As I mentioned above, the tour from Moscow to St. Petersburg was an entirely different kind of tour from what I've done before. In fact, the one thing I'm learning on this trip is that there is really no one style of cycle touring. My personal style differs from that of many other cyclists, and even varies from time and place to time and place. For example, as I write this particular paragraph, I'm rained into my tiny little tent about 200 miles short of the Arctic Circle because I'm modifying my style somewhat to become more self sufficient. I bought a very expensive big battery for my computer that will power it for about 12 hours. However, each page takes several days to write so I obviously won't finish tonight.
Everywhere I go, I encounter different styles of touring, both for groups and individuals. For this particular tour, there were several differences. First off, this is a family oriented tour. There were three Russian families, plus all the foreigners they could attract through a website.
The family orientation meant that there were four young boys with us, ranging in age from nine to thirteen. Adding kids to the mix adds all the elements that adding kids to any mix does. I was somewhat surprised that the kids kept up without any problem. All of them carried a set of pannier bags with some kind of load, and for the most part they were at the front of the pack every day. These are the four youngsters, Timothy, Matvee, Sasha and Konstantin.
We typically rode 60-80 km which isn't a huge day for me, but seems like a good day for kids that young carrying a load. We even had one day where one of the young lads was sick with some kind of stomach problem, but he still troopered on and rode 60 km, for which I had to say "good on ya, mate". (As you can see, I got out of Australia without an accent, but not without some new expressions. I doubt I'll ever be able to go back to calling Chocolate Biscuits "cookies").
At the end of the trip, I managed to adjust my bike down short enough for everyone in the group to try it. Sasha was by far the best new bent rider of the bunch. He took to the bike like a duck to water. In general, the kids had an easier time learning to ride it than the adults did, and in fact the difficulty in learning seems to be directly related to how much time you've spent riding a diamond frame. Vladimir had the most trouble.
The above photo was taken at Ilman Lake, close to the end of the tour. We stayed at this particular campsite because I introduced the Russians to an entirely new decision making process. There was a great and seemingly endless debate earlier on the day about whether to stay at a campsite close to where we were, or going for another hour to this lake. I introduced the concept of the coin toss, which we used to ultimately decide the matter. So I can confidently say that I have introduced at least one element of American Management Style to my Russian counterparts.
Vladimir, Tatiana and Timothy made up one of the families. Vladimir was more or less the leader of the group. Vladimir and Timothy were the only ones that spoke English well so they usually got the task of nursemaiding the foreigners around.
You Californians might get a kick out of a closer look at Vladimir's cycling jersey. He got it while cycling down Highway 1 in California from San Francisco to Monterrey. That means he's done more distance cycling in the U.S. than I have. Go figure!
Vladimir is a prime example of one thing that I've noticed very clearly about Russians. I'll say right here and now that Russians are the most hospitable people I've run into on this trip. Vladimir went out of his way to make us foreigners feel comfortable, and to make sure we had good housing and everything we needed. This started with him arranging my visa invitation, meeting me at the airport and getting me a hotel. It just went on from there. Every time I needed something, he made a real effort to help me procure it, whether it was bug spray, aspirin, Internet access or whatever. At the St. Petersburg end of the trip, Tatiana arranged for me to stay with a local family she knew for a week. The list goes on and on, but all in all, I'd just like to take this chance to say Pacebo to both of them for all of their help.
Beyond the tour, I've also found other Russians that I didn't know at all to be quite hospitable. Nearly every time I end up conversing with a Russian about the trip anywhere near the end of the day, they offer me some kind of lodging. This started on the first night out of St. Petersburg when a local family just wouldn't be happy until I came to their dacha, cleaned up, ate dinner and had a bed for the night. There was just no explaining that I was perfectly happy in my tent. A few nights later, I was looking for a cafe for dinner when my usual fan club congregated around the bike. One of the guys really wanted to ride it, and he was my size so I let him. He in turn offered to put me up at his house, which I only turned down because I was already checked into a hotel. This doesn't happen every night because I don't happen to be in a place for people to offer me hospitality very often, but I've had more offers of lodging in a week here than I had in 3 months in any other country.
