Tetris is one of the most popular and beloved games of all time. Created by a programmer in Moscow at the twilight of the USSR, it spread across the globe in countless variations and styles, still delighting players to this day. I remember playing it obsessively as a kid and even as an adult, I’m still a huge fan. And I promise it has nothing to do with my birth in the former USSR either. But both my love for Tetris and my background just blended together into a mix of bizarre emotions when I saw the following tribute to the game and the history of Russia in this video featuring Dan Woods of the UK neo-folk band Pig With The Face Of a Boy, summarizing the wild ups and downs of those who lived and still live in the playgrounds of oligarchs and authoritarians. As the tune continues, its pace speeds up, just like the game, for that added touch of respect to its inspiration.
While this gem of a music video is masterfully done, there are a few small quibbles I should raise. Today, the notion of free enterprise isn’t rejected in Russia or any of the other Soviet territories. However, because those who ended up holding the best assets from an empire that collapsed after decades of incompetence and an out of control kleptocracy at every level of society, prompted by constant shortages of just about everything, are frequently either close friends, relatives, and allies of those who gave away these assets, the benefits of free trade were concentrated at the very top of the social hierarchy. So while former Party officials and their friends schmoozed international corporations, importing and exporting just about everything from sugar and candy, to exotic fruits and assault rifles from the Red Army surplus, most people were mired in poverty and those who tried to start their own businesses better make some friends up high, or face mafia-style shakedowns for the right to keep operating their business, and fraudulent investigations into their personal affairs. And if they got tough with their intimidators, they might come home and find themselves face to face with a hitman.
So yes, there is free enterprise in Russia for those who are well armed, well connected, and on friendly terms with the government. They’re allowed to do pretty much whatever they want, whether it be to have themselves appointed as governors, buy a soccer team in the UK, or trash hotel rooms all over the world while partying in the most decadent ways they can imagine on their private planes. And hilariously enough, while some highly hyped and popular pundits wail about the United States turning into the Soviet Union, or Russia in a bit to stir up the good, old Cold War propaganda and Red Scare fever with which their primary audience of 40 to 60 year olds grew up, what they don’t understand is just how far away the U.S. is from anything even remotely trying to resemble Russia back in its USSR days, or today. Imagine if when the Democrats came to power, they rigged elections to whittle down the number of Republicans in the Senate down to 10 or so, and to less than 70 in the House, then proceeded to pass anything and everything they wanted in rapid succession while ignoring every single Republican lawmaker, making sure that state sponsored news networks never even talked to them.
Instead, what we have is a media world ran by huge, private corporations, one of which gives a million dollar donation to the Republican Party and employs a cadre of pundits to scream Red-baiting gloom and doom at the soothing volume of 90 decibels day in, day out, and a political process ran by a party which saw one of the biggest majorities it ever had, and yet allowed it to whittle away while it was single-handadley focused on its monster healthcare bill that managed to span more than 2,000 pages and address almost none of the basic causes for soaring healthcare costs rather than seeking transparency, accountability, and truly studying why the nation has such a dysfunctional medical system. The U.S. is nowhere close to what Russia was then or is today, neither politically, not financially. There are alarming decreases in upward mobility and a substantial discrepancy in income between managers and rank and file employees that simply aren’t sustainable in the long run, but these phenomena are nowhere near those far too many pundits fear and far too many partisans love to chant. Likewise, as long as there’s real competition in politics and new presidents aren’t nominated by the outgoing one, the U.S.’ political system is far from heading down the Russian road.