1. From the lectures, projects, and practices I learned and saw in Russia, what impressed me the most and why.
Typically in a module, half the learning comes from experiencing the brief immersion in another culture. And in typical Russian fashion, I am left with a sense that I must use art or poetry to describe it, as it is too nuanced and multi-faceted for mere prose. But lacking skills in either of these arts I must save the worried reader and weave words a best I may.
As with most of the students, I was very impressed with Sergey Pospelov, a Deputy in the Duma. Specifically: an extraordinary ability to actively listen, paying attention to everyone with a laser-like focus. Watching him actively listen was actually a very good learning experience. By listening so carefully, he left the listener feeling empowered and important, and respected. His lecture on multistakeholder management was very good, but certainly nothing I had not heard before – just delivered with more intensity and credibility (it is noted that his was perhaps the only, or one of only two lectures in the whole module where all students had their phones down and their computers closed, even our two very busy French executives). But then how does this extend to Russia as a whole?
Let us back up. I heard a snippet somewhere that the last years of Yeltsin’s rule as President were focussed on selecting a replacement. This implies that either that there is a certain expectation that Russian elections are anticipated in advance; or alternatively, that certain individuals are selected and groomed by the governing authorities. Certainly both are true in the West; but by comparing Sergey’s rise in the Russian bureaucracy one is left with the impression that his skills are those that are valued by the Russian leadership and that certain innate skills are being groomed. What then are the skills that are valued by the Russian leadership, and then supposedly also by the Russian people, and how do those values translate into metropolitan governance policies?
Perhaps there is a partial answer in the recent news, that President Putin spent 4 hours on TV answered unfiltered questions from the Russian public, which were sent by text or phone. Some of these comments were certainly not complimentary. A national leader opening himself up to such public derision is not something I normally associate with the dictatorial oligarchy that the Western press would have me believe. Does this indicate the Russian government is pursuing a type of democratic culture which has little tradition in the West…one which combines the aristocratic leadership arts for the most part lost in the West (which include factors like the respect for authority, focus on dignity and respect, but also strategic manipulation of players), with extremely high transparency, and a certain resignation to the corruption of many? Is there some philosophical adherence to Plato’s concept of the Philosopher King, adapted and melded through what are considered the best aspects of Christianity and Communistic take-care-of-thy-neighbour belief systems, and expressed in the modern context? Did Mr. Pospelov introduce us to this very Russian style of democracy, through his words and actions? If so, what results do we see on the ground?
Let us consider what we saw that works and what we saw that does not work in Russia. Diligent entrepreneurs that produce quality goods and services, and are smart with the market, are performing well. We also saw firsthand that backroom dealing is very much alive in Russia; yet, that extremely wealthy characters, whose backgrounds most of the students questioned, would bother to spend time and money on a few Western students, indicates a possible desire amongst the lower-level oligarchs to integrate into a more open and prosperous Russia. Not a Western-style open and prosperous, but one with a more reserved and cautious outlay. Dare we say socially conservative, or does that carry too much intellectual baggage from America?
We saw for the most part, St. Petersburg does not work. Lecturers were staid, semi-Soviet, and contradictory (for example, I asked about flood control, and the lecturer said that there are no floods in St. Petersburg, while a later lecturer spoke in detail about flood after flood). Perhaps St. Petersburg represents an older Russia, one more beholden to Soviet forms of business…or alternatively one where the Russian Imperial ways of doing business never really quite died. The fact that Gazprom would build the tallest office tower in Europe not in downtown St. Petersburg, but far outside the city, tall enough perhaps to be seen from a Finnish fishing boat, seems to say something. That the new Russia is both bypassing St. Petersburg because St. Petersburg is refusing to catch up while including it at the same time. Sounds like a stereotypical Russian contradictory symbiosis to me.
We saw for the most part, Moscow does work. The metro system is enviable. Streets are clean, petty crime is low, buildings and infrastructure are maintained, prosperity is increasing, talent is accruing, businesses are successful, efficiency is being maximized through digital technology. I genuinely enjoyed Moscow, except for the Kremlin where I noted a propensity for creating complex administrative systems that require great amounts of waiting in line. We learned through our readings that Moscow was a den of corruption only ten years ago, and street crime was intense. There seemed to be some credit given to the new mayor for this.
I also noted during my independent trip to Yaroslavl and Rostov that the rest of Russia seems to be more like St. Petersburg than Moscow. In Yaroslavl, a church of such cultural significance it is denoted on the 1000 Ruble note is not marked in any way and is falling into decay, sitting between a factory and a freeway. In Rostov, the train station has extremely poor safety protocols, while all businesses appear to be struggling.
