“The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent”

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 22, 2011

Vladislav Inozemtsev gives us reasons to be scared for Russia’s future:

The Putin phenomenon reflects the fact that Russian leaders of the 1990s preferred a mediocre officer with no noteworthy achievements to become the new President instead of, for example, experienced if imperfect men like Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov, both of whom were quite popular at that time. The rise of Putin, who barely progressed to the rank of lieutenant colonel in Soviet times and who later became famous only for his corrupt businesses in the St. Petersburg city hall, became typical of personnel choices in the 2000s. Inefficient bureaucrats by the hundreds recruited even less able people to occupy crucial positions in their ministries and committees, content in the knowledge that such mediocrities could not compete with or displace them. As a result, Russian governance suffers today less from a “power oligarchy” than from a dictatorship of incompetence.

Several cases should suffice to demonstrate this “negative selection” problem. Sergei Ivanov is a professional spy who was dispatched for service to London in 1981. After several years, he was sent to Finland (not as a reward for great achievement, as one can imagine), and then to Kenya, where his work resulted in a general undoing of the Russian intelligence network in east Africa. Today, he proudly serves as Deputy Prime Minister in Putin’s government. Or consider Boris Gryzlov, a former engineer who became famous for inventing filters that allegedly could purify water from any type of contamination, even from radioactive particles. (A Russian Academy of Sciences investigation of the filters showed no beneficial effect from their use.) In 2001, he was appointed the Interior Minister, and in 2003 he was “elected” Chairman of the state Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, where he became famous for his opinion that “the Duma is not the right place for debates.” The current Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was the director of a furniture store until 2000 and can hardly differentiate a destroyer from a tugboat. And the list goes on…

Such officials often try to disguise their ignorance by acquiring doctorates or professorships while in office. It is hard for Americans to imagine such a thing, but Serdyukov, who got a college diploma in economics through a long-distance education program in 1994, got his doctorate in economics in 2000 and became a full professor in 2006 while serving as Russia’s tax minister. Today, there are 71 professors among the 450 Duma deputies. (There were none in the 110th U.S. House of Representatives, and only three in the 17th German Bundestag.) The essential feature of the current Russian political elite is one of complete ignorance, intricately if poorly disguised beneath a veneer of scientific degrees. Russia would be only too lucky to be under security-services rule.

As it is, however, no-names continue to come from nowhere to achieve unprecedented success and high-ranking positions. All that they are truly capable of doing is stealing public funds, taking bribes and genuflecting before masters almost as incompetent as they are. Russia has raised the phenomenon of negative selection to heretofore unseen heights. This fact, more than any other, explains its abysmal performance and gives us some basis for forecasting its evolution.

Alarm bells should be ringing in brainpans. How on Earth is Russia supposed to become a functioning country when it is ruled by–let’s be blunt here–dimwits? And how on Earth is it supposed to become a functioning country when the next generation of leaders is hardly better positioned than is the current crop of dimwits to make smart decisions that will benefit Russia, and the rest of the world?

So what kind of leadership will inherit the Russian state? The experience of the past decade suggests that even if the existing system is vulnerable to many external pressures, enough broadly based social groups inside the country benefit from it to keep it going. Ever more people seem willing to join these groups in order to get “their” share of wealth with minimal sacrifice, effort and risk. Under such circumstances, there are various ways of incorporating new members into the current elite without any significant challenges to its power.

Many new recruits will come from Russian colleges and universities. Here several recent trends stand forth. First, Russian higher education today is disproportionately focused on social sciences. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the teaching staff is outdated and inadequate, so the quality of study is very low. Sometimes professors and tutors simply give students their own vision of the situation, and these views are often ideological or expressions of loyalty to the ruling class.

Moreover, some representatives of this class who have never taught before are now becoming deans and chairs of newly established faculties and departments in embarrassing numbers. In the best Russian university, Lomonosov Moscow State University, there were only 17 faculties when I graduated in 1989. There are now 39, and among the new ones you can find the Faculty of World Politics, headed by Duma deputy Andrey Kokoshin, the Faculty of Public Administration, headed by the government’s new Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin, and the Higher School of Television, chaired by ultraconservative columnist Vitaly Tretiakov. All three, of course, are functionaries of the United Russia Party. The rector of the university is, by the way, a member of the United Russia Moscow regional council.

