How to Talk with Russia Vasily Gatov
Americans once knew how to effectively communicate with Russian audiences, and they in turn wanted to engage with Western voices. What went wrong, and how can we fix it?
On January 1, 1986, millions of Soviet citizens turned on 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 Soviet 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 the Russian people and the Communist party and 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, saying “Our democratic system is founded on the belief in the sanctity of human life and the rights of the individual.” He described as “a sacred truth” the conviction 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.”1
This address—which was coupled with a similar opportunity for Mikhail Gorbachev in the United States—demagnetized 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, when in a live interview on Soviet television she deftly inspired 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.”2
Thatcher and Reagan’s breakthrough appearances took place during a wave of well-funded and concerted public diplomacy 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—jazz and soap operas, jeans and chewing gum—had an almost magical appeal. Soon after, the barriers between the USSR and the West crumbled, and the world seemed to be 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 and 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.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 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 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.
Defining Public Diplomacy
Public diplomacy is often associated with Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power.”3 Soft power is the “ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than through coercion or payment.”4 A country’s soft power “rests on its resources of culture, values and policies.”5 As Nye argues, public diplomacy has a long history as a “means of promoting a country’s soft power and was essential in winning the cold war.”6
A good starting point for understanding 20th-century public diplomacy is Alexander Wendt’s theory that the state can be understood as a person.7 States have recognizable personalities, which affect how they are perceived and their behaviour. These personalities are consciously constructed to reflect what elites believe their country stands for. According to Alexander Wendt, “state personalities” may mimic human behavior patterns: Some states are friendly, extroverted and loud communicators, while others may be melancholic and slow.
Public diplomacy, however, should not be confused with propaganda, strategic communication, or PR. As Nick Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy at USC Annenberg, defines it, “Propaganda is about dictating your message to an audience and persuading them you are right. Public Diplomacy is about listening to the other side.”8 I would expand this definition to “listening to the other side and finding causes for communication.” In the age of social media and interactive technologies the need to understand and listen to your target audience is more important than ever. Public diplomacy becomes even more of a self-critical conversation rather than a lecture.
This conversation can be explained with the language—if not the theory itself—of memetic culture, first articulated by Richard Dawkins and later taking on a life of its own.9 “Memes,” in Dawkins’s original formulation, were units of cultural transmission like “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases” and fashions, which spread by “leaping from brain to brain” in a process of “imitation.”10 Whenever an idea—or a meme—travels, it is transformed by the process of traveling to a new political context. For an individual to remember an idea, it needs to be relevant to their own political circumstances. For an individual to adopt the idea into their thinking and to thus transform it, the idea needs to be able to fit into a pre-existing individual narrative and fill a pre-existing individual need.
State Personality: From the Cold War to 2018
During the Cold War, the United States’ “personality” was based around the concept of freedom. The roots of this freedom narrative can be found in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and want—which had been articulated in 1941 as the basis for a democratic and peaceful world. With the onset of the Cold War, the United States quietly dropped the idea of “freedom from want” as a right: It was difficult to uphold while denouncing the Soviet provision of social housing. Instead the United States emphasized civil, political, and cultural rights. The “freedom personality” was packaged in support for “free-form” arts such as jazz and abstract expressionism; promoted through the allure of economic freedom and its material benefits such as Western cars or cosmetics; institutionalized in political freedoms such as religious rights and the right to travel; and expressed through freedom of information. This “personality” also gave reasons for engagement: Russians would tune into Radio Free Europe or the BBC World Service because they provided information which Russians had no access to domestically; and they broadcast music and cultural products which were censored in the USSR.
Today the Kremlin has co-opted and spun many elements of this “freedom” personality. Western cultural symbols such as pop music and reality television sit next to Kremlin hate speech and renewed authoritarianism on Russian television, proving that you can watch MTV while spurning democracy, drive a Mercedes while imprisoning dissidents. Freedom of movement and religious freedom have been granted, while Kremlin propaganda works hard to undercut the allure of other political freedoms.
The Kremlin puts forward the narrative that democracy and human rights are, at best, irrelevant to success, and, at worst, a tool of the duplicitous West used to justify intervention in domestic affairs. Kremlin propaganda reiterates the idea that Western democracy is a sham; that the democratic revolutions of 1989 led to unhappiness in Central Europe; that Western polities are governed through conspiracies and cabals. The Kremlin may have failed to provide a strong “Russian idea,” but it has been successful in promoting the concept that the whole world is rotten: Cynicism has replaced communism.The Kremlin may have failed to provide a strong “Russian idea,” but it has been successful in promoting the concept that the whole world is rotten: Cynicism has replaced communism. Meanwhile the West has abandoned human rights as a priority, preferring trade and security, making its talk of “values” easier to attack. The West has continued to do business with autocratic rulers, even in the face of evidence of corruption and worse—something Russian audiences are very aware of.
