Sunday, June 3, 2018

How to Talk with Russia: Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century

Vasily Gatov,; on Gatov, see; original article (dated May 5, 2018) contains footnotes

Gatov image from

On January 1, 1986, millions of Soviet citizens tuned into their TV sets to be addressed by their greatest enemy.

‘Good evening, this is Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States…’

After years of lobbying, Reagan had convinced Mikhail Gorbachev to allow him to speak  to the US people directly. His pre-recorded five minute talk saw him use his acting gifts to the full. He spoke not as a man of power, but as a regular American, troubled by years of confrontation, able to differentiate between “Russians” and “the Communist party and the government”. He urged a partnership for peace and spoke in Russian when he looked forward to a future of ‘clear skies’. He also insisted on his values, arguing that “Our democratic system is founded on the belief in the sanctity of human life and the rights of the individual”. He described these values as “a sacred truth” that “every individual is a unique gift of God, with his or her own special talents, abilities, hopes and
dreams. Respect for all people is essential to peace.”

This address- which was coupled with a similar opportunity for Mikhail Gorbachev in the US- demagnetised the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and lent a human element to the pre-existing military and diplomatic avenues of communication between the two superpowers. Soon after, Margaret Thatcher went one step further. Interviewed live on Soviet TV, she deftly managed to inspire the audience to examine the problems inherent in the Soviet system: “Nothing like this had ever happened on Soviet TV screens,” remembers Boris Kalyagin, one of her interviewers. “We… let her tell our audience what she thinks about our domestic politics.”

Thatcher and Reagan’s breakthrough appearances took place during a wave of wellfunded public diplomacy [JB emphasis] towards the people of the USSR. Millions of Soviets tuned in to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and the BBC, which were censored and muted but all the more trusted for that, spreading the gospel of human rights, individual freedom and access to information. Meanwhile, western cultural and commercial products, from jazz to US soap operas, jeans and chewing gum had an almost magical appeal. Soon after the barriers between the USSR and the West crumpled, and the world was celebrating a new era of convergence and mutual understanding.

Today we live in an age where the internet and cable channels allow countries and cultures to communicate to an unprecedented extent; where the relative freedom to move, exchange goods and services was meant to lead to a ‘global village’, an interconnected world of peace and prosperity. Yet for all this openness, the psychological barriers and divisions within countries and between states are more marked than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Today there is no iron curtain. Russians have at least some access to an alternative information flow if they want it. The Kremlin, however, has been very effective at making the population so not want to access alternative sources of information.

The challenge for anyone who wants to speak to the Russian people - whether states engaged in public diplomacy, international broadcasters, NGOs, companies or individuals - is therefore to help stimulate the desire to seek out high-quality information. The central issue is not the flow of information as such, but motivation, developing the ‘reason’ to talk in the first place. But to understand this we need to investigate why Russians were prepared to engage with Western voices before - and what went wrong.

[Sections from the article:]

Defining Public Diplomacy

State Personality: From the Cold War to 2017

Russia and the Pursuit of Happiness
  •  i) The Personality [Ideas matter more than ever; ‘Progress and The Pursuit of Happiness’; Imagine the Future; Innovation; Health/Social Welfare/Charities; Education; Consumer Culture and Commercial Culture]
  •  (ii) The Communicators
  •  iii) Content: Beyond the News; The News; v) Crowd-Sourcing a New Deal 
[Closing paragraphs]

What is in demand today is an open dialogue with a broad array of Russians, elites and common people, on the «terms of coexistence». The US and EU governments must decisively articulate their goals towards Russia. There is no need to ‘balance the message’: Russians expect America to penetrate every aspect of their life and many believe the West is out to destroy Russia’s existence. Notwithstanding the groundlessness of such convictions it will probably not disappear even when Vladimir Putin vacates the stage.

However the enduring popularity of Western culture and way of life shows that Russians are not intrinsically opposed to the West. With the right communicators, new media opens up the space to create a transnational conversation, which can ultimately guarantee freedom, security and prosperity for all. It will not be easy, and it will no doubt be ‘trolled’ and attacked, but ultimately it is the only way forward.

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