My interview with Professor Vladimir Peftiev
Cross-posted on Medium
Russian professor of economics, Francophile, “four times twenty years” of age. Topics include the crisis in economics; pluralist economics education and its Russian equivalent, Integrated Knowledge; the end of neoliberalism; Trump and USA-Russia relations; French politics from de Gaulle to present; ethno-political conflict; hopes and risks for the European Union, with a view to the experience of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Filmed December 15, 2016 at Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University, Russia.
Vladimir Ilyich Peftiev (VIP): About me: My name is Vladimir Peftiev.
I am a professor of economics at a provincial university. I was born in Donetsk, Donbass, Ukraine. I had five years of teaching experience in Africa and a little bit in Cuba.
My main sphere of interests: geoeconomics and geopolitics and some related topics which I hope to raise today.
I am fluent in French. I am a witness of a big period in Russia’s history, from Stalin to Putin. Hopefully I’ll still be around when the next president will be elected.
Colin McKay (CM): Vladimir Ilyich, let’s start with economic theory; I know it’s a favourite subject of yours. I think almost everyone agrees that mainstream economic theory completely failed to predict the financial crisis 2007–2008, and most would agree that it’s failed to provide any solutions to the economic crisis.
When we spoke earlier you said that “You cannot explain the economy with economics”, which I think is a very appropriate way of looking at things.
So, where to from here? Can we revise, can we build on any of the theories from the past? Is there any place still for the classical theories of Adam Smith, or the theories of John Maynard Keynes? Do we need a new approach to our understanding of economics?
VIP: These are all very serious challenges and the answers to these challenges may be different. However let’s start with stating the obvious.
Humankind is entering an epoch of big changes. Changes are always the responses to the questions of the time.
I want to specifically highlight one challenge and possibly an answer to it.
Neoliberalism is not the key doctrine any more. Economics is in the deepest crisis ever. But neo-protectionism isn’t always effective either.
That’s why economists will probably have to find a third way in the development of economic thought, and politics, accordingly.
It is difficult when it happens between two extremes but finding a third way is important. At first it may be perceived like a centaur, like eclecticism, but with time it will be possible to find a reasonable, satisfactory decision.
Who will be able to do this?
Definitely not Nobel laureates in economics. I respect them but they are too interested in mathematics, in theory, which is an abstraction of life, not life itself.
The shift to new possibilities and new ideas of economic thought will be possible thanks to extraordinary politicians. We are not talking about representatives of traditional political parties.
We have ready examples of such politicians — Donald Trump is a businessman, who knows about risks and bankruptcy. So in my mind he will be taking weighted decisions.
If he intends to keep his election campaign promises, he will have to do these three things: build a good, hard-working team (there are some questions about certain people); second, find a compromise with the congress and governors; third, build a close relationship with business but not with the financial sector, not with the old financial oligarchy.
Provided that is fulfilled, then we will see a result.
CM: Vladimir Ilyich, it seems that one of the biggest problems for economics is that most students are only educated in one theory or one way of looking at economics, and one way of looking at the economy. In the West that’s usually neoclassical theory; certainly that’s so in most if not all of the leading universities in the West, certainly as I understand it. Now lately, in recent years some universities have started offering a pluralist curriculum aiming to educate students in all the different economic theories; I understand, it’s understood in the West that there is around nine different schools of economic theory. I note that the Australian professor, Steve Keen, offers a pluralist curriculum at Kingston University, London; there are a handful of other universities as well in the UK that offer it, and some in the USA, France and Italy, but it’s still — in the greater context of economic education — it’s a very small component of total economics education in the West is pluralist.
Now, I understand that in Russia, as well, there is a counterpart to this pluralist approach, and it’s called “integrated knowledge”. I understand also that that in fact is what you teach your students is integrated knowledge.
Can you tell us a little bit more about it, how long integrated knowledge has been taught, or this manner of teaching economics has been taught. Just share with us what you can about integrated knowledge in Russia.
VIP: Pluralist way of teaching, or in other words integrated knowledge is a new trend but not without a history. In pre-revolutionary Russia, philosopher Vladimir Soloviev talked about integrated knowledge. In the 1930–40s there was a Polish economist and politician, Oskar Lange who was talking about the same issue.
Today it is still not the main approach. Most still traditionally stick to one theory, it isn’t very effective or constructive.
It is necessary to teach at universities to give students at least an overview of all approaches and demonstrate practical conclusions of each theory, and to look for reasonable similarities.
Scientists too should be in constant dialogue with each other. I am aware of the difficulties standing in the way, but the dialogue is necessary.
