Tribute To Lev Dobriansky — 2/13/2008

by Chris Robling 
Issue 101 – February 13, 2008

Lev Dobriansky was a professor of mine at Georgetown. An economist and banking expert, he was – in Heilbronner’s phrase, a “worldly philosopher.” He never forgot that his point was to change the world. He set out to change the world Karl Marx helped create. One way he did so was by his two semester, eight hour course, “Soviet Economics.” Throughout two-and-a-half decades of the Cold War, it was a mainstay of the foreign service school economics program.

One could begin to assay this particular source of Lev’s influence by describing the students he attracted. Military officers in uniform, Soviet desk state department officers, CIA analysts and congressional aides all came.

As an economics major in Georgetown’s college, I took it with graduates and undergraduates, as well as the “special students” from downtown.

All of us hung on his every word. It might as well have been titled, “Lev’s history of economic activity in Russia and the Soviet Union.” As a bald, muscular, 5’ 5” Ukrainian with a deeply and sonorously New York-accented baritone that he used to merciless effect, Lev embodied a certain foreign bearing, which may best be described as “early Dniester Cossack hetman.” “Taras Bulba of the economics department” comes to mind.

The voice was unmistakable. He accentuated vowels. For instance, my name, “Robling,” pretty simple, on his tongue became a seven syllable bonanza:

“R-o-o-o-o-obbblaaaaaeeeeiiiiinngg….” He would trail off, giving me time to focus.

The course proceeded – as I recall – without a text. Lev would distribute photocopied articles, or sometimes “reports,” the week before a lecture. Sometimes we had readings on reserve at the library. He was not forthcoming about the sources of his “reports,” but he vouched for their accuracy.

Lev found no detail of Russian production, no insight into the productivity and ingenuity of the peoples of the Russian empire (prior to the Soviet period), no understanding of the failure of the Soviet policies too small, too obscure or too inconsequential for inclusion in his emerging depiction of a Potemkin façade, adorned with references to space-race achievement, fronting for a corrupt quagmire of indolence and waste, laced with innumerable instances of party-member privilege.

Even his contrasts were drawn in great relief. While the state- and community-farm systems were starving their own members for lack of crops, the plots – tiny arable parcels assigned to individuals for their private cultivation — were feeding Russia.

His main thesis was that the Soviets put everything they had into defense and show-piece projects, but that in general, the incentive deficits, lack of capital formation and absence of foreign investment meant that as an economy, they were, in essence, an unsustainable third-world backwater.

We emerged from his final lecture, in which he concluded that any economy based on the denial of its citizens’ natural rights will only achieve slave-labor outputs, and that’s just what the Soviets have to show for theirs, having stood and applauded and known that we had witnessed a symphonic summary to two semesters of themes.

But Lev was horribly out of fashion. The smart set said the Soviets were doing well, better, in fact, than the west in certain standout areas, typically high-tech.

Conventional opinion said the Soviets’ access to natural resources, from home and their then-successful adventurism, ensured an unstoppable economic machine producing sophisticated guns and passable butter.

This resources argument built its way into some analysts’ recommendations to expect being overtaken by the Soviets economically, and to prepare for the ensuing U.S. and western decline.

Received wisdom said the Soviets’ freedom from consumerism’s demands was an undeniable strength – they needn’t worry about making different types of shoes, so all those resources can be put into blitzing Western Europe through the Fulda gap! Or building a Bear Bomber, or defeating our MIRVed warheads! It’s inevitable!

Not surprisingly, by the mid 1970s, adherents of such views saw Lev and some of his Georgetown colleagues as hopelessly out-of-date former scholars hanging on to their jobs because of tenure. They were considered rabid hack cold-warriors capable only of regurgitating old data that fit their preconceived and, frankly, quaint notions of human freedom’s importance in the world.

“We know that all U.S. foreign policy emanates from Wall Street,” the thinking went, “so we are simply as determinist as we say they are. We should drop the business basis of U.S. interventionism and support people’s liberation movements now, before we are left behind . . .”

That passed for enlightened opinion at the foreign service school, c. 1976.

With students who had not taken Lev.

They did not know about his “reports.” Or his reliance on current, if obscure, scholarship. They had no idea that on his near daily swims at the University Club Lev was speaking with congressmen, bureaucrats, think tankers and other scholars. His interlocutors had one overriding policy belief in common: That for western civilization to perdure, the Soviet Union must be vanquished.

But Lev, you see, knew how to do this and who could get it done.

Lev was one of the earliest supporters of Ronald Reagan I met. He knew Reagan personally. They had been acquainted for years, because Reagan cared deeply about one of Lev’s creations: “Captive Nations Week.”

