Sunday, March 28, 2010

(Sub)Cultural Diplomacy

There are benefits to acknowledging shortcomings. It demonstrates openness, confidence and self-awareness. But failing to present them with a critical eye can be problematic, as this odd report on Russia Today demonstrates. The tone of this report on Russian criminals falls somewhere between informative and fawning, with plenty of information on cool tattoos and respect, and very little on the societal cost of mafia activity. Even the title ("Smooth Criminals") suggests a giddy schoolboy fascination with the underworld. What, exactly, is RT trying to accomplish with this piece? As my friend Lena has noted before, RT is a reliable source for laughs--but not always a reliable source for hard-hitting news analyses.

So how does RT contribute to Russian public diplomacy? Let's just say it's not the sharpest tool in the Russian PD shed. In Soft Power, Joseph Nye notes of Cold War-era Soviet PD that it relied on methods such as promoting high culture, broadcasting and launching disinformation campaigns. These efforts were supported by the nation's considerable economic, military and technological hard power. Ultimately, however, Soviet soft power was undercut by the closed government, failure to effectively use pop cultural diplomacy and its own propaganda, which was undermined by its inconsistency with government policies.

Today, high culture still features prominently in Russian PD. Its writers, musicians, dancers and artists are renowned around the world. But the nation's pop culture impact is still minimal. The Russian film industry, for example, has produced few global blockbusters over the past decade, although Night Watch, Russia's highest-grossing film ever, made nearly $34 million internationally. And changes to the Russian film industry are creating buzz beyond the country's borders.

Collaborative ventures could boost Russia's film cred abroad, but funding cuts could harm the industry and decrease its ties to the government, making it less reliable a tool of cultural diplomacy. For a nation that once had an international film festival at its disposal to promote its political and cultural values (full disclosure: this blogger worked at said festival for five years, well after it had reverted to Czech ownership) reducing its industry to a handful of under-financed films is a major change. Without proper financing, Russian pop culture can't hope to compete with more lucrative foreign competitors. And, clearly, cultural diplomacy is a task Russia's foreign-language news services can't carry alone.

1 comment:

  1. lovely post. great point! i should say i had a similar feeling when i saw it on TV the other day - what are they trying to say, here?

    well, despite of all that we've already discussed and you pointed out here, i think i could say that RT is suffering from the same cultural "insensitivity" as many of the US PD efforts around the world. i could see, perfectly well, where they were coming from, but only because i know the situation, i have seen how it's been played out over the past couple of decades, and i'm sorry to say, because it's not that different in Armenia either. i'm talking about the "societal costs" here: and yes, the phrase "legal thief" [this is quite a verbatim translation] pretty much captures it all.

    as for Russian film: yes, there's no way they can compete with Hollywood (which, just by the way, started "stealing away" the most successful Russian directors - Bekmambetov and his "Wanted" after the "Night" and the "Day Watch"-es - for VERY natural reasons), but my personal understanding is that Russian movies/shows are VERY popular in the FSU, and in that sense, they've been doing a great job in reaching out to their natural "sphere of influence" (for the lack of a better phrase).

    and yet, i couldn't agree more with you: the challenge is in reaching out to the non-traditional "sphere" and in attracting the potentially VERY hostile hearts and minds.

    i'm intently following the Moscow bombings coverage. RT has been doing a great job so far. i cannot NOT give them credit for that.