Last night I was reading Gregory Feiler’s very interesting book The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (short summary: conquering Afghanistan is hard and expensive) and read the following bit of potted history:
After the Czechoslovakian reform movement knows as “socialism with a human face” was crushed along with the Prague Spring in 1968, Brezhnev’s renure developed into what became known as zastoi—the stagnation. The economy, beset by massive inefficiencies from central planning and institutions such as Stalin’s agricultural collectivization, declined more or less consistently, and was further dragged down by a ballooning military-industrial complex overseen by Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov.
My previous understanding of this had been that zastoi referred to political and cultural developments, not economic ones, and that actually the 1970s were a pretty good era in economic terms. After all, the Soviet Union, like today’s Russia, was a major oil and gas producer and tended (like today’s Russia) to do well whenever oil was expensive. That appears to be the story told by actual Russian GDP statistics:
You can see that the Soviet Union was, in fact, pretty dysfunctional by the fact that when the oil boom ended it pretty much flatlined. But for the bulk of the Brezhnev era, the economy seems to have been in okay shape. I note that there’s a certain amount of post-1991 revisionism on this general subject. The whole reason the Cold War happened was that the Soviet Union was not just morally awful (North Korea’s morally awful too) but also reasonably formidable. Its economy performed a lot worse than America’s but better than a lot of other countries. They had a giant military, an impressive space station, etc., to go along with the political repression and brutal domination of foreign countries. That’s what was scary about the whole thing. More recently we’ve taken to letting ourselves be frightened by really puny countries (Iran, Venezuela, etc.) and to some extent people seem to be projecting that backwards onto a much more substantial past adversary.