Back in the Cold War, the Kremlin jammed and censored foreign broadcasts. Today the Kremlin’s approach could be defined as “white noise jamming”: No physical technological device is used to disturb foreign messaging, but a mental block does the work instead, as all foreign criticisms are discredited as a symptom of Russophobia.
The overarching conspiracy narrative of the whole world being opposed to Russia is highly successful. After Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, 30 years of good will towards America were ruined when the Russian President commanded his mass media to describe America as an existential enemy. Media outlets responded with enthusiasm. Positive attitudes to the United States, which were usually in the 60 percent range and had rarely fallen lower than 50 percent (during the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, for instance) decreased immediately.11 By 2015, only 15 percent of Russians had a favorable opinion of the United States. NGOs and educational ties were cut. When Western media predictably responded with Cold War-style projections of Vladmir Putin as an all-powerful Bond villain, they walked straight into the Kremlin’s narrative trap by helping the Kremlin define itself as under attack.
Russia can be described as a state wearing a propaganda Walkman, inside a permanent loop where any Western criticism is now interpreted as part of an “information war” against the country. Thus the Panama Papers leak, which showed how members of President Putin’s closest entourage were laundering money, or the investigation into state-sponsored sports doping by the Kremlin and subsequent ban on Olympic Russian athletes, only helped reinforce the sense that Russia is under attack.12
The challenge, then, lies in breaking through the cynicism. So far, Western statesmen, editors, and journalists have responded to Russian propaganda defensively: pointing out lies, rebuffing accusations, disclosing hidden motives, and demonstrating the ugliness of the Russian regime. But while such responses are natural, they are also by nature reactive, and risk helping the Kremlin by reinforcing its messaging.
We need to move from reaction to a positive approach, which means rethinking the old freedom brand—and deliberately choosing the new personality, communicators, and content to fit our present moment.
A New Model
1) The Personality
The original “freedom brand” the United States built up in the Cold War long ago lost its coherence. The challenge for today’s public diplomats and broadcasters is to find aspects of the American idea that are still powerful and resonate with Russian audiences. To understand this will require consistent and in-depth social media sentiment analysis and target audience analysis. However, the over-arching idea should be the Pursuit of Happiness, with a sequence of supporting themes.
Progress and The Pursuit of Happiness: The positive, progress-orientated, future-envisioning nature of the United States and European Union contrasts with illiberal regimes like the Kremlin’s, which feed on nostalgia and cynicism and are never concerned with progress. Open societies embrace change and are quicker to adapt and grow; autocratic societies tend to reject unplanned development for institutions and humans alike. Autocracies inevitably limit the potential of their citizens.
Whether the messenger is Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or Sergey Brin, there is no more powerful message for U.S. public diplomats than the message that anything is possible.
Imagine the Future: The future has disappeared from the Russian regime’s public discourse. A cynical society cannot imagine a way forward. Economic modernizers with coherent plans for the future have been banished. Focusing on Western ideas of the future, from urban planning to economic policy, technology, and teaching can stimulate a discussion inside of Russia about where its own regime is leading it.
Innovation: Silicon Valley represents American dynamism. For all their efforts, Russia has not been able to create its own version or boost its nanotechnology sector as trumpeted by former President Medvedev. Even more painfully, many successful American tech entrepreneurs have Russian roots, a clear case of the Russian state’s failure to empower its own people.
Health, Social Welfare, and Charities: Some of the most important activism in today’s Russia is around the subject of health provision. High-profile charities focus on cancer care for children and adults, hospices, finding a cure for cystic fibrosis, and so on. The elite’s access to Western medical care outrages ordinary citizens and undermines the official anti-Western line: When “patriotic” Russian politicians head to Germany for treatment, they show their utter hypocrisy.The elite’s access to Western medical care outrages ordinary citizens and undermines the official anti-Western line: When “patriotic” Russian politicians head to Germany for treatment, they show their utter hypocrisy. The lack of provision for the elderly, and the early age of death, highlight the weaknesses of the Russian model. By supplying constant and accurate information about health care in the West, public diplomacy can stimulate a conversation around a subject that reveals the Kremlin’s false equivalence to be a sham.
Education: Even Kremlin elites who pose as anti-Western send their children to study in the West, especially the United States. This is a clear case where American achievements are admired.
