Harvard Alumni Mobilize a Moscow Brain Trust

For MTDavid Rekhiashvili and Barbara Kellerman at last month's Harvard Club event
Ivy League alumni associations generally call to mind images of oak-paneled studies, etchings of game birds on the walls and the voices of privilege bubbling up from leather armchairs, with the occasional business deal thrown in for good measure.

But the murky waters of the Moscow River are a long way off from the, well, murky waters of Cambridge, Massachusetts' Charles River, and the recently established Harvard Club of Russia has an agenda a good deal more ambitious than the Midtown drinking sessions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's legendary protagonist Amory Blaine and his fellow Princeton chums.

The Harvard Club of Russia was founded in October 2004 by two alumni, David Rekhviashvili, a representative for ExxonMobil in Russia, and Simon Saradzhyan, The Moscow Times' news editor. They decided to establish the club when they realized that there were a number of fellow graduates with "interesting things to say," Rekhviashvili said.

"The club's purpose is to facilitate friendships," Rekhviashvili said. "The thing that unifies club members is that we share a similar experience and values based on it. The HCR allows for the communication and exchange of our personal ideas."

The club now counts 32 dues-paying members in its ranks. But judging both by the size of the audience at recent events and by HCR treasurer Alex Lupachev's tally, there are a number of stowaways, and about 70 people tend to show up at the club's meetings and 100 are on its mailing list.

The kinds of friendships and interaction among Harvard men and women that members may have grown used to during their university days are kept up through the steady stream of events the club offers, one of which is a running series of talks at various Moscow embassies.

Slovenia's ambassador to Russia, Andrej Benedejcic, is a Harvard grad and club member, and the club met at the Slovenian Embassy to learn about the embassy's mission in April. British Ambassador Anthony Brenton, a one-time fellow of the university, sponsored another such talk. And of course, there are social events, with informal meetings in bars, holiday parties at members' homes and other convivial gatherings.

And at the end of June, the club hosted its most recent event, a lecture by Barbara Kellerman, a research director at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her talk, on the subject of her recent book, "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters," began with former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch and ended with suspected Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

After the lecture, audience members asked Kellerman to elaborate on her assertion that bad leadership, first and foremost, is dependent on bad followers. Bad leaders do not rise to power, she maintained, without bad followers.

As a student of leadership, Kellerman answered, she was "as interested in the Russian people as in [President Vladimir] Putin." When asked later if her comments had any particular relevance to Russia, or if any of the country's modern-day leaders had a place in her book, Kellerman, perhaps out of concern for the leaders' followers, demurred.

"What is important is having conversations about leadership, instilling a people with civic virtues," she said. With "change in the 21st-century coming so swift, you need to develop a class that can manage crises effectively, or you're finished, especially in developing countries like Russia."

And, given the ease with which club members reeled off the names of Russian-based Harvard-educated businesspeople, that class will hopefully come about in 21st-century Russia -- assuming that a Harvard education is as good as it claims to be. If nothing else, the dialogue that Kellerman encourages seems to be coming about. Already, the HCR is attracting outsiders to that dialogue, including Rasul Fatkhutdinov, a recent graduate of the law department of Kazan State University who hopes to start his own law firm.

Fatkhudinov said after Kellerman's speech that he thought innate ability affected one's potential to lead more than any lecture could. "How does one become a better leader? You need to learn what is important to you, and then how to communicate it," he said.

Still, the particular educational experience that Harvard offers has always been able to open a door or two. "There are many prominent graduates of Harvard graduate schools here, and it does help in business," Lupachev said, naming a host of businessmen including Charles Ryan, class of '89 and founder and CEO of Moscow investment bank United Financial Group.

Club member Dmitry Alimov also noted that Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, a Harvard Business School graduate, was on HCR's board of overseers. For many members, such networking opportunities provide an extra reason to stay involved in the club.

Sally Williams-Allen, the European regional director for the Harvard Alumni Association, said the club hardly needed any help, though. "This club is tops among the five new clubs founded since 2003," she said. "It's dynamic, it has great leadership, and it's infused with the city's new energy."

Williams-Allen was also hopeful that the HCR would in time try to set up an exchange program or financial aid endowment to facilitate Russian students' studying at Harvard. "It's a matter of identifying philanthropists and schmoozing. It's a service to the world and a responsibility."

In the future, Rekhviashvili said the club might be able to set up such a scholarship. For the time being, though, he said the HCR would focus on interesting others in seeking a Harvard education.

"Education on more topical, economics-related issues leads to a potential for change in the development of leadership," Rekhviashvili said. "We have a responsibility to disseminate knowledge, skills, ideas and the value of education."

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