Rights in Russia interview – with Konstantin Sonin, economist at the University of Chicago

This month Mary Page talks with Konstantin Sonin, John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago. Konstantin Sonin, a Russia-born economist, received his Master of Science in 1995 and his doctorate in Mathematics from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Moscow State University in 1998.

After a fellowship year 2000-2001 at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, he joined the New Economic School in Moscow, where he became a full professor in 2009 and a vice-rector in 2011. He has had visiting appointments at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton in 2004-05 and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in 2009-10. In 2013, he joined the HSE University, one of the largest universities in Russia, as a professor (2013-2022) and vice-president (2013-15).

Since 2015, Sonin has been a full professor in the Harris School at the University of Chicago where in 2015 he was named the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor. He has written in leading political science and economics journals, published a book on economics for a wide audience, contributed to major international and Russian media outlets, and frequently comments on social media.

In 2023, Dr. Sonin was placed on the Federal Wanted list in Russia – a criminal case based on commentary he published in 2022 about the Bucha Massacre and the Siege of Mariupol.

Mary’s questions

  • What led you to transition from mathematics to economics? Was this an unusual move?
  • It seems the Russian economy may be surviving, despite the damage caused by current sanctions. At first sight, it seems the invasion of Ukraine was a wholly destructive move from the point of view of the economy. But was there any economic reasoning behind Putin’s war against Ukraine?
  • I have a question about the death of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. How do you interpret what has happened? And why did it happen now?
  • Given that the upcoming ‘elections’ in Russia will be far from free and fair, why does the regime still go ahead with them? Will they be in any sense at all a test of the popularity of Vladimir Putin?
  • Looking back, many people considered when Putin began his first term in office as President back in 2000 that he was something of an economic liberal – although already in 2003 we saw the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Twenty-four years later, how does the Russian economy measure up in terms of liberalism?
  • You had a very successful career in Russian academia and until December 2014 you were vice-rector at the prestigious Higher School of Economics in Moscow. On the basis of your experience, could you tell us something about the interaction between the government and academia in Russia. And how does that relationship differ from in the US?
  • You were designated a ‘foreign agent’ last year. We know that a great many human rights organizations and activists have been designated as ‘foreign agents’ – as well as media professionals and even some writers like Boris Akunin. But why an economist? And what exactly has this designation meant for you?
  • You have been placed on the Federal Wanted list in Russia on charges of spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian army under a law Putin signed following the Ukraine invasion. We know that a growing number of Russians are in prison on this charge or the similar one of ‘discrediting’ the Russian army – indeed last week the human rights defender Oleg Orlov was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on that charge. What impact has the case against you had on you personally? And how would you assess the general impact of these new laws on Russian citizens?
  • Looking back over the years of the Putin regime, should we see the gradual reduction in civil liberties and the erosion of democracy as the implementation of some great plan? Or has it been more a question of ad hoc adaptations by the regime to events?
  • This year Putin will be 72 years old. As an economist, but also as someone with insights into politics and not least as a citizen, how do you see the regime that he has built continuing in the coming years? And how will it transform when he has left the scene?

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