Room for debate: While the current era of Russian soft power may be over, there are still different approaches for implementing Russian soft power that focus more on the global appeal of Russian culture. (Part 3 of 3; read part 1 and part 2).
Russian nesting dolls are on display ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Feb. 5, 2014, in Sochi. Photo: AP
The deterioration of Russia’s image abroad marks the end of an era in the promotion of Russian soft power. And it seems that a new one has not yet begun.
However, any discussion of Russian soft power should not take place within the framework of the legitimacy, fairness and international lawfulness of Russia’s behavior in Crimea. (Let that be the subject of UN talks, TV debates and conferences for top decision-makers.)
It would be more appropriate here to talk about the problems of Russian soft power in terms of the sudden and widespread deterioration of the country’s image.
Despite the fact that Russia did not feature in the Soft Power 30 Global Ranking, there is a salient point that gets overlooked: Russia is permanent headline news. And if there is a link between a country’s soft power (i.e. attractiveness) and its ability to get the world talking about it, Russia can be said to have achieved something.
For a very different take read: "How Russia's soft power failed shortly after it started (part 1)"
Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud: Moscow’s behavior is not being interpreted as the Kremlin or the Russian public would like. And it is the interpretation of current events and Kremlin policy that is set to go down in recent history, perhaps morphing later into what are known as “historical facts.”
In this regard, the collective monograph entitled “The different faces of ‘soft power’: The Baltic States and Eastern Neighborhood between Russia and the EU” is revealing.
Prepared in 2015 by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs for the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, the report examines the soft power tools available to Russia in relation to the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, articulates how these countries perceive the objectives and implementation methods of Russian soft power, and compares them with the goals and methods of the European Union. Crimea is once more cited as a textbook example.
But closest attention should be paid to the conclusions. First, the authors suggest that Russian soft power is merely a prelude to the use of hard power (if Russia lacks sufficient quantities of the former to achieve its goals).
Second, Russia’s neighbors fear its soft power no less than its hard power.
Third, the EU’s soft power is understood to be a “nearly imperceptible form of communication between people and societies,” while the Russian authorities perceive soft power to be a “set of state tools to disseminate official messages.”
For a very different take: "The strange rise and fall of Russian soft power (part 2) "
At the same time, despite the fact that Russia’s image has taken a blow in the West, the picture should not be oversimplified.
Indeed, some Eastern European countries, former Soviet republics, BRICS nations and Latin American nations harbor a far more favorable image of Russia than the West does, largely due to positive experiences in the past and economic pragmatism in the present.
One important caveat: Popularity and reputation are radically different concepts. In today’s global world of almost universal access to technology, it is enough to post and promote a shock video on YouTube to become famous.
But to earn a reputation and the recognition of others requires years of good deeds performed without fanfare or overt self-centeredness, but with sincerity, wisdom and patience, all the while waiting for onlookers to take note of such good deeds that are coming from one and the same country.
Then, proud of their discovery, those selfsame onlookers will draw the world’s attention to the benefactor.
Therefore, if we understand the term “soft power” to be a resource based upon a country’s appeal, prestige and untarnished reputation, combined with a dynamic credible brand and national charisma in the form of world-renowned politicians, musicians, athletes, etc., then Russia today really does have problems.
But that’s not the whole story: Russia has tremendous soft power potential. But to realize it, the country’s leadership needs to adjust the approaches to implementing its soft power strategy, or rather, adjust the strategy itself.
In what way? The issue is complex.
To answer this question, let’s start by recalling the story of a famous jewelry company founded in 1842 in the Russian Empire: the House of Fabergé.
The imperial family, when receiving ambassadors in St. Petersburg or traveling around the world, presented luxurious Fabergé items. Such jewelry knick-knacks, pregnant with emotion and the personal touch of the donor, never failed to achieve their diplomatic purpose.
Fabergé’s talent manifested itself not in the precious materials, but in the integrity and absolutely flawless nature of the artistic design. To hold such an item in the hand was to be in contact with perfect unity of form and content, and at the same time, to understand that this was a uniquely Russian achievement.
Can Russian citizens today outside the presidential administration offer anything remotely similar to foreign audiences and guests?
Recent examples have caused slight bewilderment and suggest that today there is no understanding of which brands represent Russia. Suffice it to recall the news that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently presented U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with a Victory Day T-shirt and some tomatoes and potatoes from Krasnodar.
Lavrov has also given Kerry a T-shirt with VICTORY 1945-2015 written on it. I'm sure he'll wear it every day. https://t.co/k08raciMuM
— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) May 12, 2015
However, positive examples do exist, for instance, Russian ballet or the works of renowned Russian artist Nikas Safronov. His paintings are an example of the untapped potential of Russian soft power. He remarks that the Kremlin sometimes turns to him for paintings on the eve of presidential trips abroad.
A 2011 visit by then President Dmitry Medvedev to Azerbaijan is one such example. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev added several landscapes of his country to his art collection on that occasion. Incidentally, Safronov has repeatedly stated that he wants his portraits to tell the world about what kind, beautiful people live in Russia.
However, such master brands — instantly recognizable and improbably attractive, which the country could be proud of — are in short supply in modern Russia.
Today it is geniuses, who through talent and perseverance, cannot fail to make a mark. They include pianist Denis Matsuev, opera singers Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (who, incidentally, does not live in Russia), and conductor Valery Gergiev, the first to reveal the genius of the composers Stravinsky and Borodin to the world, as well as other virtuoso enthusiasts like him who never cease to adore their homeland.
Today, looking at Russia’s renowned cultural heritage, which has always had a positive influence on the country’s image, one is alarmed to discover that its cultural present is not recognized internationally. The reason is that Russia has little to offer, not enough top-quality brands.
Soft power is always something that society chooses for itself in the knowledge that the choice is voluntary and appealing. Soft power is not built by decree from on high, but takes shape naturally and over a period of many years. In the choice between a point of no return and a turning point in the realization of potential, the latter looks more constructive and promising.