The Plank

The State Of Russia

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Everyone is writing about Russia these days. And in Moscow, Putin is planning for the future, elevating his defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, to the post of deputy prime minister. Whether this means that Putin is going to definitively throw his (considerable) weight behind Ivanov remains to be seen (the other major candidate to take over the Russian presidency is Gazprom chairman Dmitri Medvedev).

In some of the long pieces on Russia, a new conventional wisdom seems to be emerging about the role that privatization and neoliberal reforms had on the country's educational and intellectual climate. Here is Michael Specter in The New Yorker a few weeks ago:

When Yeltsin instituted the economic reforms known as "shock therapy," in 1992, prices soared and the costs of publishing a newspaper became prohibitive. There were no advertisements, and subscriptions all but evaporated, along with whatever innocence remained. The moral tone of the journalistic world began to shift, from idealistic to mercenary. The practice of writing biased news articles for money became routine even at the best papers. Restaurant owners, businessmen, and public officials knew that the right price would bring them favorable coverage almost anywhere. "It would be good to say we had our hands clean at all times," Raf Shakirov, who later became the editor of Izvestia, told me. "We tried. But it was done by everyone. Absolutely everyone."

And here, writing from a rather different ideological perch, is Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books:

Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century--and for long periods been its virtual raison d'etre.With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level. The number of scientists fell by nearly two-thirds. Russia currently spends just 3.7 per cent of GDP on education--less than Paraguay. University salaries became derisory. Just five years ago, university professors got $100 a month, forcing them to moonlight to make ends meet. Schoolteachers fared still worse: even today, average wages in education are only two-thirds of the national rate. According to the Ministry of Education itself, only 10 to 20 per cent of Russian institutions of higher learning have preserved Soviet standards of quality. The state now provides less than a third of their funding. Bribes to pass examinations are commonplace. In the press and publishing worlds, which had seen an explosion of growth in the years of perestroika, circulation and sales shrank remorselessly after 1991, as paper costs soared and readers lost interest in public affairs. Argumenty i Fakty, under Gorbachev the country's largest mass-circulation weekly, sold 32 million copies in 1989. It is now down to around three million.

And finally this:

All this was demoralising enough for an intelligentsia that, whatever its internal disputes, had always taken its role as Kulturtrager for granted. But with the starving of the universities, the decline of the press and the infantilisation of television, came a further alteration. For the first time in its history, money became the general arbiter of intellectual worth. To be needy was now to be a failure, evidence of an inability to adapt creatively to the demands of competition. Pushed by economic hardship, pulled by temptations of success, many who were formed as scholars or artists went into business ventures of one kind or another, often of dubious legality. Some of the oligarchs started out like this. The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, 'political technology' (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.

--Isaac Chotiner

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