Consumer Culture and Commercial Culture: States in propaganda Walkmans are still very much exposed to the Western consumer culture; this is a weak spot of all developing countries with authoritarian rule. Domestic content cannot match that created in Hollywood or London; domestic goods are not of high enough quality to satisfy demand. Autocratic states are incapable of producing relevant “import substitutions” for the iPhone and Tesla, nor do they have the creative powers and professional capacity to churn out Avatar or Star Wars. Despite the rapid development of its entertainment sector, the Kremlin is still reliant on Western stars and products, from soap operas to arthouse cinema. These remain a strong conversation starter. If films and programs with Western stars were made about themes that resonate with a Russian viewer, they will be watched. If Western stars engage Russians in communication, they will be listened to.
2) The Communicators
The United States and European countries need a pool of communicators whom Russians will immediately listen to, who command respect above the barriers and who can cut through the mess of digital media. Most State Department officials, democracy promoters, and human rights activists will immediately be pigeon-holed as out to subvert Russia. “Russia experts” can come with baggage.
America (and the West in general) needs a “dream team” of communicators, who would be involved in a consistent way, making timely and emotional interventions at critical junctures. Cultivating such a group would demand effective interagency coordination and strategizing—but it would also demand that these communicators maintain some distance from official U.S. government hierarchies, and can operate independently from official government policy.
There is some precedent for such a mandate. During the Cold War, the State Department (and later the now-defunct United States Information Agency) effectively leveraged the appeal of non-political artists, seeking to export the best of American culture abroad. The “jazz diplomacy” that shared the works of Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson with Warsaw Pact countries did not just introduce audiences to a particularly American art form; it also sent a positive human message about African-Americans’ own “pursuit of happiness.”13
Apart from positive cultural messaging, the U.S. government also developed a coordinated strategy to fight back against Soviet disinformation. The Active Measures Working Group, an interagency organization that functioned between 1981 and 1992 to confront and mitigate Moscow’s informational warfare, could provide a blueprint for a new effort along these lines. Such an initiative should lie outside the State Department and Pentagon, and cannot be coupled with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, as Voice of America and RFE/RL should maintain their legacy operations.
Instead, the group should have a mandate that allows it to engage people and institutions that have a leverage in the information space—from Hollywood stars to Silicon Valley tycoons, from SpaceX to CNN—in order to coordinate messaging and monitor its effects.
These communicators would have to brave the battles of Russian television, but could also talk directly through social media, whether YouTube or Twitter. Effective messages are sent over multiple platforms and targeted to multiple audiences—with messengers carefully chosen for the task.
An A-list selection might include:
- The Innovator: Elon Musk, who appeals to Russian ideas of the visionary scientist.
- The Soldier: High-ranking U.S. military officials like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster are highly respected in Russia, even in the present environment, and are rarely ridiculed on Russian media (unlike their political counterparts). Senior officers known for their combat and strategic achievements could make more effective spokesmen than commonly understood.
- The Movie Star: George Clooney, who combines star status with a social conscience and commitment to journalism, would be a strong candidate.
- The Philanthropist/Activist: Melinda and Bill Gates, or digital activists like Eli Pariser or Beau Willimon (who is also greatly respected as the showrunner of House of Cards) could be included in this category. Russians are sensitive to the issue of social justice, while they are generally powerless to achieve it in their own country. It is crucially important to demonstrate how personal actions and investments in social change may make the world better place.
This might all sound fanciful, but if one considers how effectively the UK has used David Beckham as a spokesperson, or how the French government can talk through Bernard Henri-Lévy, then it comes to seem not so speculative.
Beyond the News: The Russian mass media, controlled and orchestrated by the government, offers a mix of home-grown and imported high-quality entertainment to attract viewers towards its own propaganda. If the West wants to compete with Kremlin channels, they would ideally need to invest in entertainment with an underlying social message relevant to Russian audiences. This means creating fictional films and documentaries especially for Russian audiences. This sort of investment is probably only possible if Western countries deliberately pool resources through a mechanism akin to the Nordic Film Board. Current funding is tragically fragmented, making any kind of impact minimal.
At the very least, existing Western cultural assets which embed core democratic values as a part of their message should be made more readily available. That means translating everything from the foundational works in liberalism, social justice and ethics, to relevant modern scholarship in communications, political science, international relations, history and philosophy, to classic movies and TV series. Relevant articles in magazines, think tank reports, TED talks and so on should be immediately available in Russian, as should press releases from state institutions and NGOs. Relevant archives which relate to Russia-West relations should also be translated into Russian. There are already some EU-based initiatives (like the Adenauer Foundation or Adam Smith Institute) which support this kind of work for a narrow group of social scientists and students. But a more broad-based approach is needed, and could be conceived and developed by the interagency group mentioned above.
