Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Tweets, Tweeps, and Mighty Eagles

Remember Yegor Zhgun, the impressive and unbelievably creative cartoonist and blogger from a couple of weeks ago?

Well with all the turmoil in the MENA now, he has turned his "merciless" attention to the region. Rather, to the region's (purported?) tweet-o-sphere, its achievements, power, and lack thereof. Given the recent "news" on the events in Libya, this is indeed an very creative interpretation.

Long live social media? :)

Special thanks to Alex Sidorenko for sharing!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Russia: the place where you never know

This is a very "insightful" (and indeed very funny) video a friend shared yesterday. It is actually a commercial for Tochka Opory company that provides lighting solutions. Interesting ad idea to begin with. But more importantly, since it is also very relevant to some of the issues I keep touching upon in this blog, I thought it was worth reposting it here, too.

Capitalizing on most of the major stereotypes and images of Russia and Russians, this is perhaps a great approach to attracting the attention of potential foreign investors who would be vary of doing business in the country due to these (mis?)perceptions. The strategy seems simple: address these stereotypes head on.

This might actually be a good approach for Kremlin itself to consider in its public diplomacy effort. However, it would also need to provide a suggestion on how to actually deal with such (perceived) problems when in Russia (or when dealing with Russians): something this commercial does not do.

Enjoy the matryoshkas!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Medvedev vs. Putin: let the battle begin...

Funny, and yet so sad. The Russian "leadership" certainly knows how to make headlines, and (perhaps. intentionally) it has been getting increasingly better at that. I'm am sure that you have come across news stories that celebrate the "split partnership" between Medvedev and Putin over Libya (if you've been following the news these days, that is).

Here's a classic M vs. P, from Euronews:

Surely, an exciting development to follow, especially after all the speculation regarding the relationship between the two. With presidential elections just a year away, some sort of public "fallout" was bound to happen. And this might be the first major - rather, blunt - sign, despite Putin's downplaying of all the hype it has caused.

The "terms" of their relationship was probably one of the most common question that both, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, were asked by reporters, especially foreign ones. Over the past two years, Medvedev has been making his pro-Western tendencies increasingly more conspicuous - even if just through deeds (which, I'd argue, matter more than mere words); while Putin, who was initially seen to belong to the "stability" camp, has been rapidly drifting towards "Oriental despotism".

Medvedev has effectively joined the American "Reset" initiative and has set out on an ambitious modernization project for the country. Just several weeks ago, at a ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Russia by Czar Alexander II, the President made his stance and views clear. He said he is committed to progress (and past evidence shows that he often associates "progress" with the "West").

Putin, on the other hand, seems to be desperately trying to gain brownie points for his macho PR appearances, and increasingly hardline stance against the West. Of course, he can still rely on some significant public support, but given the recent developments, he might be getting worried about losing influence. And perhaps, rightly so.

Here's his actual statement on the Libya issue:

Now, to be fair, many of the articles that appeared on this "exchange" between Putin and Medvedev failed to mention that Medvedev did indeed deplore the high rate of "collateral damage" and the loss of civilian life. However, he emphasized the "thorough process" of decision-making and the constant consultations among the major actors and stakeholders in the Libya issue. Indeed, he did also make a strong and quite bashing remark regarding Putin's "Crusaders" talk. Take a look:

Perhaps not the best image for a "unified duo", who were desperate to demonstrate harmonious co-existence so far. Nonetheless, it can be seen as a positive development for Russia's public diplomacy itself, as most of the Western coverage that I saw seemed to be emphasizing the positive aspect of this disagreement, at least from a Western perspective.

Whether or not this is indeed a major "split" can be irrelevant; however with the date drawing increasingly closer, such play on perceptions will - most probably - get increasingly bitter, too. And this is where their respective public affairs and PR advisors/managers will have to show the best they've got. It is their battle as well, after all.

If curious, here's Medvedev's entire statement in Russian. You can find the text in English on Kremlin's official website.


UPDATE 3/23/2011 [1:50 PM]: I came across a really amusing article analyzing - in all seriousness - the inconspicuous complexities of the issue. It's a funny read, which I recommend!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DirecTV Commercials: Russia, You Have a Problem

Not that it's anything new... and yet, it shows - once again - that Russia, along with several other former Communist/Socialist states, has a major image problem in the U.S. On numerous occasions before, I have discussed these stereotype issues on this blog, and this new DirecTV commercial only reiterates it all. (The commercial might have been around for quite a while, but since I do not own a TV - quite fortunately - I would ask for your understanding on the delayed response.)

