Home > economic freedom, nanny state > Leningrad -> 16 years -> StPetersburg

Leningrad -> 16 years -> StPetersburg

I’m trying to get started on my Logic of Liberty column for the next print SerfCity , due tomorrow , but have gotten somewhat diverted by Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel channel . He’s visiting St. Petersburg , Russia .

Attending one of the very the first international computer language conferences during the fall of the USSR in 1992 held at a nuclear technology training center near the Pioneerskya metro station on the north side of the Neva viscerally affected my view of the criminality of socialism . Andrei Kondrashev , the conference contact in the KGB ( who wrote the first APL for a Russian desktop computer ) commented that it would not have been possible to pull off except for the internet having reached Moscow that year .

The point is , I have never seen anywhere so devastatingly poor . Soviet Marxism had brought the the fabulous capital of Peter the Great to decrepit desolation . Someday I may detail the chapter . It showed there is virtually no level of suffering at which arrogant statist do-gooders , like most dangerously our probable next Secretary of the Interior , Al Gore , will admit error .

What a transformation freedom has wrought in 16 years ! Now there are food markets which make Chelsea Market look boring . There are elegant cafeterias and restaurants with plentiful and interesting food . There are ADVERTISING SIGNS so you can find a restaurant or store or whatever you are looking for . It is clearly a destination commensurable with any other western city .

The transformation , tho perhaps lower key than China’s , is awesome in just 1.6 decades .

  1. Robert G. Brown
    April 7, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    This article shows an odd and slanted view of the events surrounding a software conference held in St. Petersburg in July of 1992. As one of the organizers of that conference, I can speak authoritatively about the events that took place, the surroundings, and the people involved.

    Conference planning started in 1990, with the formation of early proposals by a Soviet team that attended a similar conference in Copenhagen, in August of that year. There was little prospect of the USSR breaking up at that time, but it was clear that in the general opening of relations, it could be quite fruitful to reach out to as the Iron Curtain was crumbling, and new alliances could be created. When the conference was proposed in early 1991, it was co-sponsored by ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery) and the SOVIET Academy of Sciences, and was slated the take place in Leningrad, in July of 1992, and it was so announced in August of 1991, at a similar conference at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, with 8 representatives of the Soviet conference team present.

    The week after that conference, just as many of these representatives had returned to their homes, the coup which initially pushed Gorbachev aside took place, throwing the existence of the conference into question. It was a very nervous week for all of those involved, and our organization published an article in less than a month which assured all potential attendees that the situation had passed and that attendance would be secure.

    Throughout the development and planning of the conference, we had to keep an eye on the developing situation, and we had to adapt to some of the changes as they took place. It is true that collaboration regarding the conference would have been much harder without Internet access for all involved, but it still would have been possible, and in fact e-mail was being passed back and forth as early as 1990. Between the time of initial discussions and the conference event itself, e-mail and other Internet-based communications improved dramatically; e-mail that once took a day (24 hours) to reach Moscow from New York in July of 1990 took seconds by June of 1992. Thus it is not correct to imply that “The Internet had reached Moscow Only that year”, 1992 being the year of the conference.

    I do not know what to say in is response to Mr. Armstrong’s impression that he had never seen any place “anywhere so devastatingly poor”. I would agree that, by the highest standards of American urban life, there were areas of St. Petersburg that were unkempt, where the grass was not trimmed and the buildings had not been pointed up recently. However, I saw nothing in the region that was worse than could be seen in many American cities, then or now. This is not in defense of Soviet rule, but what does it say about the systems in comparison? I shall leave that exercise to the reader for the moment.

    One aspect of the city that I did notice was that structures with many different functions were more or less jumbled together in many places, in some cases with and housing and manufacturing building placed in close proximity. Some discussion with local officials indicated that there were nearly no zoning laws in Soviet cities, and this condition was common in older cities. The Communists had preserved a great deal of the culture represented in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg (even through the great hardship of the 900 day siege of the city during WW II) including palaces, museums, and performance spaces; though many places of worship were re-purposed, few were demolished, and in July of 1992 restoration work was already in progress.

    What we did see in the region, over three visits around that time (April of 1991, January and July of 1992), was a city whose aesthetics were rather drab and monotone, at least by Western standards. There was very little in the way of neon signs or bright advertising; it would be parochial to presume this as evidence of poverty. It was clear that this appearance was the result of choices made by the local authorities. Many public spaces were clean, even if the condition of the roads were in need of maintenance.

    For the glibness and quality of his observations, it may be that Mr. Armstrong has lead a sheltered life; that Soviet Marxism was not satisfactory ought to be evident from the fact that ultimately it was not sustainable, and is gone. I refrained from casting judgment on a city, country, or political and economic system based on what was superficially visible to most foreigners during the week of the conference, studied and listened more, and commented less. The real story and symptoms of the “criminality of socialism” is far more involved and complex than portrayed in Mr. Armstrong’s article.

    For example, Mr. Armstrong writes as if the conference took place “during the fall of the USSR” in 1992. The fact is that the conference took place over 7 months after the USSR was dissolved, and it was clear that the security situation had stabilized. Conference organizers, Russian or Western, would not have held the event if there was risk to those attending; the somewhat quixotic image Mr. Armstrong conjures up of a conference taking place as governments change and geopolitical systems dance is quite misleading.

