How to Sell “Russia”?

21 march 2014

Why Russian Soft Power Does Not Work

Nikolai Silayev is a senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and head of the politics section at Expert magazine. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: Bureaucracy is the direct customer of the majority of projects for promoting a certain image of Russia in the world. The challenge is whether it will be able to conceptually separate its own image from the image of the nation, and then promote the latter.

In 2012, the magazine Russian Reporter featured an article about Russia called “Ten Reasons for Pride: Events in 2012 that Made Us Respect Ourselves and Our Country.” The list included an unprecedented surge in the volunteer movement; the long-awaited launch of the Bureya hydropower plant; statistics indicating that the number of births in Russia exceeded deaths for the first time since 1991; the launch of the space observatory RadioAstron; the Yandex IPO on NASDAQ; Russia’s emergence as number one in Europe in the number of Internet users; and the country’s second place in the overall team ranking at the London Paralympics.

Russian Reporter has a circulation of around 170,000 copies, which, by Russian standards, is an impressive number. Yet the magazine’s readership pales in comparison to the audience for the state-run television channels Channel 1 and Rossiya-1. However, both TV giants ignored most of the reasons for pride in the article, except for mentioning the hydropower project – in line with the Soviet tradition of never missing a chance to spotlight a newly commissioned, large industrial project and a higher birth rate, which is a state priority. Indeed, any of the accomplishments on the magazine’s list is a significant event and could have a lasting impact. Each might have made a good story or a documentary, and even could have received extensive media coverage from various angles. Each has a direct bearing on how to improve the “image of Russia” that many political thinktanks and area experts have been debating over the past two decades. Of course, one article in one magazine proves nothing, but it highlights the stark contrast between Russia’s tangible achievements and sheer inability to promote them, especially abroad. Russia has not been able to make those accomplishments part of its “soft power” and, in the end, of its foreign policy strategy.

TACIT PATROTISM

Just try posting a status or a link on Facebook stating, for instance, that the Russian company NT-MDT controls 14% of the global market of scanning probe microscopes. A couple of comments may follow, such as “Well done, guys!” or “Congratulations!” But for the most part, people will respond firmly in the following ways: Russia’s scientific achievements today are a Soviet-era heritage; the country still lives on oil and gas; and education and science reform has no chance of even keeping its current foothold in science and engineering. There is much truth is this criticism, yet the tone of the discussion is embarrassing.

A few years ago the director of St. Petersburg’s European University, Oleg Kharkhordin, delivered a public lecture on the Polit.ru website where he shared the findings of his research center Res Publica. The center focuses on studying the republican theory as an alternative to liberalism. Among other things, the lecturer postulated two ideas that have a direct bearing on the topic of this article (please accept my apologies in advance for minor errors in narrating the details of what the lecturer said, if any).

Postulate one. Russia has huge problems with language that the public at large uses to formulate a common position on an important issue. On the one hand is social language, or the language of personal communication. On the other, we have the language of the state and bureaucracy – sometimes referred to as officialese. Social language is not good for coming to terms on a common cause, for it is the language of emotion and a means to pour one’s heart out. Officialese is not good because the public has no trust in it.

Postulate two. Russia’s political history after Catherine the Great was represented either by ardent, outspokenly critical intellectuals, or utterly indifferent philistines. In other words, there is either quasi-religious passionate criticism, or philistinism, which is essentially indifferent to res publica (public affairs).

This is precisely why any political debate in Russia instantly finds fault with the opponent’s moral qualities, or vice versa. Contemporary Russian artist and author Maxim Kantor noted that people prefer to call each other “obscurantists” and “liberal pederasts” instead of just saying honestly that they dislike each other.

That is how thing are today on the domestic front. A different problem emerges when addressing foreign audiences. What language and vocabulary is best to use in speaking about one’s home country? Officialese is good for diplomacy, but it does not work in the broad and indistinct realm often called “public diplomacy,” where the country’s image is actually crafted.

So there are two varieties of social language left to choose. One is good for the critically minded public to express its opinion about social issues. This language may sound sincere at times and be helpful in luring a foreign observer into dissident “kitchen discussions” and crying on his shoulder. What this language cannot do is produce a more or less decent image of our country. At best, it can make clear that Russians are not inclined to hide their vices from outsiders – not the best approach to building a good reputation.