Here's the "new" commercial, which seems to have been launched this month:

I have no words to explain how it is supposed to be related - if at all - to promoting a satellite TV service. But that aside: what images does it convey and what stereotypes of Russia, and Russians, is it playing on?

In a series of papers, Ivan Katchanovski has demonstrated the negative representation of Russia and some other former Soviet countries in American news coverage, as well as in popular culture. His analysis of a set of Hollywood movies has shown that:
"most of the movies, incorrectly present Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine as economically and technologically backward, extremely anti-American and anti-Semitic countries, which have pervasive “Russian mafia” and widespread female prostitution."

I couldn't not think of this excerpt when I saw this commercial "masterpiece".

Why is it a problem?

In his work on "imagology", William Chew has correctly pointed out that:
"[...] national stereotypes are generally rationalised by the spector as based on a supposedly objective reality, but [they also] tend to be omnipresent in comics, cinema, literature, computer games, public media, jokes and the like, and are constantly though not consciously invoked to confirm one’s auto-image, one’s national identity. Once established, they remain latent in the individual consciousness, or collective mentality, to be called upon when needed."

Just like on many occasions before, such representations only reinforce the not-so-positive images of Russia held by so many Americans, cashing in on long-held stereotypes. Unfortunately, the multitude of the people who will see this commercial will - most probably - never see a Russian ballet performance, for example, which will only help to perpetuate such negative attitudes.

This is a major issue to be addressed by Russia as a part of its public diplomacy effort. Of course, many would find this ingenious piece funny, and would argue that it works as great advertising... (for who, one might ask?) However, I wonder what the reaction would have been, had "the Russian" been replaced by an Israeli, for instance. (This is a rhetorical question, by the way. And yet, I would appreciate insights, if you're willing to share.)

In short, some more food for thought...

And just for your reference, here's the hideous "prequel", that has been on air for about a year now (to the best of my knowledge, that is).

I know you're dying to get DirecTV now, eh?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

World Leaders Reach New Heights

Quite literally.

First, there was the news of the photo of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern-day Turkey, being flown to the orbit onboard the Discovery Shuttle. Pretty neat idea by a Turkish man, who responded to NASA's public call for photos (and/or names), submitting that of Turkey's much-revered founder.

Discovery Shuttle during its final mission, Feb-Mar 2011. Image courtesy of ZME science.

In a press release in mid-2009, NASA officials announced the invitation to fly pictures of members of the general public to space during the final missions of the Shuttle Program. Here's an excerpt:

"Visitors to the "Face in Space" website can upload their portrait to fly with the astronauts aboard shuttle Discovery's STS-133 mission and/or shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission. Participants will receive special certificates from the Internet site once the mission is completed.

"The Space Shuttle Program belongs to the public, and we are excited when we can provide an opportunity for people to share the adventure of our missions," said Space Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon. "This website will allow you to be a part of history and participate as we complete our final missions."

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Image from National Heroes on

So, Ali Rıza Özsaran, the man who submitted Atatürk's picture, was just one of the 307,122 participants from around the world. However, one cannot deny that the fact that he sent Atatürk's photo, and not his own (for instance) is significant. The unfortunate thing, however, is that - despite its great potential - the public diplomacy aspect of the story never actually materialized. The foreign media never picked up on it, and although I don't know whether Turkey's national and international broadcaster - TRT - ever paid any attention to the story, the domestic media don't seem to have really covered it, either. Oh well, Turkey can add it to the "missed opportunities in PD" list.

I, personally, would be curious to know if there were any photos of Jefferson or Franklin there... or even better: Putin, perhaps?

Speaking of him...

On Monday, Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva signed a decree finally assigning a name to the nameless 4,446 m (14586 ft) high mountain in the Tian-Shan  Ridge. It's official: henceforth, the mountain will be called "Pik Vladimira Putina" (i.e. Vladimir Putin's Peak). As noted by Russia Today, the actual mountain is "2,500 times taller than Putin, the man" (kudos, for doing the math!).

