one-two break with the past, an approach that often has the reverse effect: In cleaning the slate, Russia too often simply locks in what’s already there.

You see it’s not the Russians fault that they are better at flash than substance.  They are just slaves to the dialectic of their own cultural-political master.  It’s reform pistols only fire “futuristic magic bullet[s]”  I’m surprised that the venerable names of other Russian clean slate reformers like Peter the Great, and well of course, comrade Stalin, didn’t make the text.

Ioffe lists other reasons why Russia’s nanotech plan won’t work even though its barely off the ground: state intervention, bureaucracy, inefficiency, graft, deficits, brain drain, and, alas too many dreamers.  Maybe the latter will at least get a good izba in the “nano-Potemkin village” for their efforts.

But I didn’t have to read this article to know this plan won’t work.  I read it almost everyday about every other Russian plan.  The marriage of failure and Russia is a match made in discourse.  Because when it comes down to it, there is really only one thesis fit to print: Russia is fucked.