Russian clerks also have a stereotype of being somewhat surly. I saw a few that were surly to Vladimir or other Russians, but I've seldom had any problem myself despite the fact that I can't speak squat for Russian. For example, I'm at the moment sitting in a train station waiting for a train to Murmansk. I came in here to buy a ticket for myself and my bike. The train station clerk had a tough time understanding what I needed, so a guy in line that spoke just a little bit of English tried translating. That didn't quite work, so he called someone up on his mobile phone to give it a go. That didn't work either, so he wandered off into the middle of the station and talked to someone. Ten minutes later, they had someone at the central office that spoke English on the phone to talk to me and work it all out. This was just a guy that happened to be standing in line with me. I've found the same kind of helpfulness everywhere I go in Russia.
The Russian style of touring is quite a bit different from the last organized tour I did. I found it frustrating for the first few days until I got into the swing of things. My tour in Vietnam was well planned and tightly organized, so everything flowed like a well oiled machine. This tour wasn't like that at all. The club had a rough route planned, but in Russia you can't ever be quite sure if the road on a map is of very good quality, or even if it exists at all, and besides that this is sort of an adventure tour. So the trip plan consisted of "go roughly here and talk to the locals about the available options". Nothing was really planned out exactly in advance. For example, we always camped near a river or lake. Vladimir had a very detailed map of the terrain that showed all of these, so finding one wasn't any big problem; but in most cases, we didn't really know exactly where we were going to camp at the beginning of the day, or even at lunch time. Now, I'm not sure why this bothered me so much in the beginning since it's how I do things every day of my life, but I guess it's just because I didn't understand how things worked. Once I discarded my old expectations and got into the Russian way of things, it didn't bother me.
Some of the apparent lack of organization is just bending to the way things are on the ground in Russia. For example, twice we wanted to cross a lake by boat. A westerner like myself would think "reserve the boat". Well, it turns out that you just can't do that. The boat operator may or may not have a phone, they may or may not have a fixed schedule, and they may or may not even be able to go where you want to. So in cases like this, we couldn't make any better plan than "go to the boat and wing it". We always had a backup plan that just involved riding around the lake or whatever. This obviously isn't the end of the world. In one case, we managed to hire a big boat to take all 12 of us plus our bikes and gear for a 2 hour ride across the lake for about 100 USD. In the second case, we couldn't get the boat and had to ride.
The same thing applied to campsites. When the end of the day was imminent, most of the time Vladimir and the other leaders would start looking at the map and/or talking to locals about a good place to camp. Sometimes we just crossed a river, and a couple of the guys would go and look for a campsite. Sometimes locals would point us to a good place that might be 10 km up a dirt road or something. In every case, we ended up with a pretty good campsite, so I'd have to say this approach was effective; although it was frustrating until I understood it. One interesting thing about Russia is that most land is basically public land. Except in a very few areas, if you find a place you want to camp you just camp there. You don't ask anyone, and nobody expects it. There were a lot of "campsites" along the way that were areas other people had obviously used. These frequently had small benches, or fire pits or something like that. In other cases, we just found a suitable looking place, went off into the forest to get some wood, built a fire and camped away. In a couple of cases, we camped in what were obviously someone's cultivated fields. We just made sure to clean up behind us as we left and nobody said a word.
Sergei and Tanya, on the right side of this photo are Sasha and Matvee's parents. Matvee was the youngest of the participants, at just short of nine years old.
Sergei and Vladimir seemed to be the primary group leaders, but the term "leader" has a different connotation than an American would expect. I found this tour to be the most democratically run operation I've ever come across. When we looked for campsites, Sergei and Vladimir generally went off in opposite directions looking for something, came back with a scouting report, and everyone discussed it. It nearly always turned into into a group decision with all of the adults having a say in the matter. Nobody really "took charge" and made the bulk of the decisions. I've kind of labeled Vladimir as the leader, but all decisions were made much more by consensus than this term would imply.
This is yet another example of how stereotypes and expectations will throw you off. In Vietnam, I was completely surprised by how much commerce there was in a communist country. Here I was surprised to find a very democratically run operation in a former communist country. In fact, I'd venture to say this operation was probably more democratic than a similar operation would be in the U.S. Most of the time in the U.S., a group like this would expect a leader to emerge.