    Finally, I would like to set the record straight on another matter. Andrei Kondrashev, the Conference Chairman, had no relationship with the KGB. He had graduated as a PhD in Computer Science from the Central Computing Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences shortly before the conference took place, and the head of that organization was a member of the Conference Program Committee, and a very highly placed official in the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was instrumental in gaining access to several unusual facilities for the use of the conference. Andrei was able to devote his considerable energy, intellect, and knowledge of how things actually worked “on the ground” in a rapidly changing Russia as conference time approached, and he also assembled an excellent good team that performed similar work, each with different facets of conference organization. The quality and financial outcome of the conference benefited greatly from these efforts. Andrei is now living in the USA, and has been doing so legally since shortly after the conference ended. If Mr. Armstrong has any substantial information concerning a relationship between Dr. Kondrashev and any intelligence organization, I would strongly recommend he report it to DHS in the United States, or else retract his remarks and desist from making such comments in the future.

    Being involved in organizing the conference in 1992 was a great learning experience for me, which broadened my view of the world, and cast many aspects of international politics into sharp relief. The conference itself was an interesting event, for the contrasts it offered, for the exposure so many westerners and former Soviets had to each other, and for the exchanges of ideas that took place there, over meals and between official sessions as during them. It is distressing to me that the experience is rendered so glibly and inaccurately in this article, but I am please to write this posting, set the record straight, and provide some background as well.

    • April 7, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      Nice to have Bob Brown’s detailed remembrances of the event recorded along side my brief comments . I’ll generally stand by my generalities .

      I’m surprised that I never had my notion that Andrei had been KGB disabused in all the times we met including dinner with his russian-beautiful wife and daughter at the old family home on the Chicago North Shore . Andrei’s a very intense guy and displays a military discipline . I remember when he was wearing an “Uzi does it” tea shirt at a Toronto post APL conference I introduced him to Jack Rudd who had spent much of his life working on systems for the DEW line , and who was wearing a fast draw competition tea shirt . I felt I had introduced two people who shared the philosophy that he who is best armed rules , and he who is not armed is of no consequence .

      I have a strong tendency to wander off by myself at these sorts of conferences rather than take the optional arranged group tours . Once I was certain I could recognize our “Pioneerskya” metro station in Cyrillic , I dived in the hole and ended up spending hours hiking around both the central city and the outskirts .

      They were f**kn bankrupt . They were broke and broken . Someday hopefully I’ll elaborate some particular experiences . But they were indelible .

      I will say that a few years ago I visited Guatemala . That’s the only place I’ve been where I’ve seen comparable stunting poverty .

  2. Robert G. Brown
    April 9, 2012 at 2:22 am

    I contributed my own narrative primarily to correct errors of fact in what Mr. Armstrong originally wrote, and let us all recognize what he generally stands behind: A variety of generalities, um, in general. That many of the facts are wrong is something that we need not be concerned with, or at least that is what I get from his latest comment. It is interesting how he attributes membership in a particular organization to someone based purely on attitude and sartorial choices, and makes other “generalizations” that require extensive correction. Given these defects in the original posting, how well can we trust his generalizations and observations, much less be able to agree with the conclusions he draws? This is (another) exercise I leave to the reader.

    The irony of all this is that few of these “details” are really needed to support Mr. Armstrong’s central idea, which appears to be that the society he observed in July of 1992 was broken, bankrupt, and impoverished. It’s fine if that’s what he wants to focus on, and leave out all the semi-fictional stuff about a conference whose background, history and leadership are topics about which he has only the most superficial acquaintance.

    We have an article where the author has not only damaged his own credibility, but done so gratuitously and for no good cause, but on his central idea, there is probably rather little air between Mr. Armstrong and myself. I would point out that I have had ample opportunity to observe and assess the conditions in Russia over an extended period of time, and learned a great deal about what happened and is happening there over time. Also, I would be delighted to read of Mr. Armstrong’s “particular experiences”, if only to see how they compare and contrast with my own and those I know.

    I will, for the moment and in the interest of brevity, pass on additional observations regarding Mr. Armstrong’s latest posting and the misunderstandings contained there. I believe it may be better to focus on his central notion rather than the peripheral cloud of distracting fluff.

  3. April 9, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Bob , you remain a pedant . Leningrad was a basket case and clearly has bloomed remarkably in the couple of decades since the at least partial defeat of statism there .

  4. Robert G. Brown
    April 9, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Bob, you remain very much in your own world, which only touches this one tangentially. It must be pleasing to live in such a place, where everything is simpler and so much more clearcut than it is in this one.

    As for Leningrad (rater, St. Petersburg, as the residents now prefer to call it), there is no doubt that it was bound to prosper, perhaps more so than any other place in the former USSR, from the events then and since. For those of us who understand prosperity in a deeper sense than the flashiness of neon signs, and have participated in building it, there is a great feeling of reward for work well done and value provided to customers in many places. The native I have known and worked with extensively over the years would not come close to the term “statist”; they would prefer the term “gangster”, and have been involved in repurposing government to revitalize enterprise.

    When correcting obvious errors of fact and deliberate attempts to pass opinion and impression as fact, I wear the badge of “Pedant” proudly.

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