Russia revisited

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison was back in Russia recently and shares some of his observations.

(Robison) I am just back from a trip to Moscow where I was part of a conference on higher education issues involving present and past Russian university rectors meeting with some of their west European and North American counterparts.

For a very long time I traveled there frequently, in the old days of communism and the Soviet Union. Going there now is a very different experience. There is modernization, but there is also much that hasn’t changed.

During all those years of dealing and negotiating with various Soviet officials, I allowed myself to believe that most of what I found frustrating about those encounters had to do with the fact that they were Communists. Well, I was wrong. It was, and is, because they are a proud people who share relatively few of the seminal, formative, historical phenomena of the West. I have in mind here the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 18th century enlightenment and the early 20th century ideas that are usually labeled as “Wilsonian democracy.”

Many of the Russian cultural reference points are much different from what one would find in Western Europe or in North America. This visit brought back to mind the exceptionally perceptive writings of the Marquis de Custine, who made a trip to Russia in 1839 and wrote a journal of that trip. His reflections on Russian culture, disposition, ideas and attitudes were as prescient as those de Tocqueville had written six years earlier about America.

Much of what Custine wrote could very well have been written 25 years ago, or even last week.

That said, Russia is indeed in many ways rushing into modernity. At least that is true of the major cities and the of the major institutions, certainly including Russia’s major universities.

My sense is that the most dramatic change in Russia change even greater than the expensive shops, greater even than the appalling traffic jams – the most significant change is, I believe, the free flow of information.

In the old order, first the czars and then the communists kept tight control over that huge country so vast that it spans eleven time zones by tightly controlling the flow of information. That control of information, coupled with instilling a deep and profound sense of fear across the entire population, allowed a few people to control an empire.

Today, that fear is gone, or it is at least seriously diminished. Information really does flow freely. Cell phones are absolutely everywhere and they work. I was very pleased to find that my Austrian cell phone worked as well there as it does in London or Vienna.

The Russian friends with whom I spent these several days are as Russian as they ever were. Why wouldn’t they be? But they are now looking outward. And they talk openly of the problems they and their institutions face. The point is that they speak freely, openly, candidly.

Way back in 1839, the Marquis de Custine noted in his journal, “The Czar is the only man in the Empire with whom one can talk without fear of informers.” No more. There is an openness now to which all those cell phones are testimony, which suggests that, for the first time in all of Russian history, secrecy and fear of informers no longer govern. And that, dear friends, is a transformation.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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