The other variety is the “patriotic” version of “kitchen discussions” about Russian affairs. Emotionally, this variant can be more or less effective. Some people may focus on Russia’s cultural and spiritual heritage, while others highlight the moral callousness of geopolitical opponents. But such talk lacks rational content. Very few people will point to Russia’s current tangible successes and achievements, especially if such achievements have little or nothing to do with national defense. This is the case in part because facts and figures about the world market of scanning probe microscopes fit in poorly with speculation about universal compassion. Moreover, “patriotic discourse” is mostly confined to nostalgia for a country’s past greatness or laments over the mistakes of the past. In general, Russia’s political vocabulary is pessimistic and not suited for saying anything good (apart from hackneyed official catchphrases) about the homeland. Indeed, the political talk at dinner tables essentially lacks argumentation.

I am not suggesting that there are no other appropriate options to describe Russia, especially since one of them was mentioned at the beginning of this article. A more recent and politically significant possibility was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement at the Valdai forum, which was well balanced in terms of rationale and emotion. Putin is probably the only Russian politician who could explain sensibly, logically, and without a trace of exaltation why the Customs Union is crucial, and what foreign economic strategy stands behind it. Putin’s message was crystal-clear: while the United States and the European Union are drifting to the left, we remain right-wing Europeans firmly committed to such values as family, homeland, faith, and creativity. Putin’s speech relied on lively and expressive language (some of the expressions came as real hits, apparently uttered spontaneously. For instance, “Russia is destiny” in response to “project ‘Russia’”). Significantly, each instance is a unique piece of rhetoric. The language is still evolving and, as is often the case, is a result of the efforts of just a handful of enthusiasts. This circumstance impedes the manner in which Russia’s global image is crafted. Yet the obstacle is surmountable and apparently can be overcome as Russia matures internally.

HIS EXCELLENCY’S IMAGE

Several tactical options could be deployed to overcome this systemic hindrance. Let us take another look at the feature article published by Russian Reporter mentioned above. Among the ten Russian achievements, some would have never been possible without consistent government efforts or, at least, without government funding, such as the Bureya Hydro project or the RadioAstron observatory. Other projects are totally unrelated to the federal government, such as the unheard-of upsurge in the volunteer movement.

Russian public life – or rather the picture that the mass media portrays – remains too state-centered. The current model for building Russia’s image abroad is highly vulnerable, largely because it is the image of the state machinery. Russian successes are associated mostly with the successes of the governing bureaucracy.

The Russian bureaucracy is interested in presenting the country in the best possible light to the foreign public – especially since Russia’s image in the media is far worse than it is in reality. But one should remember that every attempt to improve Russia’s reputation has encountered obstacles that now are starting to look almost insurmountable.

First of all, a powerful narrative has taken shape over many centuries depicting Russia as a gloomy semi-Asian northern empire and it continues to be complemented with ever more horror stories. It should be remembered, though, that this narrative originated in the West. In the East, Russia is largely viewed differently. For example, the Soviet Union had a unique (albeit eventually not very successful) experience in fighting backwardness in Central Asia. A similar campaign was launched in Afghanistan in the 1970s and Afghans still remember those efforts (and not necessary in a bad or painful way). However, the world media are mostly Western media (except, possibly, for Al-Jazeera, which quite naturally cannot be counted on), and as long as this is the case, certain stereotypes about Russia will continue to dominate. Attempts to fashion Russia’s image by focusing on Russian bureaucracy would be tantamount to attacking that set of stereotypes “head-on.” For now, however, the available resources mean that such a campaign has no chance of success.

Furthermore, the bureaucracy of any modern nation-state is not attractive in principle. The system was created as a Leviathan whose essence can be camouflaged, but not changed. The Leviathan may appear quite charming, but it is the charm of a huge, impersonal, and immoral force. The ability to wipe out the United States is a major component of Russia’s international reputation, but it would be strange for us to think that this is enough to form the country’s image abroad. One of the favorite examples used for comparison is U.S. soft power, yet the U.S. state apparatus greatly contributed to that soft power. And that contribution had a negative impact.

In this context, distinguishing between the homeland and “His Excellency” is a strategy that is both ethically correct and pragmatically beneficial. There is no need to castigate “His Excellency” for his well-known weaknesses and vices in front of strangers, but there is nothing to prevent us from distinguishing between the nation (society) and bureaucracy.

