Dostoevsky’s economic legacy can serve in our time as a kind of a moral compass for Russian economic policy, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Yaroslav Lissovolik.
The prophecy should come true, but I will not explain it. Then in due time it will be remembered and recovered. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
F. M. Dostoevsky
In November 2021, the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. For me, as a Russian economist, a real discovery and revelation was the economic article written by Fyodor Mikhailovich in “A Writer’s Diary”, which was in fact one of Dostoevsky’s last articles on the ways Russia was developing.
In this article, Dostoevsky largely anticipates such key topics for the Russian economy as the “turn to the East”, the prioritisation of long-term development guidelines (as an argument in favour of the creation of the Stabilisation Fund in our time), the fight against bureaucracy, the importance of public confidence in the economic policy of the authorities, and much more. Dostoevsky’s economic legacy can serve in our time as a kind of a moral compass for Russian economic policy.
In the context of Russia’s experience in the 1990s as well as the current crisis of the global economic system, which is overly focused on achieving short-term benefits/results, Dostoevsky’s arguments in favour of reorienting economic policy from short-term to long-term guidelines are very relevant: “What if we are at least halfway able to force ourselves to forget about the current situation and direct our attention to something completely different, into a certain depth, into which, in truth, we had never looked, because we were looking for the depth on the surface?” But Dostoevsky is ready to soften his formula, and “here is what I will propose instead; not half to forget about the current one – I refuse half of it – but only one-twentieth”.
As Dostoevsky notes, the reorientation of funds to the most important long-term tasks can become a guarantee of achieving key targets for long-term development, despite short-term obstacles and difficulties: “re-focussing attention away from the current issues in the amount of at least one-twentieth part annually, on something else, then the matter will seem almost not fantastic, but quite even possible to start”.
Another area of economic policy that Dostoevsky writes about – administrative reform and the reduction of bureaucracy. As Fyodor Mikhailovich notes, when trying to reduce the bureaucracy, we often only get an increase in the number of officials due to the creation of countless commissions on administrative reform. “Are we capable of such, for example, a reduction: to move from forty officials to four at once? Of course, no one can have any doubts that four officials will often do what forty do, especially with the reduction of paperwork and, in general, with a radical transformation of the current formulas for doing business.”
Arguably, the most important economic thesis for Dostoevsky is the problem of the lack of trust on the part of the population with respect to economic policy, or, as Fyodor Mikhailovich himself calls it, “the problem of the moral/spiritual concern of the population.” Moreover, Dostoevsky notes the tendency that has become painfully familiar in Russia in the past several decades towards an outflow of capital while undermining this very trust/“moral calm”: “How can we make the spirit of the people, yearning and worried everywhere, be encouraged and calmed down? After all, even capital itself and its movement is in search of moral tranquillity, but without moral tranquillity it either hides or is unproductive.”
The problem of lack of trust in economic policy on the part of the population remains acute to this day – during Dostoevsky’s time, the writer noted how important it is to achieve long-term understanding and trust within the population: “We have little peace of mind, especially spiritual peace, that is, the most important thing, without spiritual peace there will be nothing. They do not pay much attention to this, but only achieve a temporary, material effect on the surface. There is neither calmness in the minds, and this is in all layers, nor calmness in our convictions, in our views, in our nerves, in our appetites. There is neither work, nor the consciousness that only by work ‘you will be saved’ – none in the least.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting predictions of Dostoevsky relates to the priorities of foreign economic policy and our regional development. In fact, Dostoevsky in his economic article substantiates the need for a Russian “turn to the East” and the active development of the Asian regions of Russia: “So, it is a necessity, because Russia is not only in Europe, but also in Asia; because a Russian is not only a European, but also an Asian. Moreover, there may be even more hopes in Asia than in Europe. Moreover, in our future destinies, perhaps Asia is our main gateway!”
For Dostoevsky, a turn to Asia is part of that very fundamental process of “healing the roots”, while Asia for Russia can provide a means of uplifting the spirit and gaining greater independence: “Meanwhile, Asia may indeed be our gateway into our future – I exclaim it again! And if we had at least partially assimilated this idea – oh, what a root would have been healed then! Asia, our Asiatic Russia – after all, this is also our sick root, which not only has to be refreshed, but must be completely resurrected and recreated!! ... with a turn to Asia, with our new perspective on it, we may have something like what happened to Europe when America was discovered. After all, Asia for us is the same undiscovered America of that time. With the striving for Asia, we will revive the rise of spirit and strength. As soon as we become more independent, we will immediately find what to do, while with Europe, in the past two centuries, we have lost the habit of any business and have become talkers and lazy people.”
I don’t know how many times I have read Dostoevsky’s economic article, and each time I find in it something new for myself, a kind of new look at the problems we face in Russia today. Dostoevsky also writes about the exchange rate of the rouble, about the need for Russia to value its national currency – and then it will be appreciated by foreign investors as well. The observations by Fyodor Mikhailovich of the very possibility of imitating European economic practices on Russian soil are also extremely interesting and relevant. After 140 years have passed since the writing of the economic article, many of the observations of our great writer remain extremely relevant. This testifies to Dostoevsky’s astounding farsightedness and genius, but also to how entrenched some of the fundamental foundations of our country system turn out to be over time. Or could it be that we are dealing with the long-term Dostoevsky cycles, even more long-term than the Kondratieff’s waves? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.