Such efforts may not yield immediate results, but in the long run they are key.
The News: When broadcasting news into Russia, Western public broadcasters are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, accurate information about such issues as Ukraine and Syria is part of any news agenda. On the other hand, providing that information can play right into the Kremlin’s propaganda strategy, which portrays all Western voices as part of a campaign to discredit Russia. Western broadcasters cannot pretend they are not voices from the United States or European Union; Russian audiences instantly see them as such and Kremlin propaganda will always frame them as following a hidden agenda. The more they attack Russian foreign policy, the more it reinforces the Kremlin’s message that the West is out to get Russia.
This rejection of direct criticism is borne out in the social media interactions of Russian viewers on the Facebook page of Current Time, Radio Free Europe’s premier Russian language TV news program. Posts about the war in Ukraine usually receive less engagement than more human stories about Russian lives beyond Moscow. The highest amount of interactions were for stories about Karelian villagers defending their forest and about the provision of laundry for the homeless.
In order to pursue an effective news strategy, international broadcasting needs to differentiate between Russian language audiences.In order to pursue an effective news strategy, international broadcasting needs to differentiate between Russian language audiences. One could estimate that Ukrainians, for example, need reassurance that the West cares about their (military) security and reforms; Baltic Russians that they belong in the European Union; while Russians in Russia want to hear about examples of positive change throughout Russia and beyond. Programming needs to move beyond mere Kremlin bashing and an obsessive focus on Moscow political intrigues to include constructive and solutions-based news, which gives viewers concrete examples of how to improve their lives.
Crowd-Sourcing a New Deal
Post-Soviet Russians feel they never received a true deal from the West. Whether fair or not, symbolic gestures such as G8 membership on the one hand and lectures about democracy on the other did not a “new deal” make. Russians were offered nothing of the sweep and scale as the EU membership given to Central European countries.
Today’s challenges demand an open dialogue with a broad array of Russians on the “terms of coexistence.” The U.S. and EU governments must decisively articulate their goals towards Russia. There is no need to sugarcoat the message or pursue a false balance in interests: Russians expect America to penetrate every aspect of their life14 and many believe the West is out to destroy Russia’s very existence. Notwithstanding the groundlessness of such convictions, they will probably not disappear even when Vladimir Putin vacates the stage. And with Putin’s inevitable fourth (and last) presidential term approaching, it is only growing more urgent for Russians and the West to start asking what life will look like without him. It is also crucial to keep the dialogue as broad as possible, reaching out to ordinary Russians and not elites only, and engaging the most indoctrinated social groups, like the military and law enforcement.
Crafting a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy of this kind is a tall order. 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 can open up the space to create a transnational conversation with the ultimate promise of freedom, security, and prosperity for all. Such an effort will not be easy, and it will no doubt be attacked by trolls and cynics—but ultimately, it is the only way forward.
1 Ronald Reagan, “New Year’s Messages of President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev ,” January 1, 1986. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36367.
2 BBC, “Boris Kalyagin: interview with Thatcher – the beginning of glasnost”, April 17, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/russian/russia/2013/04/130415_thatcher_soviet_interview.
3 Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616, Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, (2008), pp. 94-109.
7 Alexander Wendt, “The state as a person in international theory”, Review of International Studies, 30, (2004), 289-316.
8 Nicholas J. Cull, Public Diplomacy: Global Engagement in the Era of Social Media (London: Polity, forthcoming).
9 Jeremy Trevelyan Burman, “The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976-1999”, Perspectives on Science, 20, no. 1, (2012): 75-104.
10 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (revised ed. Oxford: OUP, 1989), 192. Cited in Asunció Álvarezm, “Memetics: Evolutionary Theory of Cultural Transmission,” Sorites.org, December 2004, http://www.sorites.org/Issue_15/alvarez.htm.
11 For the full data in Russian, see the Levada Center, “Otnoshenie k stranam,” February 12, 2018, https://www.levada.ru/2018/02/12/otnoshenie-k-stranam/.
12 Peter Pomernatsev, “Vladimir Putin’s message to the world: you are just as bad,” Financial Times, July 19, 2016. https://www.ft.com/content/de025422-4d9b-11e6-8172-e39ecd3b86fc
13 For more on this subject, see Lisa E. Davenport, Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009).
14 As a popular joke in Russia in 2015 went, “Never have Russians lived such a hard life as they do under Obama’s presidency.”