Deep divisions over values and political ideas inside a country may look very different from the outside. If American soft power is understood as rock-and-roll and jeans, then it is easy to imagine a pious zealot for whom the triumphant parade of Jim Morrison and the like across the world is not evidence of U.S. strength, but of shame. Likewise, it is easy to imagine a Russian zealot who considers volunteers rushing to fight forest fires on their own initiative as potential instigators, or even viewing the people who assisted the small southern town of Krymsk hit by summer storms and subsequent floods as disloyal to the authorities. Volunteering is an invaluable resource for shattering cheap stereotypes about modern Russia. The same applies to the Russian scientific community, which quite often takes a very uncomplimentary attitude towards Russian bureaucracy (which sees it as a manifestation of disloyalty). Still, it is precisely this scientific community that maintains the high repute of Russian science in the world.

Bureaucracy is the direct or indirect customer and moderator of the majority of projects for promoting a certain image of Russia in the world. The challenge is whether it will at least be able to conceptually separate its own image from the image of the nation, and then promote the latter.

FOCUSED EFFORTS AND DECENTRALIZATION

There is something paradoxical, if not schizophrenic, in the way other countries view Russia. On the one hand, the label of “an unattractive partner” has become common, while, on the other, Russia has the second-largest number of immigrants of all countries after the United States. Russian pop culture is very competitive, at least in the territory of the former Soviet Union. It is clear that most immigrants come from countries where life is worse than in Russia, and Russia’s cultural dominance is a dubious achievement (for instance, the public’s fondness for prison songs in the vein of “Folsom Prison Blues”). However, such a state of affairs provides a good reason to debate the target audience of Russia’s messages aimed at shaping the country’s image abroad.

Sometimes one gets the impression that the lion’s share of these messages is addressed to intellectuals. Yet here we run the risk of squandering resources to little or no avail, above all, in the post-Soviet space. The intellectuals in post-Soviet republics grew up, on the one hand, on Russian political culture and its tradition of social criticism, and, on the other hand, on the Western mainstream with its liberal capitalism, democracy, and human rights. There are solid reasons to believe that for this class (at least for its current generation) Russia will forever remain a “corrupt empire about to fall apart.” Possibly, it is not worth trying to dissuade them. The question is how to focus a “Russian narrative about Russia” on the man in the street and on business people and how to talk to the broad audiences directly in post-Soviet countries, over the heads of their intellectual elites? Of course, the important problem remains concerning the evolution of those elites and the emergence of certain factions that tend to look at Russia more soberly. But this is one of the items on the strategic foreign policy agenda that goes far beyond the bounds of shaping the country’s image abroad.

The magazine Otechestvennyie Zapiski (Domestic Notes) published an article by Anna Krasteva that offers a remarkable observation concerning the special features of civil society in post-Communist states. Krasteva writes: “In order to encourage civic involvement, the West has invested millions of dollars in our non-governmental organizations. (…) The institionalization of involvement was the first result. (…) Lavish Western financing of NGOs in Bulgaria made them centers of civic involvement, while other, less institutionalized forms of civic initiatives – clubs, hobby groups, networks, etc., found themselves on the sidelines [Krasteva notes that it is these forms that are centers of civic involvement in mature democracies – N.S.]. Professionalization of (civic) engagement was the other effect.”

In shaping its global image, Russia largely follows the strategy of Western European and U.S. political foundations operating in Europe. In fact we have been trying to create non-governmental organizations targeting cooperation with Russia. This helps (to varying degrees) to create a medium of intellectuals and politicians working towards cooperation with Russia. However, this policy has certain drawbacks. It is intrinsically addressed to “third sector professionals,” and the message barely goes beyond the intellectual sector. Additionally, Russia-oriented NGOs have an extremely limited range of activities. By and large they deal with public diplomacy projects; i.e. they are mostly concerned with meaningful public discussions of world affairs, politics, or history. In other words, Russian messages appear to be locked within the intellectual environment. Outside of that milieu such discussions are of no interest to anyone (although there are various cultural projects). As far as pop culture is concerned, Russia’s image is good in that respect. In terms of high culture, we go back immediately to the audience whose perception of Russia will never change.

Western organizations can afford to promote various programs among the general public, such as offering legal education, providing assistance to women, and distributing funds to schools. Russia, however, has not bothered to create a permanent system of supplying universities in neighboring countries with new research literature in Russian.