In all Russian cities, I also noted a juxtaposition between quality and mediocrity. The fine arts, fine cuisine, and architecture were often very refined, extremely detailed; and world-class, while everything else was mediocrity. There was little of the sort of range one might find in the West. Things were either quality, or not. I appreciated that if they were not, they were not packaged as if they were. This juxtaposition carries through to governance. We see some of the best in the world, and also a lot of the worst.
In a roundabout way, I come to my opinion, that what impressed me the most about Russia was the quality of governance. Not in most places, but where I did see quality governance, I saw something at the same time more transparent that Western political obfuscation (say it loudly enough, often enough, and people will believe it) while more grounded in both essential values and making no overly positive assumptions about human nature. Realpolitik for the good.
2. What influence did the Russia module have on my problem statement.
My problem statement related to mega-infrastructure linkages between large cities, up to and including thinking of the corridors as linear cities. In this, Russia had the potential to influence my thesis in terms of the Moscow-St. Petersburg corridor. However, I learned that Russia, or at least the part I saw, is in many ways an ocean of trees, with islands of humanity connected by (mainly) railways. This seems to be the case across most of Russia, except perhaps in the south where agriculture is more predominant than forest. Hence, the influence on my thesis was fairly negligible.
I did, however, have some discussion about the idea of re-settling Russia through land grants. Russia does have a program to give out 1 hectare of land. I argued that 100 hectares would be more appropriate, as that is enough land for a family to support itself. In my arguments, I was motivated by my findings from my thesis, which in essence were that if families have enough land, with secure tenure, they can then build the kind of economic security and wealth that leads to development of new cities, enrichment of the whole society, and economic decentralization. In essence, I think Russia could benefit from my thesis.
3. Blog: Is Moscow a Pioneer of Democratic Metropolitan Governance?
Synopsis: While the West is busy demonizing all things Russian and inward-looking due to an ongoing Culture War, Moscow’s metropolitan governance systems are now arguably more democratic and technologically efficient than those in the West.
This situation is due to two separate but highly inter-related non-military wars: the Western Culture War and the resurgent Russia-West Cold War. The latter is being fomented in the false narrative and belief of communism-turned-tyranny in Russia vs. capitalism and freedom in the West. The former is, on the surface, a war between the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’; however, as argued by Rod Dreher, a self-declared Marxist, in a letter to the American Conservative on July 4 2019, is actually a war between radical subjectivist individualism and a belief in the primacy of objective reality over subjective experience.
The essence of Mr. Dreher’s argument is that in the 1960s, Western Marxists were evaluating why Communist revolutions had not occurred in the West. Over the next 30 years, they adapted Marxist into Critical Theory (CT), which combines Queer Theory, Whiteness Studies, Postcolonialism, moral relativism, gender fluidity theory, amongst others, eventually becoming the radical subjectivist individualism of today. CT adherents seek to overturn most existing societal structures. He argues that they were successful in creating a CT which came to dominate academia, many of the mainstream Western churches, and the all-powerful judiciary; but in the process, abandoned the foundation aspects of Marxism. Dr. Dreher provides a philosophical history of this transition.
Mr. Dreher argues that those in the West who oppose CT have falsely labelled CT as neo-Marxism. This is where the resurgent Cold War has its ideological roots: that Western leaders and ideologues who oppose CT are ultimately blaming Marxism, and by extension, Russia, which is viewed as Communist (Marxist)-turned-totalitarian (neo-Marxist). He also indicates that adherents of CT engage in defamation of Russia as a strategic way to prevent the general public from thinking about CT as neo-Marxism. He declares Marxists and those Westerners that believe in an objective reality must work together to oppose the rise of CT.
Mr. Dreher’s discussion is consistent with a number of other studies I have encountered over the years, that have shown that radical secular individualism (the modern ‘Left’) has its roots in 1960s Marxist thinking. His perspective however rounds out the philosophical history of CT and how it now has no ties to Communism, or by extension Russia.
Regardless of the philosophical perspective of the reader, it is clear the Culture War in the West is draining energies and talents. Directly, through negative discourse leading to deadlock at the political level, and high government spending on policies and programs that relate to ‘Left’ issues, such as multiculturalism, mass immigration, intersectionality, and LGBT rights. Indirectly, in terms of individuals, especially bureaucrats, working in a culture of fear, where giving offence to some newly-defined minority or victimized subgroup can quickly lead to careers ending. The bureaucrats create work networks that make it difficult to pin blame on any one individual but also considerably slow down government processes.