Of course the stereotype pendulum swings both ways. Near the end of the trip, Tatiana said that I exactly matched her stereotype of how an American would be. When asked to explain what said stereotype was, it boiled down to loud and aggressive, although her word for aggressive was "like to win". She likes the American stereotype, so this was not a putdown. It was interesting to once again get a foreigner's view of the American stereotype.
This brings up something I've thought a lot about but never came to a good conclusion. I've heard the term loud applied to Americans nearly everywhere, so I started thinking about why that is. Partly it may be that American tourists are louder and more obnoxious than your average tourist, but that explanation seems overly simplistic, particularly when I'm frequently dealing with people that have never seen an American tourist other than me, which happens frequently (oops! Maybe I'm loud, thus proving the point). The best I can come up to is this: When I listen to conversations, I pick out tones and manners of speaking and automatically apply meaning to them based on how our language flows. In most cases, I get a wrong impression. For example, to my ear an ordinary everyday conversation in Vietnamese or Russian sounds like a heated argument. It's just the way the languages use tone. It may be that American English sounds something like that to foreigners because we use tone a lot less and in different ways. It might be that because we use tone less than other people, we do talk louder. It could be that any foreign language seems to stand out in a crowd unless the speakers are being very quiet, and Americans don't seem all that inclined to be extra quiet. Maybe you know the answer and can tell me. Vladimir says he's heard the loud American myth more from other English speaking people (Britons, Australians, Canadians) than from Russians. He also thought it may be because the American accent sounds rougher than the British style accents many other English speakers use.
Nikolai is Konstantin's father. He was by far the quietest of the group. He tended to only talk when he had something to say. Toward the end of the trip he did ask me some pretty good questions through Vladimir though, which brings me to my next topic.
There were a few interesting revelations about language and such as we went along. At the beginning of the trip, it seemed like almost nobody spoke English, and that the number of English speakers was much lower than in Vietnam or Egypt. As it turns out, lots of people speak a little bit of English but don't use it either because they're embarrassed that they don't know it better, or maybe because it's too much trouble, or whatever the reason is. Strangers don't use it because I look just like a Russian, so they have no way to know that I can't talk. British English is taught in most schools, and a lot of students learn it in elementary or high school. Several of the people on the trip speak a little bit of it, but I'd been around them for weeks before they were comfortable enough with me to give it a shot.
Notice that I said they learn British English (yes, for you Britons I know you consider that to be "English" and what I speak to be "American"). I'm not sure exactly why that is, but I suspect the Soviets didn't want to do anything even remotely American. When I do manage to find English speaking people, they always sound a bit odd because they use British expressions, but don't have the British accent. I guess it's sort of like me with my Australian expressions.
I've noticed a lot of Russians doing something that Americans are frequently and correctly accused of. Someone will talk to me in Russian, and I'll use the few Russian words I know to tell them I don't speak Russian. They regroup and say the same thing but louder and slower. I repeat my protestations, and they just keep at it until I give up and walk away. They just can't seem to believe that someone doesn't understand plain ordinary Russian<g>
As far as translated conversations, we gave it a go on several occasions but I always felt like I missed out on part of the answer. Vladimir would make a valiant effort to translate, but it's a tough thing to do. If you have a few Russians standing around the campfire talking for five minutes, and he tries to tell me what was said, the best he can do is give me the essence of it, and going the other way from what I say is just as tough. Sometimes the whole thing turned out kind of funny. For example, one day after we'd been riding through the Russian countryside for a week, I asked Vladimir the following question: "Is this that we're seeing the real Russia, or is Moscow the real Russia?" Vladimir translated that and ten minutes of furious conversation ensued, but then it came time to ride. Two days later, I'd completely forgotten the question but it turns out they'd been discussing it for the two days, and Vladimir tried to give me the gist of the answer. Now keep in mind that the answer was pretty vague, and Vladimir was trying to translate that to English, so it came out a bit muddled. Now, six weeks later, I'm going to muddle it even more by saying the answer came down to "both". Vladimir did give me a good idea of the discussion, but I can't get it down on paper properly, and this page is already going to be too long anyway.
The same thing happened going the other way. Nikolai asked through Vladimir if I supported Bush or Gore. I tried to give a good answer to the question (short answer: neither), but my five minute explanation of that got shortened up to what Vladimir could make sense of. All in all, I think Vladimir made a good effort at a very tough job, but it points out that if I ever want to really understand these places I'm visiting then I'm going to have to learn the language. This is kind of a no-brainer, but these episodes really hammered it home.
