Monday, January 23, 2017

Are Russia’s Closed Discussion Clubs Becoming ‘Hybrid’ Think Tanks or Something More?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – Russia lacks the tradition of think tanks found in many Western capitals, but the rise of closed discussion clubs where Russian officials, businessmen and experts can meet to share ideas, test trial balloons and network may give Moscow a “hybrid” form of the Western practice, according to Olesya Gersaimenko.

            But because of the specific features of Russian political life, these closed clubs, the “Kommersant-Vlast” journalist says, may play an even larger role in defining the future in the event of any dramatic change at the top of the country’s power pyramid or even help to promote such changes (

            Gerasimenko begins her long and detailed article with the observation that even as official and street politics in Russia have quieted down, “ever more non-public intellectual clubs, discussion circles and closed seminars ‘for those connect’ are appearing.

            Some of these have been formed by people who graduated from the same institution such as MGIMO and then went to work in various sectors. Others have been put together to discuss and promote specific ideas such as Russian national rebirth. And still others serve as an updated version of the circles of 19th century Russia and the kitchen conversations of Soviet times.

            The Higher School of Economics is the basis for one, and the Skolkovo Business School for another, she writes, noting that their organizers insist that “this is no shadow government or general conspiracy, but it is an informal means of seeking solutions. That is what such clubs are for.”

            Most try to meet once a month, although some lack the money to rent halls that often and others pass into and out of existence too quickly to keep to any schedule.  Some are tightly drawn from one ideological part of the political spectrum, but others are proud of being open to almost everyone so that members can expand their contacts.

            The groups mostly operate off the record and closed to outsiders, not only because they view themselves as “the brains” of society, something that could offend the mass public, but also because their members want to operate “below the radar screen” of those in power lest participation hurt their careers. Consequently information about them is sometimes hard to get.

            A few of these groups have assumed a higher and more public profile such as the Izborsky Cllub or the Stolypin Club, and while it would be wrong to call them “the Decembrists of the 21st century,” it may be appropriate to see them as an updated version of groups under Louis XVIII or kitchen discussions from the Soviet past.

            Many who are interested in politics turn to these closed circles because they do not want to take part in regular political parties. The former are safer and yet provide satisfaction by linking people of like mind together and allowing them to speak with one another more or less openly and without fear.

            But at the same time, Russia’s future politicians may emerge from these clubs when the time is right – that happened when Medvedev became president, some of their leaders say – and these groups may be where those who have been ousted from politics at least for a time may choose to meet with others. That too, Garasimenko says, has happened as well.

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