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The Paradox of Soviet Excellence

Here is a question that has bothered me for a while and I am surprised that nobody else seems to have asked it before:

How comes Western countries had the better orchestras (collectives) and Soviet Union the better classical music soloists during the Cold War? Would one not expect the contrary? And, perhaps more importantly: can economists learn something relevant from this observation?


MUSIC AND SPORTS

There were great orchestras both in the East and in the West and one could argue endlessly who were the greatest soloists. However, Van Cliburn is still remembered for winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow for the simple reason that it was a sensation at the time, as everybody had expected one of the countless Soviet talents to win. Nonetheless, only a handful of music experts today think that Van Cliburn later in his career reached the same level of accomplishment as the most famous Soviet pianists, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. There is little doubt that Soviet soloists could easily compete with and, more often than not, win against almost everyone in the West. And they were superior not only on a purely technical level, as many Asians are today, but also in musicianship.

The same is not true for Soviet orchestras. While some of them were very good indeed (the most highly acclaimed being the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Mravinsky), they were usually not considered to be the best in the world. When in 1969, the (West) Berlin Philharmonic played for the first time in Moscow under Karajan and performed Dimitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, they caused a sensation not only with the audience but also with the composer himself. While most had expected the best German orchestra to be outstanding in their core Germanic repertoire, few had expected them to outshine Soviet orchestras in contemporary Soviet music. And this was not an “exception that proves the rule” as in the Van Cliburn case. One might argue that German orchestras just had a longer tradition than Soviet orchestras. But not only German orchestras, but also American ones proved to be the superior collectives. The Cleveland Orchestra under Georg Szell, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein reached a level of accomplishment that was hardly seen in the Soviet Union. Consequently, the all-star lineup of those times combined Soviet soloists with western orchestras. Because most Soviet stars were allowed to travel to the West since the 1950s, we have several recordings of this.

One could argue that the western dominance in orchestras was in fact a western superiority in conductors, who could be considered to be soloists, similar to star violinists and pianists. Yet David Oistrakh, the greatest of the many great Soviet violinists, was perfectly able to do without a western star conductor when he conducted the West Berlin Philharmonic (besides playing the solo violin) for a legendary recording of Mozart’s violin concertos.

Thus, we face the curious fact that the less individualistic society managed to turn out the greater individualists but the lesser collectives in classical music. Are we up to something deeper here? In sports we see the same pattern: while the Soviet Union undeniably achieved excellence in individualistic sports, in team sports Western collectives often proved to be better. Surely, the Soviets were superior in ice hockey, but in hardly any other team sport they performed as well as in disciplines in which individual athletes compete. Soviet soccer was often competitive and won the first European Championship in 1960, yet it is most remembered for Lev Yashin, a goalkeeper, arguably the most individualistic position in the game. While there is little doubt that a collective effort helped Soviet chess players, they still won as individuals with clearly distinguishable styles of play. Perhaps someone more competent than me could comment on similar observations in physics, mathematics, or any other science.

What if we go one step further and look at the largest possible collectives, societies as a whole? An interesting and perhaps surprising pattern seems to emerge. The larger the collective we look at, the larger was the superiority of Western capitalist societies, at least with hindsight. While many individual musicians and athletes could compete and perhaps outcompete the West, Soviet society could not. Would one not rather have guessed the opposite when the great socialist experiment was started?

Let us search of explanations for this apparent paradox.


ESCAPE FROM CONFORMISM

Living in a collectivist society, there was a general lack of individualism: there were little opportunities for Soviet citizens to express their personalities in politics, at work, in economics, and almost any other area of society. The only possibility was to become excellent in something – as a star pianist or athlete, one was allowed, and even encouraged, to develop one’s own style and personality, even if restricted to a very narrow domain of activity. Beyond all socialist rhetoric, excellent athletes were celebrated mainly as individuals, not as parts of collectives.

In other words, in a society in which one was severely restricted to develop a distinguishable identity, because all expression of individualism was under the suspicion of being dissident, outstanding performance was a way to meet the deep-rooted human aspiration to stand out as an individual.


INTRINSIC VERSUS EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION

Another reason, often overlooked in economic analysis, may be the important role of intrinsic motivation. Economists are inclined to explain things by referring to extrinsic incentives, but in a society where material incentives are largely lacking, what motivates people is the inner drive to excel at something.