Slava and Luda are a mother and son Russian team that aren't members of the cycle club we were riding with, but just joined up with the tour. Slava was the most anxious guy in the group to ride. He was always the first on his bike in the morning, first out of the gate, and he always wanted to be up front.
On the second day of the tour, this got me into some embarrassment. He blasted out front, and I just followed him assuming he knew where he was going. He's quite fast. I had trouble keeping up with him, and he's hauling a bigger load proportional to his weight and is riding a slower bike. It turned out he was mistaken, and Vladimir had to ride an extra hour to come round us up to go back where we were supposed to be. Oops :( After that, I mostly stayed with the group, although I periodically feel a need for speed so I'd go ahead for a few km and then stop and wait.
In general, the group kept up a pretty good pace. We rode 50-80 km per day which is a pretty good rate for the size of the group, the age of the riders, the conditions we were riding in, and the fact that we rarely got on the bikes before noon. I tend to ride more than that, but since I've been touring for almost a year now (over a year by the time you read this), I would have to hang my head in shame if I didn't do more than that.
Richard and Deborah were the other part of the foreign contingent. It's hard to believe, but in two weeks this is the best photo I got of them. They're a couple in their 30s that have been married for about 3 years and decided to spend the next 3 years touring. They're a perfect example of what I've been talking about all along. They decided they wanted to travel, so they got rid of their car, moved into a smaller place and saved aggressively for a couple of years. They decided on cycle touring not because they're cycling fans, but because it's the most cost effective way to do it. Instead of sitting around saying "I'd like to be able to travel", they set about making it happen, and now they're living the dream.
They travel on a couple of touring bikes that are very nicely equipped (except for not being recumbents of course). They camp all the time, so they have set themselves up much better for it than I have. They have better cooking equipment, a much better tent (better than some apartments I've lived in), and all the other equipment they need for this lifestyle. I've been dependant on hotels for a most of the trip so I went light and minimalist on everything. Since I'm writing this on the first day that I've been rained into the smallest and lightest tent made, I'm looking at their tent with a little envy right now. The only real downside for them is that their bikes are much heavier than mine or any of the Russians'. Two people traveling together does reduce the load, since you can share the common items between people, but they have a lot more stuff so each of their bikes were heavier than any of the others. We went on a few unsealed roads where they had more trouble than the rest of us, but they made it through just fine.
Our trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg took two weeks and covered about 800 km (500 miles) by cycle. We used a train to get the first 150 km out of Moscow, and the last 100 km into St. Petersburg, which is an entirely sensible thing to do. I hardly ever do the sensible thing when I'm on my own, but I can at least recognize it when I see it.
Vladimir told me about a group of gonzo cyclists in his club that make the ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg once a year in one day. That's what would be called a double-double century in the U.S. (400 miles - 640 km in 24 hours). We weren't that fast. These aren't the most insane riders in his club though. They have one guy that rides only in winter, and only in Siberia or other places that you can't cycle in the summer. There are vast areas of Northern Russia and Siberia that are swampland in the summer and frozen solid in the winter. This is were he rides. He has to get up several times per night to chop wood and build up the fire. The wood chopping is mostly to warm up, not because he needs the wood.
We started out with a train ride to Tver, which is where the photo at the top was taken. It's a nice little Russian town, and the first town I saw outside of Moscow. We didn't stay there long. Like a lot of towns in Russia, it's history consists pretty much of one unmitigated disaster after another. It was a chief rival for Moscow in the early days, and then got sacked by Mongol Tatars, Ivan the Third, the Poles and others.
From Tver, we started riding and it was a few days before I had any idea where we actually were. This happened for a couple of reasons. One is that it took Vladimir a couple of days to get the time to show the foreign contingent exactly what we were doing on a map, and the second is that I'm pretty much a happy-go-lucky guy that doesn't usually need to know exactly where I am. For example, later on you'll read a segment I wrote in my tent. At the time I wrote it, I was on my own approaching the Arctic Circle and I could only pinpoint my location within about 200 km. When I have someone leading the way I get even lazier, and can be blissfully unaware of location for days at a time. For the first few days I was frustrated because I didn't understand how the group worked, not because I didn't know where I was.