In modern Russia there is a confrontation of different schools, starting with neo-Marxism. There are neo-Keynesians. There are neo-institutionalists. There is a certain fermentation but I do not foresee that there is likely to be any agreement yet.
Personally in my teaching course for humanitarians, not for economists — I am not directly involved for economists—but for humanitarians, I try to give them the whole view and present different concepts. I even include road maps so that they can have better understanding.
Pluralist approach is our future but with great complications. Professors who offer pluralist approach are the minority.
CM: Why is it important, do you think, to offer pluralism or a pluralist education — to offer integrated knowledge, as a way of understanding economics — to the economists of tomorrow?
VIP: To put it briefly, there will be balanced decisions.
I am convinced that in different concepts, in different ideas we can find something rational but there should be dialogue, long contacts, weighing down the practical decisions. It is a difficult path but it is the most promising one.
It is also due to the historic conflict and opposition between the West and the East; Russia, Europe and the United States.
It is the most promising path. It isn’t easy, it’s very difficult and exhausting for the generation of economists who were brought up in a specific ideology, those who were tied to one particular doctrine. Something will have to be denied and it’s painful.
One needs to reach biblical age and adopt a certain style of life and character for such ideas.
That will be a new generation of students, new generation of professors, and a new generation of politicians. That is what is needed: a new generation of politicians.
Then they will give an impulse to reform the system of education and build a constructive dialogue.
CM: In the years since the financial crisis there’s been a lot of discussion about neoliberalism and the crisis of globalisation. The recent populist wave in elections across the Western world, it’s portrayed as threat not only to globalisation but also to the dominance of liberal democracy, the post-World War 2 dominance of liberal democracy, throughout the Western world. Can you talk a little bit about why you think populist and ‘Right’ parties are suddenly gaining so much power?
VIP: Crisis of globalisation is obvious. How can we detect it?
Globalisation undermines the nation’s self-identity, it doesn’t give a chance to a citizen to express an opinion.
There is an institutional crisis too: world organisations like the WTO and IMF aren’t coping with their responsibilities. They are either too politicised or they take belated decisions.
Crises are many and the world is tired of crises. Russia is even more so than other countries. That is why the silent majority, philistines, as we may call them, demand positive changes.
The results of the past and the coming elections are a protest of the majority against the ruling elite; old and mainly aristocratic, successive. It’s a protest against the existing order. There is perceived tiredness of the majority in Europe and possibly in the whole world.
A protest of a citizen, of a philistine — I am using the word philistine in a good sense — isn’t always rational, it is mostly emotional, impulsive but the decisions should be rational and weighed.
It’s a great tragedy that populism is starting to dominate.
Traditional parties don’t cope with their responsibilities. Trade unions are silent. They seem to occupy themselves with purely economic problems.
There is no big idea that would unify nations and the entire world. First of all it’s a creative crisis. No one is offering rational ideas that would unite and not separate humankind.
CM: Do you have any thoughts as to what kind of an idea could serve the purpose of resolving this problem — the absence of a unifying idea — on a transnational, on a global level?
VIP: First of all: security, elimination of any danger of war, including nuclear war or a long-term war, and humanitarian problems: poverty, education, medicine, cultural exchange.
These are traditional topics but they should have new content to be discussed in a widening circle of members, a necessarily widening circle of members.
Security remains the first priority.
It’s important to settle ethno-political conflicts, which are bloody and long-lasting.
To all that there must be a solution and this solution must be a political one.
CM: Does the introduction of mass muslim migration pose any risks for the EU? Do you see any similarities to the ethno-political conflicts that occurred in the USSR? Do you think history will repeat itself?
VIP: Yes, and no. In modern Russia the migration from former soviet republics had certain difficulties and positive moments too.
Regarding the collapse of the USSR: yes, ethno-political conflicts possibly played the decisive role in the collapse of a superpower.
Ethno-political conflicts were bloody in Caucasus, Fergana and some other regions. Back at the time authorities weren’t able to either foresee the spreading of these conflicts or take action; not forceful action. They should have made agreements with leaders of the republics and addressed the population. That never happened back then.
Second reason for the collapse was the cunning of President Reagan who drew Soviet authorities into the arms race. The arms race always means extreme weakening of resources. We would not like that arms race in Russia now. Russia’s military budget should be held within reasonable limits.
But I don’t exclude the possibility of ethno-political conflicts appearing again some day. We can only hope they will not be bloody conflicts. That is extremely dangerous and the history of the Soviet Union only proves that.
There is no direct relation or analogy — times have simply changed. To the EU it’s a lasting problem.
