Richard Pipes in Moscow

The Financial Times has a write up of a recent off-the-record conference in Moscow featuring the historian Richard Pipes, reflecting on the current state of Russia’s progressive opinion makers.  Apparently the hot topic of conversation was the role of technology in the reform process.

Mr Pipes found plenty of sympathetic listeners in his audience – as did other speakers, mainly Russian and foreign journalists in various stages of depression about the state of Russia. In a sign of the times, the conference was “off the record” – none wished to be quoted. They had jobs, times are getting harder and, in the regions away from the more liberal centres of Moscow and St Petersburg, a radical reputation can be a route to unemployment, or worse.

Yet the conversation was lively and no one seemed deeply or completely pessimistic. One visible change was an increase in the number of laptop computers, whose owners took them to the small area where wi-fi was available, and surfed determinedly. One had downloaded a pessimistic report on Russia from last week’s edition of The Economist newspaper – a knowledge of English also seems more widespread – and was relaying its high, or low, points to others.

The WikiLeaks website furore was a subject of fascination. When asked what they made of the revelation that the US ambassador in Moscow, John Beyrle, and the Spanish prosecutor José Grinda had reportedly seen Russia as a corrupt, mafia-ised state, nearly all said “i chto?” – the Russian equivalent of “so what?” More important to them was the example that WikiLeaks offered of the internet’s ability to blow holes in an authoritarian system – though many condemned it for going too far.