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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Get Bad Deal in Marketplace for Ideas

Consumer societies have come up with a lot of elaborate ways for protecting consumers from poor quality or damaged food products, cars, vacuum cleaners, etc. -- but what about consumer protection from bad ideas? The consequences of putting "defective" theories into practice can be considerably more grave, lasting for years and affecting entire nations.

For this reason, it is incumbent upon politicians -- particularly when political or economic ideas are at risk of actually being implemented -- to set forth their plans in a clear and comprehensible form, such that they provide the basis for well-informed debate.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In Russia, such debate is conspicuous by its absence. The government does not bother to set its case out in an intelligible manner and the opposition's criticism has a tendency to be equally vacuous -- possibly because there is very little of substance with which it can engage.

In this regard, George Orwell is essential reading for today's Russia, and not so much his anti-utopian novels, "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four," as his essay "Politics and the English Language," which offers penetrating insight into the use and abuse of language for political ends. The central thesis of the piece is that vague language and unclearly expounded ideas provide a smokescreen allowing politicians to get up to all kinds of mischief.

Russia's problem is precisely the absence of clearly expressed ideas. This may explain why there are so few authoritative voices and opinion makers in this country.

Although, perhaps it is simply that there is little demand for experts capable of assessing a policy proposal in an unbiased fashion. The majority of pundits who could offer criticism of government initiatives are themselves either on the payroll of the state or work in various Western-financed think tanks. Independence is hard to come by, because few can afford it.

To give an example, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry recently announced a tender for conducting a study on the consequences of Russia joining the WTO. The ministry has allocated $100,000 for a comprehensive study that should help to bolster Russia's negotiating position. According to estimates, this sum is about one-seventh of what is needed to carry out a proper study on the 14 branches of industry that will be affected by Russia's accession to the WTO.

Furthermore, the tender states that in order to avoid a conflict of interests, the experts entrusted with conducting the research should not be directly affiliated with the government nor wholly funded by Western organizations or governments. So who could apply? Yegor Gaidar's Institute of Economies in Transition, Yevgeny Yasin's Expert Institute, the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis -- and that's about it.

Add to this the acute shortage of independent mass media outlets that could serve as a genuine forum for lively debate and the picture starts to look pretty bleak. There are no longer national private television channels providing serious news and analysis that are not somehow connected to the state, while many other media projects have been compromised by their reliance on financing from big businesses with political agendas.

One explanation for the weak demand for independent opinions can be found in Russia's history. Right up until the 1990s, the country did not have a free market of ideas. Political ideas were always borrowed from the West -- as a rule after they had been discredited and were well past their sell-by-date. This was the case with: "Moscow as the Third Rome" in the 15th century; Peter the Great's "Westernization"; the phony enlightenment of Catherine the Great; Alexander III's narodnost; Lenin's Marxism. And one might extend this to Gaidar's free market capitalism ? la Chicago school.

In other countries, where the marketplace for ideas has been freer and more vibrant, life has been easier. An idea or theory put on the market is immediately subjected to criticism and commentary from all sides. Many perish under this barrage and are consigned to oblivion, while some of the more robust ones survive -- but often in a significantly different form from how they started out.

In contrast, Russians have often had to learn to survive in a Kafkaesque world created by people who have had a chance to implement ideas conceived in their deranged minds and never subjected to criticism or scrutiny.

The idea that Russia -- or indeed any other country -- needs a single all-encompassing "national idea" is complete nonsense.

Russia's marketplace for ideas was launched somewhat later than was the case in the West -- with a lag of about 500 years. Our last ideas monopoly -- the Soviet state -- functioned like most other monopolies. It controlled supply and the huge pent-up demand maintained the value of words at exorbitant levels. The authorities tried to ensure that only "correct" thoughts entered circulation and in order to get published, an author needed to have the sanction of the Soviet Union's central bank of ideas -- the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Dissidents were considered forgers committing crimes against the state.

On bookstore shelves across the country, a handful of out-of-date ideas gathered dust, while citizens went to great efforts and expense to get their hands on anything that was prohibited -- from theories on the Jewish Masonic conspiracy to samizdat copies of American self-help books.

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the country suddenly flooded with all manner of ideas. The result was not all positive as the value of words went into free fall. Even now -- more than 10 years later -- any opinion, worthy or unworthy, stands little chance of being heard. It seems that people have switched off.

This is why repressive actions by the state (like closing a private TV channel or jailing journalists and entrepreneurs) have been met in Russia with a muted, inarticulate mumble rather than clearly voiced criticism.

The Kremlin is attempting to bring the mass media under its control but there is actually no need for it to do so. The authorities should simply maintain the status quo.

There are some rays of light, however, in the general picture of doom and gloom. One is the situation on the contemporary Russian fiction market. 2000 and 2001 saw book sales of first-class writers, such as Boris Akunin and Tatyana Tolstaya, take off, while the pulp fiction is starting to lose ground as publishing houses' main cash cow.

What we need now is a similar rise in the activity of forums for political and economic ideas and theories.

Otherwise this country will forever remain a pathetic testing ground for defective ideas.

Maxim Trudolyubov, foreign editor of Vedomosti, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.