On August 22, 2012 Russia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) as its 156th member. What does it mean? The WTO is a club of countries that promise to liberalize trade with each other and resolve their disputes by following legal rules. As with other clubs, to join as a member means to agree to act in appropriate club-approved ways.
And what does the WTO have to do with Alexandr Pushkin? Pushkin’s great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (it placed the author on par with Shakespeare and Homer, according to many) described life in Russia in the early 19th century, including wonderful little details about Russia’s foreign trade of that period.
In Chapter I of “Eugene Onegin” Pushkin describes the dressing room of his protagonist, a St. Petersburg dandy, a description that is well worth being quoted today (in excellent James E. Fallen translation):
“Shall I abandon every scruple
And picture truly with my pen
The room where fashion’s model pupil
Is dressed, undressed and dressed again?
Whatever clever London offers
To those with lavish whims and coffers,
And ships to us by Baltic seas
In trade for tallow and for trees;
Whatever Paris, seeking treasure,
Devises to attract the sight,
Or manufactures for delight,
For luxury, for modish pleasure—
All this adorned his room,
Our sage of eighteen summers’ bloom.
Imported pipes of Turkish amber,
Fine china, bronzes—all displayed;
And purely to delight and pamper,
Perfumes in crystal jars arrayed;
Steel files and combs in many guises,
Straight scissors, curved ones, thirty sizes
Of brushes for the modern male—
For hair, and teeth and fingernail.
So 200 years ago, Russia exported raw materials (tallow and timber) and imported luxury consumption goods for the rich. Today Russia exports raw materials (natural gas and oil) and imports luxury consumption goods for the rich. We will have more to say on this blog about continuities and discontinuities in Russia’s history.