Without any doubt, the lack of extrinsic motivation to work for the interest of society was an important reason why socialism failed. Many services were delivered only grudgingly, if at all, as people who experienced socialism first-hand can confirm. In a market economy, on the other hand, even those with highly unpleasant work usually show up on time and do a decent job for the simple reason that they receive sufficient material compensation.

Therefore, to explain why great achievements at the individual level were possible in the Soviet system, we must not disregard the intrinsic motivation of great artists and athletes.

Intrinsic motivation can also explain the outstanding example when the Soviet Union achieved real greatness on a collective level: the defeat of Nazi Germany 70 years ago. While it was believed for a long time that it was the fear of harsh punishment which kept the fighters at the front, recent research by German historian Jochen Hellbeck emphasizes the large role of intrinsic motivation of Red Army soldiers. He analyzed 215 interviews conducted with Red Army soldiers by the “Commission on the History of the Patriotic War”, founded in 1941 by Soviet historian Izrailevich Mints. As Michael Sontheimer summarizes in DER SPIEGEL: “These latest findings completely undermine the argument – put forward by the Nazis and repeated by the West during the Cold War – that the Red Army soldiers only fought so fiercely because they would have otherwise been shot by members of the secret police.”

While it was always part of the socialist vision to have highly motivated workers who would supposedly not feel “alienation” as under capitalism, it is obvious that in peacetime the Soviet system could not replicate its wartime achievements.


THE COST OF COMPETITION

Finally, one may ask whether the competition which permeates a market-system is exclusively conducive to performance.

By conventional economic wisdom, competition is a decisive factor in motivating people to perform well. What is often overlooked, however, is that competition comes with a cost. A Western musician not only had to excel in art, but also had to do well on various other dimensions. Successful Western soloists must be gifted in presenting themselves in interviews, press conferences, and possibly advertisement campaigns. All this is part of the bigger problem faced in market economies to make one’s living, as the government will not take care of it, a situation which was even more pressing in the times of the Cold War.

In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, talented individuals were liberated from any worries about providing for their families, accumulating means for their retirements, and presenting themselves in convincing ways. The Soviet system allowed intrinsically motivated and highly talented individuals to pursue their talents and to fully devote themselves to things such as music or chess by removing any obstacles that could have prevented the achievement of excellence.

Summing up, while standard economic theory can explain the failure of the Soviet economic system as a whole, it is not well-equipped to explain the surprising discrepancy between individual greatness and mediocre achievements on the collective level. As I have argued, an explanation may be found in intrinsic motivation, the desire for self-realization of highly talented individuals, and the ambiguous character of competition.

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Guest - Gia Bib on Friday, 15 May 2015 16:22

Interesting viewpoint, however I would restrain from generalizations. In terms of orchestras, for instance it is a well known fact that no orchestra could compare with them in Russian repertoire and vise versa, thats why we should be careful with comparison here. Even there exist differences among western orchestras with regards to playing different styles of music etc. As for sports they were very competitive in collective playing as well, basketball, handball, synchronized swimming and in many other areas. As for economy, many experts consider pre- Khrushchev development level to be analogous to leading western economies in terms of industrial capacity and space technology. So it is very deep and multi layer issue which needs serious comparative analysis in multidisciplinary subject matters until some viable hypothesis can be reached.

Interesting viewpoint, however I would restrain from generalizations. In terms of orchestras, for instance it is a well known fact that no orchestra could compare with them in Russian repertoire and vise versa, thats why we should be careful with comparison here. Even there exist differences among western orchestras with regards to playing different styles of music etc. As for sports they were very competitive in collective playing as well, basketball, handball, synchronized swimming and in many other areas. As for economy, many experts consider pre- Khrushchev development level to be analogous to leading western economies in terms of industrial capacity and space technology. So it is very deep and multi layer issue which needs serious comparative analysis in multidisciplinary subject matters until some viable hypothesis can be reached.
Guest - Eric Livny on Friday, 15 May 2015 18:27

I would agree with Gia that such a sweeping generalization may be difficult to defend. The individualistic West produced plenty of individually successful athletes, cultural heroes and scientists. Likewise, the collectivist Soviets were not all that bad in collective action, in sports, music, and even in the economic domain (particularly during the early 5-year plan periods, during WWII and in the post-war reconstruction period). Though Yuri Gagarin was celebrated as an individual hero, sending the first human to space required a hefty collective effort by a technological "orchestra" consisting of thousands if not millions of individuals.

