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The Kitten versus Bilan: The Glitz and Poverty of Russian Soft Power

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The Kitten versus Bilan: The Glitz and Poverty of Russian Soft Power


From the editors: Variations on the theme of “Clap, hear the thunder of victory, and celebrate brave Russian!” which is showing no signs of leaving the pages of the Russian media throughout the month of May, should cause us to think a bit, at least about why it is important to us. And, most importantly, about what we are to do with all of it. After all, nothing simply happens in this world without consequence. And if all the steam leaves through the fans’ cheering and discussion about how “Russia is finally lifting itself up off its knees,” then that means we are horribly ineffective and are in fact squandering a valuable resource that has suddenly fallen into our hands. It is this focus, as well as the main issue of how we are to take charge now, that is the subject of Alexei Eremenko’s article.

This past March, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed a national "anime-ambassador," a blue cat-robot named Doraemon from the same manga comics. At the ceremony, Doraemon received an assignment from the Minister to promote Japan and the Japanese way of life abroad, primarily in films that are shown in national missions around the world. Additionally, in May, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport appointed Hello Kitty as a goodwill ambassador in China and Hong Kong.  Hello Kitty is another famous cartoon character that is only slightly less famous than Mickey Mouse (and quite possibly more famous in the Far East).

Hearing of such exoticism, one could shrug one’s shoulders and respond with banal discussions of how strange the Japanese are. The Japanese really do many things that seem strange, all the more so because of their different eye shape, but one must not forget that they very often know exactly what they are doing. In the cases of Doraemon and Hello Kitty, it seems, it is neither a case of ministerial officials reverting to childhood nor of corporate interests reigning supreme over state ones. It is not even a case of general foolishness. For as funny as these ministerial feline appointments may seem, they are made quite seriously by the Liberal Democratic politicians who are aiming to build up Japan’s soft power.

The term “soft power” is still not the most customary, despite its importance. Soft power, in essence, is a synthetic concept that has been in use since the early 1990s and refers to any expansion by means other than military or economic. Included in soft power is both diplomacy, the promotion of values (not to be confused with banal propaganda) and, most importantly, everything that appears in the media worldwide under the rubrics of “culture,” “sports,” or “entertainment.” In other words, soft power is the embodiment of all national strengths and achievements relating to culture. If a nation has something that impresses others and results in admiration, then it wields soft power. It is not important whether that something is a blue cat with a propeller or the dream of democracy (the chief American soft-power export).

Here it would even be appropriate to exhume the old German academic notions on the spirit of peoples, removing the racist connotations from them, and coming up with the premise that every nation is capable of impressing those around it and that the only thing necessary is for a nation to understand itself and effectively make use of its achievements…

…something that Russia is still not doing.

Although the term “soft power” appeared only in 1990, it is clear that the notion has existed for much longer under names like "cultural expansion.” The West’s soft power, for example, was a key factor in its victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. One could even use the term in reference to the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese, who were also very adept at conquering their enemies having lost the war. It is also clear that following globalization the role of soft power is increasing exponentially, and it has perhaps become more important than the number of military divisions a country has (which are virtually none in Japan). Finally, with respect to Russia, it is clear that the idea of soft power has not really set in yet. There is a perfectly good reason why the term has not yet been translated and continues to raise questions in many audiences…
This absence of understanding does not mean, however, that Russia has no desire for cultural expansion. Quite the opposite, in fact. In recent years, it has hardly been more evident than in the triumphant month of May 2008 (“Zenit, hockey, Bilan – the presidential plan is working”). One could, however, add here our strong women's tennis, the Winter Olympics we took from the Koreans, and even Anna Netrebko, who Time included in the list of the world’s most influential people. But this is not soft power, and in terms of advancing itself in today’s post-globalized world, Russia has done considerably less than Japan with its cartoon cats.

We should be honest with ourselves. Our pop music is at best secondary, and our sports are too weak and dependent on outside support (from Advokaat and Timoschuk to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, which brought up Sharapova). And, most importantly, with a hand on our hearts, we are only now beginning to address the question of what the current post-Soviet Russia is all about. This question is one we still cannot answer ourselves. The Japanese or Americans are able to answer this question, and therefore Doraemon in Tokyo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is perceived as something natural, whereas Bilan on the Smolensk Square is not. And the answer is impossible to contrive, regardless of how many royalties are paid to the Hungarian Edvin Martin and the talented Timbaland, who wrote Bilan’s hit song, just as Nelly Furtado wrote for Justin Timberlake, Duran Duran and rapper Jay-Z, and just as many more people will write, strengthening the glory of American pop music.

The good news is that Russians apparently have ambition, which is forcing them to build soft power. But so far this energy has been directed at tasks that are too simple, ones that are suitable merely for internal self-affirmation. They are not tasks that can influence others, however (the hockey championship is held once a year). They have also been used for false goals, which is clearly the case with Eurovision.  Dima Bilan, in general, is not a suitable topic of conversation for respectable people older than 15. And besides, has anything really changed after Eurovision? But this doesn’t immediately require that we move to self-flagellation. The path to a thousand begins with one step, and for Russia to think seriously about itself, it has to regain confidence and train itself for all these small goals. It has already found confidence and trained itself, so now we can think seriously about the question, "wherein lies power?" And in this case, a correctly worded question contains half the answer already.


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