YAROSLAVL – Russia is said by many to lack a “civil society.” But it partly makes up for this by having a rather interesting public sphere, in which serious topics do get debated, and where glimpses of the great are not entirely confined to televised snippets.
The first fortnight in September saw successive meetings of two major Russian political groups, the Valdai Discussion Club and the Global Policy Forum. The first was on a boat and ended with dinner with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Sochi on the Black Sea. The second, in Yaroslavl, culminated in a symposium with President Dmitri Medvedev. Scholars, think-tankers, and journalists (both Russian and foreign) joined political and business leaders to discuss Russia’s future.
Three things made these events unusual in a typically Russian way. The first was the intense media interest. Indeed, even the most camera-shy academic can suddenly find himself a TV star in Russia.
Second was the willingness of both Putin and Medvedev to engage publicly with experts on the experts’ own intellectual turf. The only recent Western political leader I can think of who had the confidence to do this was Bill Clinton.