That said, I think it is very important to discuss the question raised by Jan in today's realities. It is not only a question of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, but also of the institutional foundations of the Soviet system. Now, if there is one thing at which the Soviet system objectively excelled it is EDUCATION.

I would emphasize three aspects:

(1) The early success in mobilizing the urban elites to help eradicate illiteracy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likbez). The starting point was very low - in Imperial Russia, according to the 1897 Population Census, literate people made up 28.4 percent of the population. In 1926, the literacy rate was 56.6 percent. By 1937, according to census data, the literacy rate was 86% for men and 65% for women, making a total literacy rate of 75%.

2) The policy of sending off young school teachers (new university graduates) to small villages and towns across the entire country. This, and the implementation of a uniform curriculum for everybody (except specialized physics/math and language schools in large cities) helped close the gap in education quality available to children from different social backgrounds, providing more equal opportunity for further professional development. Obviously, the individualistic West is very far from providing anything similar. The persistence of educational gaps due to the US' faulty education system is perhaps extreme, but the Western European situation also leaves much to be desired.

3) The Soviet school teachers were small cogs in a large machine designed not only to teach but also to scout talent. And this country-wide scouting system was incredibly effective. Young talent, in sports and sciences, would be identified very early through a multi-tier system of Olympiads and sent off (free of charge!) to specialized boarding schools, sometimes thousands kilometers away from their small towns and villages. I personally know one well-published Russian economist who was handpicked in this very manner at the age of 10-12 and sent off from a small village in Bryansk oblast to the the Moscow State University's physics/math boarding school back in the early 1980s. This would not be conceivable in any Western context.

The implications of this institutional system for individual excellence are quite clear:

First, by bringing education to the "masses", the Soviet education system greatly increased the pool of candidates to which to draw the future leaders in sports, science and technology (as well as for the communist party and intelligence services, for that matter).

Second, the Soviet education system was strongly geared towards identifying and nurturing talent from a very young age. This must have been beneficial to achievement in music, chess, math, and certain sports (e.g. gymnastics), where talented children must start practicing from the age of 5 or 6 (if not earlier, as in Mozart's example). Whereas in the West, it would take a Mozart-father (or mother) to identify and groom a talented young musician, the Soviet system was able to do so for (almost) everybody.

I would agree with Gia that such a sweeping generalization may be difficult to defend. The individualistic West produced plenty of individually successful athletes, cultural heroes and scientists. Likewise, the collectivist Soviets were not all that bad in collective action, in sports, music, and even in the economic domain (particularly during the early 5-year plan periods, during WWII and in the post-war reconstruction period). Though Yuri Gagarin was celebrated as an individual hero, sending the first human to space required a hefty collective effort by a technological "orchestra" consisting of thousands if not millions of individuals. That said, I think it is very important to discuss the question raised by Jan in today's realities. It is not only a question of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, but also of the institutional foundations of the Soviet system. Now, if there is one thing at which the Soviet system objectively excelled it is EDUCATION. I would emphasize three aspects: (1) The early success in mobilizing the urban elites to help eradicate illiteracy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likbez). The starting point was very low - in Imperial Russia, according to the 1897 Population Census, literate people made up 28.4 percent of the population. In 1926, the literacy rate was 56.6 percent. By 1937, according to census data, the literacy rate was 86% for men and 65% for women, making a total literacy rate of 75%. 2) The policy of sending off young school teachers (new university graduates) to small villages and towns across the entire country. This, and the implementation of a uniform curriculum for everybody (except specialized physics/math and language schools in large cities) helped close the gap in education quality available to children from different social backgrounds, providing more equal opportunity for further professional development. Obviously, the individualistic West is very far from providing anything similar. The persistence of educational gaps due to the US' faulty education system is perhaps extreme, but the Western European situation also leaves much to be desired. 3) The Soviet school teachers were small cogs in a large machine designed not only to teach but also to scout talent. And this country-wide scouting system was incredibly effective. Young talent, in sports and sciences, would be identified very early through a multi-tier system of Olympiads and sent off (free of charge!) to specialized boarding schools, sometimes thousands kilometers away from their small towns and villages. I personally know one well-published Russian economist who was handpicked in this very manner at the age of 10-12 and sent off from a small village in Bryansk oblast to the the Moscow State University's physics/math boarding school back in the early 1980s. This would not be conceivable in any Western context. The implications of this institutional system for individual excellence are quite clear: First, by bringing education to the "masses", the Soviet education system greatly increased the pool of candidates to which to draw the future leaders in sports, science and technology (as well as for the communist party and intelligence services, for that matter). Second, the Soviet education system was strongly geared towards identifying and nurturing talent from a very young age. This must have been beneficial to achievement in music, chess, math, and certain sports (e.g. gymnastics), where talented children must start practicing from the age of 5 or 6 (if not earlier, as in Mozart's example). Whereas in the West, it would take a Mozart-father (or mother) to identify and groom a talented young musician, the Soviet system was able to do so for (almost) everybody.
Guest - mfmsm on Saturday, 16 May 2015 00:34

