When I was asked about the upcoming lecture “Why did we get the collapse of the USSR so wrong?” by Emeritus Professor, the former Director of Australian Defense Intelligence Organization (DIO), former Head of Strategic Studies Center at ANU etc etc Paul Dibb, I looked at the announcement – and replied that it will be a typical Russophobic hate-session, but this time led by a real professional. I had had my reasons – after all, this was not going to be the first presentation by SDSC on “Russian” topic and the previous lectures /seminars I attended were usually fun – if not scary.
Fun , because there you could hear “expert” opinions about Soviet Union/Russia not very different from the Diary of American Boy or , if you were lucky, you even could participate in an exciting academic discussion on a topic such as eg. “Which side would likely to win in a direct confrontation of a highly trained but very humane and moral military force (eg. NATO) with an untrained, truly barbaric military units completely devoid of any humanity and moral (eg. the Russian Army)?”. Scary, because the above question was asked by an ADFA staff member hardly a month after the vivid pictures from Abu Ghraib prison and reports of rapes and indiscriminate killing of civilians in Iraq by American Army and British troops leaked to the public. The same bright ADFA staff of course would ignore the fact that the US Marines suffer not only from understandable lack of brain but also from incontinence or, for example, what sort of military documentary the US Secretary of State finds Hillariously entertaining. And that was why such discussions were scary – they made me wonder about the intellectual and educational level of the people charged with the defense of the country I live in and, in fact, love. This also made me worried about the “defense force” who seemed were convinced that eg. there was nothing Russia and the Russians wanted more desperately than to occupy all Anglo-Saxon countries – and especially, Australia – presumably, with the intention to feed them all after the conquest, as Russia did feed most Soviet Republics & others in her not-so-recent past.
So that was what I fully expected when I went to listen to Professor Dibb – another bucketful of Russophobic bullshit from yet another “Russian” expert who knows about Soviet Union much more than any of the Soviet citizens of any rank or profession ever knew.
I was not disappointed after I entered the lecture hall – there, on two large white screens, a projector showed the lecture title with a colorful photo of – yes, Kursk submarine, of course. Not Buran/Energia, not Soviet RD-180 installed on current US Atlas – the same old Soviet RD-180 which according to some sources Pratt and Whitney attempted to but were unable to manufacture on US soil themselves even after being sold all licenses and technology. Not VA-111 “Shkval”, not S-300, not even R-36M2 (SS-18), but an ill-fated submarine…. The only part missing was the Australian news trade-mark phrase “Russian-built..” – an important piece of information about equipment manufacturer, which for some reasons is never used to report accidents eg. with Boeing 747. For those who do not know – the photo at the beginning of this post is not what you, perhaps, thought – the photo was taken inside of the USS St. Antonio . This one shows quality of the welds in the submarine’s oil lubricating system. Perhaps, I should have put a photo of an Australian Collins Class submarine instead. Sorry, professor – I know this is not the way to a constructive discussion, I just show you how some things may look from a different perspective. So, the picture on the lecture hall screen promised the usual – I knew what to expect .
And I am very, very pleased to say that I was completely and totally wrong. You see, I do not frequently meet people in Australian academia, who are not afraid to have their own opinion, especially when this opinion is not officially “approved”. Most of what professor Dibb said about Soviet Union was, certainly, not an officially approved “line”. Even today. And it was mostly what I would have said myself. Publicly. Not everything and not the same way, but most of it. Make no mistake – it would not be correct to classify Paul Dibb as a “friend” of Russia or , especially, of the Soviet Union. No, far from it Perhaps, it would be correct to call him an “enemy by profession”, or maybe a “professional enemy” , where the key word would be “professional”. In other words, it was his job to be an enemy of the Soviet Union and by extension – of Russia. Otherwise, it seems that he, as a real professional, had no interest in Russia outside of his working hours (which is good & which is how it should be). I am not sure if it was his conscious choice, but that was what he was and still is. However, to be a professional enemy is not the same as to be a professional fool, who cannot think, who cannot and does not want to see beyond officially approved “propaganda” headlines in Sydney Morning Herald (more about “professionals” of that sort below). Paul Dibb, certainly, was and is not one of them. As I said – he was and is a professional, capable of making his own judgments and capable of staying on the neutral ground where it counted. My respects.
