Column on From Russia With Trepidations

From Russia with Trepidations

Tibor R. Machan

The invitation was just too nice to turn down despite my increasing reluctance to do very long trips. (I did some such a while back, like twice to New Zealand and twice to Cape Town.) Back and knee troubles tend to impede such ventures these days. But my hosts in Moscow were very pleasant from the start and expressed very serious interest in what I might have to say (about social “contract” theories and Adam Smith and morality) and treated me like a VIP once I arrived. So despite the brevity of the visit, only five days there, I went and found it mostly rewarding. The visit was sweetened by superb accommodations for the trip itself and the stay.

The first thing that struck me — and all I can report is that, since five days in not enough time to dig into a place — is just how vast and busy Moscow is. People crowded every place, with the Metro and the immense avenues filled with them.

Much still reminded me of when the Soviets were occupying Budapest in the 1950s, including the “service” I received at the state owned hotel (where you are treated as you would be at the DMV here). Folks are often sullen, especially in service industries where they seem to feel like indentured servants instead of employees and where they show zero courtesy to customers. (This harks back to the good old days of Soviet Russia where the members of the working classes seemed to be the least happy bunch in society.)

The cultural offerings are a varied lot indeed, with everything from what recalls village life in Russia and elsewhere to cosmopolitan London or Milan. Do not expect people to speak even a word of English, not like everywhere else in Europe, outside of fashionable shops. But the signs around town do tend to be multilingual. Something that struck me is just how replete the place is with iPhones and iPads and electronic gadgets in general, even in the middle of the most dilapidated regions of the city.

The best thing about my hotel was the elevator (or lift). It worked great and came to your floor in seconds. But there were no amenities like a gym or pool or even a shop for trinkets. The one shop, selling designer clothing, was nearly always closed despite the signs that announced the hours it was to be open.

What was very welcome is just how intensely interested members of my audience — students and faculty alike — were in the topics I covered and how ready they were to explore arguments and take issue with them. Much better than at home, in my classes here at Chapman University (where it takes about two years for students to warm up to what they are supposedly there for). Of course, members of the audiences in Moscow came of their own accord, whereas students in many of my classes at Chapman are required to take the course they take from me and, sadly, do not connect their choice to major in business with the course they must then take from me. (A lot of them, no doubt, would just like to get the passing grade, never mind doing work in the subject. Only after a few terms in college do they begin to make the connection, probably because after having been forced into primary and secondary schools, they look upon college as a kind of liberation!)

From what I gathered in my discussion with my hosts and members of my audiences, Russia is understood by many people as in the grips of crony capitalism. There was little hope shown among those I met for changing this soon although most are aware of the bad end it will lead to.

Corruption is rife; the legal authorities are the farthest thing from upholding any sensible idea of the rule of law but tend, in the main, to be in the pockets of some special interest group. I know a lot of people who champion what they call anarchism and anarcho-capitalism, but what the anarchism in Moscow appears to many classical liberals and libertarians there has nothing at all with the political economy of capitalism, quite the contrary. Government is directly involved in calling winner and losers in the economic realm. Bribery appears to be routine. Arbitrary regulations of business as well.

All this was supplemented, sadly, with the grayest five days I have ever spent since I left Fredonia, NY, where I taught for some ten years and where we called the sun a purely theoretical entity.

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