Sergei Grigoriev: Russia-US Business Council

Published: April 26, 2006

Sergei GrigorievSergei Aleksandrovich Grigoriev graduated from Moscow State University in 1979. Since that time, he’s been the assistant Head of Mikhail Gorbachev’s press service, a consultant and commentator for ABC news, a lecturer at Harvard University, and most recently, vice-president of the Russia-US Business Council. While this interview breaks with our usual focus on expats, we certainly thought that the opportunity to have Mr. Grigoriev answer a few questions about his wide range of experience warranted that.  

SRAS: Some analysts are predicting that Russia is preparing to align itself more with the East: with other “energy powers” and the growing economic powerhouses of Asia. Do you think that an eastward facing Russia with close political and economic ties with China is possible?

Presidents Putin and Hu on Red Square

Sergei Grigoriev: I believe that while Russia is looking for diversification of it’s political and economic ties and although it is moving along this path, it will inevitably try to intensify it’s relations with the East; yet it will also continue to look for better relations with the West. The “swing model” which had been widely used by the Chinese in the past proved to be quite an efficient one; yet, it goes without saying that whether the West likes it or not, civilizationally Russia would always be more looking at the West; Russia has always been looking for ways to be more accepted by the Western community. There will always be a balance here; however, in the times of a major crisis — if one is to break out — Russia may be looking for a closer association with it’s Eastern partners. At the same time, civilizational factors will continue to play a major role: one can become a partner with the Chinese, and yet in the age of the decline of Marxist-Leninist ideology will likely not believe that the Chinese are real “brethren.” Besides, China’s growing economic power together with it’s geographic location will always dictate a real need to lean on the other side to avoid too much dependence. And a lot will depend on the West — whether the West might try to alienate Russia, or to engage it in beneficial cooperation.

SRAS: You were a consultant to President Gorbachev when the Soviet Union fell.  As an insider, what can you tell us about the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed under the now unpopular Gorbachev?

Gorbachaev (with grandaughter) in a 1997 Pizza Hut ad that addressed his controversial status in the FSU. Click to watch.

Sergei Grigoriev: Two many reasons to list at once. Yet, the major reason was the following: the Soviet system outlived itself and had to be reformed or changed or replaced with something else. If the Soviet leadership at that time had not decided to go ahead and change the system, and had the majority of the people been not sick and tired of the many aspects of that system, the Soviet Union could have lived longer. Besides, the Soviet Union would have never died had it not been for the powerful impulse from above (from Mr. Gorbachev and his colleagues). Yet, while Mr. Gorbachev knew what he wanted to change, he did not know how to do it. Often he was not consistent or persistent enough, and often he just did not know what to do, or was receiving poor advice. History might still judge Mr. Gorbachev well. Yet, Russia’s basic frustration with the 1990’s made Mr. Gorbachev very unpopular.

SRAS:  In 1992 you left Russia to study and teach in America.  What prompted the move for you?  What did you hope to gain by studying and working abroad in America?

Sergei Grigoriev: I was looking for a change in my life and daily routine; I always wanted to get to know more about the world. Besides, somehow I had a gut feeling about how the 1990’s would be like in Russia. I wanted to learn more; having spent a lot of time in America I’ve gotten to like to U.S. I still believe that this time was not wasted. However, I could have achieved a lot more. I could have gotten a much better job, like, for example, a tenured position, or some job in the corporate world. It just never happened. I guess something was/is wrong with me. I tried hard to achieve a lot — worked as a researcher, finished my Ph.D., had been teaching for 7 years… Some people I know did achieve a lot more.

SRAS:  In 1998 you returned to Russia as a media consultant. There has been considerable talk that the government has severely curtailed freedom of the press in Russia. In your opinion, how free is the Russian media? What are the major factors influencing what gets printed?

Sergei Grigoriev: Well, there are certain limitations — but those do not apply to printed media, or Internet. We can’t say that the freedom of the press in Russia does not exist. What worries me more is the expansion of so-called “self-censorship” in an attempt to please the authorities. Besides, one of the reasons for this is general frustration with the 1990’s and the general public’s disgust and loathing towards a lot of things typical of the Russian media in the 1990’s: bias, “zakazukha,” “dzhinsa,” etc. Yet, the authorities clearly realize the power of the TV in modern society.