There were things in Paul Dibb’s presentation about Soviet Union which I would agree with. For example, his observation that in many respects living standards of ordinary Soviet citizens ~ 30 years ago were not much higher than in some modern days so-called third-world countries today. But I would have also asked who was to blame for that? The communists? Maybe. But they were hardly alone. More likely that it was also the result of almost 80 years of concerted efforts of the world’s most economically developed nations to make life in the Soviet Union as miserable as it was possible. For example, by forcing the evil Russkies to spend a quarter of their entire GDP on defense. Or by not helping them when they needed it until it was obvious that they would manage themselves. I would add that in my opinion, it were precisely the efforts of the democratic “west” which largely shaped the “evil face of Soviet communism” and discredited the idea that to live a decent life, it was not necessary to steal from or rob the fellow humans, especially under pretense that this what “democracy” and “freedom” were about.
Of course, there were also statements in Dibb’s presentation , which I would would want to challenge. For example, about the actual severity of corruption in the former Soviet Union. As always in such cases, there is an implied reference point – presumably, it is the Australian Mining Sector?. Maybe Australian academic system? Oh, well, next time. Maybe in the next life. Then, when it happens, the debate would be along the line comparing cash payments of bribes (eg. as in modern Russia) with the demands of compulsory contributions to a restricted access account in a perverted Australian version of Favor Bank . I would argue that the latter system, it seems, is far more efficient in eliminating employment of literally each and every “outsider” or not a family member who is actually capable of doing something. Especially, in Australian “science”. With the obvious consequences – the quality, in the latter case, of the research. Because with Favor Bank system you are not anymore talking to a “scientist” who gets “a pleasure of finding the things out” as you might happen to assume from his or her job title. Instead, you are forced to deal with a financial investment banker. You simply would not understand each other if you are going to talk to a banker about science or Universe or the meaning of life. Nor will you be able to impress the financial speculator with the results of your scientific research – he or she simply won’t understand what you are talking about. Professor Dibb did mention several times the difficulties he had trying to obtain a coherent point of view from various “experts” on Soviet Union. This was one of the reasons it was difficult or even impossible – because Dibb assumed he was talking to professional “sovietologists”, while in fact they all were primarily professional investment bankers. To compare, the Soviet higher education system always had “normal” ways completely open – if you were up to the challenge.
And the challenge was a big one . Professor Dibb did say few cautious words about the quality of Soviet scientists in what he called “hard sciences” – he said, “it was (usually) the first class”. No arguments about this, “usually” it was, but, perhaps, not necessarily on the average.
The Soviet education in the “hard” sciences was unquestionably broader than “western”, usually ridiculously narrowly specialized requirements. The result was two-fold. It was incredibly difficult to actually master everything which was required from a student at the top level. Almost impossible. But those who tried hard and were apt to the task, eventually gained, at least to some extend, that magic ability to see the whole of science. That something, which cannot be taught, but links very different fields of scientific knowledge together. The whole picture. Maybe, in most cases incomplete (or very much incomplete – like (perhaps) mine) and imperfect – but still the whole picture of the physical world. This ability not only to link seemingly disjoint facts into a simple and coherent picture – in other words – to create a new knowledge, but also to think independently and more importantly, to work creatively and successfully in , again, seemingly, very different fields. That was for those under the Soviet system who had motivation and who could do it. The other students simply gave up. So the product of the Soviet higher eduction was a bi-modal distribution of “quality” of scientists , like the one on the sketch below (solid curves). What Australian and “western” educational system produces is shown as a dashed curve for comparison. Yes, this is my own, personal opinion. I lived and worked under both systems long enough and I have compelling reasons to believe that I am not entirely wrong in my estimates. You want to disagree? Go and try to talk to almost any “professional ” Australian scientist about science. In most cases, initially you will get a puzzled look followed by cautious questions mostly about who you are (he or she tries to figure out whose account you are planning to make a deposit to) and then you will hear something like “this is not my field” – even when it actually is.
Fig.1 Approximate distributions of the “quality” of scientists employed in the Soviet and Australian academic research systems. The red arrow near a sharp step on the “Australian” curve marks a “creativity threshold” on the horizontal axis – the boundary, beyond which an individual gains the ability NOT to follow “consensus”.