Yes, you highlight some of the very best parts of Communism. What was wrong was the unaccountability of the oligarchy, and the descent from these high ideals to the must vulgar mafia-like bloodlettings. At least Stalin kept music and homicide separate, which cannot be said for Hitler. Speaking as one who is currently (and as innocently!) as stressed at Galaktioni was (or almost!) I think I feel - if not know! - what I am talking about. But the healing solution is not only our duty but our destiny. It is in our hands. Hence "New Georgian Economics".

Yes, you highlight some of the very best parts of Communism. What was wrong was the unaccountability of the oligarchy, and the descent from these high ideals to the must vulgar mafia-like bloodlettings. At least Stalin kept music and homicide separate, which cannot be said for Hitler. Speaking as one who is currently (and as innocently!) as stressed at Galaktioni was (or almost!) I think I feel - if not know! - what I am talking about. But the healing solution is not only our duty but our destiny. It is in our hands. Hence "New Georgian Economics".
Guest - Randy on Saturday, 16 May 2015 02:05

I wouldn't rule out extrinsic rewards either. Another possible explanation comes from the economic study of tournaments. Perhaps the RELATIVE rewards from being a successful soloist in Soviet space (access to hard currency earnings, ability to go to the West as opposed to playing only locally for Rubles) were much greater than in the West where even a pretty average unionized violinist in a decent symphony made a decent living.

I wouldn't rule out extrinsic rewards either. Another possible explanation comes from the economic study of tournaments. Perhaps the RELATIVE rewards from being a successful soloist in Soviet space (access to hard currency earnings, ability to go to the West as opposed to playing only locally for Rubles) were much greater than in the West where even a pretty average unionized violinist in a decent symphony made a decent living.
Guest - Eric Livny on Monday, 18 May 2015 03:51

The claim that Oistrakh, Richter and Gilels devoted their entire lives to music -- and excelled at it -- because of any amount of money or the opportunity to travel abroad ... well, leaves me speechless...

What is money for people who are trying to touch the sky????

The claim that Oistrakh, Richter and Gilels devoted their entire lives to music -- and excelled at it -- because of any amount of money or the opportunity to travel abroad ... well, leaves me speechless... What is money for people who are trying to touch the sky????
Guest - namarcus on Monday, 18 May 2015 16:18

Given that Oistrakh, Richter and Gilels were all Jewish (and so was probably Lev Yashin), you can not answer above question without addressing their ethnic roots. For Jews in Soviet Russia careers beyond science and the arts were closed. In the West Jews could excel as lawyers, state prosecutors, judges, politicians or bankers - in Soviet Russia Jews were barred from such positions. Thus they tried to excel in the sciences and the arts. Mass emigration of Jews from Soviet Russia and the opening of Russian careers beyond the arts and sciences to contemporary Jews explain the decline of the Russian (Jewish) soloist.

Explaining the flip-side might be easy, too. Western orchestras were probably much better paid, relatively. Hence musicians playing in the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic had more incentive to excel and keep their jobs, while competition from younger candidates forced them to keep up a high standard. In Soviet Russia playing in an orchestra was just a job. there were many orchestras, they did not come with many perks, did not compete favourably with other jobs, and people did not compete for these positions in the same way. Hence they generally played at a lower standard.