Talk about a Cold War relic. Captive Nations Week, even by 1970s standards, sounded like a “duck and cover” filmstrip or a bomb shelter supply list. Hopelessly out of date, it was group whining after the colt had left the barn, completely futile.

Captive Nations Week in the mid 1970s was also embarrassing. Every year, there were new captive nations! The list only grew. We are losing! It all seems . . . inevitable. And dispiriting. Hopelessly un-smart set.

But not for Lev.

Year after year the faithful, the refugees, the dispossessed, the former-finance- minister-turned-restaurant owners, the dead-enders and the down-and-outers from the wildest assortment of far off, poorly known places, such as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Mongolia, Namibia, Rumania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Cambodia, Laos, the Ukraine and many more. . . would gather one more time.

They would hear a speech, raise a flag, sing an anthem and cry for a homeland overrun, a hometown occupied and a home lost. They would weep. And then they would wander off –- back to their new homes, and their new jobs, and their new surroundings, wondering if anything they loved would ever again be visible and free.

The foreign policy establishment considered the Captive Nations to be “lost causes.” With the possible exception of Cuba, there were no plans anywhere to win any of them back. We had not helped the Czechs in 1967. The Bay of Pigs was a disgrace. We did not help the Hungarians in 1957. The Berlin airlift was more than 25 years past. Congressional Democrats told President Ford he must abandon our allies in South Viet Nam. And Jimmy Carter told us our fear of communism was “inordinate.” It was all very sad, yes, but what exactly was the point?

Lev knew the point. He started Captive Nations to keep memories alive. To keep faith with the enslaved. To show that the blandishments of freedom had not blinded us to the suffering of innocents abroad. To change the world.

And Ronald Reagan understood. He attended. He spoke and sang, cried and comforted. He remembered, and he would never forget. And in time, he would do something about it.

I do not know if what we heard in class, Reagan heard at the University Club. I do not know if Lev’s “reports” came from unofficial official sources. I do not know that Reagan’s knowledge of the rot within the Soviet economy was based on – or expanded by — his friendship with Lev Dobriansky.

But I do know that Reagan’s policy of building our arms to a point that the Soviets would collapse if they tried to equal us, and then doing it, and then watching the Soviets implode peacefully for the lack of goods, was the A+ answer to Lev Dobriansky’s ultimate final exam.

What Reagan thought was every bit as out-of-step as what Lev taught. What Reagan did amazed the experts and, frankly, upended their quaint notions of inevitable decline.

What happened in the world was a reversal of the Captive Nations list in a period near delirious in its witnessing of humanity’s sprint from the shadow of communism.

And I recall the commentary – the talking heads – and the op-eds, all amazed that the Soviets would deflate that way. How could it have happened? They were . . . inevitable!

Not if you had taken Lev Dobriansky’s Soviet Econ, Mr. Expert. The rot Reagan used as his fulcrum from which to move our world had been vividly described as the exquisite corpse of communist dreams by Lev in 1977, 76, 75, 74 . . . Perhaps you had been distracted by supporting a liberation movement that created another Captive Nation? Lev, on the other hand, was simply upholding the dignity of communism’s enslaved millions.

Reagan also remembered Lev. Had Reagan been elected twenty years earlier, who knows? Lev might have been his Vernon Walters, his Bill Casey, his Jack Matlock or perhaps his Jeanne Kirkpatrick. But by the 1980s, Lev was near retirement. In one of the greatest plum-book postings of all time, President Reagan named Lev ambassador to . . . the Bahamas.

In his later years Lev again busily remembered – and called on us to do the same. He became a leading advocate for a Victims of Communism Memorial, now installed near the U.S. Capitol.

He died on the last day of January 2008. His daughter Larissa, who inherited the female version of that voice, is an attorney in Washington. His second daughter, Paula, is undersecretary of state for global affairs and democracy. A Harvard Ph.D., Paula was trained in Soviet affairs, served at the National Security Council for two presidents and has tirelessly aided the march to freedom, respect for natural rights and democracy in almost every nation her dad once identified as “Captive.”

Lev showed us — in his days out of fashion – how remembering can be revolutionary.

He remembered what the peoples of the Soviet Empire could do – before Commissars told them what they had to do. He remembered that economic systems must be judged in contexts that go beyond land, labor and capital to include natural rights, freedom and the rule of law. He remembered the Captive Nations. He remembered the Victims of Communism. And he showed us that living in the “now,” with the smart set, is living without memory, and is its own form of debilitating captivity.

For a course in Soviet Econ, not a bad set of lessons. As a guide to the history of the world for the 25 years that followed my taking his class, it was one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Lev Dobriansky, hetman, thank you. God bless you.

Chris Robling is a principal at Jayne Thompson & Associates in Chicago.

Published by the American Conservative Union Foundation
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