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Book Review February 19, 2004
 
Never Trust A Real-Estate Agent
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
"The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold" - By Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy Brookings, Institution Press Washington DC, 2003

"The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold" - By Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy Brookings, Institution Press Washington DC, 2003

Every year or so, another silly theory comes into vogue among Western "Russia hands," that estimable body of scientific prognosticators not one of whom managed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union until three or four years after it had occurred.

This year's trendily daft notion is that "the curse of natural resources" is to blame for Russia's fate. That's right: Russia's problem is that it's got far too much oil, minerals and forests -- just like other famously messed-up countries, like Brazil and Venezuela. It's not the rich countries' fault for stripping these places; it's their own fault for leading them on with provocative displays of natural wealth.

It's as if the armed robbers' union held a big seminar, then announced after solemn deliberations that it was the victims' fault that there was so much crime. If those householders and shopowners hadn't been "cursed" with so much stuff worth stealing, they wouldn't have been robbed and brutalized. In short, the robbed premises were to blame, not the robbers.

Hill and Gaddy put a new, extremely convenient spin on the "curse of natural resources" theory by adding a thermometer to their fancy graphs, in order to show that evil Soviet planners pushed Russia out into the Siberian cold where nothing can prosper. "It's the permafrost, stupid!"

Then, moving from blame to helpful suggestions, they warn that as long as Russia tries to hold on to its disastrous Siberian investments, it will remain poor, corrupt and generally un-Western. Russia should simply cut its losses, abandon the big cities of Siberia, and leave the whole chilly mess to the fur-bearing mammals.

Of course, that won't happen. The population of the world has doubled in my lifetime, and is still zooming out of control in a nightmare Malthusian curve. There are tens of millions of migrants who would eagerly settle in this supposedly uninhabitable Siberian wasteland. Siberia runs along the northern edge of the East Asian countries with some of the most dynamic, overcrowded, entrepreneurial peoples of the world. So it's hard to believe that a Siberia vacated by Russian would remain long unsettled, nor be seen as worthless by its new settlers. In fact, this book's whole thesis contradicts the trends of the past two centuries. Think of all those nineteenth-century editorial cartoons sneering at Seward for buying Alaska from the Russians. That too was worthless, frozen land, fit only for bears. Anybody want to sell it back at, say, 100 times the price? Didn't think so.There is no worthless land anymore. The closest thing to truly worthless, uninhabitable land is Northern Australia. (I'd much, much rather live in Irkutsk than Darwin.) Yet there are so many boatloads of Indonesians risking their lives to reach the Northern Territories that the Aussies have to keep a huge relocation/concentration camp going on Christmas Island.

Then there's the little matter of global warming, which the authors fail to address. Hill and Gaddy have supplied many graphs, but where are the graphs showing the average temperatures in Siberia fifty years from now, after almost a century of global warming? The very areas which will increase fastest in value are those formerly too cold to settle, like inland Alaska, northern Canada...and, obviously, Siberia.


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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