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Russia Authors’ Conference, Opening Session

On, June 1, 2016 Jonathan Fanton welcomed a group of the authors who will contribute essays to the Spring 2017 edition of Dædalus on Russia. Dædalus is the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the first day of our authors’ conference for an issue of Dædalus on Russia Beyond Putin. This issue of Dædalus will draw timely and critical attention to the prospects for transformative change in Russia over time.

I have a deep personal interest in Russia from my time as Chair of Human Rights Watch and President of the MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur opened an office in Russia in 1992, which sadly closed last fall. From 1992 through 2015, MacArthur awarded more than $173 million in grants in Russia to support civil society organizations, independent think tanks and journalists, and private universities like the New Economic School. We also had a major partnership with the Federal Ministry of Education to develop public research universities.

So I have a network of contacts I keep in touch with, and I care deeply about them and Russia’s future.

When I visited Russia last September to convene the Academy’s Foreign Honorary Members, many of whom are scientists, I noted that despite this period of uncertainty, many Russians remained hopeful for the future. Many Academy members highlighted the need to strengthen ties with the international community, to maintain morale and foster new opportunities for Russian researchers. As one member stated, “No matter what is happening at the government level, scientific people can trust each other. Engagement is all the more important as political people fall apart.”

This sentiment was reiterated by Ambassador John Tefft, a career diplomat whose past assignments include Ukraine and Georgia. He warmly endorsed the Academy’s ambition to develop closer ties with Russian scholars, and argued that such contact is essential in keeping hope alive during challenging times.

I am pleased that the Academy is giving thoughtful attention to the current challenges and future prospects that Russia faces. Transitions from controlled economies and authoritative rule are not easy: there is no handbook for a ruler or a society trying to make the transition and few examples to follow.

Back in 2008, when I visited Russia as President of the MacArthur Foundation, I wrote that “I came away from my visit reinforced in the view that the transition underway in Russia is one of the most interesting in recent history. Patience will be required as it will be another generation or more before we know whether the story will have a happy ending. And there will be plenty of disappointments along the way. The audit of an NGO, the temporary closure of a university, the denial of a visa to the Director of Human Rights Watch, and more will continue to happen. But it is a mistake to put individual events together into a pattern viewed through the lens of the Cold War or the Soviet Union. There is a new Russia where the zone of personal freedom is growing and civil society organizations, universities, and private foundations are providing alternatives to the state for people to come together to talk about real issues and take action that betters their lives.”

Though I still stand by that observation, I am less optimistic today than I was in 2008 about the pace of change. But patience without losing hope is the order of the day. I know that our forthcoming issue of Dædalus will offer this hope. I look forward to the discussions of your draft papers.

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

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