SRAS: You are now mostly involved with business-related activities – a publishing house, a bank, and a government program focused on developing economic ties with China.  In your opinion, is the business climate in Russia improving? Can an “average Russian” with drive and a good business idea legally found and run a successful business in Russia?

Sergei Grigoriev: Well, there are problems to deal with in every business here. Yet, I know many examples of people becoming successful on their own — they had to go through certain “procedures” to make it work or happen, and yet they made it. The business climate is gradually improving — it is not a western business society here yet; and yet it is no longer “bandits without borders,” or like the Chicago of the 1920s. More diversification, more growth in small and medium size businesses will inevitably make business people push harder for fair rules of play.

SRAS:  As a related question, do you think that the Russian government is doing enough to encourage foreign investment, and to encourage foreigners to come to Russia to work?

Sergei Grigoriev: A lot is being done; yet certain negative examples of how major companies get ruined due to powerful interference do not help the case. Russian businesses play a certain role in protecting their markets as well — and the government cannot fail to comply. Still, I would say that major attempts are being undertaken to attract foreign investors…

SRAS:  Many Russian language programs in the US are facing cut-backs and closures.  Do you think it is still important for American students to learn and understand the Russian language and culture?   Why or why not?

Sergei Grigoriev:  This has always been a problem. The Russians have their bias, but in general know a lot more about America as compared to the American’s knowledge about Russia. Understanding the language and the culture helps to understand lots of things; it also helps to get rid of biases and prejudice. There was a major interest in Russia during the 1990’s — today the interest is declining. I may sound like an idealist, but I firmly believe that the peaceful future of the world depends on much stronger ties and on actual partnership between the United States and Russia in many areas. Language and cultural skills help promote better business partnerships. I strongly believe that it is in the interests of the United States to continue with many programs aimed at studying Russia, Russian language, and Russian culture.

SRAS: You are now serving as Vice-President of the Russia-US Business Council.  Could you tell us how you became Vice-President of that organization and what you do for them?

Russia-US Business Council

Sergei Grigoriev: I was elected Vice-President of the Russia-US Business Council in July of 2005. I had been part of their Board of Trustees since 2001. A close friend since childhood, Dima Yakushkin, invited me to join. I helped them with fund-raising. But by 2005 the Council was almost dying — no money, very few activities, etc. By spring 2005 they lost their office space. I helped them find a sponsor paying for their office space, phones, etc. plus saw to it that the Council was joined again by some of the largest Russian companies and banks. In return, I wanted a status with them to be able to travel legitimately, and do things I like to do. We organized a number of activities, helped Studio Six (a group of young American actors-graduates of the Moscow Art Theatre School) with fundraising and PR, and are currently working on a number of other major activities: Duma and Federation Council hearings about Russian business on the US markets, second Arts Land Russian Drama Festival in Cambridge, MA; series of business breakfasts and round-tables. We are also involved in organizing a Russian Day during the World Trade Fair in Rhode Island. The Board of Trustees of the Russia-US Business Council today includes Senior Foreign Policy Presidential Aide Sergei Prikhod’ko, Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov, Chair of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Federation Council Mikhail Margelov, Heads of the State Agencies for Fisheries (Stanislav Il’yasov), Sports (Vyacheslav Fetisov), Atomic Energy (Sergei Kiriyenko), as well as leading Russian business people, like Andrei Kazmin (Sberbank), Vladimir Dmitriyev (Vnesheconombank), David Yakobashvili (Wimm-Bill-Dann), Aleksandr Medvedev (GazExport), prominent figures like Aleksandr Lebedev and Mikhail Gorbachev (National Investment Council),and many others. When I came to work for the Council in 2005, we had no money to pay for mineral water during the annual meeting. We now command a budget of over $200,000 and in addition were able to raise over $140,000 for Studio Six.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and Communications Director for Alinga Consulting Group. In those capacities, he has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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