Russia and Modernisation

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‘Can Russia Modernise?’ was the title of the 2013 BEARR Trust annual lecture delivered by Professor Alena Ledeneva, Professor of Politics and Society at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

The event took place at EBRD headquarters on 25 June and was held under Chatham House rules. spoke to Professor Ledeneva about Russia, modernisation and modernity a few days before her visit to the Bank.

While you were studying in Siberia in the 1980s how modern a society did you think the Soviet Union was?

I never asked myself that question! We had little exposure to any other experience. We could only travel within the Soviet Union so there was no real comparison.

But when I went to rural areas for field research I was struck by scenes I could never forget. There were elderly people living in Altai and Novosibirsk area in very primitive accommodation, sometimes not even in built homes and on practically non-existent pensions.

There was a sharp difference between those and the conditions people lived in Akademgorodok, where I came from. That was a fantastic place to grow up: liberal KGB, open political debate, an experimental range of theatre, dance, art and music, including jazz festivals, even a beauty contest, unheard of in the Soviet Union.

You said you never had any real exposure to any other modernity. Did you believe the Soviet regime’s rhetoric that it was a very advanced society?

I grew up amongst physicists who were really at the cutting edge of their subject. Some went to CERN in Switzerland and some to the US. I, personally, didn’t travel till 1988 but I remember NYC ballet and the Thriller videos brought back from the West. So there was a sense in which something was happening in the West that we wanted.

But I never felt we were not modern, especially given the propaganda about space and how our society was so successful. But then there was also a sense of reality because I worked in the department of Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the author of the much discussed - and leaked - Novosibirsk report which revealed the actual state of Soviet rural areas.

When you look at Russia today, how modern does it look and how modern is it, do you think?

The thing about Russia is that you can never say one thing that would be right. It’s always multi-faced, double edged, ambivalent. For example, when you look at Moscow it is almost post-modern. In terms of people’s proficiency with computers and the internet, creativity, literature, theatre and art, clubs everything is so incredible that it contributes to the most vibrant urban space you could imagine.

In many Russian cities in fact things work very well and you even get a smile at a Sberbank branch, which, to me, is a micro-indicator of the modernisation of the service sector.

But if you go beyond 101th-kilometre mark outside Moscow or other big cities, the situation seems different, as if from the past.

What do you think can be done to surpass the main obstacles of modernisation now?

The most obvious is the modernisation of the oil and gas extraction industries. If you can’t modernise yourself, if you’re locked into the system you’ve created, if you can’t modernise the network-based system of ‘manual steering’ governance, then you must find a way to modernise the industry that feeds the country, or to improve infrastructure. And that is not happening. Even more difficult is what I call reflexive modernisation – an ability to consciously avoid the ‘modernisation traps.’

Do you think that the fact the economy is likely to grow at a fraction of the rate it was growing a few years ago will actually be a catalyst for modernisation?

Russia is in fact doing much better than most countries in Europe in recovering from the 2008 crisis. Many macro-economic indicators of the economy have been impressive. One gets used to so-called Russia-bashing, which is omnipresent in the western media, but actually things are not as bad as you sometimes read.

What do you mean by the ‘post-modern’ character of the capital?

The term comes from the postmodernist movement in the arts and literature, associated with ideas of ‘deconstruction’. In many ways, Russia’s modernity coincided with the fairly isolationist communist period that is now superseded by fairly extravagant integration into the rest of the world.

You have medical tourism, educational tourism, legal tourism, and ‘pendulum’ family patterns in which men work in Russia but the rest of their family lives abroad. People acquire property abroad, speak other languages and lead a global lifestyle, so that you see the same people in the boxes at Chelsea FC and at a business forum in St Petersburg.

The latest trend is to rent out your apartment and go live in Asia. So it’s no longer a Europe-centred modernity. Russia is changing fast, faster than our clichés about it.

Professor Ledeneva’s latest book is: Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance.

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