Russia Outsources Domestic Policy to a 'Futurologist'

By Julia Ioffe

There are few countries on earth that do bread-and-circus diversions quite like this. One isMyanmar, which moves its capital into the jungle on the advice of astrologists. The other, of course, isRussia. To wit: in the middle of a severe economic crisis and growing unemployment, President Dmitri Medvedev has decided to modernize Russia's economy and include dissenting voices by, yes, turning to an ornery "futurologist" (his phrase) appropriately named Kalashnikov.

How did this absurdity come about? On Sept. 10, Medvedev, a known Internet aficionado, posted a rambling, 4,000-word editorial in the online newspaper Titled "Forward,Russia!" the piece calls on Russians to become more civic-minded and lays out vague plans to modernizeRussia's still-backward economy. Fine. For days, people here and abroad feverishly tried to crack the code: why would he write an editorial in a liberal online paper? Why now? What could this portend?

But no one expected this. You see, at the end of the editorial, Medvedev invited Russians to send suggestions to And people did, including futurologist Maxim Kalashnikov, author of books like Mount the Lightning! and Forward, to USSR-2. (According to his online profile, Kalashnikov has "dedicated his life to fighting the fallout of 1991," the year the Soviet Union collapsed.)

Medvedev seized on Kalashnikov's letter, which recommended building a city of the future─a "bio-agro-ecopolis," to be precise─using Russian technology and expertise to experiment in energy, building materials, and the like. This, he says will spur Russian innovation and "give the nation wings."

His proposals were evidently so compelling that Medvedev decided to have someone look into them. He staged a "scene at the office"for the benefit of the Kremlin-friendly press corps (worth a watch) in which he hands off the letter to a deputy, who looks like a third grader in a Thanksgiving play, and asks him to follow up─since it's important, Medvedev chides, to listen "even to people who don't agree with us" and because the Internet "is all aflutter" about it. (It was.)

Russian rulers have, on occasion relied on meta-advisers (Nicholas II and Rasputin being the most famous), but this is not that. Rather, it is a clear and cynical play to the masses who, Medvedev clearly hopes, will feel the flush of Russian pride under the guise of sweeping Russian spirituality (on the rise, midcrisis) and a lunge toward modernization. It is also the beginning and the end of the empty gesture─not that anyone believed it─of listening to people outside the Kremlin's echo chamber. Even Kalashnikov knows this is just a stunt. "I think it's just PR," he told me. He has not heard from the Kremlin, but the off chance that something comes out of this─like a bio-agro-ecopolis, say─keeps his hope of averted catastrophe alive. "Who knows," he said, sighing. "Sometimes truly unbelievable things do happen." In the meantime, the aflutter Russian blogosphere agrees, wondering if spring─and April Fool's Day─came very, very early this year.