East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Economic Crime and Perestroika of the Human Heart

Leading Russian and Western specialists on post-Soviet economic crime, speaking at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, April 21-23, gave an alarming picture of criminal elements now in control, or unduly influencing not only banking, retail business, and foreign trade, but law enforcement, the courts, the customs service, the media, the economic privatization process, and local, provincial, and central bureaucracies.  Organized crime in Russia increased between 1992 and 1993 by 28 percent; crimes causing serious bodily injury were up 24 percent; and crimes committed with firearms were up 250 percent.  Since 1987 homicides in Moscow have increased 800 percent.  Organized crime's ready access to weapons, its willingness to use them at the slightest provocation, and the growing inability or unwillingness of authorities to stem the tide of lawlessness is nowhere more evident than in systematic gangland extortion of Russia's commercial businesses.  According to a January report prepared for Boris Yeltsin by the Analytical Center for Social and Economic Policies, criminal elements now extort 10 to 20 percent of earnings from some 75 percent of Russia's private enterprises.  (Celestine Bohlen, "Graft and Gangsterism in Russia Blight the Entrepreneurial Spirit," New York Times International, 30 January 1994, 1; "The High Price of Freeing Markets," The Economist, 19 February 1994, 57; Paul Podolsky, "Bring on the Tax Police," Moscow Times, 25 February 1994, 10.)

On the other hand, proliferating taxes--up to 80 percent of profits--are so burdensome that they all but doom any business unable to evade a significant portion of them.  "In reality, two tax systems function simultaneously:  the mafia's 'unofficial' taxes, which are widely observed, and the government's, which are widely ignored" (Podolsky). According to the report prepared for Yeltsin, "Protection money is paid as regularly as taxes are evaded" (The Economist).

While speakers at the Wheaton conference made it quite clear that widespread corruption also characterized the tsarist and Soviet regimes, they did suggest two distinctives of the current criminal blight:  1) it receives far greater and far more penetrating media exposure than was the case under tsars or commissars; and 2) the government's present weakness - to the point of near paralysis - gives criminal elements freer reign than they have enjoyed since the Civil War of 1918-21.

It is absolutely necessary to analyze the role of economic crime in Russia's current malaise.  But at some point, to be of any earthly use, description must be coupled with prescription.  I believe Christians in particular have a moral obligation to offer the people of the former Soviet Union support, encouragement, and when asked for, culturally sensitive counsel.

In the modern academy that word moral is often made to seem incompatible with rational, scientific analysis, as if such a thing as value-free research actually existed.  But there are scholars who argue otherwise.  Robert Fogel, University of Chicago economic historian and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for economics, said on the day his award was announced, "There is such a thing as morality."  Otherwise, he could not explain the abolition of slavery, which his calculations determined were profitable, apart from "a force even stronger than the laws of economics:  a moral revulsion against a system that denied humanity."  Fogel thus argues unapologetically in learned circles that the "intense beam of morality...can change history."  (R.C. Longworth, "Morality:  It's Time for a Closer Look," Chicago Tribune, 17 October 1993, 1, 4.)

It is interesting to note the expression of a similar ethical imperative coming from the U.S.S.R. in its last gasps.  A number of prominent Soviet intellectuals came to regard the sickened state of their own society as a product of lost faith and abandoned morals.  Two years ago the Institute for East-West Christian Studies published Ethics in the Russian Marketplace:  An Anthology, which quoted writer Viktor Astafyev to this effect.  His soul-searching comments seem even more poignant and relevant to Russia's plight today than they were when first published in May 1986:

Speaking in much the same vein this past November Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned, "If we do not learn to...subordinate our interests to moral criteria, we, humankind, will simply be torn apart, as the worst aspects of human nature bare their teeth."  ("To Tame Savage Capitalism," New York Times, 28 November 1993, E11.)  And Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel would see the widespread moral bankruptcy of post-Communist lands as the direct product of the moral bankruptcy of Marxism in power: Father Alexander Borisov of Moscow's Russian Orthodox parish of Saints Cosmas and Damian likens Russia's present dilemma to that of the Old Testament exodus.  Just as the Hebrew children, after their liberation from Egyptian bondage, wandered 40 years in the wilderness, he fears Russia as well may require 40 years to produce a generation born free, which does not, like the ancient Hebrews, "look back with nostalgia to the security of slavery."  (Leonid Kishkovsky, "Russian Orthodoxy:  Out of Bondage, Into the Wilderness," Christian Century 110 (6 October 1993), 936-37.)  Hopefully, a truly free spirit will come much sooner than four decades.  Toward that end, another Russian Orthodox priest, Father Georgi Edelstein of Kostroma, shared at the Wheaton conference on economic crime that in the wake of Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's failed perestroika, the only form of restructuring that is likely to spare Russia incalculable troubles ahead is a perestroika of the human heart and soul.

Certainly, Russia desperately needs to effect all manner of structural and systemic changes to control crime and to ensure a workable market system.  But I believe Father Georgi is correct in contending that effectual reform must begin from within, with an inner, personal transformation.  Russia today unquestionably is undergoing profound change.  Yet to be determined is whether mafia godfathers or believers in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit will be more successful in capturing and fashioning the hearts of Russia in flux. 

Mark Elliott, editor

For a listing of tapes available from the Wheaton conference, "Economic Crime and the Prospects for a Market Economy in the Former Soviet Union," contact the EWC&M Report office.

Mark Elliott, "Economic Crime and Perestroika of the Human Heart," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 2 (Spring 1994), 15-16.

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1994 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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