Film “Inside Job” Ignites Debate About Russian Corruption

A recent showing of the Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job” at a St. Petersburg University international summer program sparked an intense debate between the Russians in attendance about their own system of banking and government.

About 20 students from many different countries attended the showing of “Inside Job” and some of them embraced the film’s call for financial reform, though they applied it to their country. In contrast, an economics professor scoffed at the idea that Russia’s corrupt government could ever be reformed. This debate is typical of those between younger and older generations.

“Inside Job” depicts Americans recent financial collapse and places the blame largely on greedy bankers. It’s a story particularly relevant in Russia today. Earlier this month, the Russian government had to infuse The Bank of Moscow with $14.1 billion to save it from insolvency. The bank got into trouble the same way as some of its American counterparts: Making questionable, and sometimes fraudulent, loans, some of which were to Russian insiders who never intended to repay the money.

Many students at the event feared that Russia would wind up as America was portrayed in the film: free of any reform that would curb the power of a few bankers over the economy. This fear is prevalent among the educated youth of Russia.

Not all agreed. Economics Professor Nikita Maslennikov, who has traveled and spoken widely in the West, attacked the film as “naive, rubbish” and “propaganda.” He criticized the director for making members of the American congress “look like the good guys.”

Maslennikov then changed the topic of conversation to Russia. He said, “I think it’s even worse here. At least in the U.S., the money is going to bankers,” said the self-described libertarian, but who sounds more like an independent who embraces Keynesian economics. “The state will steal more than the market. Russia is proof.”

Maslennikov doubts that things will improve in Russia anytime soon. Greed, he said, was human nature, and those in power would succumb to greed.

“I don’t see that (Russian Prime Minister) Putin is working towards the future of Russia,” he said in a later conversation.

Some of the Russians objected to Maslennikov’s characterization of Russia.

“Are you saying social guarantees are bad,” asked student Ilya Khvorostukhin, referring to Maslennikov’s anti-government attitude. “Are you suggesting that we grind up the poor and eat them?”

Khvorostukhin and other members of the audience pointed to Scandinavian countries as proof that social programs could help to eliminate the poverty common in rural areas in Russia.

Other students in the audience reacted strongly to Maslennikov’s idea that reform is impossible.

“Just because it is, does it mean that it should be so?” asked student Maria Kochkina. “The film is trying to encourage us to be more careful with our financial system.” She added that she will now pay closer attention to anyone talking to her about numbers.

The students and the professor also disagreed on how the government and economists should act in response to bank fraud. During the film, both groups had been criticized as complacent in America’s financial crisis.

Maslennikov said he felt “no sympathy for that nice Latina woman” in the film, who was confused by a mortgage deal offered to her in a language she did not speak.

“I don’t like the stupid people as well, but the government should protect them,” said student Dmitry
Mordvinov. He questioned whether Maslennikov’s cynicism was proper. “We have economists to protect us and warn us, not to say it will always be that way,” he said. “‘Oh, shit happens’ is the wrong attitude.”