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Russia Beyond Putin

Watch video of this event.

On, June 1, 2016 Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion focused on the question: Is transformative change possible for Russia? Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies and former Davis Center Director Timothy Colton of Harvard University and George Breslauer, Professor of the Graduate School and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, offered insights into the situation in Russia today and ideas for what the future may hold for Russians in a post-Putin era.

This discussion served as the 2040th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2040th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I am pleased to announce that we are live streaming tonight’s program, and so welcome to Academy members and guests who are watching our program via the web.

Earlier today, a group of scholars convened to discuss drafts of their essays for a forthcoming issue of Dædalus on “Russia Beyond Putin.” We are delighted that these scholars have joined us for tonight’s program. The focus of this Daedalus issue, and our meeting this evening, is to draw critical attention to the situation in Russia today, to think beyond Putin, and to wonder whether transformative change is possible. I am grateful to our guest editors, Timothy Colton and George Breslauer, for shaping the issue and assembling an outstanding group of contributors, and for agreeing to speak with us tonight.

Before I formally introduce our speakers for this evening, let me provide some historical context. Tonight’s program on Russia extends a long tradition at the Academy. The Academy has embraced Russian scholars since its founding years. The first honorary member from Russia, mathematician Leonhard Euler was elected as part of a second class of members, in 1782, five years before the Academy elected Thomas Jefferson. Euler was actually born in Switzerland and lived in Berlin for many years, but when he was elected a member of the Academy, he was at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, where he would spend the majority of his life. Euler’s letter accepting membership in the Academy, written in Latin, is hanging outside the wall of this auditorium. I encourage you to take a look at the conclusion of our program. He certainly was one of the most productive mathematicians of his age. Calculus is filled with theorems, formulas, angles, number sets, and equations that bear his name.

In addition to electing Russian scholars, the Academy has also paid special attention to Russian subjects and themes in its programming. In the 1850s, the Academy engaged in a publication exchange with other learned societies in Russia, including the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, the Administration of Mines in Moscow, and the Imperial Mineralogical Society. And throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Academy examined topics in international relations, economics, and arms control – with a special emphasis on Russia and Russian culture.

Today, Academy projects in global security and nuclear technology are closely linked with Russian studies. In the post–Cold War context, the United States and Russia face a similar set of challenges, fueled in part by the enduring presence of nuclear weapons and from the ongoing modernization efforts to the nuclear arsenals in both countries. Nuclear security and safety, nuclear nonproliferation, threats from non-state actors, and reactor and spent fuel maintenance are all current areas of study at the Academy responding to shared concerns of Russia and the United States.

I would like to mention just one more historical example. On December 11, 1968, Andrei Sakharov’s thoughts on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom were the subject of an Academy Stated Meeting. The panel of speakers included Harrison Salisbury, The New York Times’ correspondent in Moscow; Marshall Shulman, Columbia University professor and a leading scholar on the Soviet Union; and George Kistiakowsky, professor of chemistry at Harvard. The panelists discussed Sakharov’s manifesto and the need for greater intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union and throughout other parts of the world.

Many things have changed in U.S.-Russia relations since that meeting in 1968, but the American Academy’s commitment to a candid and balanced assessment of issues is steadfast. While official relations between the United States and Russia are strained, it is important that we maintain contact with scholars and leaders of NGOs in Russia and that we remain open to the possibility that positive changes in Russia are possible over time.

Last September, I had the opportunity to visit Russia, to meet with six of the Academy’s Foreign Honorary Members as well as with the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Rector of the National Research Nuclear University, and civil society organizations the MacArthur Foundation had supported during my presidency. Just before my trip, the Putin administration announced a radical change in the organization of research. Putin had transferred ownership and management of the property, equipment, and budgets of the Russian Academy of Sciences to a new public-governmental entity called FASO – the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations. These changes sent shockwaves through the Russian science community and were the focus of my meetings with our Russian members. Some of them told me that they had grown up in the shadow of Stalin’s regime, which they recalled as being friendly to science. But now that the Russian Academy had lost its independence, they feared science is no longer a safe space for open intellectual inquiry. And we know it is not only the scientific community in Russia that is facing increased scrutiny and state control.

Yet, we need to remain hopeful that Russia will have a more open and democratic future. And so tonight’s discussion on Russia Beyond Putin will provide a useful context for exploring what transformative changes to Russian society might be possible – and when.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over Timothy Colton and George Breslauer.

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