On Deciding to Work in Academia

After finishing high school, I wanted to go to the university and study geography, but I was talked out of this and decided on architecture at a building institute. I got in easily and only had to take a drawing exam because I had been awarded a silver medal in school. But soon after, communist construction projects began, and our institute was then called a ‘hydrotechnical’ institute. The architecture division was closed, and I went on to study industrial and civil engineering.

During my fourth year I understood that I wanted to study economics, but study it not quite as a science. I didn’t know this in advance, but after the institute I went to work on the construction of a bridge in the city of Rybnitsa – now in Transnistria – and this is when I wrote to the economics faculty at Moscow State University, saying that I wanted to study economics as an actual science. I wanted to understand how economic processes are built. I saw disorder in engineering and constantly thought about how this was not because of under-qualified builders, but because this type of organisation was rather unusual. I really wanted to study and understand what was happening. I came to Moscow in 1960, and both the school and my parents let me enrol in the department full time.

I never doubted that we had our own “miracle” here, and I was certain we were building socialism

I never doubted that we had our own ‘miracle’ here that the papers were writing me about, and I was certain that we were building socialism. I was a genuine supporter of communism. I was a member of the communist party for 30 years, and I felt disappointed with our invasion of Czechoslovakia. Serious changes happened at the end of the 1980s.

On Soviet Economics

The first understanding of the gap that existed between real life and what they were teaching me came when I worked in Rybnitsa. Then there was Project Institute No. 3 in Odessa. One time the top engineer there looked at my calculations for a certain project and increased the amount of concrete threefold. I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ to which he replied, ‘It’s important for it to be durable so no one catches you or me and blames us. As for what the savings would be, that’s none of our business.’ That was also a signal about the qualities of our system.

I studied in the economics faculty and always noticed differences between economic theory and our reality. At the time, there were few scholars and a lot of demagogues. But in the 1960s people felt like they were becoming freer and could think up things on their own. For example, Ivan Malyshev built models of the socialist economy that were far off from Soviet reality and looked more like a fishing economy – companies and enterprises were assumed to be free and so forth. But the very idea of a ‘fishing economy’ was seen as pure madness, and people preferred to talk about the production of goods under socialism. I kept a close eye on these kinds of discussions.

I got a hold of Leonid Kantorovich’s book with the intent of, as a graduate of Moscow State’s economics faculty (the centre of Marxist economics, I thought), exposing the author. This book changed my view of Marxism. I didn’t find in it any parts that required criticism. On the contrary, it drew me in, inspired me, and gave me new ideas. That’s why I was at first a fan of Kantorovich, and then I was told about Novozhilov, Lurye, and other renowned researchers. The leader of this field was Vasily Nemchinov, a fantastic agriculture scholar whom Stalin even talked about. His mathematical methods confidently pointed to the fact that a market economy would nevertheless win.

On Academic Publications

My first real publication followed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when I understood that we couldn’t expect many achievements after this event, and I started looking for myself in a different field. The first little book I wrote, The Theory of Information and Economic Research, came out in the late 1960s. My first work was mathematical, and though I don’t have any particular talents in the field, I am a big fan of mathematics.

I ultimately became a supporter of the market economy

My candidate dissertation dealt with informatics. The Central Statistical Office of the USSR, where I once worked, conducted research on information flows in Latvia in order to put electronic computers there. My academic work focused on this topic. Later, I wrote a doctorate dissertation. I was already working at the Central Economics and Mathematics Institute, and the information sciences were left behind.

On Preparing Economic Reforms

I ultimately became a supporter of the market economy and actively tried to participate in the work that started taking place in this area in the 1980s. In 1989 the first Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union took place, and Leonid Abalkin joined the government, ultimately becoming the chairman of the economic reforms committee. He invited Grigory Yavlinsky and me to the committee. Abalkin tasked us with preparing a blueprint for reforming the Soviet economy. We prepared and discussed this reform framework, and then came the difficulties. A lot of deputies announced at the congress in 1989 that they wanted stability, not reform. We soon after got cart blanche to write a programme of reforms.

The programme we wrote was sent to the Presidential Council for review, and it was rejected. Mikhail Gorbachev, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and all the others didn’t agree with it. Ryzhkov and Valentin Pavlov began writing a different programme that envisioned increasing prices on key consumer goods. In May of 1990, Ryzhkov presented the programme to the Supreme Soviet, and the last products disappeared from store shelves in just two days. At the same time Boris Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet and said: ‘We know another way.’

On the Creation and Development of HSE

At the time, Yaroslav Kuzminov and I loved to go for walks on the square on Bolshaya Pirogovkskaya Street. We often discussed problems with economics instruction in Russia. ‘Our economics faculty is such crap!’ we would say about Moscow State University at the time. Yaroslav can be credited with the idea of creating a new learning institution. Let’s create a new economics college, he told me, one that will teach people to work with economics in a new way. Yaroslav took it upon himself to create the Higher School of Economics. Yegor Gaidar supported the idea of opening up a new economics university. At the end of 1991, Gaidar’s reforms began and at the end of 1992 Yegor signed the decree establishing HSE.

From the very beginning HSE has had full openness and clear rules

At first this was more of an economics faculty, and all work was focused on one specific discipline. During our first phase of growth, we got the International College of Economics and Finance, which featured expert instructors from the London School of Economics. At the start of the 21st century, we expanded some more. From the very beginning, we championed a set of new rules that simply didn’t exist at other universities in our country. At the school, students were admitted without having to pay bribes and instruction was top-notch and honest. From the very beginning HSE has had full openness and clear rules – rules that changed the landscape of education and, I hope, will become inherent to all of Russian society.

Research at HSE: For School and for Life

If you look forward to seeing HSE’s development through the eyes of its first ever professors, and finding out how it turned into a leading Russian university from a modest institution, we would be glad to share this information on this website. Read, watch and have fun!

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