When Meaning and Emotion Coincide. Inside Knowledge of the Valdai Club

The Valdai Club is an ideal expert group on Russia, featuring a very broad range of opinion. Not a single think tank in the world has such a wide array of specialists who are systematically engaged in the problems of one country and its role in the world.

The country has changed and the world has changed. What will the world’s leading experts on Russia discuss at the 10th anniversary meeting of this intellectual club in mid-September?

Svetlana Mironyuk, Editor-in-Chief of the RIA Novosti news agency – one of the founders of the Valdai Club – reveals several secrets of the September meeting in an interview with The Moscow News. The conference will be attended by newcomers and feature new formats.

It isn’t all black and white

The idea behind the club was to bring together experts on Russia, involve them in regular discussions with each other and invite them to meet interesting personalities in Russia, so that the experts had some first-hand information for their subsequent reports, publications and speeches. Hence, the plan had two components – meetings with Russian colleagues and meetings with top officials. Has it worked?

I think the Valdai Club’s ten-year history shows that the idea has not just worked but proved to be much more extensive than the original plan.

If we leave aside the perception of Russia as a country where bears walk around Red Square, and speak about how views on Russia’s current policies are formed in the foreign media as well as in research, political and educational centers, we can say that this is the occupation of a narrow circle of specialists on Slavic and Russian studies. Their names are well known; they have degrees and big reputations. Reading their books, articles and monographs, we realize how much they influence the views on Russia in the minds of elites at the deepest level, and how these views are marked by extreme inertia.

We believed perceptions of modern Russia were somewhat distorted by a wake of Soviet allusions and stereotypes and wanted to present its true image.

This required providing first-hand information – from the president and the prime minister to legislative representatives, from governors to opposition leaders. It was essential to offer up the full spectrum of views and people who represented the current government and its opponents, who saw the political landscape from a different perspective.

How much has this helped experts and Russia itself?

During these ten years, this club of about 30 experts who met with President Vladimir Putin in Valdai (hence the name) has turned into a large informal analytical community. On the one hand, there are no stereotypes or ridiculous ideas about Russian realities. On the other, the club has not become a mechanism for creating an idealized image of Russia in the spirit of the Soviet APN, as some critics tried to present it.

Pendulum swings and futile manipulations

Russian experts and politicians are the other side of these meetings. What do you think they gain from them?

An understanding that the world is not black and white, I think. Part of the domestic opposition believed it was worthwhile to appeal to the West to exert pressure on the Russian authorities – boycott it, cancel contracts with it, etc. Now even the most active members of the opposition do not believe that it is possible to manipulate the West so easily by calling for Russia’s executive authorities to be punished in moments of political tension.

We have witnessed the opposite trend in the last few years – appeals to the West are no longer in fashion and sometimes even dangerous. You can be labeled a foreign agent. Polls and studies show an increase in negative attitudes to the West.

This has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the Valdai Club. These are domestic processes that are taking place in our society. The pendulum swung to one side and has now swung in the opposite direction. This happened not only in Russia but also in many other countries, primarily in Eastern Europe. They also went through peaks of admiration for the West, followed by acute disappointment. Eventually, everything reached a sort of equilibrium. I think Poland is the clearest example in this respect. Now Russia is passing through the same phase.

A formula of politeness

The club has become much more active recently. Apart from its annual meeting, it holds discussions and publishes reports on different subjects throughout the year – from the prospects of the Russian economy to the situation in the Middle East. However, it is difficult for a new venue, especially one from Russia, to find its place in the world expert arena. First, this has to do with the concern of academics for their positions and grants; and second, mistrust of Russia still runs deep in many countries.

I think in ten years we have overcome the apprehensions and tacit bias of the expert community. It took us a long time to establish the club’s fund of donations from organizations and individuals. Now we allocate research grants to Russian and foreign experts. This mechanism was launched in late 2011 and we have obtained our first results – high-profile papers. I think the paper “Russian Elites-2020” is one of the best.

The paper analyzes how the views, expectations and values of Russian elite groups have changed over the last few decades and forecasts what foreign and domestic policies may be pursued in the coming years on the basis of this hierarchy of values. Curiously, the foreign view of the processes taking place in Russia largely coincides with that of Russian experts.

You said you’ve managed to overcome the bias toward the club, but there is another issue. Many analysts note that during meetings with top officials in Russia foreign experts are more reserved than when they return home and present their papers and give lectures. Doesn’t this irritate anyone?

