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Wither Mother Russia?

Cultivating Greatness as a Key to Success


Lou Marinoff, Professor of Philosophy,
The City College of New York, USA.

By Lou Marinoff, Professor of Philosophy,
The City College of New York, USA

‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.’ – Winston Churchill, radio broadcast, 1939

I have been invited to write for this Report on the inaugural Global Russia Business Meeting. Please bear in mind that I am a philosopher, and with Russian roots, but decidedly not an economist. So although this article is grounded in political philosophy, it does indeed have direct implications for economics, and so too for business.

A mere sixty-five years ago, and still in living memory of many today, the three most powerful men in the world at the time met at Yalta, to chart a course beyond the cataclysm of World War Two. In 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin jointly wielded more power than any man, or any triumvirate of men, in human history.The geopolitical fate of humankind was being decided in London, Moscow, and Washington. But not for long. The swift disintegration of the British Empire in the late 1940s left only two great powers standing: the USA, and the USSR.World history for the next four decades was largely determined in two cities:Washington and Moscow.

The past twenty years have wrought momentous global changes.Thanks to perestroika, the Soviet empire evaporated more swiftly and pacifically than did Britain’s, while the American empire’s ongoing denouement unfortunately resembles ancient Rome’s. Paralyzed by political gridlock, fractured by social conflict, debilitated by culturally-induced dysfunctions, and showing signs of precipitating a new Dark Age in its wake, America’s decline and fall is as tortuous and agonized as that of Rome’s former Western empire.

Post-perestroika, Russia survived a ‘Wild West’ transition from which has emerged a powerful oligarchy, wielding considerable potential for economic growth. Russia has re-invented herself as a developing nation, an element of the BRIC, early in a century in which the balance of global power appears to be shifting from West to East.This article does not aim to predict the future of Russia; however, it does suggest that some courses conduce to greater peace and prosperity - and thus to better business - than others.

The natural and human worlds alike are governed by laws. In the case of nature, we are not free to flout the laws of physics, chemistry and biology - we are free only to discover them, and to find ways of making them serve (rather than hinder) our purposes. In the case of the human world, the laws are far from crystal-clear.The socalled ‘social sciences’ - psychology, sociology, economics, politics - do not admit of the same exactitude as the natural ones. On the contrary: In some cases, their tenets are so imprecise or arbitrary that they appear barely scientific at all; they often resemble articles of religious faith rather than reasoned inquiry.

Even so, some general tendencies can be reliably observed. For example, economic arrangements - like social ones - are conditioned by the sphere of politics.A given population, with a given pool of natural resources, physical infrastructures and human competencies, will become more (or less) prosperous depending on the political system that governs its economic transactions.The USA, for example, evolved from a constellation of British colonies to the world’s leading economy partly because the Jeffersonian ideal of laissez-faire economics was incorporated in its foundations. By contrast, once-viable economies of many smaller nations have been severely compromised, if not destroyed, by regnant tyrants. I am not claiming that authoritarianism guarantees impoverishment; far from it. China’s economic prosperity is unfolding under the aegis of an authoritarian government; while the recent meltdown of the US economy was caused partly by avaricious abuses of liberty, and partly by insufficient regulation.

What about Russia? First, I can make no pretence to objectivity.My four grandparents all emigrated from Russia and the Baltic states. Russian was spoken (along with English, French and Yiddish) in the homes of my grandparents and uncles, but regrettably was not passed on to my generation. In the 1960s, we had a visit from a Muscovite uncle, a professor at the University of Moscow, with whom we played chess and debated politics. He defeated us soundly at chess, but we won the political arguments, since the Brezhnev regime had forbidden his wife and child to accompany him while he toured what used to be known as the ‘free West.’

Second, I am a child of the Cold War, and thus acquired early fluency in the dialectic of deterrence.The Cuban missile crisis was especially memorable, as for several tense hours the world tottered on the brink of Armageddon.We must pay retrospective tribute to American and Soviet leaders alike, who managed for decades to avert nuclear warfare, if only by the paradoxical threat of Mutual Assured Destruction. Nonetheless, in so doing they taught the world a valuable lesson, writing ‘the book’ on deterrence, which hopefully is still being studied by all current members of the ‘Nuclear Club’, and especially by aspiring ones.

One of the most profound collaborations to emerge from the Cold War was between two outstanding astronomers: Carl Sagan (USA) and Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky (USSR).Together they wrote a delightful book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, in which they transported readers to the leading edges of the galaxy, the cosmos, and state-of-the-art astronomy of the day. Although its title ostensibly refers to extraterrestrial intelligence, I thought it aptly satirized the condition of the times.That is, if we humans were truly intelligent, we’d find a way to transform geopolitical conflict into global collaboration.We are still at work on that problem, but have made demonstrably large strides. I emphasize that our progress to date owes much to the greatness of Russia, and her people.

