Musings on my time as an intern at RIAC
My ability to remember might be one of my weakest, and it’s been an eventful couple of months since I left Moscow. Yet my memories of RIAC are as vivid as ever; it’s certainly left a mark.
Sure, I was dead set on making the most of it. But RIAC surprised me with the ease with which they approached me and my work — which diverged from their standard in a variety of ways — and lent a hand.
The team are young, energetic and dynamic, and cosmopolitan to the point of glamour. Most seem reflective, even sage; certainly all astute and blushingly diligent. They run the shop consummately; in 5 months I didn’t witness a single office crisis. Everyone is up for a laugh, whether at the traditional Friday burger lunches or at the frequent, and occasionally radically youthful, celebrations in the meeting room. Ready to talk ontology while smoking out in the stinging cold, or to acknowledge me sending a wink and half a smile across the place. There’s never complete silence but you always hear your thoughts. Hard work is always in the air; tension never is.
It’s a lot of great minds stuffed into one, though ample, single-space office. True, they say, the lion’s share of the thinking takes place outside of it. After a while, I took to doing the more creative bits of my work at home, too, but being there, half observing, half taking part, always seemed like a healthy mix of pleasant and useful. Listening to the director dose Western journalists with his charisma and sagacity over the phone while pacing the office, or catching a breeze of deference drift through the place as the big boss enters to disseminate the daily dispatch: RIAC is a place to savour and a place to learn. More about the exception than about the rule, that is.
Identifying with RIAC was never a problem; their projects are all spot on, comme il faut, morally and intellectually. And even if some texts less to my taste got published, I would be wrong to lament this even in my own head. The Council has proven to me that it’s a truly pluralistic place, and I respect that.
In its pluralism, enthusiasm, and professionalism, RIAC is something of an island in a Moscow gloomy of the omnipresent signs of narrowing personal liberty and lack of perspective. A city where, on the commute to work, one’s a hundred times reminded not of the imperial past, but the post-, and maybe pre-imperial present. Where the plush is right in front of you, and the misery well hidden, yet always in the air. Where even women’s heels tell of the sorry state of society.
Perhaps it’s easier for everyone to let RIAC thrive. After all, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that he who would keep a city accustomed to freedom will hold it more easily by the means of its own citizens than in any other way.
As long as there’s no spillover, of course. The working relationship between the Council and the MFA is no secret, yet the admirable intellectual effort made in Alexander House day by day justifies only RIAC’s own existence.
I have observed before that the study of foreign policy in Russia contains more elements of psychology than of the socio-political mathematics and moral reasoning which I am attempting to master. Making sense of international affairs in the Russian capital, in indirect service to its government, is of course a juxtaposition that itself cries for psychoanalysis, or, as many there like to euphemise, indirect logic.
This door will not be opened simply by banging on it. Foreign policy choices in Russia are made according to a logic that most of us will never fully grasp, however intensive, and benevolent, the effort.
It is, I suppose, a bit of a paradox that I should have come to these bitter conclusions while working at the Council, where the rule is something so radically different. But despite that, I believe RIAC is doing the right thing — or at least a right thing. Cosmopolitanism, serious reflection, and unyielding devotion will, sooner or later, bring fruit.
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