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Vyacheslav Nikonov: Russia Is Better than Its Image in the West

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Vyacheslav Nikonov: Russia Is Better than Its Image in the West


In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russkiy Mir Foundation Director Vyacheslav Nikonov talks about the role and objectives of Russkiy Mir in the formation of Russia’s image and the development of national culture.

– To what extent is Russkiy Mir concerned about the image of our country?

– The task of forming and correcting the country’s image is a task for the entire state and a large number of organizations. We do not have a special focus on PR.

The Foundation was created four years ago as a nongovernmental center for the popularization of the Russian language and support of programs for its study abroad. Following global trends, we have already acquired our own and in many ways unique experience in humanitarian cooperation.

Over these years we have noticed a increased interest in Russian culture. There are countries which are telling us they have a deficit in Russian teachers. The Foundation provides grants in support of teaches of Russian language and literature, for the creation of new textbooks, publication of books, supplementary materials and monographs. All of this is for Russian schools, courses and university departments abroad.  In four years we have provided grant support to more than 800 humanitarian projects all across the world.

Another important focus of the Foundation is the creation of Russian Centers in partnership with the largest universities and libraries in the world. There are already around 80. And each of them receives from us textbooks, study guides, encyclopedias and dictionaries. Not to mention books, video equipment and multimedia programs for independent study of the Russian language and Russia itself. If such work can be qualified as helping improve the country’s image, then I agree.

– One gets the impression that you don’t really have very many problems.

– To the contrary. I am convinced that our work entails a slew of problems.

One of them is changing stereotypes which impede an adequate perception of our country as it is in reality.

We should keep in mind that Russia has not just one but rather a multitude of images. We are working on all the continents and thus we see how wide and contradictory this spectrum of impressions of our country is. Attitudes can be starkly different: starting from great respect and ending with not so much hate as sincere pity.

What they write and say about us in the well-known Western European and American media is a small but very important segment. Our image in these countries hasn’t changed for centuries.

Take England – a hundred years ago they were writing the same thing that they are now. And Berezovsky or Zakaev – don’t they feel just as at home in London as the socialist-revolutionary bombers were welcome there in the early 20th century. Russian is often presented in the eyes of the West as an empire and dictatorship.

This might seem strange, but I will have to agree with one of my colleagues from Canada: this attitude toward us stems from, among other things, the fact that we are white. That is, Europe and America expect us to follow the behavioral model of the Western white man. And they are strongly disappointed when our reaction differs.

They believe that we must constantly demonstrate to them our European image. However, throughout its entire history Russia has been a self-sufficient civilization. That is why we insist not that they love us but rather that they understand this point. Russia, even with all the deficiencies we know it has, is better than its image in the West.

If we speak of warm feelings of the West toward Russia, then such emotional outbursts have only occurred several times: from February to May 1917 and from August to December 1991, i.e., when Russia was collapsing. We can also recall a more positive tone from our allies in the anti-Hitler coalition during World War II, but even then it was not so straightforward. 

The rest of the time, in their eyes we are an unpredictable, dictatorial power.

– But the West is not the entire world.

– Of course, but in other corners of the world are not problem free either. Take Africa for example. There Russians are perceived, or course, as white people. But more decent that Europeans or Americans, as we did not colonize Africa. If you take the 1.3 billion Chinese, then we are for them a country that was great in the past that fell apart for some reasons incomprehensible to them. And thus Russia is a clear example of how not to do things. 

Further we have India. Here it is easier: Russia is a good parent and kind friend of India.

In Southeast Asia, the ASEAN countries (where 570 million live), they have heard something about Russia. The exceptions are Cambodia and Vietnam, where they remain thankful for the assistance of the Soviet Union in their development and in the war with America. The rest of the countries perceive Russia as some big, far-off country where the residents are not quite like they are.

For Latin America we are a rather interesting partner with whom one can and should do business.

As far as Australia is concerned, it is a place where globe often have Antarctica on the top, and Russia simply isn’t visible.

– Such a ‘love and hate map’ probably makes it necessary to maneuver substantially and think about the effective means for influencing stereotypes, prejudices and lack of knowledge?

