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“From Russia, With Bear”

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Kremlin’s Public Relations Problem

In 2001 Russia’s then-media minister Mikhail Lesin worried, “We must promote ourselves, or we will always look like bears.” Since then, Russia has taken a variety of measures to improve its image in the West, from hiring Western PR firms prior to the G8 summit to establishing an English-language TV network.

Bear (325)If Russia’s criterion is not
“look[ing] like bears,” it’s clear these efforts have yet to make any dent in the Western consciousness. On both sides of the Atlantic, recent headlines with an ursine twist testify to the enduring blend of wary apprehension and patronizing awe with which the West regards the Kremlin: “Energy chief pushes Italy into arms of Russian bear.” “Russian bear sets a trap.”

A somewhat less pernicious, but no more nuanced image of Russia persists in Western pop culture. Take the recent music video from UK house duo Basement Jaxx, “Take Me Back to Your House”: As a mustachioed Russian general rams his tank into the house in question, located somewhere in deepest Siberia, four brown bears perform traditional Russian and Ukrainian acrobatic dances with admirable precision.

No wonder Russian leaders are still worried about the country’s image. EU envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky, has succinctly summed up the problem: “Russia needs rebranding.”

The Western idea of Russia as a wild, unpredictable hinterland with a penchant for traditional paternalism is nothing new, as Larry Wolff’s 1994 book Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment demonstrates. Among other similar tales, Wolff relates the story of an 18th-century British traveler who described Moscow as a “town built upon the Asiatic model, but gradually becoming more and more European.”

The Western idea of Russia as a wild, unpredictable hinterland with a penchant for traditional paternalism is nothing new.

As for the bear symbolism, much of it is homegrown. Numerous Russian folk tales, such as “Masha and the Bear,” idealize the wild yet gentle giant. Moscow drew on this tradition in developing the official mascot of the 1980 Olympics, the friendly bear Misha. Last year, the Russian blogosphere was set ablaze by a silly painting called “Bear Surprise” by an American artist, the title eventually morphing into what became known as the “Preved Medved” (roughly translatable as “Hello Bear”) Web meme. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the frontrunner in the race to succeed Putin is Dmitry Medvedev. (Medved’ is “bear” in Russian.)

Moreover, the Kremlin image gurus have Mother Nature to contend with. It may be debatable whether Putin’s Russia qualifies metaphorically as a “bear,” but Westerners and Russians alike have reason to fear the eminently non-metaphorical Ursus arctos. Because of this year’s unusually warm fall and winter, the poor creatures have awoken early from hibernation. “Insomniac bears are roaming southwestern Siberia scaring local people,” Reuters reported.

The job of newspaper editors is to maximize sales, often by appealing to readers’ comfortable stereotypes: the French are wine-drinking, cheese-eating cowards; the Swiss make cuckoo clocks and profess military neutrality.

If the Kremlin really wants to improve its image abroad, perhaps a better strategy would be to change its politics.

So it seems likely that the Russian bear will continue awakening, snarling, and growling in Western papers for the foreseeable future, alongside those other favorite headline templates: “From Russia with [Insert Subject Matter],” “The Russians Are Coming.” (At least “Red Dawn” and “The Hunt for the Red October” are safely out of circulation.)

If the Kremlin really wants to improve its image abroad, perhaps a better strategy would be to change its politics. Russia’s involvement with Iran’s Bushehr facility, for instance, has not helped matters; nor has its aggressive pursuit of a chunk of European Aeronautic Defense and Space.

Neither did Putin’s scathing Munich address of February 10. Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he claimed, Europe is now “trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us.” But he also asserted Russia’s right to act independently. “Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy,” he concluded. “We are not going to change this tradition today.”

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt’s response was representative: “We have to have a dialogue with Russia, but we must be hard-nosed and realistic. We must stand up for our values.”

Image credit: Photo by Flickr user Gaetan Lee

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