Roundtable “Five Centuries of Modernizations” was held in the House of Economist on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. The keynote report was delivered by Georgi Derluguian, Professor of Macro-sociology at Northwestern University (Chicago, the USA). He showed that all the three waves of Russia’s “overtaking” development under Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and the Bolsheviks were caused by military victories in Europe scored with the help of Russian peasantry, which supplied the army with soldiers and all other necessary things. Georgi Derluguian

However, over the past five decades, since Khrushchev’s “thaw” Russia has been solving a very complicated task to preserve its status of a great power. There are no combat actions on the European War Theater and peasantry, as a traditional mobilization resource, has exhausted its potential.

“Former successes have become non-reproducible. In the pacified post-war Europe any Soviet-style geopolitical achievements are impossible. Peasants have been replaced by intelligentsia and city dwellers, actually by our parents and us. These people have one or two children, live in apartment houses, receive higher education, are ready to work eight hours a day and go on vacations once a year, i.e. people who have started acquiring specific features of the middle class,” Derluguian said.

As a result, since the death of Josef Stalin, attempts to modernize the country basing on market relations and legal norms have been repeatedly alternated with “reactionary backsliding to glorious experiences of the past, to breakthroughs a la Suvorov or a la Stalin.” Where is Russia’s relative location today?

In the opinion of the American professor, “It looks very much like we are on the verge of a mobilization cycle.” The centralization of power achieved n the country shows its extreme inefficiency. Vladimir Putin has created at one and the same time an “under-consolidated democracy” and an “under-consolidated dictatorship.” “The power lacks both an efficient enough democratic state and an efficient enough dictatorial state.”

In this situation the only method to bring the competing factions of the ruling elite under formal control is to grant them the possibility of feeding themselves like is was in the Middle Ages. However, this method of governance has two big minuses. First, it is impossible to control their feeding and see “to what extent they ruin the economy trampling everything all around.” Second, officials with the right to feed “obey orders only if they meet their interests.” An efficient state structure must carry out even disadvantageous instructions.

Conclusion: if as a result of political rivalry an efficient state system emerges in Russia, “it will be possible to speak of right-authoritative or left-liberal reforms.” i.e. a new wave of “overtaking” development (modernization) will start. However, Derluguian is positive even if an efficient system does not emerge the country will not be without the future. “Latin America exists in a similar situation for almost 200 years already,” he said.

Professor Derluguian arrived in Russia in December to receive the “Social Ideas 2010” prize he was awarded for his book “Bourdieu's Secret Admirer in the Caucasus.” Thus, his attendance in the Roundtable became possible. A very alarming for any state symptom hit the eye of the American scientist in Moscow: “enormous pressure towards ostentatious consumption.”

Derluguian recalls that the elite of the medieval Rzeczpospolita Polish-Lithuanian state as well as the elite of the Ottoman Empire robbed their peasants to export grain and other farming products and imported “what every elite needs – luxuries and mad luxuries like today’s Rolls-Royce and Maybach limousines (by the way, I’ve never seen the latter in the United States).”

As a result, the once-mighty Rzeczpospolita and the Ottoman Empire decayed and ceased to exist:  their national wealth was spent on unworthy purposes instead of modernization.

***Yuli Nisnevich

Yuli Nisnevich, PhD (Political Sciences), argued Derluguian’s “historical analogies” claiming “they simply don't work today.” The professor at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) gave his own definition of modernization: “the adjusting of something which already exists to modern conditions.”

However, “Russia today is a disintegrating country, which needs a total reconstruction rather than any modernization,” the opponent to the key reporter was positive. “Moreover, it is being disintegrated by the state power itself, not by someone else… and it is simply impossible to modernize the disintegrating matter.”  Therefore, all those pathetic statements about modernization are actually imitational and designated to deflect attention of the society from problems which are truly painful. As a result, “the authorities imitate certain activities and citizens live on their own” and pay no attention to the authorities.

Nevertheless, Nisnevich agreed with his vis-a-vis from Chicago, “the most painful problem for Russia today is corruption. But it is also a key problem for the modern world in general. Out of 193 countries only 22 or 23 have a low level of corruption.”