Photo Courtesy Vladimir
We spent the first few days cycling through the Russian countryside and learning how the whole camping thing worked. Richard and Deborah camp every day so they were a tad bit ahead of me. The first night out I set up my tent for the very first time by myself. The sales clerk in Sydney set it up and let me crawl in it, so I knew it was all there and I'd even read the directions so how hard could it be? It turns out it isn't all that hard, but it took a week get a good system down. In the end, my tent was usually the first one up and the first one down just because it was the simplest of the lot. I have a whopping one pole and six pegs to pack away. Any conversation I've ever had in a camping supply store always starts out with the words "what is the smallest and lightest". At the end of the trip, it literally took me 10 minutes to go from cycling to fully set up tent, and 15 minutes to reverse it in the morning. Everyone else took longer because they have much more elaborate tents. It's just one of those style things for different types of touring. I eventually figured out I should just go for wood as soon as we hit the campsite, since I had tons of time to burn. My tent's the tiny little blue one on the right in the photo above.
We always camped near a lake or river, and generally used that for bathing or swimming as the case may be. It might seem ill advised to be bathing in rivers and lakes in a place that's just south of Anchorage, but it wasn't nearly as cold as you might imagine and it wasn't any problem.
Most of the trip was spent cycling through the Russian countryside and its associated small villages and towns. During the entire trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, we only hit one town of any significant size. This is obviously by design, since the Russians go cycling to get away from the city and the cars. We rode somewhere around 50 km on unsealed roads, and the rest was on sealed roads that were generally pretty wide and in reasonably good condition. The condition of the roads overall for my whole trip was pretty good. The roads don't seem to me to be quite as good as in the U.S. or Australia, but not bad at all. I had to ride off onto dirt tracks several times to get to campsites, and my bike did just fine. There was never a place I wanted to go that the bike wouldn't make it to.
Every village we passed through had some kind of public well water system. Sometimes it would be a well that we would get water from with a bucket, but most of them had a pump system that pumps the water up to a public faucet that looks something like a miniature fire hydrant. In the villages, running water in homes seemed very uncommon. The well water was generally considered safe and tasted good. I didn't take any precautions with the water whatsoever until I got to St. Petersburg, where Lonely Planet advised it was unsafe. I carried 4-6 liters of water and refilled it at the villages. At each campsite, we always found a place where we could get well or spring water, as it's generally not a great idea to drink from an open water source. We generally camped somewhere that had either a small village for cooking/drinking water, and a lake or stream for wash-up and bathing water.
Before I describe the villages to you, let me fast-forward a week or so. Near the end of the trip, Nokolai asked me through Vladimir what my "first impression" of Russia was. We'd already talked about Moscow, so I assumed he meant the part we were traveling through. My first impression boiled down to: "THIS was a Superpower!!??"
Photo Courtesy Vladimir
That was the surprising thing for me. In the West we spent an immense amount of time, money and lives fighting with the Soviet Union to become the dominant political system in the world. As recently as ten years ago, The Soviet Union (which was mostly Russia) was considered the world's second superpower. Now I get here, and just about everything I saw outside of the big cities reminded me of a third world country more than a superpower. I was of the opinion before arriving that the actual threat for the Soviets was nowhere near what the West made it out to be, and I also knew that their economy and technology were nowhere near up to snuff. I didn't however expect to find this. The industry and housing I saw was a bit better than in Vietnam, but not by as much as I expected.
Now on the subject of the log cabins you see up there, I saw a lot of them and Vladimir took us to a Wood Architecture Museum in Novgorod. The interesting thing about these is that they're generally made without any nails, and in fact the real traditional method doesn't use any metal of any kind. The logs are just carefully cut and pieced together like Lincoln Logs. Many of them have evidence of being moved. At least, all the logs were numbered as you would if you were going to take something apart, move it, and put it back together. Since nearly nothing is painted though, they may have been moved a hundred years ago for all I know.
