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Analysis & Opinion
08.09.10 The Storm Of History
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

A storm on Russia’s northwestern Lake Onega began to seriously rock the five-deck riverboat “Kronstadt” last Thursday, just as the boat’s travelling party of some 90 Russia experts from around the world brainstormed whether Russia should move “forward to Asia” or “backward to Europe.” While participants continued to debate within the wider context of “Russia’s history and future development,” which was the topic of this year’s session of the Valdai Discussion Club, some chairs in the hall fell down and the session leader made predictable jokes about the stormy nature of the subject.

The discussion continued despite the rocking, as some participants busily filled out questionnaires. For the first time in the history of the club, which was co-founded in 2004 by RIA Novosti, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Russia Profile, the participants came up with the Valdai Index of Russia’s development. Four days later this index was presented to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during the traditional meeting in Sochi.

The expert panel’s conclusions are hardly satisfactory. According to the index, Russia is sliding into stagnation, if it is not already there. Grading, which was on a ten-point scale, from minus five to five, and involved the input of 25 experts, revealed that compared to 2009, Russia has slightly improved only on external factors. It was given a “plus one” rating on both diplomatic activity and its role in providing regional and global security. The country’s political system has worsened by one point. The remaining six aspects which the experts were asked to evaluate – economic attractiveness, the vector of development of civilization and culture, openness to the outside world, economic development and the human dimension – were overwhelmingly judged not to have changed at all.

“Modernization continues to remain a slogan rather than a real political course,” said one of the commentaries in the anonymous expert poll. While oil and gas continue to be the main sources of income, corruption persists and innovation is “close to zero.” Russia can keep running like this for another ten to 15 years, but it will be an “obvious regress,” – another expert said. The degradation of the political system, on the other hand, could put the country’s much prized stability at risk.

The comments made in the anonymous poll reflected much of what was said during the panel discussions onboard the boat, which were held under Chatham House rules. In the session on modernization there was obvious consensus that modernization is hardly possible in the present conditions of corruption and a decline in education. One of the group’s leaders suggested that, in order to prevent the term from being compromised in the public’s eyes, the government should drop the slogan and concentrate instead on dealing with the consequences of Russia’s disastrous 20th century history, by building monuments to the victims of Soviet repression and investing in human capital. In other words, adhering to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s program of “preserving the people.”

A sense of disillusionment with President Dmitry Medvedev as the perceived liberalizing force who could reverse Putin’s authoritarian trends was also evident in the discussions.

The Journey Beyond Gulag

The trip’s itinerary was very fitting for the conference’s theme of Russian history. The ship was meant to go from the imperial capital of St. Petersburg to the Island of Kizhi, located in Lake Onega and famous for its 18th century 22-domed wooden church. The original schedule also included a stop at the Valaam Archipelago in Lake Ladoga, well-known for its large monastery. But because of the storm, the excursion to Valaam was replaced with a stop on the Svir River, which connects lakes Onega and Ladoga. From there delegates went to the nearby Holy Trinity Monastery, which is still in the process of being restored to its former beauty from its Soviet-era incarnation as a prison-turned-psychiatric hospital. The ship stopped in the town of Svirstroi, previously the site of one of many labor camps on the route from St. Petersburg to Kizhi. When on the first day participants gathered for a lecture by St. Petersburg historian Anatoly Razumov, entitled “The Sites We Pass,” most expected to hear about Peter the Great building his navy here and about the beauty of ancient churches. Instead, they listened to a heart-breaking account of the gulag and the techniques used by the NKVD, including gassing and shootings as well as burying many prisoners alive. Some participants argued that without a full realization of Russia’s horrific past, without both figuratively and physically burying Lenin, Russia cannot move forward. Others questioned what the country’s “national myth” would be if its history was thoroughly condemned. For many, the answer was that Russian high culture could fill this role.
As is customary at Valdai sessions, the core group of political scientists, analytical journalists and former politicians of different stripes, from leftwing to rightwing, was supplied with specialists on the topic discussed. This year the conference included such renowned historians as Richard Pipes, Geoffrey Hosking and Dominic Lieven from outside Russia, and Sergei Mironenko and Andrei Zubov on the domestic side. Zubov’s presentation of the much-debated “Russian History: 20th Century” textbook he edited was for many the highlight of the conference.

Pipes said he was surprised by the openness and quality of the discussion. “I was very impressed – first of all with the freedom of the discussion,” said the Harvard University academic of Polish descent on the sidelines of the conference. Known for his critical attitude toward Russia, he added that “The Russian participants were more critical of the regime than the foreigners. Secondly, history was invoked – not as much as I had hoped, but enough. It happens rarely, and the whole thing was at a very high level.”

Internal Debate and Outside Observers

Pipes was not the only one who noted that Russian participants were on the whole more critical than those from other countries. “It was the first serious attempt on the part of Russian participants to understand and debate in front of foreigners their own history, to not only answer emotionally – are we good, are we bad, why are we so terrible? – but to actually say what parts of history were necessary, what parts can we learn from,” said Toby Gati, a Russia specialist with the Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm.

But Fiona Hill, director of the Center for the United States and Europe at Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution, noted that there were in fact two separate dialogues. “Most of our Russian colleagues were talking among themselves about the past and future of Russia, and the rest of us, foreigners, were observing and making comments on intra-Russian dialogue,” Hill said in an interview. “It’s extremely useful for us to understand what the intra-Russian dialogue is, but it also means that we are outside observers and we are not going to play that much of a role in this debate. Maybe it’s not a bad realization for us at all.”

Although the discussants presented very divergent views, there were few moments when the debate became really heated. One of the few memorable examples came when a liberal Russian participant strongly opposed a Western political scientist of the so-called “realist” school, who said that the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky should not be likened to the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov.

Changing the Same

And as is the case with any discussion of Russian history, the underlying theme was whether Russia is capable of change over centuries. One participant said in a private conversation that if the ever-skeptical Richard Pipes said from the podium that Russia is changing, things must be really changing. Pipes confirmed this in an interview. He said that discussions like Valdai, where people from extreme left to extreme right come to discuss things, opposition rallies, no matter how small, and the government’s diverse reaction to them are meaningful. He singled out the public campaign in defense of the Khimki forest and the Kremlin’s concessions to public pressure as particularly important.
“The fact that the government yielded to public pressure is very unusual in Russia,” Pipes said, “I am not too optimistic, I think it is a slow process, but things are moving right now in the right direction.”

After almost four days on the boat, the participants returned to St. Petersburg to hear an upbeat presentation by the city governor Valentina Matviyenko. On Sunday, the group took the high speed train to Moscow and on Monday, after an off-the-record meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom participants deemed far less confrontational than usual, flew to Sochi to meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Director of the Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at Georgetown University Angela Stent, who is one of the founding members of the Valdai Discussion Club, said after the widely covered dinner with Putin that the Russian leader appeared more at ease than in any of the previous six annual meetings of the group, and is likely to stay in power.

“Looking at him and the body language, he obviously feels comfortable in the current situation. But we won’t rule out that he would run for president again,” Stent said in a telephone interview. She stressed that the Russian leader was more positive than he had been in the past, whether speaking about U.S. President Barack Obama or saying that China was “not a threat” to Russia.

As for the Valdai Club itself, the organizers presented far-reaching plans to reform the program to the participants. Apart from specialized mini-sessions on regional issues, which were introduced last year and the Valdai Index presented for the first time this year, the group decided to introduce a fixed membership, elect an international advisory board and eventually create a parallel foundation to raise money and fund specific research projects to be published under the Valdai brand name. The annual conference will also be moved from September to June.
The source
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