The pressure of immigration flow can be released by achieving better circumstances of life for the immigrants. At the same time immigrants should integrate themselves into economics and culture and the humanitarian sphere of the receiving country. Not everything here is done well by the immigrants themselves.
CM: Vladimir Ilyich, you are — to use the French expression — “four times twenty years” of age. You’ve lived through, personally experienced some of the most tumultuous, rapid changes to national, geopolitical and economic orders in all of world history. You’ve lived through, personally experienced the collapse of the USSR. Can you see any common features with the present day EU?
VIP: There are three parts in your question. Let’s start with the first part.
My formation passed through certain stages: my mother’s tales of the holodomor in the beginning of 1930s, my father’s tales of war, the occupation of Donbass by the German, Italian and Romanian troops. It was a true horror.
That was followed by my education at the Kiev University. I was taught by the pre-revolutionary professors, a unique class of intelligentsia. Those were unique professors, each of them was a true talent.
That was followed by living in Africa and partly Cuba.
Somehow I missed “Perestroika” because most of what was happening at the time was known to me decades before.
The 1990s were the hardest and the most interesting years. I was torn apart between science — because I had to write my PhD — and journalism. Later I published a big book with 100 of my articles that were previously published in local newspapers.
In the following decades I became mostly an observer, not a participant. A lot of what’s happening now is interesting to me.
Now let’s talk about the EU. It’s a wonderful project, I think it will be implemented.
However right now there is a deep crisis within the EU. I think it’s not so much caused by the debts or the Brexit but mostly by the absence of strategic ideas. Europe, the EU has lost its initiative.
In the end of 1940s and the beginning of 1950s there was a reasonable idea of restoring peace between the nations that had a war between each other, create a union, not only for business or for political reasons but for citizens as well. The free movement of the citizens is a great achievement but it’s not fully implemented because of the routine behaviour of the European elite.
Right now there is no big idea and there are no big leaders.
François Fillon, who positions himself as a new Gaullist, will possibly achieve something, but he is a new Gaullist of modest proportions. We need leaders like de Gaulle but there are none yet.
I don’t see any particular collapse of the EU in the foreseeable future. The EU will still exist but in a different form, maybe with a reduced number of members. Maybe they will find ways of providing economic growth and dealing with internal conflicts.
And naturally the EU must become an independent political player, just like the USA and Japan. I have certain hopes for the premier minister of Japan.
I wish to see these three macro regions make an agreement but not against Russia. Sanctions and Russophobia is a strategic and psychological mistake.
Russia will respond to challenges which undermine its status, politely, brutally, and hybridly. Examples are many and there will be even more. Russia shall never be derided.
Now let’s talk about Marxism. I have received Marxist education. I was taught Marxism and Leninism and cannot hide from that but doubts about these doctrines arose already in the 1960s, after having read vast sources in French.
The main events that shaped me were Budapest 1956, Prague 1968, and many others.
It took me almost half a century in total to say goodbye to Marxism. It was a difficult path. I don’t renounce Marx and Engels and Lenin. Some of them proposed great theories, and I think Lenin was a great politician.
Lenin was a very difficult politician but since it’s a part of Russian history, I can’t get away from that.
But I am not a dissident, I am not anti-Marxist.
Marxism is one of the streams of political thought and it’s very interesting. Maybe it will have a future but with different participants.
I am very critical about new-Marxists of modern Russia, very critical. There is no constructive programme.
CM: Ok, you’ve just mentioned François Fillon. I should mention for the benefit of our viewers that you are a lifelong student of French history and literature. You are fluent in French. And I know that you follow French politics very closely. In fact you wrote a paper recently on the French mainstream media and blogosphere’s responses to Brexit. Can you perhaps expand a little more for us on your views about the political situation in France and the upcoming presidential election? Tell us a little bit more.
VIP: France of president Hollande didn’t solve many problems. Many urgent problems. François Hollande proved himself as a weak politician. People’s opinion and polls only prove that.
Maybe the problem is the eclectic politics of the French socialist party. Hollande’s programme “49 alterations” was segmentary, lacking a core, going against social opinions: such as single sex marriages, preliminary labour code, things that vexed the majority in the country. This is first.
Secondly, France is losing its economic potential compared to Germany and yet they should be equal in this. France should be an independent economic power.
Here is what a new president of France will have to do — restore economic competitiveness of France in the EU and in the world. There are certain chances.
Thirdly, France’s greatness (and I would love to see France as a superpower) whether it’s economic, cultural or political, is impossible without a close partnership with Russia. It is my deep conviction.