The HSE professor called “nonsense” the corruption countering efforts by the government because this government itself was formed “on the wave of political corruption.” Instead of empty talking about mobilization and a curb to corruption “they should pay for being brought to power by corruption.”

Replying to a query “what is left for the Russians here and now,” Nisnevich called on everybody to engage professionally in one’s own business. “If each of us on his working place stops talking a lot of hot air and starts doing what he knows, the situation will start to change. Not at once! Mentality will not amend. There will simply emerge people who by their own example and deeds will attract the others. It is the only thing that could be done in reality. I’m always accused of pessimism. But there is an old joke: a pessimist is merely a well-informed optimist.”

Nisnevich also presented an original concept of mentality, which according to him “is one’s stance towards the universe and every individual has his own mentality” that cannot be amended.


Sergei Gavrov Sergei Gavrov, PhD, addressed the report’s thesis that modernizations in various countries were the result of a “historic luck” after “a country was first frightened and then left in peace.”  For this country, a period of big scare was the Time of Troubles after which for almost the rest of the 17th century Russia remained face to face with its problems having time to prepare for a modernization to be carried out by Peter the Great. During those years the West was preoccupied by wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, and the East – by lethal clashes between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

“Japan had similar luck when Admiral Perry attacked Edo (Tokyo) in 1853,” Derluguian insisted. “But then the Americans had their own Civil War and for twenty years Japan disappeared from the list of their priorities. Meanwhile, the British had their geopolitical interests in China and Japan was simply lucky to be left in peace. The Japanese were severely frightened but got breathing space.”

Gavrov, professor at the chair of sociology and social anthropology of the Institute of Social Engineering and a leading associate with the Russian Institute of Culturology, believes, “They failed to frighten us to the core, we were not frightened completely enough to start reforms, to start modernization, to start to concentrate. Our defeat in the Cold War was somewhat unclear unlike, say in the Crimean War where it was absolutely clear. We lost Sevastopol, we lost the Black Sea Fleet and Russia started to concentrate.  What must happen today to make Russia start concentrating?”

Prof. Gavrov believes that Russia will soon find itself standing on a forked road: “either we move further to disintegration or there will be a next modernization leap.” He asks himself: Do we really need to preserve Russia at all? What for? After all, in the era of explosive globalization it is possible “to be just citizens of the world and calmly and professionally offer one’s services to whoever is ready to pay well for them.”


David Konstantinovsky David Konstantinovsky, PhD (Sociology), did not agree that the report centered on the notion of “the state” while it would be more precise to speak about “the nation” or “the society.”  Every society is heterogeneous consisting of very different strata each of which is living in its own time: “Someone could live in the second quarter of the 21st century, someone – in its beginning, someone – in the 20th century and maybe someone still lives in the 19th century.”

Therefore, Konstantinovsky, professor at the Institute of Sociology under the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the most vitally important question is which strata is exactly at the helm of the state: “The question for our country today is who will guide it.”

Konstantinovsky believes that the technological revolution that gave the world the Internet and social networks has seriously complicated the job of the authorities in this country and all over the world: “Rulers are struggling to find new models of conduct and governance. We saw ourselves that in the life of our country it happened already several times that some actions of the authorities were initiated by those networks.”

Responding to Nisnevich’s criticism of Russian sociologists, Konstantinovsky noted: “One of my marvelous colleagues once said:  there are hunting dogs, service dogs and decorative dogs. Next time when you see a VTsIOM report, think what kind of sociologists prepared it.”


Alexey Nikolsky Stage director Alexey Nikolsky viewed modernization from the standpoint of his professional interests. On the one hand, modern theaters today emerge in Russian regions where governors are theater-goers themselves (Vladikavkaz, Yekaterinburg, Elista etc.)

On the other hand, more and more often top positions in the sphere of culture are occupied by non-professionals. Even the federal culture minister is a career diplomat. Consequently, agencies run by those culture bureaucrats also recruit non-professionals to their staff. In the theater, stage directors who quite recently were “lords and masters” are out-shadowed by managers. The latter, with full consent from their bosses, are trying to transform theaters into autonomous institutions.