Quite a bit of the area we traveled through was agricultural, so I got to see some of the infamous Russian Tractors. I vaguely remember that Stalin and crew used to always take people on tours of tractor factories to show how progressive Russia was becoming in the days after WWII. As an old tractor hand myself, I found these to be interesting when compared to their American counterparts. Most appear to be designed to handle rougher conditions than a comparable American tractor. I saw lots more with four wheel drive than I would have expected, and most have very high ground clearance. I'm not sure why this is, but would theorize (based on no knowledge whatsoever) that it's either because the ground conditions aren't as good as they are in the U.S., or because the weather dictates it or both. I suspect the latter, as the farmers have to start plowing in the spring when it's very muddy and miserable.
One tractor I saw had the most convoluted front drive train I've ever seen. The front wheels were driven with a worm gear drive, which means no front axle and very high ground clearance. These were driven by a separate drive shaft one each side, each of which had five universal joints. Wow!
We passed through quite a bit of forest that is used for forest products, namely lumber, pulp and such. Now this hits even closer to home, since that's what I did for the first half of my life (lumber). I noticed that the people here seem to have to work in much worse conditions than I did as a youth. Based on the equipment I saw, I think it's again because of both bad weather and poorer quality roads. For example, back home most of our log trucks (a log is a tree after you cut it down and cut the branches and top off) were just road trucks with logging racks. We built reasonably good quality roads all the way back to where the logging took place, and only logged in the summer. Here, all of the logging trucks look more like silly-ass monster trucks. They nearly all have very high ground clearance, six wheel drive, and big tires suitable for driving through deep mud, and most carry less than half of what I was used to.
The trees are generally pretty small around here, say 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) in diameter. They all seem to be much shorter than the ones I was used to saw back home as well. They got even smaller as I went north. As I approached the Arctic Circle, they seemed like they were about 2/3 of that size on average.
I saw several sawmills along the way, but didn't have time to go in and take a look. From what I could see from the outside, they were a mixed bag. I saw a couple that reminded me of our family sawmill circa 1965. They were using equipment and methods that were obsolete in the 60s (although to be fair they would be the height of modern efficiency in Vietnam). This particular example is using a hand fed reciprocating gang saw, which I haven't seen since 1968 and it was obsolete then. I saw several others, and they looked reasonably modern in some of their equipment, and somewhat backward in others.
I didn't see any real evidence of environmentally unfriendly logging going on. I didn't see any clear-cutting, or substantial tearing up of the forest, at least in the couple thousand miles I traveled. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just that I didn't see it. I do know that the Soviets have a horrible environmental record, and there are huge swaths of land bigger than many U.S. states that are completely ruined and will be for hundreds or thousands of years in several parts of the country.
OK, enough about the lumber industry. They say you can take the boy out of the sawmill, but you can't quite take the sawmill out of the boy.
One night we camped by a creek next to this abandoned village. The interesting thing about this village is that it was only abandoned a couple of years ago. Since Perestroika, the village had to compete and it couldn't do so without the old Soviet subsidies, because it's just too far away from any decent roads, supplies or equipment. The interesting thing to me is that people continued to live here in absolutely primitive conditions, even though the whole operation wasn't economically viable and the conditions were terrible. I went inside some of the houses and they looked as bad inside as you would expect from the outside.
I've mentioned the crippling Soviet economy a couple of times, so let me expand on it a bit since Vladimir and I talked about it around here somewhere, or you can skip it if it sounds boring.
The key concept behind the Soviet and all other communist economies was central planning. The idea was that if you had smart people figuring out what the economy needed to do, and assigning tasks to others to complete then you don't have wasted effort. One essence of capitalistic economies is that different individuals or groups end up spending a lot of time trying to invent or reinvent the same thing. For example, I would guess I've spent 10-20% of my working time over the last 15 years writing software to solve a problem that had already been solved by someone else (sometimes many times), but not in a way that I could use. When looked at from the outside, it would appear that these groups ware working to cross purposes. For example, you would think if you could gang up my company and our most arch rival on the same team, we could do more together than both competing with each other. Capitalist economies are also motivated only by what's good for any particular company, without regard for whether it's good for society as a whole. Planned economies thought they could reduce these "inefficiencies".