The move comes a month after the Kyrgyz Parliament approved the suggestion, which was also supported by the government. Certainly, the opposition is unhappy, and there's quite a lot of controversy over the move.

Yet, I cannot help but emphasize its significance, not just in terms of it being an obvious demonstration of Russia's continuous influence (muscle?) over the region, but also in terms of its public diplomacy gain. Apparently, there already was a peak named after former President Yeltsin, but given Putin's "macho" image, this news can be viewed in a completely different light. After all, just as this Prime Time (on Russia Today) anchor noted, wouldn't it be cool to "climb Vladimir Putin today"? Or even better: "Hike on Puts"?!

RT never ceases to amaze me... and seems like it never will.


Friday, March 11, 2011

On Sochi Mascots, Politics, and Some Twitter

After a long break, I'm desperately trying to get back to blogging regularly. Since my post on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics mascots was published on Global Voices Online today, I thought I'd share it here, too. Comments and suggestions are welcome, as always.


Since the whole deal with the public vote for the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi began back in September, the issue seems to have been all but "non-political": from the selection of 11 emblems-finalists at the end of the solicitation period to the actual call-in and SMS vote on February 26 2011, televised on the state channel ORT. In an unprecedented move, the Sochi 2014 Olympic Committee was going to let the Russians participate in the choice of the mascots, from their creation to the very selection.

Sochi 2014 mascots. Image courtesy of The Moscow Times.

There were many controversies, yet it seems that the final five - the snow leopard, the polar bear, the rabbit, and the Ray-and-Snowflake couple - are trying to benefit from the momentum, utilizing the mysterious ways of Twitter to gain acknowledgment and popularity.

Whether official or not, the people behind these Tweets are obviously well-acquainted with the Russian Tweet-o-sphere, following not only their prime online competitor, the blue Olympic hypno-toad "Zoich" (@Z0I4), but also the Kremlin Worm (@KremlinCherv) who made some headlines back in October.

Zoich, an alternative mascot created by popular designer Yegor Zhgun, deserves special mention here. Intended as political satire, it quickly gained popularity around the RuNet and seeped in to the traditional media. After getting more than 24,000 submissions from the public (in September-December 2010), the mascot selection committee chose 11 candidates that were supposed to "campaign" throughout February before the final vote. Although Zoich did not make the cut, he got "special mention" on the unofficial online voting site and even got more support there (21,215 votes) than one of the call-in vote winners - the rabbit (10,107 votes).

Zoich. Image by Egor Zhgun, from his LiveJournal.

Zoich, perhaps more correctly spelled as "Z0I4," is derived from the mix of the numbers "2014" and the combined reading of Latin and Cyrillic characters. Its author, Egor Zhgun, is a designer and a satirist, who often provides sharp graphical commentary on his website and blog (Take a look. Highly recommended!). He told that the psychedelic frog idea came from "Futurama"'s Hypnotoad, although he also tried alluding to the Russian folk tale about the "Czarevna Frog" (Russian version of the "Frog Prince" folk tale): hence the Czarist crown. In an interview with Kommersant newspaper, Zhgun said that the Olympic rings in the eyes symbolized the "promotion of Olympic ideals," while the crown referred to "nationhood and spirituality," which were among the submission criteria put forth by the committee.

Zhgun said he was surprised that, given its political connotations, his masterpiece was allowed into the general "competition" in the first place. Encouraged by its initial popularity online and the fact that the selection committee let it stay at the top of the unofficial Internet chart (which, according to him, was heavily moderated), he started harboring serious hopes and even made a video that soon went viral. Gradually, Zoich was adopted as the political opposition's symbol in the mascots' selection process. Yet, it was clear from the start that the process was not going to be all that democratic, as the selection committee was going to be the one to choose the nominees for the final round. As Zhgun predicted in his interview, the "sanitized" polar bear was among the winners precisely because of its political attributes.

As expected, the final choice of the mascots received a lot of criticism, too. Firstly, there was the issue with the polar bear. Not only was it seen as too similar to the symbol of the ruling "United Russia" party, but it was also criticized for being a rip-off of the original Moscow 1980 Olympic Misha. President Dmitry Medvedev had expressed his preference for the polar bear, which the St. Petersburg Times went as far as to suggest, was also due to his last name (derived from the Russian word for "bear" [medved']).