Given that Oistrakh, Richter and Gilels were all Jewish (and so was probably Lev Yashin), you can not answer above question without addressing their ethnic roots. For Jews in Soviet Russia careers beyond science and the arts were closed. In the West Jews could excel as lawyers, state prosecutors, judges, politicians or bankers - in Soviet Russia Jews were barred from such positions. Thus they tried to excel in the sciences and the arts. Mass emigration of Jews from Soviet Russia and the opening of Russian careers beyond the arts and sciences to contemporary Jews explain the decline of the Russian (Jewish) soloist. Explaining the flip-side might be easy, too. Western orchestras were probably much better paid, relatively. Hence musicians playing in the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic had more incentive to excel and keep their jobs, while competition from younger candidates forced them to keep up a high standard. In Soviet Russia playing in an orchestra was just a job. there were many orchestras, they did not come with many perks, did not compete favourably with other jobs, and people did not compete for these positions in the same way. Hence they generally played at a lower standard.
Guest - Eric Livny on Monday, 18 May 2015 19:44

I knew we would get into the Jewish angle given so many Jewish names among the soloists :)

I would disagree with the suggestion that Jews were restricted in their choice of occupations as suggested above. If anything, the Jews were among the main beneficiaries of the Bolshevik revolution since it gave them the long coveted freedom to move, geographically and professionally. With much of the old intelligentsia and professional class either decimated or in exile after 1921 (and with foreign engineers and managers no longer affordable), the mostly literate Jews (in a largely illiterate country) had great opportunities for fast-track advancement, both politically and professionally. And because they were so successful they were disproportionately represented among those "purged" in 1937.

I was recently reading about early Soviet industrialization, which involved a lot of Jewish talent. One particular name that comes to mind is Isaac Salzman. Coming for a tailor's family in a tiny Jewish shtetl in Vinnitsa oblast (today's Ukraine), Salzman was the director of the largest Soviet tank and tractors factory (the producer of the latest Russian Armata tank), and in 1942-43 served as the People's commissar (minister) in charge of the Soviet tank industry (at the time of the Kursk battle, referenced in the article above).

I knew we would get into the Jewish angle given so many Jewish names among the soloists :) I would disagree with the suggestion that Jews were restricted in their choice of occupations as suggested above. If anything, the Jews were among the main beneficiaries of the Bolshevik revolution since it gave them the long coveted freedom to move, geographically and professionally. With much of the old intelligentsia and professional class either decimated or in exile after 1921 (and with foreign engineers and managers no longer affordable), the mostly literate Jews (in a largely illiterate country) had great opportunities for fast-track advancement, both politically and professionally. And because they were so successful they were disproportionately represented among those "purged" in 1937. I was recently reading about early Soviet industrialization, which involved a lot of Jewish talent. One particular name that comes to mind is Isaac Salzman. Coming for a tailor's family in a tiny Jewish shtetl in Vinnitsa oblast (today's Ukraine), Salzman was the director of the largest Soviet tank and tractors factory (the producer of the latest Russian Armata tank), and in 1942-43 served as the People's commissar (minister) in charge of the Soviet tank industry (at the time of the Kursk battle, referenced in the article above).
Guest - namarcus on Monday, 18 May 2015 19:50

Yes, but our soloists here are largely post-stalin, no? a time when there was a numerus clausus for Jews entering universities etc.

Yes, but our soloists here are largely post-stalin, no? a time when there was a numerus clausus for Jews entering universities etc.
Guest - Eric Livny on Monday, 18 May 2015 21:33

No, our trio is actually the product of Stalin's era, and not all of them are Jewish :)
Gilels was born in 1916 (Odessa; father - clerk in a sugar refinery)
Oistrakh was born in 1908 (also in Odessa)
And Richter was born in 1915, but was actually of German dissent (born in God forsaken Zhitomir, studied in the very same Odessa; father - a professional musician and teacher).

So, at least in music, we seem to have identified the Odessa phenomenon after all (sadly, Odessa of today no longer produces any talent. It has become a large village with unclear national identity and orientation)

No, our trio is actually the product of Stalin's era, and not all of them are Jewish :) Gilels was born in 1916 (Odessa; father - clerk in a sugar refinery) Oistrakh was born in 1908 (also in Odessa) And Richter was born in 1915, but was actually of German dissent (born in God forsaken Zhitomir, studied in the very same Odessa; father - a professional musician and teacher). So, at least in music, we seem to have identified the Odessa phenomenon after all (sadly, Odessa of today no longer produces any talent. It has become a large village with unclear national identity and orientation)
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