Monday, April 19, 2010

On Russia, With Love

In the home stretch of a semester, many graduate students find they become strangers to their friends, their beds, the finer points of hygiene, etc. Among the many end-of-term projects isolating me from high society over the past few weeks has been a collaborative examination of Russia's public diplomacy with my friend and colleague Lena, which culminated in a presentation and paper, both completed this past week. Huzzah!

Among the many discoveries this project has yielded is this: I am ridiculously enthusiastic about public diplomacy and international communication. I get embarrassingly animated when describing my research, which I do with the sort of fervor people normally reserve for extolling the merits of their grandchildren or fail-proof pyramid schemes. So I'll try to restrain myself here in sharing some of the highlights of my paper:

In 2005, shortly after a Kremlin-commissioned survey showed that the items Americans most associated with Russia included communism, the KGB, snow and the mafia, the Russian government started pumping money into a PD revitalization effort.* One aspect of this effort has been an attempt to re-brand Russia as an innovative, democratic nation with a strong economy and rich cultural history. But despite a massive information machine, cultural exports, language and education programs, exchanges, consulates, cultural centers and impenetrable fortress embassies, Russia's global reputation remains fairly negative.

Attempts to establish a new national identity have been undermined by competing interests that pull Russia toward both the past and the future. More than anything, Russia struggles to shake off its Cold War image--partly because Cold War imagery still colors much media coverage of the country, but also because Cold War attitudes still shape its interactions with the West and its neighbors.

With all the wisdom and confidence of a graduate student who's never set foot in Russia, I offer three suggestions for improving Russia's global brand:
  1. Increase free information flows within the country, and offer more support to critical media and NGO groups.
  2. Increase transparency and stamp out corruption.
  3. Encourage public diplomats to promote stories and events that fly in the face of traditional Cold War narratives and confirm the "new Russia" identity.
For what it's worth, it couldn't hurt to dust off the welcome mat at the embassy either...

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