Saturday, October 11, 2014

Moscow -- First Impressions

It's been more than a week since I arrived in Russia, finally. For the first time. Yes. Ever. I'd never been to Moscow, before (except for agonizing hours in the airport transit area, that is). It is even more exciting and intriguing to be here at such a time, as the region undergoes massive and rapid changes (crashing and burning?) and as the Iron Curtain seems to be coming back, all over again.

I'm here for work -- dissertation research. But given the circumstances, I have decided to undertake an exploration of the city, as well (which, I am told, is so different from the rest of the country that it should be considered an independent republic within the greater Federation)... participant observation, if you will.

St. Basil's Cathedral. Gorgeous at any time of the day. (All photos are my own)

It is funny, how familiar Moscow seems sometimes. I don't know, if it's all those stories I heard from my grandma's childhood, countless hours spent reading about Russia and Russians... or just the good ol' Soviet movies. But yes, now that my brain has finally switched back to speaking primarily Russian, the place doesn't seem alien at all.


But then, again, first impressions are often simplistic, if not wrong. Here are a few interesting, sad, amusing, and perhaps all too ordinary observations from these past ten days:

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

#MapFail?

I was talking to a new acquaintance from Ukraine a few days ago, and he mentioned that there seemed to be an interesting discrepancy in the political map of Ukraine on the Russian search website - aspiring Google alternative - Yandex.

I looked it up and turns out he was right: on the maps of the Russian domain - yandex.ru - Crimea is shown as a part of Russia; while on the Ukrainian - yandex.ua - it is still a part of Ukraine.

Ukraine according to maps.yandex.RU.

Ukraine according to maps.yandex.UA.

Then, I decided to check out Google Maps, since we usually expect a little more neutrality -- perhaps -- from global companies. Interestingly enough, the picture seemed as confusing there.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Brazilian Cultural Diplomacy in Yerevan

Football is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind in terms of Brazil and public diplomacy these days, but in Yerevan, the Brazilian Embassy had a different treat for the public: an evening of live music.

According to the Brazilian Ambassador Edson Marinho Duarte Monteiro, the event on June 27 was part of a global series of Brazilian music concerts organized by the embassies around the world. The "Journey Through Brazilian Music" provided a quick historical overview of the 20th century, from early samba to bossa nova and carnival tunes.

Along with the program, the Embassy was giving out informational brochures about Brazil. Never lose an opportunity!


The performers were all Armenian, including the singer -- Anoush Badalyan -- who did a wonderful job covering the pieces in what seemed to be great Portuguese. Their performance was accompanied by a brief introduction and background explaining how each genre developed and noting some of the most famous musicians/performers associated with them.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Russian Power - Soft, not Hard - in Ukraine?

Over the weekend, I was talking to an Armenian expert of Russia and Russian foreign policy. As I was explaining my research interests and dissertation topic - international communication, public diplomacy, Russian foreign policy - his initial response was slightly cold.

"Ah, that's the American stuff. Russians are still working on it and are trying to figure out what their own approach should be," he said. "They don't even have one name for it, do they? And they prefer a different term..."

"Myagkaya sila - soft power", I said.

"Yes! Soft power. They're more comfortable with this one." His face suddenly lit up: "By the way, did you see what a success Ukraine has been? I don't think they expected it to work so well."

As unnerving as this might sound, I was actually amused to hear it, because this corresponded to a lot of my analysis on the subject, as well. Yes, there is a strong military -- i.e. "hard power" -- aspect to Russia's involvement in the current conflict in Ukraine. However, had it not been for a solid 'presence' of Russian soft power in the country -- even if we assume that it's been limited to its Eastern regions -- none of this would be possible.

Original image from Valdai Club.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Flags, Football, & Soft Power

Before you read any further, I should probably highlight the disclaimer: this post - albeit related - is not only about the World Cup or Brazil's public diplomacy. Rather, I just wanted to share some observations on the subject while I was visiting Beirut, Lebanon last month.

It so happened that I had the chance to spend a couple of weeks in Lebanon -- it was supposed to be more of a personal trip, but ended up being very educational (how could it not be?). While there, we stayed in Bourj Hammoud -- the Armenian part of Beirut -- which, much like most of the other old parts of the town, mostly comprises small buildings that don't inspire much structural confidence. But I'll talk more about Bourj Hammoud and the Armenians there in a different post. I'm just noting it here to explain the presence of the Armenian flag in so many of the photos below.

Now, back to football (soccer -- for the stubborn among you). It's important to note that despite the fact that Iran and Algeria are the only countries representing the Middle East in the World Cup this year, the football mania in the region is as high as ever. This is true - if not even truer - for Lebanon, where an entire month before the beginning of the World Cup, the streets were flooded with flags of seemingly random and not-so-random countries.

All photos in this post are my own.

It was truly amusing to see so many Brazilian, Spanish, Italian, and German flags, alongside the proudly displayed Lebanese (and in Bourj Hammoud -- Armenian) flags. (I should say that France, Portugal and Argentina also seemed to have quite a few fans, but the previous four had a clear majority, judging by the number of flags.) They were everywhere: balconies, apartments, cafes and restaurants, vehicles, t-shirts, nails, jewelry... you name it!


Monday, June 16, 2014

Russians dedicate song to Jen Psaki

About a week ago I had a post about the "popularity" of the State Dept's spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, in Russia. A friend notified me about further developments in that regard, so I thought I should have an update here, too: Psaki has become the subject of a satirical song by Murzilki International, a group of morning radio hosts on AvtoRadio, which has now "gone viral" on RuNet.

The song is called "There is no thing more competent than Psaki". I couldn't find a version with the English subtitles, so below you can find my own approximate translation of the lyrics. Please note that there are quite a few impolite (to put it mildly) expressions used throughout the song, to which my translation does not do justice.

If you have better interpretation suggestions, please do share below.


Friday, June 6, 2014

#SavePsaki -- 'Public Diplomacy' Gets Personal

Jen Psaki, the State Department Spokeswoman, is probably a little-known name in the US outside of Washington and the foreign policy circles. Her position, however, plays a key role for the US public diplomacy, as she is the person who usually takes on the international press corps - often single-handedly - serving as a mouthpiece of and representing the US foreign policy establishment.

This establishment is not always coherent or consistent, of course (Are there any in the world that are coherent and consistent? After all, we're talking about foreign policy interests that vary from issue to issue, from time to time, and from place to place...), and the Russian and pro-Russian media have made it their goal to expose the "hypocrisy" of the US foreign policy, embodied by Psaki herself.



Yesterday, after missing the State Department daily briefings for three days in a row (she was replaced by Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf), the RuNet exploded with speculations as to what happened to Psaki. A rumor quickly spread on Twitter, suggesting that she "was fired", which prompted her Russian "fans" to start the "#SavePsaki" hashtag, suggesting that at least she provided some entertainment, if nothing else.


The image reads: "New job: New press secretary of Kiev's new mayor."