Well, of course, there are other interesting discussion topics which were not present, but would not be unrelated to what professor Dibb said in his lecture. Many other things. Some only tangentially linked to the topic of the Soviet Union, but close to the topic of the quality of higher education or academic research in Australia.
For example, such as how capitalism affects science? If you ask what I think – in the long run capitalism kills true scientific research completely and irreversibly. Simply because when science becomes a private business, it does what Milton Friedman described as a single social duty of any business enterprise – it maximizes the profit. And historically, the cheapest way to maximize profit had been elimination of the competition. By any possible means. In this case, starting from making the “academic” system effectively closed for “outsiders” without a password to an account in Favor Bank, and finishing …yes, with a monopoly. Example of the latter trend? Sure – look at the recent “outbreak” of (actually encouraged) large-scale “collaborative” grants approved by ARC – of course, at the expense of the individual applications. You would never believe – apparently nowadays the genius prefer to work in a crowd. And in Australia.
Another tangential topic would be “democracy” in scientific research. Not the sort which the US usually brings to the less fortunate nations around the world without asking if these nations would prefer to eat better under a less “democratic” form of government. No. I am talking about the sort of “democracy” when a group of scientific “businessmen”, the owners of private “scientific” enterprises, is given the right to choose competitors …. to themselves. As it happens (sometimes) on the new academic staff selection panels (see eg. here for an observation by V. I. Arnold). I am sure that you – as well as I do – have not the slightest doubt that the selection panel in this case will always select the strongest possible candidate, so he or she would, perhaps in the nearest future, beat them in getting say, the same ARC grants. Or promotions. Or a position if there are cuts, simply because he/she is better and deserves it more . A related sub-topic would be a question about the sort of future “scientists”, a higher educational system where each and everyone employed is primarily a professional Favor Bank investor , can possibly produce …
But lets go back to professor Paul Dibb and his presentation. In fact, in answering his title question – “Why did we get the collapse of the USSR so wrong?” my views and his, perhaps, are not so different. Because of the quality of the available “analysts”, of the professional “researchers”. In fact, it was due to the failure of the entire modern “western” academic education system which made people in those “professions” so narrowly specialized – and as a rule , specialized in investment to Favors Bank, rather than in their designated fields, which made them unable to think “outside the square” (or , rather outside a straight guiding line in this case), unable to generalize and as the result – not able to predict and even to understand what was and is happening on the territory of the former Soviet Union. That is why.
And thank you, professor – your lecture was very good and , as you can see – thought-provoking 🙂 – as a truly good lecture should be.
For those who managed to read this post to the end – a simple question: did the training and more importantly – the staff selection system/criteria currently practiced in eg. political sciences in Australia, changed sufficiently, so now we can really trust the”opinion” of Australian “experts” and “advisers” on geopolitical matters? Such as eg. establishment of permanent American military bases controlled exclusively by Americans on Australian territory? Another food for thought?
Of the many side issues, the reasons for Soviet presence in Afghanistan in 80s were mentioned more than once. The “why” it had happened has many answers, eg. one of them is provided by Z. Brzezinsky in his book The Grand Chessboard, another is below.
“..I’ll never forget one particularly chilling illustration of the power of structure in
international politics. It occurred in a private meeting with a high-ranking member of the Soviet embassy, a few months after the Soviets had sent troops into Afghanistan. The official talked, eloquently and with great sincerity, about how the U.S.S.R. had been the first to recognize the country after its founding. The U.S.S.R. had been the first to come to its aid, repeatedly, when there was internal strife or instability. Beginning in the late 1970s, as threats from guerrilla factions increased, the ruling government asked for increasing Soviet assistance. Modest assistance led to greater needs for broader help. It came to a point, the official explained, where “We really had no choice but to intervene militarily.”
from Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, New York, p.34
Independently thinking people do deserve receiving the credit for their bravery & independence. Here you go – Paul Dibb now writing in The Australian something completely opposite to what he wrote few years ago – namely, that US military bases & live active duty US combat personnel on Australian soil are a sure blessing for Australia & the whole region. It seems that the Australian “yes-sir, where is my money? ” analytical “expertise” does find its ways better than WD-40 – and well into the retirement age it seems.
Addendum – the original lecture background links
US Marine base for Darwin, November 11, 2011
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/us-marine-base-for-darwin-20111110-1n9lk.html#ixzz1dXOTzT3g
Federal government rules out establishment of Marine Corp base in Australia,