CM: Vladimir Ilyich, you’re obviously a Francophile. I gather that you are an admirer of Charles de Gaulle?
VIP: Yes, without any doubt!
CM: Ok, since I’m sure that many of our viewers weren’t even born when Charles de Gaulle left office and passed away in 1970, can you briefly explain for us what were the key aspects of his “Politics of Grandeur”?
VIP: de Gaulle was great, with extraordinary things he did.
First: he started the resistance after France surrendered to the nazis in 1940. That was a strange war. And de Gaulle was involved in active resistance.
Second: he solved a very difficult conflict between France and Algeria; not without hesitations and not without doubts, but the satisfactory solution was found. That obviously didn’t please everyone.
Third: he attempted to have a dialogue, asymmetric and not quite equal with the former colonies, including New Guinea. But that didn’t work. The project of the constitution of 1958 was discarded by New Guinea’s president Sékou Touré. It’s because of that conflict that I found myself in Africa.
Fourth: a decision to be independent in nuclear forces.
Last: he foresaw that the dollar would create problems and had to be defied; he knew it would bring difficulties. He was one of the first to exchange American dollars for gold. That caused a clear protest of the United States, the exchange of paper to gold. It was a classy and excellent operation realised by president de Gaulle.
CM: You’ve just mentioned Charles de Gaulle’s resisting US dollar hegemony. Obviously the situation is little changed; the US took the dollar off the gold standard and is continuing to, in many respects, dominate the world through its ability to print essentially unlimited amounts of US dollars as the world reserve currency. Do you see any change in that situation, particularly now with Trump’s election and his inclination towards, perhaps, a form of neo-protectionism — do you see any changes at all in the dominance of the world by the United States having its currency as the world reserve currency?
VIP: The leadership of the dollar is unquestionable, it’s a fact. But the strengthening of the dollar has negative aspects too. There are risks, including the risks for American exporters.
Another tendency is the multitude of currencies. There are many aspirants if not for the world leadership but at least for regional leadership.
The multitude of currencies creates chaos. How can we manage this chaos? Who will do that? Donald Trump or the IMF?
If Trump puts an accent on his internal politics then of course he will “let things slide”. The IMF will have to conduct long-awaited reforms.
A lot here is uncertain but there is a chaos. Right now chaos is a benefit for a leader but with time it may turn into a weakness.
The world will slowly distance itself from the American dollar. There will be a return to the use of national currencies. However it’s a step backwards, it’s archaic.
CM: With Trump’s election and his protectionist tendency it appears that he’ll not continue pushing the unipolar world order that has been dominated by America over the past 25 years. In a recent interview Vladimir Putin stated that the unipolar world order has failed — he made that statement outright. For the first time since the collapse of the USSR it appears we’re at a stage where perhaps a multipolar world may be shaping up. Vladimir Ilyich, in your opinion, has the unipolar world order ever really existed?
VIP: A unipolar world is an ambition and if it ever existed, it was only temporary after the end of world wars.
Our modern world is still multipolar. Players in world politics have different statuses. There is no full equality between countries, it’s an aspiration. For now the world is hierarchic and yet it’s multipolar.
In the foreseeable future the West should dismiss the sanctions and stop the Russophobia.
It is important to think about creating two global coalitions: the USA, the EU and Japan from one side. These countries should agree on their positions on key questions of today. The other troika is China, Russia and India, with the help of other regional powers.
The dialogue of two global troikas is the matter of a distant future. Agenda may be different but it has to be specific, moving with small steps.
There is an example that gives hope: Russia and Japan can make a peaceful agreement about the status of the Kuril Islands as Russian sovereign territory. Different options are possible here. It includes a programme of vast trade and economic partnership.
This way, step by step, we can start a dialogue, a partners dialogue.
That’s going to happen in future, not today. I may sound a bit pessimistic here.
CM: Vladimir Ilyich Peftiev, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you so much for sharing your four-times-twenty years of wisdom and insights with us. (in Russian) Thank you very much.
VIP: (in French) Thank you, our conversation was interesting, insightful and friendly. To me it’s a great pleasure and a unique chance to talk to a foreign journalist.
(in Russian) Thank you very much to you and signora Anna.
Colin McKay with Professor Vladimir Ilyich Peftiev
Translator: Anna Novikova; author, writer for Russia Beyond The Headlines, Our Russia — contact annanvkva [at] gmail [dot] com, @anna_novikova
Special thanks: Professor Mikhail Vasilyevich Novikov and Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University
Professor Peftiev’s books and papers (Russian) available: enquiries please email colin [dot] mckay [at] protonmail [dot] ch