– Of course. Each continent has its own peculiarity. But there are certain general difficulties. For example, it is a rare thing for a state to consider the study of a foreign language and foreign culture a pressing necessity. Perhaps the learning of English as a global means of communication is today considered a requirement. But it’s not common that you hear the say about the Russian language.

Furthermore, there are countries where issues related to cultural cooperation are decided on the state level. For example in North Korea or even China. There are state which thanks to their elevated national concerns see almost no need for strengthening the development of cultural diversity. For example, France, where the Russian language is not likely to be seen as something essential, just as English and German.

There are other countries with a very wide variety of problems. For example, Kyrgyzstan, where our main problem is that many people would like to study our language but they do not have enough textbooks, Russian literature and most importantly teachers and funds to support such education.

At the same time you have the United States, where there’s no money issue and Russian language libraries can be larger than even some of ours. There are countries with center and traditions of studying the Russian language, and here cooperation with the Foundation occurs on one level. And then you have some where there is nothing at all! For example, Guatemala of Hong Kong, until recently. Or Nicaragua, which you could call our ally, having recognized South Ossetia.

In places like that you have to start from scratch. Help them and create groups, centers, university department and find teachers. In Guatemala a group has appeared that is studying Russia. For now it is based on just on Orthodox orphanage.

– Do Russian diasporas have an influence on this process?

– Yes. In places where these diasporas are large in number, they try to raise the issue of the teaching of the Russian language to the state level. The situation is already quite different when the language is included in education programs, even if only as an elective. In Germany this is already starting to be the case in certain regions and in the Baltic states as well.

According to my estimates in EU countries the Russian-speaking population is about 10 million people. And that means that there is a great potential for teaching various disciplines and subjects in the Russian language, and a number of countries this approach is finding support.

The Russian language residents of the United States represent a large diaspora. Russian has become an official language of the State of New York.

Together with American colleagues we studied the state of affairs and discovered that Russian is taught in 3000 schools. And the largest number are found in Texas.

– That’s interesting. Why?

– There are two reasons: space and oil.

– Let’s say that an American journalist was sitting here, don’t you think he might ask: “Why do you Russian need to have people studying your language everywhere?”

– We need above all else for our language to live. After all, a language is a nation. It’s not blood, as the nationalists would have you believe. Language and culture – those are the basis of a nation, its genetic code. If we want to preserve ourselves as a nation, then naturally we must be attentive to the life and difficulties of our language; we must help it.

Do you know how many languages there are in the world? From five to six thousand. But each month two languages die while not a single one is born. That’s 24 languages a year.

We need to preserve our historic code. The Russian language today has been scattered across the entire planet.

According to my estimates, there are more Russian speakers outside Russia than within. And, secondly, over the last 20 years the number of Russian speakers on the earth dropped by 50 million people. And that’s at a minimum. No other language has disappeared so fast and so dramatically…

– I don’t know what it is like in other countries, but nongovernmental organizations are seen as quite suspicious by our authorities. Do other states have problems with Russkiy Mir? Perhaps you are not teaching your language but rather entangling our trusting citizens in subversive activities or intelligence work?

– There’s no doubt that nongovernmental organizations play an important role in promoting the interests of their countries. Interestingly, in the United States, for example, 15,000 NGOs work in the foreign policy niche. An how many Western organizations are present in Ukraine? Over a thousand. Russian organizations in Ukraine? Until recently there were only two. And in general we have only about a half a dozen teams working in the foreign policy niche.

I have heard accusations leveled at us: in Ukraine during Yushchenko’s administration and in Estonia. In other countries they view humanitarian cooperation with understanding.

– Last week Vladimir Putin published an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta titled Russia: the Ethnicity Issue. Along with a number of other critic issues, he mentioned that migrants coming to work in Russia should pass an exam on Russian language, literature and history. In your opinion, how should such objectives be accomplished and could they have an impact on the work of the Russkiy Mir Foundation?

– This can be seen as a condition for providing citizenship, as in many other countries. It’s desirable for working on construction sites, but not mandatory. By the way, we have organized Russian language courses in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan especially for those who want to work in our country. But in terms of introducing a Russian language exam as a qualifier for work, it would be a good thing to introduce such a thing for Russian civil servants.

Yuri Solomonov,
Nezavisimaya Gazeta


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