Well, first of all, it's funny. Really. I don't mean it's filled with jokes, but Dmitry Orlov has a very humorous and biting style. This humorous approach serves two important purposes:
1.It makes the book enjoyable to read.
2.It helps the reader develop a certain healthy detachment from the subject matter.
If you can see the humor in the situation, it can lessen the melodrama of the Cold War in the past, and the collapse of both the Soviet Union (past) and its mirror twin the United States (very current).
Orlov observes that the citizens of both the U.S. and the S.U. were targets of marketing campaigns that successfully developed intense brand loyalty. In each country, it was forbidden (either legally or through intense peer pressure) to advocate for the other brand. The U.S. was for capitalists (Yes, we're #1), and the S.U. for communists (Da, we're #1), and never the twain shall meet.
Those benighted residents of countries other than the US and the SU were often forced to choose sides; particularly in the smaller countries when well-armed and well-funded sales reps showed up to make them a deal they couldn't refuse.
Orlov's demonstration in the first part of the book of the similarities between the two countries helps further this detachment, just as he does later in the book with his description of the differences between both empires. What is perhaps most interesting and intriguing is his pointing out that although they appear to be mirror opposites, things are not that simple. Each contains yin-yang-like the opposite of itself, so that the Soviet Empire had a strong entrepreneurial nature (which manifests most obviously through the huge black market), and the American Empire has a strong communal nature, which manifests through community groups and the high-level support of charitable organizations. Orlov even states that Americans make better communists than the Russians, because they are much more willing to live communally.
For the American reader, however, it is the differences in preparedness for collapse that are most important. It's not that the Russians intentionally prepared; it's that their society's condition inadvertently prepared them. The collectivization of agriculture changed, as Orlov says, Russia from Europe's bread basket to Europe's basket case. It was a massive failure. So Russians started their own kitchen and neighborhood gardens which eventually, although only 10% of agricultural land, were estimated to produce a staggering 90% of the country's agricultural products.
Housing was another issue. The Soviet Union's housing program was as bad as its agricultural program. There was always a major housing shortage, and families were required to live in crowded conditions in ugly concrete housing monstrosities. And yet...everyone was housed and the state owned the buildings. When the collapse came, everyone was still housed, because there were no bankers to foreclose on their homes.
Transportation was another important issue. The Soviet Union never dismantled its passenger rail system, as the U.S. began doing in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. So intercity travel remained as good (and as uncomfortable in many cases) as ever. Within the cities, housing was built by the state only where public transportation was available. Few people could afford (and even fewer needed) automobiles. When the crash came, transportation continued as before. Buses, trolleys, trams, subways continued to move residents throughout their cities.
In many smaller cities and most towns in the U.S., public transportation is poor at best, and transportation to outlying suburbs is nonexistent. A huge percentage of Americans are dependent on their personal cars for transportation. When the collapse comes and gasoline is prohibitively expensive (if even available), the choice will no longer be food or fuel. Except...millions of Americans need fuel to get to, or earn the money to pay for, food.
The book is filled with useful information, but I think the most important is the need for social capital. This is the good will and trust built up among people over time as a result of frequent social and cooperative contact. Orlov describes how the people in Russia who got by best were those who networked with friends and neighbors, giving when they had something, receiving when they didn't. This seemed to be even more essential than the barter system, which was also very important and heavily used.
I've already given several copies of this book to friends. I think it's an excellent manual filled with useful tips, and even more importantly, a guide to the psychological and emotional attitudes that will be necessary to survive in much of the world as we all encounter the tribulations of Peak Oil and Economic Collapse.
- Mick Winter