Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Renaissance of Talent

Recently a representative of the San Marino International Academy of Sciences gave an honorary degree to Fyodor Poddubny, a respected doctor of sciences. The degrees of this academy are prized in the scientific world, and in Russia there are very few members. But this award is interesting not only because of this.

Fyodor Poddubny is a man with a unique history. Unique and, at the same time, very typical of the changes that have taken place in Russia over the past few years. This man belongs to the still fairly small class of legal millionaires. But a few years ago he was in jail for economic crimes. The prosecutor asked for the death penalty, and Poddubny spent a year on death row.

Even children knew that under socialism everybody was supposed to have the same lifestyle. It was risky to try to separate yourself from your peer group. The motto of those days was: "Ne vysovyvaisya" (Don't stick out).

A strong, unpredictable personality could disturb the balance and calm of the socialist society and carried a hidden threat of destruction. Talant is a time bomb in the foundation of socialism. and even if the Communist regime used gifted, original people for its purposes, its attitude toward these people remained one of mistrust.

The list is long of people who were famous all over the world but in their native U. S. S. R. were subjected to humiliation. Many leaders in the world of culture, whose only sin was their inability to use their great gifts to become conformists, led tragic lives. Hundreds of writers, artists, musicians, were forced to find new homes in the West. But it was most difficult for those whose talant was their enterprise. Workers who in a free society would have become businessmen and managers were considered criminals. So-called economic crimes were punished with extreme severity, up to and including the death penalty. These pseudocriminals had as their only crime their desire to raise the productivity of labor using elements of a market system. They represented a serious threat to the planned economy, highlighting its helplessness and demonstrating the profitability of market principles. The rigid state monopoly could not forgive this.

There were many harsh sentences meted out to talented entrepreneurs. At the end of the 1960s, for example, the case of Boris Royfman caused a great stir. He established a highly profitable enterprise for the manufacture of fashionable knitwear using waste materials from state factories. Approximately 50 factories and collective farms were implicated in the case, and dozens of stores. It was impossible to name a person who suffered from the fact that a fine product appeared in the stores, and the state made money from taxes. Nevertheless, 10 people were sentenced to be shot.

Fyodor Poddubny headed the All-Union School for the Training of Secretaries and Office Workers. The school had a good reputation, and in the 1970s was judged to be the best of its kind. It did not receive government funds - it earned money itself. The director of the school had many commercial contacts with other enterprises and used the laws of the market. Now Poddubny remembers that for many years he felt how the government's dissatisfaction with his work was growing. Finally, at the end of 1984 he was arrested with no warning, in a manner calculated to humiliate him as much as possible - he was handcuffed right in front of his class.

He was accused of grand larceny. He did not admit to any point of the indictment and signed no confession, despite the insistence of the investigator. In order to break his will, the authorities put him on death row for a year.

Poddubny remembers how barbaric were the means used to break him. For several nights they tied two prison dogs to his door; they howled incessantly. For six months he was not summoned for interrogation and he was not allowed to see his family. His cell was sprayed with poisonous chemicals. For hours on end they held 75 men in a small cell - six of the men died.

But Poddubny would not confess. The idiotic nature of the accusations was illustrated by the fact that the court gave him a very mild sentence - three years of forced labor. This was in 1985, the beginning of perestroika.

After one year Fyodor Poddubny was released for good behavior. He not only started his favorite enterprise again, he widened his sphere of activity considerably. Under the new conditions his activities no longer provoked suspicion. He became a professor, rector of the Interstate Management Institute, president of the international association Referent. He is the author of several books, one of which is an attempt to apply the famous book by Dale Carnegie book to new Russian businessmen. But more than anything else Poddubny is proud of his institute in Slavyansk, a small town in the Donbass region, where classes are conducted by teachers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and even from far-away America.

Today we hear fairly often that after decades of totalitarian rule Russia will need several generations to find a way out of the present crisis. But it is pessimists who talk that way. In Russia, even after all the repressions, there are many talented inventors. and the fact that under the most unfavorable conditions the country did not lose the ability to spawn these energetic people is a guarantee of its renaissance.

Today's inventors have many problems. But they are not the same problems which they faced a few years ago. Fyodor Poddubny looks at the future with optimism. He says: "After you've faced a hurricane, a storm is no problem".

Sergei Leskov writes on scientific and economic topics for Izvestia.