This is true. I’ll even reveal a small secret. Before the final meeting with the president we often ask our club colleagues – both jokingly and seriously – to be more active and offensive and less cautious in how they say things.

Sometimes this is due to differences in cultural or ethical codes governing how to speak with a head of state. We know that the traditional British or Eastern formula of politeness permits one to offend or even humiliate a person using elegant words. In Russian there is not as much distance between words, their meanings and emotional power. Hearing an outwardly polite phrase, Russians often perceive its meaning as more acceptable than it was meant and take it at face value. This difference in cultural codes must always be considered during discussions.

Importantly, nobody is changing their point of view to suit the circumstances. We have many problems and distortions in this country, but what really matters is that no topics are out of bounds.

At the same time club members fall under the spell of President Putin. We often see how part of the audience is charmed by him emotionally. Let me emphasize the word “emotionally” because I’m convinced that experts stick to their views and principles, which is clear from their subsequent papers. But they also describe a different, first-hand view that they heard in the course of open debates. This helps them better understand our country, the motives of its government and the so-called Russian view on the global agenda.

Meetings with the president last for three or four hours not because Putin deliberately tries to keep them going. I remember a couple of meetings during the last ten years that were much shorter because there was no strong emotional connection. But in other years discussions lasted much longer than planned because of the alignment of meanings, emotions and mutual interest.

The first meeting was the most dramatic. It took place after the Beslan tragedy in 2004. It lasted for about four hours and was very special – sad, painful and emotionally sincere.

From opinions to road maps

What is the target audience of the organizers of Valdai events and meetings?

Not so long ago we did not think about reaching a broad audience. The main idea was to get discussions going between foreign and Russian experts and political scientists. We wanted them to get to the heart of different issues and consider different, perhaps even new approaches. Three of four years after the club was founded we realized that it had a rare selection of experts. Few institutions have such intellectual potential. Club experts can not only describe problems and collisions but also suggest solutions. In this way the club has gone from exchanging opinions to drafting approaches.

Moreover, recent papers have been co-written by foreign and Russian experts. So there are no grounds to say that the West is imposing something on us or teaching us how to live.

Absolutely. Now the club has entered the third stage in its development, the drafting of road maps – proposals by experts on all kinds of global problems, from the situation in the Middle East to Russia’s role in the world agenda.

I’m referring to what Russia can do for the world rather than Russia’s place in the world – analyzing global problems and what Russia can or must do to resolve them. This is how Russia is becoming part of the changing global context.

Moreover, the opinions of all experts are equal; there is no dominant line or preconditions. The club has no monetary relations, either – participation in its work is voluntary, and this principle is very important for us. In general, the Valdai Club is an ideal expert group on Russia, featuring a very broad range of opinion. Not a single think tank in the world has such a wide array of specialists who are systematically engaged in the problems of one country and its role in the world.

Divide in order to unite

It has been announced that an unprecedented number of people have been invited to the club’s tenth anniversary meeting. But this is not a congress of a party or a Popular Front. An intellectual club should not turn into a crowd, all the more so since its membership has already grown considerably in the past few years. Why is this meeting being held on such a large scale?

This is an anniversary meeting and it is necessary to invite experts who took part in meetings in different years. Valdai meetings aren’t just attended by core members. Different groups of experts meet to discuss Islam, scenarios for Russia’s future, or security issues. Obviously, all of them should be present at the anniversary meeting.

And what will they discuss if one of them is an expert on Islam and another on stability?

It’s simple. Experts will be divided into thematic groups. The subject of the anniversary meeting is quite broad – Russia’s identity. Experts will discuss a variety of aspects – regional, religious, moral, etc. In other words, they will discuss how different Russia is and what reference points make it a nation.

Let me reveal one more secret. We expect an unprecedented number of Russian participants at the anniversary meeting – from national leaders and regular participants in discussions to the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church; from representatives of the opposition and the media to regional governors who will clash with their opponents in public debates.

To sum up, we are drawing a line under the first ten years of the club’s existence and entering a new stage, like Russia itself. We are gradually overcoming the post-traumatic syndrome that has plagued us in the 20 years since the collapse of the USSR. Now there is a new generation of people, new values and new aspects of identity. The world has also changed substantially over these years and continues to change very rapidly.

The Valdai Club will try to explain how the new country and the new world influence each other and how they interact. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.