Can the similarities be a mere coincidence? Sochi 2014 polar bear mascot; Misha, 1980 Olympic Mascot; Logo of the United Russia ruling party. Collage by Yelena Osipova.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, did not abstain from comment, either (as usual). According to him: "The bear is the dumbest animal, the leopard is bloodthirsty, and the hare [is] a coward who always runs away."

The greatest controversy, however, seems to be surrounding the snow leopard: after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly stated his preference for the mascot on the day of the vote, its popularity skyrocketed (despite much smaller prior support), getting 28 percent of the votes and making it the callers' top choice. Funnily enough, just two days later, President Medvedev mentioned that the vote was unfair, since there was a significant "dissonance between the online and call-in voting results". In line with the President's declared commitment to modernization and innovation, Zhgun suggested that the "official" voting should have been done online.

Zoich at "Mascots Home": screenshot of the official Sochi 2014 Mascots website.

But would it be a realistic expectation to hold?

Although there was a semblance of "democracy" in the entire process, it did take on a "Russian" tinge with clearly demarcated limits of "acceptable." The fact that Zoich got so much attention - online, in the media, during the televised show on February 26, and even at the official mascots' "web home" (which, the committee said, was added to make the website "more fun") - already seems to be a sign of an unprecedented level of tolerance. But would that tolerance go as far as accepting it as the official Winter Olympics mascot? After all, even the official polling data from back in November suggested that 36 percent of the Russians would not vote for Zoich under any circumstances. Nonetheless, as a political pun, it certainly did raise some questions and, perhaps, tested some limits.

The "international image of Russia" aspect of the story is also an interesting side note here. While some online commentators seemed to be excited about the possibility of Zoich representing Russia internationally, the authorities clearly tried to manage the situation, not only largely ignoring the issue, but also providing some commentary on their international mouthpiece, Russia Today TV. Just to quote a line:
"Russian Internet is not the whole of Russia, and users from political opposition, while they are numerous, are not the whole of the Russian internet [sic]."

Whether or not it would have been a success in terms of public diplomacy is arguable. After all, a blue hairy hypno-frog would have made for great satire. But what would it say about Russia? The mascots are a symbol, and as such, were taken seriously by the authorities, and although they arguably tried keeping politics out of it, all the hype surrounding the process was bound to get political. Just as Zhgun himself told when responding to a question about the point of the vote in the first place:
"[It was done] perhaps to sublimate yet another election. There was Zoich, and opposition, and all that..."

He also compared the tolerance towards Zoich to that towards Zhirinovsky, who currently serves as the Deputy Speaker of the Duma.

As for Twitter, all the five official mascots, as well as Zoich, are slowly but surely gaining a number of followers. Funny: they all started tweeting on February 26, they follow each other, have conversations among themselves, and seem to be unofficially soliciting "name" ideas for the three still anonymous mascots. Would be interesting to see where it all gets and whether any of them - especially Zoich - would be able to match the 4,000+ followers of the official account of the Organizing Committee. To do that, however, they first have to start really tweeting.

So far the polar bear seems to be in the lead, with 461 followers at the time of this writing, despite the fact that the snow leopard obviously had stronger ties "at the top."

"I am Barsik! Please call me Leo! Let's be friends and follow each other! Greetings to all from Uncle Vova!"

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, Gorby!

On Mikhail Gorbachev's 80th birthday, I thought I'd repost the CrossTalk program (Russia Today TV) dedicated to this occasion.

Funny to hear the point that he would need to be a "Stalin-style leader" to be able to fully reform the USSR or to truly democratize Russia. Contradiction in terms, it seems. But true. Also: "To fully succeed, he had to fail." I tend to agree... The sad thing, however, is that he didn't succeed in the long-term, either.

A hero in the West, seems like he's gradually earning "credence" among Russians themselves, too: getting medals of honor and all that... Yet, he is still not that well-liked by many in the FSU. Quite understandably so...

And here is his interview with Russia Today [Ironic Note: the interviewer, Sophie Shevardnadze, is said to be the granddaughter of Eduard Shevardnadze, who served as the last Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs under Gorbachev]:

Quote of Note: "Don't be afraid of Chaos." -- Lenin.