Now unfortunately for the communists, this whole thing works much better in theory than in practice. In practice, you end up with a top-heavy, bureaucratic, hidebound and inefficient system that can't change with the times. The planners and decision makers get more and more disconnected from reality, until they're just making stuff up to fill in their paperwork. In the case of the Soviets, they had a head start because Stalin set production quotas that were impossible, so they had to disconnect from reality on day one. In addition to that, the concentration of power in a few planners and decision makers inevitably leads to corruption, backstabbing and a whole host of other ills. These more than offset any efficiencies they may have gained through reduction of redundancy. They also eliminate any real motivation for innovation. In capitalistic societies, innovation generally comes from harnessed greed and ego. Greed and ego both get a bad rap, but they're both great motivators and I can make a good case that both are among the better emotions based on the net result. My company innovates because that's how we kick-ass on the competition, make more money, extend our dominance, get bigger cars, nicer houses and so forth. Other prime motivators for innovation in capitalist societies comes from the fact that in every business and every industry, it sooner or later comes crunch time where you innovate or die, because someone else wants your market share and is willing to work harder for it.
This in a nutshell is what happened to the Soviet economy, and eventually lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. At the end of WWII, the Soviets took every bit of factory equipment they could find in Germany, and they found a lot. I can't say I blame them. (The U.S. wound up replacing most of it through the Marshall Plan). During the post-war years, the Soviets built up a factory system at an amazing rate, about triple the rate of any previous economic expansion in history. It's difficult to overstate this accomplishment. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union had around 27 million killed, and those killed were in a crippling demographic range (e.g. a disproportionate number of breadwinners). They also had a country devastated by war to a level we can barely imagine. The Soviets turned around from ground zero in the middle of a pile of rubble to a functioning welfare state with zero unemployment in ten years. Most of this was at least partly because Stalin burned millions of people's lives in Gulags to accomplish it (more on this later), but part of it was because they could concentrate resources on specific problems very quickly and any critical project could get a lot of resources quickly.
However, the inevitable inefficiencies of a centrally planned system started immediately, and became more apparent as the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race with the U.S. As the arms race went on, the U.S. economy got gradually more efficient through competition, while the Soviet economy continued to get weaker. Competition for the U.S. came from both internal and external sources. For example, the Japanese auto industry just about wiped out the American auto industry, which in the 70s looked for all intents and purposes like a Soviet company. The competition forced the American car companies to completely reinvent themselves just to survive, and today they're roughly comparable to their Japanese competitors. By the time the 80s got here, the Soviets and the Americans were spending about the same amount on the arms race, but it was a much higher percentage of the total economy for the Soviets than it was for the U.S. At the height of the cold war, the Soviets were spending over 20% of the total federal budget on defense alone, while the Americans were spending less than 4%. This meant that the part of the pie left for the Soviet people was much smaller, and explains why the Soviets were much poorer than their western counterparts even though we were both supposedly superpowers.
The abandoned village above is endemic of the whole planned economy problem. The village was clearly economically unviable, because as soon as it had to fend for itself it just disappeared. On the other hand, the planned economy had a producer on the books and a rate of pay planned for it. The people who lived here received enough money to live on... just barely. There certainly wasn't enough to improve their conditions substantially. This happened over and over all over the Soviet Union. In some cases, corruption was so endemic that entire economic sectors didn't exist at all. For example, one of the early satellite photos found out that millions of acres of cotton in the Crimea region didn't even exist. The officials in charge just made it up, and then sold the non-existent cotton to another group that sold it back and moved it around like some kind of shell game.
One thing most people don't realize is that Russia is a land with mind boggling quantities of natural resources. They have forest products, mineral deposits, coal, oil, gold, uranium, natural gas, farm and grazing land, and you name it. It's unfortunate that their economic system of the last hundred years managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, because they have everything they need to be a real superpower except an economy that works. They're the polar opposite of Japan, which has virtually no natural resources at all but has the world's second largest economy.
One lesson worth learning from this is that every very large organization I've ever seen follows the same path of the Soviet economy, and it follows that path until something catastrophic happens to force change. After that, it either adapts and survives or it doesn't and it dies. In recent history IBM, AT&T and the entire American Automobile industry are good examples of large organizations that adapted and survived, while Lotus is a good example of a company that had an unassailable lead and huge advantages over its competitors but couldn't. A couple of other obvious examples of large inefficient organizations that need some competition or a crisis are the American education system, and in fact the entire government for that matter.
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