“That’s modernization for you! It would seem you are absolutely free and free from any responsibility too. But immediately the theater fails to perform its educational functions, which is tantamount to a cultural and moral collapse and a sort of transition to the pink-collar sector. Only one function remains – entertainment. I quite agree that we are not just approaching Latin America but might find ourselves somewhere far deeper,” Nikolsky said.

Nikolsky, who teaches Theory of Stage Direction at the Higher School of Scenic Arts Workers, expressed special anxiety with the switch of the national theater education to the so-called Bologna system. It’s hard to find any pluses in such “modernization” while it might simply kill the famous Russian drama school.

However, theaters undergo technical modernization all over the world not only in this country and not without paradoxes. While in the best theaters stage lighting involves state-of-the-art technologies, sound, on the contrary, tends back to the pre-electronic age: “Microphones, earphones, loudspeakers and all the exquisite and expensive audio equipment is scrapped and gives way to live sound. Live sound is back on stage as well as live orchestras. Old specialists are in high demand. But their number is shrinking rapidly.”

***Denis Dragunsky

Political scientist, author, journalist and scriptwriter Denis Dragunsky argued Nisnevich’s thesis that modernization and reconstruction are different notions. “In a generalized sense modernization could be presented as reconstruction,” he said.

Dragunsky (Cand. Sc., Philosophy) cited a clear example: “If I modernize a backhouse this does not mean that I would plate the wooden toilet with gold. I will simply destroy the backhouse and build a modern WC. My actions will be perceived as modernization but in fact they are a complete reconstruction.”

Dragunsky called to look at generations that will presumably carry the burden of the country’s modernization. In his opinion, those who were 20 in 1990 and those who were out of their teens by 2010 “present two absolutely different generations,” the sons of strong fathers and the sons of weak fathers respectively.

“People who were 20 in 1990 had strong fathers from the post-war generation. Those fathers born from 1946 to the 1960s had behind them the Great Victory, the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the mass distribution of passports to collective farmers, the Cheremushki construction boom, Gagarin’s space flight and many other glorious events. The parents of those who are 20 now have hardly survived through the 1990s.”

As a result today Russia has little “human potential” for any serious breakthroughs, which is an objective obstacle on the way of modernization. Author Dragunsky does not see any way out of this situation. Another objective obstacle is the nation’s enormous natural wealth. In West Europe “the relative rural congestion started to develop in the 15th century” making European nations search for various ways to raise living standards: overseas colonization, market competition, industrialization, etc. In Russia, the relative rural congestion emerged only in the 1880s and only in its European part.

But “when the country became unable to earn from land it immediately started to earn from oil.” In other words, “we never tried to live in the absence of natural resources which normally plays the role of the main stimulus in a context of urbanization and modernization. Therefore, in this respect we are facing great difficulties.”

***Igor Kuznetsov

Novelist and literary critic Igor Kuznetsov was extremely pessimistic in assessing chances for Russia’s modernization. He cited his own experience of electoral campaigns in Russian regions. The latest one was held in one of the districts of the Moscow region and ended in October. “The campaign gave me a strong feeling of inadequacy with this world,” said the member of the Russian Writers’ Union and of the Moscow Writers’ Union.

“We worked with real authorities. Besides that from the very beginning they could not raise even a modest sum for the work, they are utterly helpless and can do nothing. Absolutely nothing! And they only laughed when we asked them how they could run the district. They even have forgotten how to steal,” he said.

Kuznetsov sadly joked that “even corruption does not work there.” “It’s awful, but they cannot even steal or take from the local business money timely and enough to carry out one targeted action. They simply can not!  It is they who need to win those elections, to win the majority and continue to do something. But they can do absolutely nothing! They are impotent to organize work during just six weeks,” he said.

Concluding his remarks, Kuznetsov asked the gathering: How could someone plan to modernize something with such authorities in the regions? The question remained hanging in the air being merely rhetoric.

***Victor Biryukov

Victor Biryukov, member of the Board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, who initiated this roundtable discussion, noted that in the information epoch, modernization could be achieved only through transition to a “knowledge society.” A condition of success in this is that everybody must switch on their brains: ideals of Homo Callidus (Man the Clever) must replace ideals of glamour, entertainment and idleness.

