Uncle Joe gets a makeover

As an amateur student of 19th/20th century Russian and Soviet history, I am more than a little curious about the ongoing activities to rehabilitate Uncle Joe – Joseph Stalin. The CBC ran a story about this trend today on the 50th anniversary of the Kruschev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin.

Apparently a lot of Russians are beginning to long for the ‘good old days’ when the Soviet Union was a world power. According to the interviewee, Russian teens can be seen sporting ‘CCCP’ tee shirts as a hip and cool statement. In fact, it would seem that in public opinion polls, Stalin is about as popular in Russia as George Bush is in America right now (which doesn’t tell us too much).

On the surface, this seems incredible. The guy is known to have caused the deaths of at least 20 million people. He purposely starved the Ukranians. He had millions placed in the Gulag for use as slave labour. Every few years, he had a large percentage of his senior leadership killed just to make a point. A pretty brutal guy all round.

But, dig beneath the surface a bit. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was considered one of two world powers. He was the guy who beat Hitler (at least in the minds of Russians). He created the nuclear bomb. Soviets dominated in sports and were leaders in many, many areas. Sure, the terror cut a wide swath but if you are alive in Russia today and you are comparing today against the 1950s (when economists around the world were heralding the Soviet model), you may get a little nostaglic. Heck, take the subway in Paris and you’ll see references to the Soviet era. Do the same in Sao Paulo – you’ll see stations named after that period. Russia was at the epoch of world power and influence under Stalin.

Now, demographers are forecasting that the Russian population will drop in the next 50 years to the level of a mid sized player. It is unlikely that Russia will remain even among the top 10 or so countries in the world in terms of its global influence. Democracy has brought freedom and freedom has brought economic and social decline. This may rebound, of course. Russia may once again emerge as a global player for its economic development, its innovation, its arts and culture. But not now.

Don’t ge me wrong. I am certainly not an apologist for Stalin. Far from it. But it is becoming abundantly clear to me as I study these things that a country’s identity in the world means something. It’s role. National pride, and the like.

So, as with all things for me these days, I bring this little lesson back to New Brunswick. What gives us collective pride? When asked “What’s so great about New Brunswick” how do we respond? Is it our long tradition of pumping out great musicians? Not according to the local industry which characterizes us as a laughingstock for our continued poor performance at the ECMAs. Is it our economic prowess? Do people say “Look at that economy, wow!”? Is it our performance at the world’s sporting events? Writers? Economists? How about politicians? Are we known for great leaders?

What is the effect on our collective psyche when we hear continuously about being the most overweight, the least active, the most illiterate and on and on population in Canada? How do we respond when we hear about another neighbour leaving New Brunswick? Another small town mayor complaining about economic decline?

It seems to me right now New Brunswickers are a pretty resigned bunch. Resigned to the fact that we are in decline. Focused on the here and now. Let’s take care of today and let the future play out as it will.

My wife always jokes with me about our collective inferiority complex. Coming from a city of 16 million people and a global player in sports, finance and culture, she chuckles whenever we drive by the ‘world’s longest covered bridge’ or the world’s largest axe or lobster or highest tides or largest potato or blueberry or whatever. Why, she asks me, are New Brunswickers so obsessed with size?

I dunno, I respond, how about those Leafs this year?

If you are expecting a big crescendo where I solve all the world’s problems in 18 words, no such luck here. My gut is that our chronic economic problems are the main driver of our collective ‘inferiority complex’ (but I would say that, wouldn’t I – note the title of this Blog). But consider this. It is a documented fact that out-migrants from New Brunswick are more educated than those of us that stay. They leave for economic reasons. More educated folks tend to (though not always) be more sensitive to health concerns. More interested in arts, culture, etc. When we say goodbye to thousands more New Brunswickers each and every year we lose something beyond their earning potential and economic impact. I can’t quantify this but most of the NBers that I know that have left have been bright guys/gals that went on to have successful careers outside our borders.

Back to the issue of ‘pride’. What makes New Brunswickers proud. I am sure everyone has a different take on this but the phrase ‘Frank McKenna’ seems to come up a lot in polite conversation. Just last week I had another person spontaneously longing for the ‘good old days’ in the 1990s when New Brunswick was known for something. When national stories were written about McKenna ‘poaching’ jobs from British Columbia. When the governor of Maine characterized McKenna as his hero.

And his image endures. The economic development minister in Quebec recently said he would be adopting a ‘McKenna’ approach to economic development in that province. Another group did focus groups in Montreal, Toronto and Calgary that found New Brunswick still ranked high among business leaders in terms of business climate. Why? They were asked. McKenna’s name was invoked in Montreal, Toronto and Calgary. But what about Premier Lord? They were asked. Don’t know much about him, was the response.

Ten years later and his reputation endures. In the court of public opinion, it doesn’t much matter that the pure economic results were not as great as the hype. For most of us, he at least tried.

So, in conclusion, I think the Premier, his MPs and government officials should step back and take a long hard look at this province. Not through the PR lense. Not through the ‘how can we spin this’ lense. But a realistic assessment that would conclude that all is not good on the home front. We are last or near last for almost every economic and social indicator not only in Canada but across the US as well. This is not good.

If our fearless leaders would recognize this, tell us this in clear and concise terms, and outline a clear path for improvement – I think most New Brunswickers would buy in. I think we would accept a little less spending on health care. I think we would gladly forego those miniscule tax cuts. I think we would rally behind a serious attempt to address these core issues. And I think it might, just might, feed a growing sense of collective pride that we all, as a province, are taking steps to move this beast in the right direction. So in 50 years or so, they might look back and see the start of the 21st century as a turning point. As a time when New Brunswick reclaimed its place as a serious economy in the North American context.

But that takes leadership and creativity. And we haven’t seen much of that in the recent past.

Back to Joe. There are ways to work together to make a country (or province) great. But coercion, fear, intimdation and outright torture/death is not acceptable. If I was a Russian I would prefer the complete dissolution of the country to that. But I have to believe the Russians will make a comeback. I have to believe that at their core, the Russians are survivors. Something inbred in the DNA. In 50 years, if I should still be around, I’d put money that Russia will still be a global player.

Check back to this blog in 50 years or so to find ou