Fragments from a War Diary: #104
Alexei Stakhanov was a Soviet miner who shot to fame during Stalin’s Five Year Plans in the 1930’s that were intended to dramatically increase levels of industrial and agricultural production to rival those of the West and thereby yank the Soviet Union out of feudal poverty of the kind that had characterised the Russian Empire. Each Five Year Plan would establish industrial and agricultural output targets for managers of state-owned factories and collective farms, and the managers would be expected not only to meet those targets but to substantially exceed them. Indeed there was competition between the managers of the different newly state-owned institutions to out-do one-another in the degree by which they exceeded their production quantities. If you failed to out-do your colleagues in the amount you were producing, then you would receive a visit from the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. The whole system was quite terrifying. It also applied to individual workers, who depending on their skill sets would have different daily or weekly production volumes (for example, so many tonnes of coal drilled from a coalface). Stakhanov, who worked in a series of mines in Luhansk, in what is now Russian-occupied Ukraine, was paraded as an exemplar of this method of working. He produced colossal quantities of coal from the coalface, far in excess of his daily or weekly limits, putting his fellow workers to shame.
If you’ve ever worked in an Amazon warehouse, this model of economic management might feel eerily familiar to you.
The problem with collectivisation of agricultural and industrial production by reference to state-owned quotas was of course that the quotas were entirely arbitrary and if your factory or you individually had warm relations with the persons setting the quotas then you might get off lightly; whereas if you had frosty relations then impossible quotas would be imposed upon you. Governments are not particularly good at setting realistic quotas or production targets; we in the West tend to take the view that markets are better tools for setting such things than bureaucrats in far-flung offices. The other problem with the “Five Year Plan” system of production output targets was that because you were expected not only to meet the targets but to exceed them and in many cases the targets were unrealistic, it encouraged fraud in the record-keeping system on a massive scale and this was in substantial part the origin of the chronic problems of corruption, false accounting, fraudulent paperwork and forgery that bedevilled the Soviet Union and continues to bedevil virtually all of the countries in the former Soviet Union, aside from the Baltic States who prompt EU accession processes shook off these unsavoury habits.
Once you had exceeded your production targets set in your Five Year Plan, whether fraudulently or otherwise, a renewed production target would be set (the reviews would be far more frequent than every five years; the scheme was just called “Five Year Plans” because this was how Stalin announced them) and then you would have to work even more impossibly hard - or engage in exponentially greater levels of fraud - in order to exceed the renewed targets. Because senior managers realised that the entire system was fraudulent, they tried to increase actual production levels by elevating the fictitious targets even higher - but that did not result in increased production but rather in increased fraud.
The advantage of the free market over this command economy system of production is that nobody wants to buy fraudulent pieces of paper (except Russian businessmen but that is an essay for another day) and instead they only want to buy actual commodities so the incentive to produce fraudulent pieces of paper saying that you have produced goods is removed and replaced with an incentive to produce actual goods that people want, something that stimulates production of useful things and this is why free markets are better than command economies. That is why the Soviet Union was a bad economic system and why the West won the Cold War, and it is also why the West will win the second Cold War, even if it takes a long time.
Mr Stakhanov produced, at least on paper, quantities of coal equivalent to the output quotas of many men and for this he was much feted. The town of Kadiivka, now in Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast in Ukraine, was named Stakhanov in his honour.
Today I felt as though my wonderful team’s efforts were Stakhanovite. While a gloriously warm, sunny Saturday passed outside in Lviv, we were working hard with the Ukrainian military and with Ukrainian farmers to prepare food. There were giant cabbages the size of footballs, huge long carrots, great buckets of tomatoes, and endless sacks of potatoes being chopped, carried, sliced, peeled and prepared. Everyone undertakes these tasks in a happy, relaxed and chatty environment, sharing their silly stories and bantering in a range of different languages. It is a real pleasure to work with such people. I have experienced no politics, no anxiety, no stress and no unpleasantness. It is pleasing to find efficiency and decency within the NGO community in Ukraine. We laboured away for the day while Lviv is a party town on Saturdays, with people gathering on the cobbled streets, laughing, smiling, hopping in and out of bars and enjoying one of the few sunny, bright days remaining before the long winter sets in.
I had my own personal Stakhanovite efforts, in which I had to lug all my luggage out of my strange museum-hotel to my place of work, do a day’s work and then lug my luggage all the way back to a mysterious address in the city centre where I have now rented an apartment on a short-term basis. There was nobody to meet me at the prescribed time, no sign, no indication of life anywhere; just an empty, cold apartment block with no elevator and with crumbling stairs. The ageing oak front door was barely hanging off its hinges. I was just about to give up and head for the nearest western hotel when I hear a lady in the street shouting my name in Russian. I am then blitzed with a fast rattle of Russian language explaining to me the apartment I would be staying in and all of its various features. I didn’t much care. I just had to lug myself and my bags up to the fourth floor - remember, no elevator - without the crumbling bannister collapsing under my weight. The apartment itself was renovated, bright, breezy and with all modern amenities. This is far superior to the place where I was sleeping in the museum cloakroom. I will be happy here, for a few days - or maybe more. For this Stakhanov acolyte, Lviv’s schizophrenic personality between ordinary city and conflict zone seems to be leaning in the right direction - for now. But you never know. Something strange is almost certainly just around the corner.