Many of the still untapped resources for building Russia’s image lie in the non-political sphere and outside of public diplomacy. For instance, primary and secondary school students from other countries could participate in Russian Olympiads in mathematics, physics, and other sciences. Those who perform well should have the option of attending Russian universities in accordance with existing quotas (which are still established arbitrarily). It might be a good idea to offer internships at Russian medical centers to medics from post-Soviet countries. Steps should be taken towards restoring cooperation among natural scientists (some of them are still in former Soviet countries). Several years ago Georgia’s legendary ethologist Jason Badridze missed an opportunity to work on a joint project with his Russian colleagues at the Pushchino research center near Moscow because he was denied a Russian visa. Such programs would make it possible to demonstrate the best sides of every day life in Russia and promote the good will of its state machinery.

It should be remembered, though, that to achieve this, efforts to craft Russia’s image abroad must be decentralized, or, to be more precise, be distributed properly. Currently, those efforts are focused on several centers that boast excellent foreign policy experience, but are far less competent in Russian science and engineering, public movements, education, and other spheres. Expanding the list of sectors that receive grants from Russian funds would change the focus on public diplomacy. It might be worth considering establishing new organizations whose activities go beyond the scope of normal public diplomacy. Also, the agencies expected to advance and promote Russia’s soft power (the Russian Council for International Affairs) might incorporate leading mathematicians, physicists, medical workers, and teachers.

THE SOVIET UNION IS GONE

Less than a decade has passed since Russia began to create its own system for addressing foreign audiences. The Russia Today television news channel was established and in December 2013, the RIA Novosti agency began to be re-arranged and the outcome of those reforms is still unclear.

However, one has to admit that Russia’s “broadcasting to the outside world” has not yet taken any significant niche in the global media market. In that sense we are doomed to loose the “information wars.”

Russia has its own sources for explaining its stance to large audiences in English, Arabic, Spanish, and other languages, which is a good thing. Yet, most likely, these sources will not become the main tool for shaping Russia’s image around the world.

First, global capitalism has a core that incorporates all leading world mass media. As long as we remain outside of that core, our chances of participating in the global media agenda look bleak, irrespective of how much financial muscle we may put into our “overseas broadcasting.”

Second, Russian mass media are in crisis, while the government seems to be quite indifferent. Before the crisis, the media were ready to expand outside of the country, but now their economic potential is too weak to ensure such a breakthrough. Private mass media in Russia, as a rule, provide more competitive products than their government-owned counterparts – simply compare Kommersant and Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Promoting private media to foreign markets may prove far less costly than creating clumsy mechanisms of official foreign policy propaganda. A more sophisticated strategy is needed with regard to private mass media as an economic branch and a political institution than simply maintaining their political loyalty at any cost.

Third, Russia invests heavily in the tools used to deliver its messages, but hardly spends anything on content, presumably hoping that everything will emerge on its own. For instance, public diplomacy projects enjoy far greater financing than research on international relations and regional studies. Too many parties create a shortage of good ideas.

The Russian system of “overseas broadcasting” will feel this discrepancy sooner or later. To a large extent, Russia’s global message relies on the Western left-liberal mainstream. Generally speaking, this policy may be fruitful. Putin’s Vladai speech contained a very simple and attractive postulate: we wish to be part of Europe, while staying immune to the whims of the EU bureaucracy’s cultural policies. It looks like many people around the world want the same. They are firmly against attempts to make them buy prosperity and democracy on the condition that they agree to a completely useless set of absurdities as a free bonus. However, it is not enough to formulate an ideological concept and then repeat it a hundred times. It cannot replace rational knowledge. If Russia does not like the idea of Ukraine’s association with the EU and if it considers such a move disastrous for Ukraine, then Russia should have started talking about the economic effects of a potential agreement between Ukraine and the EU long before last summer’s hints at the Customs Union. Speculation about fraternity and moral threats from the West can persuade no one, nor can it substitute for knowledge about Ukraine, which we seem to lack.

And, of course, it would be senseless to rely on memories of the Soviet Union in trying to shape the image of contemporary Russia. Nostalgia cannot motivate anyone outside of a relatively small circle of senior citizens. People born after 1991, even if they sympathize with Russia, at best see this nostalgia as a whim of the older generation.

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