NEW HAVEN – Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the Russian public’s acquiescence in direct government control of news media have many people wondering if Russians are predisposed to authoritarianism. It seems like a sensible question. But I have learned from experience that we have to be very careful about drawing conclusions about national character from isolated events.
In 1989, I was invited to an economic conference in Moscow, then in the Soviet Union, sponsored jointly by the Soviet think tank IMEMO (now called the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations) and the United States’ National Bureau of Economic Research. Such joint conferences were part of a historic breakthrough, resulting from a thaw in US-Soviet relations. The Soviet economists seemed enthusiastic about a transition to a market economy, and I was struck by how openly they spoke to us during coffee breaks or at dinner.
But, significantly, the Soviets expressed serious doubts at the conference that their public could ever allow free markets to function. Individual market actions, they said, would strike the public as wrong, unfair, and intolerable.
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