In addition, the system of enrollment has changed dramatically in recent years. Instead of the colleges holding exams, there is now a Unified State Exam, which enables even people from remote provinces, whose high grades are often of dubious provenance, to gain easier access to the metropolitan colleges. These youngsters, virtually from the middle of nowhere and with a very bad secondary education, must compete with their much better prepared colleagues from big cities. Of course, they realize immediately that political loyalties can help them in this unequal competition, which sets the stage for yet another form of feudal exchange.

Today, too, only a small fraction of students can survive on their parents’ stipend money. The majority of young people work during their studies, and they usually work in new Russian companies organized in a Western, hierarchical manner, with traditions of discipline and rationalization of every function (not to mention an unimaginable amount of paperwork). Opportunism in such an environment can seem the only rational course. So the graduate from a small and remote town, who was taught by non-professionals, who is deeply impressed by metropolitan luxury, and who worked for a couple of years in the office of a company that produces virtually nothing, finds himself to be the best possible recruit for the lowest branch of the new Russian elite. With such rural-to-urban people “produced” by the system every year in large numbers, the current regime may feel quite secure in the knowledge that it can absorb nearly all potential troublemakers.

It’s also absorbing complete mediocrity. To be sure, smarts and wisdom are not the only things that can or will help a country prosper, and go from strength to strength. But they are needed, along with other virtues. Alas, it appears that smarts and wisdom are at a premium in Russia, especially when one considers the following:

What about Russia’s best and brightest? What future do they have in a neo-feudal Russia? During the Putin years, government officials made it ever more difficult for liberal young people to engage in any form of legal protest activity. No new political party has officially registered itself in the Russian Federation since the beginning of the 2000s (the two that have been registered, Just Russia and Right Cause, represent a mere allocation of smaller parties that existed previously). Organizing a referendum requires the collection of two million signatures, and even if this requirement were met, most would be declared invalid. All but one regional legislative assembly is controlled by the United Russia Party. At the same time, the government still allows people to leave the country freely. This is no accident. The scale of the outflow of the most talented young prospective professionals from Russia is almost beyond belief. The numbers are not known exactly, but estimates run as high as 40,000–45,000 per year, and about three million Russian citizens today are expatriates in the European Union.

This outflow clearly increases the “density” of mediocrity left inside the country. President Medvedev realizes how dangerous this trend may become and wants to stop the flight by establishing “extraterritorial” scientific centers like Skolkovo, which may evolve into a Russian equivalent of Silicon Valley. This effort is likely to fail—first of all because the Russian authorities now try to attract foreign scholars and those Russians who have already left the country by offering them very high salaries, not taking into consideration the fact that this may also attract those who perceive science more as a commercial activity than a noble quest. Andre Geim, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics last year, has said that he would never return to Russia. This is a very clear sign of what is happening to the country.

It’s nice to know that Inozemtsev does not believe that “[c]ontemporary Russia is not a candidate to become a Soviet Union 2.0.” But we have another problem on our hands. Contemporary Russia is a candidate to become an intellectual backwater, which severely impacts its chances for prosperity, and its ability to serve as a respected and responsible member of the international community. Contemporary Russia is developing a tremendous propensity to make stupid decisions that will harm the rest of the world in one way or another. Contemporary Russia is forgetting its moral obligation to be intelligent. This ought to worry anyone and everyone.

  • ns

    “… the teaching staff is outdated and inadequate, so the quality of study is very low. Sometimes professors and tutors simply give students their own vision of the situation, and these views are often ideological or expressions of loyalty to the ruling class.”
    Was he writing about Russia or the U.S.? Yes, that’s snark, but accurate. I could also comment on politicians here in the U.S. that are willfully ignorant – they may be intelligent but refuse to learn, or why do we still hear calls for more spending?

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