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Russkiy Mir in London
 Apr 23, 2008

For the first time this year, London’s traditional economic forum devoted to Russia attempted to distance itself from its previous name by taking the name Russ!a Investment Roadshow. Organizers from Sergei Kolushev’s company Eventica mentioned how Russian officials were strongly encouraged to boycott the London conference last year after President Putin’s Munich speech. Not only did state officials suddenly cancel their appearance, in the same way that frightened birds scatter for a tree at the sound of a gunshot, but many prominent businessmen also decided to show their solidarity.

Eventica has recently been doing everything possible to convince Russian leaders that the London forum is nothing to be worried about and is something that is in fact beneficial for Russia in every aspect. By and large it has been successful, with a good sign being that the company will assist in organizing the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which was originally conceived as a “patriotic alternative” to the London forum. Apparently, something has changed a little in Russia, even when one considers the horribly negative official relations between Moscow and London. An understanding of sorts has developed, which holds that arguing to the bitter end with the West simply isn’t worth it.

In any event, Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, was the main representative from Russia opening the forum and touching on the political environment. Dmitry Pankin, Deputy Minister of Finance, represented the government. The latter’s address, incidentally, can hardly be considered successful or even appropriate for the forum, as his main argument was that the Russian economy was not ready today to accept massive investment inflows, including from the West, given the resulting danger of spiraling inflation. In similar speeches more care will have to be taken to choose the tone and better take into account the audience, especially in so far as this issue is one that directly concerns the country’s image.

More about Russia’s image a bit later…

In general, the speeches of Russia’s leading businessmen were quite optimistic in tone. Some were even assertive. A constant theme was the idea of Russia being an island of stability in an unstable global financial environment. Alexander Potemkin, head of MICEX, was poetic in naming his presentation – “Russia’s Financial Market – A Rainbow Against a Stormy Background.” He spoke with pride about the country’s undisputed accomplishments in doubling GDP, explosive growth on the consumer market, all the while showing that there are still places to invest money. Pyotr Aven, president of Alfa Bank, showed that despite the skyward growth of Russia’s economy, the educational, healthcare and social systems were in sorry shape.

Alexander Shokhin created a small sensation when he stated a readiness on the part of Russia to sell energy products in ruble-denominated prices, although he did relent and say that it would be ready to consult with partners on the issue. Shokhin also brought up Russia’s political stability, emphasizing that while Russia’s economic policy has been set forth until 2020, in America, where it is unknown who will become president next year, political and economic unpredictability prevails. By the way, it was precisely this odd excerpt from Shokhin’s speech, concerning the “downsides” of Western democracy, which became the main news item in the British press.

Alexei Gurin, head of CentreInvest Group, continued on the same logic, giving a presentation with the words “Let’s buy Alaska from America” in the background of a slide. Such was the sampling of publications – completely in line with the traditional Western understanding of Russia’s image and the image of Russian business.

A separate section of the forum was devoted to Russia’s image, where Vyacheslav Nikonov, executive director of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, gave a speech. While few of the speeches were met with applause, Nikonov’s was.
Nikonov noted to several understanding that the country’s image is generally stable and is virtually independent of the current political situation. It depends on a number of factors – political, cultural, historical, etc. Russia’s image in a number of countries has not changed significantly for centuries.

In Great Britain, for example, they wrote about Russia (save for names and a few contemporary realities) in much the same way 100 years ago that they write today. Political refugees were attracted in much the same way as they are today, with social revolutionary terrorists then receiving asylum as easily as Berezovsky and Zakaev today. Russia has been “loved” in Britain only twice – from February-May 1917 and from August-December 1991 – when the country was weak and stood on the brink of destruction. So, the image has a lot to do with geopolitics, a reality we simply cannot escape.

The “misunderstandings” about Russians, joked Nikonov, has a lot to do with the fact that they are white. In other words, behavior typical of white people is expected, which leads to serious disappointment when the behavior turns out to be something different. For example none of the defenders of human rights thinks to insist on the right to hold gay parades in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran. But Russia is expected to behave in a European way.  Meanwhile, Russia is a completely independent civilization that needs to be understood, at least understood in terms of what motivates it, even if that understanding does not lead to affinity. At the same time, Nikonov justifiably noted that Russia’s image today could be considered unfavorable only in a few Western countries (for example, in northern Europe or in Japan by virtue of well known territorial disputes), but that in China and India, which already account for half of the human race, as well as in many African and Asian countries, Russia has a favorable image. At any rate, the image today is one that is more favorable than can be claimed by America.

The country’s image is something that can be corrected. Nongovernmental organizations have a major role to play in this process, for it is these organizations that create the thin fabric of communication between peoples and civilizations, which, in the end, allows for the emergence of mutual understanding. Russia has lost to the West on the image front largely because in the West, no fewer than 15,000 NGOs are operating. In Russia, the number is roughly 50. One of them, by the way, is the Russkiy Mir Foundation. Naturally, this foundation alone will not be able to fill all the gaps immediately regarding Russia’s recognizability, thus creating an understanding of Russians comprising a particular civilization. But after only one year of existence, it has already forcefully made itself known and is able to do a lot, helping to bring understanding to the same cultural code that unites everyone who feels the same mission to take part in what is essentially untranslatable – the “Russkiy Mir.”

Georgy Bovt

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"And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
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And pass you on to our grandchildren,
Free from bondage forever!" Anna Akhmatova "Valor"

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