The Skolkovo project should be assessed in this context: "Even if we fail to build a new Silicon Valley near Moscow, guidelines have been set up properly since there is simply no other way. We like to take cue from the United States. But it was the American science that formulated the rule: When you don't know what to do, do something. This rule has also another wording: Chaotic action is better than orderly inaction."

Since the key report was delivered by the American scientist, Biryukov draw attention to a rather specific and unique experience of the United States. It is assumed that the US got out of the Great Depression thanks to WW2. But it is often ignored that the US authorities spared no efforts to teach the population to think. Seventy years ago, the whole country starting from the Oval Office was filled with posters carrying a one-word appeal: Think!

Biryukov quoted German author Erich Maria Remarque as writing about his US experience, "’Think!’ was inscribed on a mahogany panel attached to the wall of the elevator. More than once I've noticed this lapidary appeal to think… “

Every now and then citizens were asked to switch on their brains. As a result, the multinational rabble reshaped into the nation that modernized the country and transformed it into a super power. Eventually, ‘Think!’ posters disappeared. For Russia it is absolutely normal that the “Skolkovo way” to the innovative society was opened upon a command from above: the bigger a country, the stronger should be central authorities and their influence on every citizen.

Biryukov believes state control over major mass media might become a major competitive advantage because it provides a possibility to make knowledge fashionable in the broad circles of the society. As an example, he held up the Academia project on the Culture Channel of Russian TV where brilliant scientists deliver lectures to the whole country.

Biryukov proposed to gradually squeeze pop music from television.  “Well, unlike the Culture Channel other channels earn from commercials. But who said advertisers don’t want to see their ads in clever programs? By the way, in this case ads will have to become cleverer too. The post-industrial society is often called writocracy – the supremacy of those who write and comment over those who read and listen. Today it does not take long to disseminate any data and make sure they will be mentally welcomed.”

Speaking on economy’s dependence on people’s mentality, Biryukov referred to remarks made by Vladislav Surkov, first deputy head of the presidential administration and deputy chairman of the Commission for Economy’s Modernization and Technological Development, during a recent meeting of the Board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

“Our problem of mentality… a many-century problem is that for ages we used to produce mainly raw materials. They were different raw materials – firs, hemp and grain in the 19th century – and exchanged them for off-the-shelf equipment… We have been genetically coded to produce raw materials while all fabricated goods from luxuries to tools necessary for production were to be bought somewhere else… I don’t believe that this problem could be solved strictly through legislation. The problem is rooted deep in our mentality,” Surkov said.

Such extensive disparagement of the nation’s wealth originates from the horse transport dominated pre-industrial epoch of almost total ignorance. Only the “knowledge society” is able to put an end to such attitude and help Russia regain its status of a global leader.


Alexander Novikov Traditionally, the event was moderated by Alexander Novikov, member of the Board of the Free Economic Society of Russia. For the complete records of the discussion see the websites of magazine “Our Power: Deeds and Persons” and Victor Biryukov.


The Roundtable was the 6th in the series of discussions launched a year ago upon the initiative from Victor Biryukov, member of the Board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and with support of magazine “Our Power: Deeds and Persons.”

At the previous similar discussions:

– on September 22, 2010, the keynote address “Mentality and Economy: National Formula of Modernization” was delivered by Alexander Auzan, PhD (Economics), president of the National Project Institute Social Contract, member of the Council for the Development of Institutions of Civil Society and Human Rights under the President of the Russian Federation and member of the Board of the Institute of Contemporary Development;

– on June 23, 2010, the keynote address  “Diversification: socio-cultural aspects” was delivered by Professor Sergei Kara-Murza, PhD (Chemistry), chief associate with the Institute for Social and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences;

– on April 13, 2010, the keynote address “Diversification for the viewpoint of labor market” was made by Yevgeny Gontmakher, PhD (Economics), board member of the Institute of Contemporary Development and deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences;

– on February 10, 2010, the keynote address “Diversification: myth or reality” was delivered by Ruslan Grinberg, PhD (Economics), corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences;

 – on December 9, 2009, the keynote address “Diversification of Russia’s economy” was delivered by Academician Viktor Ivanter, PhD (Economics), director of the Institute of National Economic Forecasts at the Russian Academy of Sciences.