The Culture War is more severe than is commonly believed. In mid-2018, Stratfor, a prominent geopolitical analytic consulting agency based in Austin, Texas, issued a public evaluation of the potential of an armed conflict between the American “Left” and the American “Right”. The report came to the conclusion that although ideological differences today are far greater than those between the “North” and “South” before the American Civil War, the US Military is far more powerful today relative to the State National Guards of the 1850s, and the US Military is also highly loyal to the duly-elected President of the United States. The analysis highlights a potential weakness of great significance: if the US Military, or a large portion of its membership, are convinced that the President is not duly elected, the potential for a second American Civil War is high.
Conrad Black is a prominent Canadian journalist, who became an American media mogul. When the Mueller report stated, in December 2018, that there was no evidence of an organized Trump-Russia collusion to support the election of Donald Trump, Mr. Black wrote an article in the Canadian National Post (NP) newspaper on March 28 2019 that the support of anti-Trump elements in the US Secret Services to create and support a false narrative was one step short of “tanks on the White House lawn”, that is, a coup. According to Stratfor’s analysis, the sort of coup that Mr. Black was concerned about could have triggered an armed civil war.
These wars are part of everyday life. In the halls of Calgary International Airport on June 28, 2019, the University of Calgary, a major university with over 30,000 students, has posted a large ad, approximately 3m tall by 4m wide. The ad reads verbatim,
“What’s the future of democracy?
“Around the world, democracy is eroding. Fake news, foreign interference and partisanship are only a few of the threats facing our institutions. Our researchers study such issues …because the more we understand these forces, the better prepared we’ll be for what’s coming.”
I think it’s fair to say that when an anglo-North American, and perhaps any Westerner, hears the words “foreign interference”, their first reaction will be thoughts of Russia. This brings us to the second war: the resurgent Cold War, in which the Western propaganda machine is thoroughly anti-Russian. This is reviewed in a paper issued in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2005 (Vol. 19, #1, pp. 151-174), written by Harvard Professor Schleifer and UCLA Associate Professor Treisman. The paper reviewed a large number of factors relating to economic development, freedom, democracy, etc., and found that Russia sat squarely in the “normal” range for middle-income countries; and also showed convincingly that Russia is rated much more harshly that is warranted on at least a dozen international rankings. The paper concluded that Russia is unfairly targeted by the West as a dictatorship and as a threat.
As of 2019, this has not changed. The US Government recently issued its annual Ranking Report on Religious Freedom. Russia was categorized in the worst class, beside Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. This seemed untrue to me, so I looked into the document. Saudi Arabia bans all churches and Bibles, including Christian worship at home, and executes people by beheadings, stoning, and even crucifixions. Russia has declared Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a cult, a de facto criminal organization that uses false doomsday prophecies to secure assets unethically from their membership, and has declared the organization illegal. Surely banning all Christians and crucifying Moslem converts to Christianity is more reprehensible than banning a particular sub-branch of Christianity which is arguably a criminal organization? I would argue that this clearly shows that Russia is being judged more harshly than Saudi Arabia.
On June 28 2019, President Putin was interviewed by the British Financial Times. His statements are evidence that Russia is deliberately blocking CT. I reviewed coverage of this interview, which was posted on both Russia Today (RT) and NP. This is what I read on RT:
“Though it’s attractive in general, liberalism has overreached on multiple issues, such as immigration, and is now ‘eating itself,’ Valdimir Putin said, just days after he’d suggested that the ideology has failed Western societies…he called liberalism ‘obsolete’ and said it has now come into conflict ‘with the overwhelming majority of the population’.”
On the National Post, the wording was very similar, so in this case I trust the reporting by RT.
My view, having visited and studied Russia for two weeks, is that Russia has abandoned Communism and is now on a path of development parallel to Western-style development, but one that is bypassing the drain of the Culture War.
What does that mean on the ground for metropolitan governance? In this we must use Moscow as a case study, as it became apparent to most (all?) of the students in our Russia IGLUS module that Soviet-style thinking remains prevalent in the governance of St. Petersburg, while my tour of two provincial towns outside Moscow indicated that either despondency or apathy are prevalent in many Russian municipal governments. This is not to say there have not been spectacular successes in St. Petersburg, but there have been more failures; and I am also bypassing the challenges that UNESCO has placed on some Russian cities (including St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl) by acting almost as another level of municipal planning department. We did hear criticism of Moscow unfairly pulling in resources from the rest of Russia, but from the places I saw, other parts of Russia are ofte not yet appropriately using the resources they do have. My informal observations have been supported by my small number of Russian friends.
