Russophobia Still Rampant
Published: April 26, 2002 (Issue # 765)
EVERY country has two histories: one written by the country itself, the other by its neighbors. The amount that has been written about Russia by Western authors is quite astounding. Such literary luminaries as Diderot, Stendhal, Balzac, Merimee, Casanova, Alexandre Dumas pere, H.G. Wells, James Joyce and Leon Feuchtwangler have helped to shape the Western image of Russia.
However, both in the recent past and today, it seems that the Western elite has too often been indoctrinated by the literary legacy of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" - works which most graphically portray the totalitarian chapter in Russia's history. And all this despite the enormous changes in the lives and mentality of Russian people over the past 10 to 15 years.
There exists a dangerous tendency to attribute to Russians such allegedly hereditary characteristics as cruelty, laziness, anti-democratism, irresponsibility etc. Pronounced negative stereotypes - such as official corruption, mafia dominance, pervasive poverty and alcoholism - continue to prevail in many Western mass media that cover Russia. Until recently, one got the impression that reports on Russia of a disrespectful and derogatory tone were more frequent than even during the Cold War. Although, in all fairness, we should recognize that many stereotypes about the West are still very much alive in Russia.
It is important to understand what is behind all the stories about vodka, the mafia and uncivilized Russians. Professor Johan Janssen of Basel University provides an instructive answer, arguing that a feeling of indignation at Russia's "ingratitude" as well as at the fact that "the defeated enemy has begun to stir again," underlies this information policy toward Russia.
Unfortunately, Janssen does not specify what Russians and the new Russia should be grateful to the West for. Could it be for the write-off of at least part of the huge Soviet debt to the West, as Poland got, for example? Or maybe for admission to the WTO, as was the case with China recently? Perhaps for easing the visa regime, as has been done with the Baltic countries? Or possibly even for the major direct investment in the Russian economy, comparable to investment in China or Brazil?
Russia itself broke the vice-like grip of the totalitarian system; opted for democratic and market institutions of its own volition; overcame colossal difficulties to achieve stability and, over the past three years, sustainable economic growth largely by itself; and was the first to support the United States after Sept. 11.
The new trend is a result of the very important changes in our country that have led to positive transformations in the way that Russia is perceived. First and foremost, I am referring to improved political stability. Also, the past few years have witnessed stable growth, strengthening of the financial system and growing currency reserves. The country is repaying its foreign debts in full and on schedule and the rules of the game for foreign businesses are rapidly being set to rights. The international business community has been highly appreciative of the clarity and consistency of President Vladimir Putin's economic and financial strategy. All these factors, cumulatively, have made it possible to overcome the trend of negative coverage in the foreign mass media.
However, it would be wrong to place all the blame on the West, as the problem is more broadly one of the mass media in general. The media business is one that feeds on "hot" information and scandalous or unverified facts. It is entirely logical that reporters focus on negative information and scandals, as it is much harder to make a name for oneself with positive reports. Another problem is that many official structures in Russia have proved ill-equipped and are only just learning how to work professionally in the post-Soviet information environment. There is no need to embellish the country's image - indeed, any gloss or varnish can only be counterproductive. However, developments in Russia should be covered objectively.
The Russian political and business elite is consolidating. Inter alia, this consolidation has produced a clear-cut line on integration with the world economy and international financial and economic structures. Russia needs to improve its reputation to further accelerate such integration. Russia is also now shaping a clear development strategy. I am referring primarily to the irrevocable decision in favor of a civilized market-based state, together with the consistent implementation of democratic reforms and adherence to universal cultural and moral values - while advancing its national interests.
It's high time the West stopped treating Russia as a mischievous student in the school of democracy. Unfortunately, it not only employs double standards widely, but also advocates one set of rules of the game for Russia, while adhering to another set at home.
For instance, it blocks information channels to Russian radio stations, while Western broadcasting companies, including Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, broadcast live through Russian radio stations.
The Press Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, failed to reach an agreement with the U.S. authorities on permitting the radio station Mayak to broadcast in one U.S. city. The U.S. side cited a law of 1934 banning foreign radio stations from broadcasting in the United States.
The time of ignoring the problem of creating a realistic image of Russia is over. We must undertake systematic, consistent and focused work on this front. However, at the same time incongruity between image and reality can only be counter-productive. Russia's image at home and abroad depends above all on the actual state of affairs, on the success or failure of market reforms and on the scope of further democratization.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky is special adviser to President Vladimir Putin. This comment is excerpted from a speech he gave last Friday at the fifth annual Russian Economic Forum in London.