Any person of scientific or artistic sensibility cannot fail to be indelibly impressed by the achievements of Russian science, and the genius of Russian artistry. Sputnik changed the world forever, and Yuri Gagarin owns the eternal distinction of being the first man in space. Notwithstanding conventional US cynicism over the ensuing space race to the moon, when pundits observed that ‘Our German scientists beat their German scientists,’ it is nonetheless remarkable that the USSR managed to rival the USA for so many decades, given the glaring disparities between their political economies.Marxist command-economies are doomed to fail, for their attempted leveling of inequalities leads to near-universal poverty, and intolerance of wealth; whereas Jeffersonian capitalist economies are doomed to succeed, for their attempted perpetuation of inequalities leads to near-universal aspirations to wealth, and tolerance of poverty.The greatness of the Russian people was manifest in their ability to be competitive with the USA in spite of Marx, not because of him.

The influence of Russian (and Russianinspired) arts and sports on the West - literature, music, chess, ice-hockey - is monumental. During the 1960s, while Russian youth were savoring rock music and blue jeans smuggled through the Iron Curtain,Western youth were digesting classics by Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, and Tolstoy with deep and lasting appreciation. Immortal compositions by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky continue to grace concert stages world-wide. Russian émigrés such as Koussevitzky and Horowitz made lasting impressions on conducting and performance, while the towering novels of Ayn Rand (neé Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum) became mainstays of libertarianism in the once-free West. Another émigré, eminent Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin, described the extraordinary political and social revolutionary ferment of 19th-century Russian minds - Herzen, Bakunin, Belinsky,Turgenev - as ‘the largest single Russian contribution to social change in the world.’ Beyond the revolutionaries ably catalogued by Berlin, in the 20th century there emerged the sober sociology of Sorokin, the passionate anti Social Darwinism of Kropotkin, and the civilizational taxonomy of Kardashev, among other luminaries of Russian social scientific thought.

The brilliant legacy of Russian chess champions is simply unequalled in the game, and the greatest chess encounters in history have featured Russian players - Spassky versus Fischer in Reykjavik, Kasparov versus Deep Blue in New York. The game’s ‘bible’, Chess Openings:Theory and Practice, brims with brilliancies by Russian and Soviet legends - including the likes of Alekhine, Botvinnik, Bronstein, Karpov, Keres, Korchnoi, Petrosian, Smyslov,Tal.

Ice hockey is played around the world, but in only two nations does it transcend sport and approach the stature of a religion: Canada, and Russia.These days, the National Hockey League (NHL) abounds with Russian stars, but Canadians will always remember the 1972 Canada-Soviet series, the ‘summit on ice,’ in which a disciplined Soviet team more than held its own against the NHL’s most vaunted superstars, proving that Russian hockey players could vie with Canada’s best. And in the fiercely competitive, derivative sport of table-hockey, a young Russian player has recently dethroned the long-reigning Swedish Stiga champions. It remains for Russians to discover, and to master, Canada’s definitive Coleco table-hockey board. (If you are up to this challenge, I am a former 3-time Canadian champion, and have a ‘five-year plan’ to get you started.)

Among the books that have had the greatest impact on Western intelligentsia, as well as on popular culture in the 20th century, and which continue to be widely read today, are two by Britain’s George Orwell: Animal Farm (his satire on the Bolshevik revolution), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (his satire on Stalinism). Nineteen Eighty-Four has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, which is astronomical for any book, and that much more amazing for a political allegory with a tragic ending.Written in the UK, it owes its substance and soul to Russia.

Following World War One, a good many idealistic Western intellectuals embraced varieties of socialism or communism as putative remedies against excesses of imperialism and capitalism. But after World War Two, and the emergence of full-blown totalitarianism from the political Left, the most disenchanted and prescient of these intellectuals - including Orwell and Hungarian émigré Arthur Koestler (in Darkness at Noon) - repudiated in no uncertain terms what Gorbachev would later call ‘the ideology of the Iron Hand.’ Their influential novels coincided with the appearance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s works, which altogether reinforced Western will to resist doctrines and dictators - whether real or imaginary - that appeared inimical to hard-won individual liberty.

In the USA, McCarthy’s rabid witch-hunts against imaginary communism ruined many innocent lives.The mortal threats to liberty would emerge post-McCarthy, during the late 1960s, when student radicals and agitators of assorted far-left persuasions - from Trotskyites to Maoists - tutored by transplanted European totalitarians (e.g. the Frankfurt school, Herbert Marcuse, Paul de Man), and egged on by indigenous rabblerousers (e.g. Noam Chomsky) and saboteurs of high culture (e.g. Stanley Fish), transformed the universities from bastions of liberal arts to hothouses of political indoctrination.The edifices of Western higher education have become People’s Democratic Universities, from which these radicals and their political commissars have graduated cadres of apparatchiks, rank-andfile ideocrats who have waged the so-called ‘culture wars’ and ‘gender wars’ that have sapped the foundations of Western civilization, impaired the mental fitness of its citizenry, and rendered its culture increasingly ‘brain-dead.’

This did not happen by accident. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci theorized that one can bring down a civilization without firing a shot, if one can commandeer its cultural institutions.The USA has become a proving-ground for Gramsci’s terminal hypothesis.

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