We saw for the most part, Moscow works. The metro system is enviable, with fast trains running every 60-90 seconds (although I found the clean busses do not always show up). Streets are clean, petty crime is low, buildings and infrastructure are maintained, prosperity is increasing, talent is accruing, businesses are successful, efficiency is being maximized through digital technology. Heritage buildings have been retrofitted, the new modern business centre is a wealth of modern architecture, and old housing is being replaced with a straightforward and simple program of mass housing. Playgrounds and art are everywhere, a green network unifies the whole city, drivers are diligent. There are apps for everything: taxis, municipal taxes and documents, maps, directions. Traffic is terrible but there are few freeways and the public transit system is aggressively expanding. This expansion is occurring at a rate that is unimaginable in a Western city, whether from a legal or engineering standpoint. We learned through our readings that Moscow was a den of corruption only ten years ago, and street crime was intense. The transformation is incredible, downplayed as it is by the Russian cultural propensity to focus on the negative. There are strong, practical, best-practice data here that planners around the world could use, and don’t know about them because Russia is “the bad guy”.
In Moscow, we saw that diligent entrepreneurs that produce quality goods and services, and are smart with the market, are performing well. We also saw firsthand that backroom dealing is very much alive in Russia; yet, extremely wealthy characters, whose backgrounds most of the students questioned, would bother to spend time and money on a few Western students, indicates a possible desire amongst the ‘shady’ part of monied society to integrate into a more open and prosperous Russia. Not a Western-style open and prosperous, but one with a more reserved and cautious outlay.
What does a new Russian administrator look like? Well, we met one. As with most of the students, I was very impressed with Sergey Pospelov, a Deputy in the Duma. Specifically: an extraordinary ability to actively listen, paying attention to everyone with a laser-like focus. By listening so carefully, he left the listener feeling empowered and respected. He spoke of the need for finding common ground, strategic stakeholder management, and using your intelligence to prevent deadlock. Similar to the Western equivalent, but I felt he would be less restrained to disagree or speak back to a member of the public that he felt had inaccurate information. I also felt he did not have the sort of fear of giving offence that exists with most public officials in North America. When I saw him listening and speaking, I always found myself thinking of a chess player…paying close attention and thinking 6 steps ahead. I could see Mr. Pospelov turning a whole community consultation meeting into a mass negotiation, without worrying about the bureaucratic and chain of command.
Considering Mr. Pospelov’s rise in the Russian bureaucracy, one is left with the impression that his skills are those that are valued by the Russian leadership. What then are the skills that are valued by the Russian leadership, and then supposedly also by the Russian people, and how do those values translate into metropolitan governance policies?
Perhaps there is a partial answer in the recent news, that President Putin spent 4 hours on TV answering unfiltered questions from the Russian public, which were sent by text or phone in real time. Some of these comments were certainly not complimentary. A national leader opening himself up to such public derision is not something I normally associate with the dictatorial oligarchy that the Western press would have me believe. Does this indicate the Russian government is pursuing a type of democratic culture which has little tradition in the West…one which combines the aristocratic leadership arts for the most part lost in the West (which include factors like the respect for authority, focus on dignity and respect, but also strategic manipulation), with extremely high transparency, and a certain resignation to some level of corruption because that is human nature? Is there some philosophical adherence to Plato’s concept of the Philosopher King, adapted and melded through what are considered the best aspects of Christianity and Communistic take-care-of-thy-neighbour belief systems, and expressed in the modern context? Did Mr. Pospelov introduce us to a new and uniquely Russian culture of democracy, through his words and actions?
In a roundabout way, I come to my concluding opinion, that what impressed me the most about Russia was the quality of governance. I saw something more transparent than Western political obfuscation while more grounded in essential values, more tolerant or human foibles and the occasional argument, while making no unrealistic assumptions about human nature, and where leaders seek to be more dignified rather than conforming to the lowest common denominator. Realpolitik for the good.
Moscow recently hosted its annual Moscow Urban Forum, with representatives from 70 countries. With or without the barriers to the West created by the resurgent Cold War, Moscow as an example of good metropolitan governance will spread in Russia and much of Asia. It behooves IGLUS students to understand the Russian thinking behind governance, and its technical expression, both because it will increase in influence in much of Asia, and also because there are hard lessons for Westerners to think about.
This piece is the original writing of the author(s). The view points in the post is the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect IGLUS/EPFL’s viewpoints. The author(s) is the sole responsible person regarding the accuracy of the information presented in the post and will be liable for any potential copyright infringements.