The closure of the American Center in Moscow is just the latest step taken by the Kremlin to crack down on U.S. public diplomacy initiatives within Russia and ratchet up anti-Western sentiment.
U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft, right, and American writer and producer Rock Brynner at the statue of Yul Brynner, an Oscar-winning actor and Brynner's father, in Aleutskaya Street in Vladivostok. Photo: RIA Novosti
For a very different take read: "What the closure of the American Center means for Russia"
The transfer of the American Center in Moscow to the control of the Russian authorities, a move that was announced on Sept. 16, represents its effective closure, according to the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John F. Tefft.
As Ambassador Tefft suggests, the move marks the culmination of a decades-long process of undermining U.S. cultural influence in Russia that emerged in the wake of the post-perestroika euphoria and belief in the rosy future of Russian-U.S. relations.
However, it should be noted here that Kremlin pressure was far from being the only reason for the breakdown in bilateral trust and the closure of the American Center.
In 1993 the American Center was opened in Moscow under the administration of the Library of Foreign Literature, and similar centers sprung up shortly afterwards in St. Petersburg and five other Russian cities. The center in St. Petersburg was set up with the active support of the city government, which was headed at the time by Vladimir Putin’s political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak.
American libraries were often housed in the city’s finest mansions, and for years they shone as beacons of U.S. culture amongst the bleak post-Soviet realities. The American centers surprised and astonished many visitors - from the futuristic design (unseen in Soviet times) to the book collections themselves. The numerous exchange programs on offer turned the impossible dream of a trip across the ocean into a reality.
However, the honeymoon did not last long. In the late 1990s this embodiment of the “American dream” on Russian soil was dealt a shuddering blow — and not by the Russian authorities.
In 1999 the U.S. government took the decision to wind up the United States Information Agency (USIA), which oversaw the activity of American Centers abroad, deeming them to be a relic of the Cold War. Its functions were folded into the Department of State under the newly created Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. The new mission could not compete with USIA in terms of funding and bureaucratic weight, so naturally, U.S. international cultural policy took a hit.
Moreover, from the late 1990s onwards Russia’s political leadership began to look less favorably on the American Centers than before, partly the result of the raging anti-U.S. sentiment over NATO enlargement and the bombing of Yugoslavia. Not only that, but also for ordinary Russians, U.S. library resources began to lose their exclusivity: The Internet provided all necessary information without the need for middlemen.
As a result, only the American Center in Moscow at the Library of Foreign Literature withstood the tough times. Many centers in other cities were forced to relocate to far more modest premises. These rarified seats of culture, embodying the biblical idea of the “City upon a Hill,” were replaced by “American Corners” in municipal libraries, the very name of which bore a certain pejorative connotation. U.S. public diplomacy had driven itself into a corner (quite literally), and only had itself to blame.
For some time, the Russian authorities paid little attention to these American Corners, and during the Obama-Medvedev “reset” supporting them became a cheap and convenient way to demonstrate commitment to the officially stated policy of better bilateral relations. New titles from U.S. authors began to populate these corners, and in some cases it was Russia that funded them (for instance, in 2011 an American Corner was opened in Kirov under the auspices of Governor Nikita Belykh, and the local library provided a room free of charge).
In the summer of 2014, seeking ways to put pressure on the United States in response to sanctions, the Russian government seemingly remembered the existence of these American Corners and went all out on the offensive. Rulings poured out of local courts on non-compliance with Russian law. As a result, by September 2015 the more than 30 Corners had been reduced to a few library sections with unknown status, and in some cases English-language “clubs.”
In rooting out the American cultural centers, the Russian government seems not to have feared any kind of public backlash, as demonstrated by readers’ comments on one of the websites regarding the closure of the American Center in Moscow: “Mr. Tefft, be grateful that your embassy is still open”; “Stop sending your revolutionaries our way”; “Listen, ambassador, what’s American culture? Feet on the desk or a bomb on the Japanese? Or is it ‘cultural activities’ in Libya, Serbia, Iraq and Syria? What sort of culture can come from the descendants of robbers, thieves and outcasts?”
Of course, these statements do not represent Russian public opinion in general, but the present vogue for thinking that the actions of U.S. diplomatic representatives in Russia are aimed solely at destabilizing society and sowing the seeds of regime change is indeed the result of state propaganda, and the idea is embedded in the minds of most Russians.
Belief in the omnipotence and insidiousness of U.S. diplomacy is so great that even esteemed university professors, including ones previously considered to be quite liberal, have become adept at spotting the work of “DoS agents” from the U.S. Department of State in Russia’s every woe.
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In reality, the “all-powerful” America cannot even adequately respond to Russia’s ousting of U.S. public diplomatic infrastructure — not least because Russia has practically no equivalent institutions on U.S. soil and there is nothing for the authorities there to target. The Russian Cultural Center in Washington, DC is housed in a building owned by Russia and protected by diplomatic immunity.
Nor are there any “Russian Corners” in U.S. libraries to speak of. And it goes without saying that direct administrative pressure on private companies involved in the promotion of Russian cultural projects in the United States is out of the question.
It seems that in the current crisis-ridden climate, the Kremlin welcomes the breakdown in public diplomacy, since it allows Russia to “score points” in the confrontation with the United States, without exposing itself to the risk of retaliation.
And if the United States did try to respond to the closure of the American Center in Moscow by zapping some miraculously preserved exchange programs with Russia, such as Fulbright or Open World, it would be regarded by many only as further evidence of the total failure of U.S. public diplomacy in Russia and its inability to compete with the Kremlin in the struggle for Russian hearts and minds.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.