The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views. For blogger guidelines, click here.

Russia, Pussy Riot, and Public Diplomacy

Aug 15, 2012

by

At various times I have heard public diplomacy programs referred to as “public relations” or simply as “propaganda”. It is a common misunderstanding. Public diplomacy is supposed to be about informing others about your society and how things work in a truthful and unvarnished fashion. It is not supposed to be about presenting a pretty picture or covering-up warts. Unfortunately, this fact has been obscured in recent years in part due to a headlong rush on by governments to engage in what they call “public diplomacy” in the mistaken belief that by doing so they will win new respect on the world stage. Public diplomacy, however, cannot obscure a society's genuine problems or failings. We are now witnessing a classic case-in-point in Russia with the so-called “Pussy Riot” trial.

“Pussy Riot”, for those of you who may not know, is a self-described “feminist punk collective”. Three of its members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich – performed a “punk prayer for Putin” in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral to protest Patriarch Kirill's enthusiastic endorsement of Vladimir Putin for president. The performance lasted forty seconds before it was broken-up. The performance then went viral on YouTube before the three young women (two of whom have small children) were arrested. They now face seven years in prison for “hooliganism” and “inciting religious hatred”. The trial, which has been televised, has become a sensation and their cause has been taken-up by performers ranging from Sting and Bjork to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Franz Ferdinand. Madonna recently spoke on their behalf during her recent performances in Russia and inked “Free Pussy Riot” on her back.

In recent years, the Kremlin has embarked on an ambitious program that it has referred to as “public diplomacy”. The RT Channel has been a centerpiece of this project. Supposedly, the RT Channel is about getting Russia's viewpoint across to the globe. The channel started out as “Russia Today”, but the decision was made to make its exact origin more obscure, which by itself calls into question its actual purpose. If the channel is meant to give perspectives related to Russia, then why hide the name “Russia”? The channel has become well-known as an outlet for assorted crackpots and bizarre characters, American and foreign alike, who ridicule American society and leadership in the world. The channel attracts the fringe elements of American society, but it does absolutely nothing whatsoever to create a positive image for Russia. Those who are interested in Russia are repelled by it and those who are attracted to it have no real interest in Russia. It's ironic because I have found some of its reporting on Russia to be interesting and even critical on occasion, but I can't get past the sheer unprofessionalism and crass propaganda to be bothered with watching. My favorite RT moment – during a story on a change of policy in Afghanistan in early 2010 the crawl on the screen read, “Experts say if the new U.S. policy does not succeed, it will backfire”.

In addition to the RT Channel, various smooth Russian “experts” have fanned-out across the globe to explain Russia's domestic and international realities. The annual Valdai Discussion Club gathers Russia experts from around the world to discuss issues of concern to the Kremlin. Scholarship programs such as the Alfa Fellowship Program, which brings young professionals from the U.S. and U.K. to Russia for professional development, have been created to bolster Russia's connections with the global elite.

The message of all this activity is simple – Russia is a modern country that is rising in importance. It is contemporary, chic, and is well known for its hot women (as is obvious from a couple hours of RT programming). The RT Channel, intentionally or not, regularly depicts America as a chaotic nation in decline and rapidly losing influence in the world. Then along comes Pussy Riot.

The Pussy Riot trial testimony sounds something more like the Salem witchcraft trials than the legal proceedings of a modern democracy. The defendants' lawyers have been harangued and the defendants themselves have been deprived of sleep, food, and water. The international backlash has been such that it is suspected the sentencing was delayed to allow time for Madonna to leave the country. The defendants' closing statements are already considered masterpieces of Russian intellectual thought. While President Putin has commented that the treatment of the women is “excessive”, he stops short of pushing for their release thereby leading the public and the defendants to think that he is insincere.

