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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mixing Ingredients in an Economic Laboratory

"If you were given the choice between taking goods and gold, both worth $10, what would you prefer?" asks a short, gray-haired American man of a dozen students sitting in a lecture hall at the Moscow Aviation Institute.


Half of the students raise their hands to choose goods and are told to stay out of the ensuing discussion, which heats up immediately as the energetic Dr. Wayne Gertmenian peppers the students with questions. "What are you going to do with this gold?" he demands, waving his hands and jabbing the air to emphasize his point. "Gold isn't wealth. Goods are what are valuable, what people want, what they can trade for other goods."


The scene is a familiar one to the grinning students of "Dr. G." Once a high-level negotiator for the United States during some of the chilliest days of the Cold War, Gertmenian now visits Russia three times a year to teach the children of his former adversaries, in 10-day seminars on the "Fundamentals of a Market Economy."


The students are not the only ones who enjoy Gertmenian's vibrant lectures. "I fell in love with teaching," said Gertmenian, who gave up his career in government and business for the world of academia.


After years working for the National Security Council, the Department of Commerce and the Department Housing and Urban Development, as well as a stint as vice president of Ready Pac, a leading food processor, Gertmenian says standing behind a classroom desk in Russia or at home is just as rewarding as sitting at any diplomatic or boardroom table. "When I close the door and I'm with students, I'm in heaven." said Gertmenian, who is now a professor of economics and management at the graduate school of business at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. "It's great to watch the students changing, to watch them grow."


Gertmenian, whose parents were born in Armenia, started coming to the Soviet Union for the Nixon and Ford administrations, as the chief d?tente negotiator of the National Security Council. "This country was gray," he recalls. "Everybody looked gray. Nobody smiled. I was amazed at how depressed people were."


At one of his meetings in the '70s, Gertmenian said he suggested to a senior official with the state building commission that the economy was headed for an eventual collapse. "Give me a call when it happens," he remembers saying.


The call came more than 10 years later, and resulted in Gertmenian teaching his first seminar in Georgia at the invitation of Eduard Shevardnadze. His students this time were not fresh-scrubbed undergraduates, but senior state officials. The lectures were not on macroeconomic theory, but how-to lessons on stimulating economic growth in developing countries. "They wanted to know how to run a country's executive branch," he said.


Several years later, he began teaching at the Moscow Aviation Institute, where about 300 students and professionals have been awarded certificates after successfully completing his course.


With a course flier promising "a clear road map to prosperity," Gertmenian sees his role as not just an economics professor, but as a messenger bringing theories of capitalism and social change.


"If this seminar is about anything then it's about changing people's mentality here," he said.


And as well as the major changes, Gertmenian has seen some more subtle ones in his more than two decades of visiting Russia. "Russians smile now," he said.


As an economist, Gertmenian says this chance to witness such a fundamental shift in a nation's economy -- as well as the opportunity to influence a future generation of policy-shapers -- is what draws him to Russia.


"This is a great laboratory that's not ever going to be seen again," he said.