I just returned from a weeklong trip to Russia, my first visit to that country since I was a student there in 1969.
A lot of things have changed in Moscow. The streets, which were previously nearly vacant of cars, are now so filled with traffic that vehicles are practically immobilized. Only the old Soviet-built subway system, which miraculously still works well (most old Soviet-built things don’t), makes the city functional.
Prices have gone up a thousandfold, while wages for most people have gone up about a hundredfold, so that the stores, which used to be mobbed by people lining up to buy scarce goods, are now filled with elegant products but have very few customers. I saw none in the GUM — formerly the Glavny Universalny Magazin (Main Universal Store), now a gigantic upscale shopping mall — at midday Monday.
The government dominates most of the mass media, but not all — in Moscow, the liberals (by which term is meant the supporters of Western-type government) have a vibrant TV station of their own, and the literary culture appears to be free, with classic anti-totalitarian works by writers such as Pasternak and Grossman sold openly in bookstores. World War II is still very much on people’s minds, but the latest blockbuster, Stalingrad, is now showing in IMAX-3D.
In what might be a good metaphor for the country, the huge All-Russian Exhibition Center located near the Cosmonautics Park in Moscow is mostly abandoned and decaying, but part of it has been taken over by a private group that has built therein Mars Tefo, a world-class Mars-colony exhibit — the best I have seen anywhere — which, when I visited, was packed with scores of merry, bright-eyed children excited about the possibilities of space, science, and the human future.
I gave a number of talks on space exploration, including at the Moscow Aviation Institute, the traditional center for aerospace-engineering education in Russia, and at Skolkovo, a hypermodern joint venture between Russian educators and MIT, which teaches both engineering and entrepreneurship. Everywhere I met men and women of talent and good will, people with a great deal of potential to contribute to the advance of Russia, science, and humanity. Within these technical circles, as well as among numerous ordinary Russians whom I met on the street, I came across no one who wanted anything other than friendship with America.
But then I encountered some other people, with other plans. People selling despair, envy, and hate who have now set up shop as the brand-new Club of Moscow.
The founding of the Club of Moscow took place at Globalistics 2013, held at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, from October 23 to 25. I bumped up against the Club of Moscow by chance, having received an invitation to present an abstract at the Globalistics conference, which was advertised as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Vernadsky.
Vernadsky (1863–1945) was a significant scientific thinker, being the founder of the field of biogeochemistry, and more famously the originator of a philosophy of evolutionary emergence, according to which the geosphere, whose effective laws are determined by chemistry, gives rise to the biosphere, whose effective laws are determined by biology, which in turn gives rise to the noosphere, where the effective laws are those of thought.