Last week I attended a concert in support of Pussy Riot that was held across the street from the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC. What struck me about the crowd was how young and tragically hip the bulk seemed to be. Many were wearing knit facemasks like Pussy Riot in spite of the summer heat. It was, in short, precisely the kind of crowd that Russia's public diplomacy has been aimed towards – young people who never knew the USSR and for whom Russia is a blank slate. Yet, the young rockers railed against Putin and spoke about how fortunate we are in America to be able to express ourselves. The sounds I heard was not only of music, but of many years and rubles worth of Russia's public diplomacy efforts disintegrating. Clearly these young people had an appreciation for things Russian, just not the things Russian the Kremlin would prefer that they appreciate.

The lesson here is that public diplomacy cannot change the “image” of a country. Only changing a country can change its “image”. America learned this the hard way. All of the exchange and media programs in the world could not repair the damage to America's image during the 1950's and '60's when the State Department frequently had to intervene to rescue Black diplomats from the perils of Jim Crow laws. America's image became more positive as America itself became a better and more just society. Public diplomacy makes it possible for people to better understand a country's positives as well as negatives. That makes it a vital part of international diplomacy. It cannot, however, erase the negative side of a society that outsiders may find disagreeable.

Update:
On August 14, 2012, Amnesty International USA was turned away from the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC while trying to present the Russian government officials with a petition with over 70,000 signatures demanding Pussy Riot’s release. That is also unhelpful in the public diplomacy sense.

COMMENTS

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
5 COMMENT(S)

You seem to be misinformed

You seem to be misinformed about public relations definition. The two widely accepted definitions are:

“the management of communication between an organization and its publics” or “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organizations and publics on whom its success or failure depends”

I do not think it says anything about "presenting a pretty picture or covering-up warts". If your argument is that public relations often did that, then I can give you several examples of how public diplomacy did that too (U.S. public diplomacy during the WWI, WWII, Shared Values campaign after 9/11, etc.)

In addition, your argument about U.S. image "America's image became more positive as America itself became a better and more just society" - may be an overstatement? When did the image become better? And when did it became a "better" and "just" society? Again, I can come up with quite a few facts to argue against... (see international polls about attitudes towards the U.S.)

I work in public relations as

I work in public relations as well as public diplomacy, so I certainly know the distinction between PD, PR, and propaganda. I did not say that PR is "covering up warts". I said that public diplomacy is not about covering-up warts. However, that is exactly what many foreign governments think public diplomacy is (and PR, too, for that matter). It used to be that the term "public diplomacy" was largely used only by American diplomats. In recent years it has gone global and is now being applied by governments to all kinds of projects that are not so much PD projects as they are projects designed to "improve image".

AS to your second point -- in 1962, a man with an African father could not use the same bathroom or drinking fountain as a white man in much of America. In 2012, a man with an African father is president of the U.S. Most people around the world would consider the U.S. of 2012 to be the better and more just society. I don't need a public opinion poll to tell me that and I say that as somebody who spent seven years working in opinion polling.

This piece is an interesting

This piece is an interesting contribution to the discourse, but I'm unsure what to make of the following: "Russia is a modern country that is rising in importance. It is contemporary, chic, and is well known for its hot women (as is obvious from a couple hours of RT programming)." If your allusion to "hot women" is tongue-in-cheek, or an ironic comment on what Russian PD practitioners emphasize in their self-representation, it doesn't quite come across. If you are making this comment in earnest, I can't dispute the truth of your observation but I feel it's a remarkable error in judgment to include it within the context of a piece on the persecution of three young female activists.

I specifically stated at the

I specifically stated at the start of the paragraph "The message of all this activity is simple – " So, yes, I am referring to the message that the Kremlin has been trying for years to send.

It's not exactly a secret that the Kremlin doesn't shrink from using the reputation of Russian females for so-called "public diplomacy" purposes: http://hotforwords.rt.com/

STAY IN THE KNOW

Visit CPD's Online Library

Explore CPD's vast online database featuring the latest books, articles, speeches and information on international organizations dedicated to public diplomacy. 

Join the Conversation

Interested in contributing to the CPD Blog? We welcome your posts. Read our guidelines and find out how you can submit blogs and photo essays >