Not so in Russia. Although it counts for less than it did in Soviet times, scientific achievement still matters. Which is why this 69-year- old eye surgeon, with his distinctive bottle-brush haircut, is known across most of the nation's 11 time zones.
Such is his medical reputation that he has been able to use it as a launching pad for a political career, both as a member of parliament and as leader of the Workers' Self-Government Party - which attracted almost three million votes in December's parliamentary elections. Now he is back in the fray, running for the presidency in this month's elections. Dr Fyodorov owes his success to the discovery 36 years ago of a method of treating short-sightedness, using crystalline implants. After some reluctance - condemning his work as "unscientific" - the Soviet Union allowed him free rein, and eventually heaped honours upon him. Thousands of patients began to flock to his clinic. By 1989, Fortune magazine was tipping him as perestroika's first millionaire.
The author of scores of articles and a handful of books, he claims money does not concern him much these days. But he certainly knows how to spend it. Although he pays himself only $50,000 (pounds 32,000) a year, his institute owns a large property on the river Moskva, with restaurants, saunas, dachas, a mushroom farm and dairy, and a stable for dozens of thorough-bred Arabian horses.
Out of the saddle, he presides over his empire - which includes clinics in Poland, Japan, Italy, Dubai, and China - from a large office in his Moscow institute, where he inspects the work of his fellow surgeons on a bank of 30 television monitors, and holds forth on the nation's economic problems to visiting journalists, using a walkie-talkie aerial to point to a series of graphs. "Yeltsin's system is collapsing," he told the Independent recently, jabbing at a chart. "There is no marketing system and there is no production. We have no more than 400,000 plants and factories which make products. The United States has 20 million. Without this, we are simply bankrupt."
His solution is what he calls "people's capitalism", a society populated by hundreds of thousands of small entrepreneurs. He talks about creating joint-stock companies in which all shareholders have equal voting rights, and privatisation of property on a grand scale.
Some of the principles of this system are already in use in his institute. The 3,500 staff members are shareholders, paid from profits according to the size of their holding. By way of incentive, he pays nothing on loss-making days.
"Salaries are worse than heroin," he said, "People want to earn big money, without doing a decent job."
Using his system of co-ownership, the doctor claims to have increased his institute's productivity nine times in as many years. The average salary of his staff is $520 a month, double the Muscovite average. "Here we are not slaves. We are free and independent people, who can together make big money."
For all his fans, Dr Fyodorov is not admired by everyone. He is a member of the Third Force - a broken-down centrist alliance with General Alexander Lebed and Grigory Yavlinsky - which has come under fire for threatening to split the anti-Communist vote in the 16 June election. Attempts at deal-making with Boris Yeltsin and his rival Gennady Zyuganov have so far come to naught.
No one knows for certain which way the eye surgeon will advise his followers to vote in the run-off to the election next month. But history may hold a clue. When he was 11, his father, a cavalry general, was whisked off to a Siberian prison camp in a Stalin's purge, where he stayed for 17 years. Modern-day Communists may differ from Stalin and his thugs, but such memories die hard.
Phil ReevesReuse content