Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Role of the Arts in International Relations

The Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC) - a joint initiative between the History department at the American University and the Russian Embassy in the US - held its (by now annual) grand event at the Library of Congress on Thursday, October 25. I had mentioned the Initiative in this blog last April, when they put together an interesting conference on "Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes". The monthly Russian movie screenings at the Embassy have resumed, as well, with "The Messenger Boy" kicking off this academic year.

The event last Thursday - titled "The Role of the Arts in International Relations" - was of slightly different nature, however. It involved a lavish reception in the main hall of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, live performances by the Brass Ensemble of the Mariinsky Theater and amazing pianist Denis Matsuev, presentations on the role of culture and public diplomacy in international affairs by John Beyrle (former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow) and Valery Gergiev (General Director of the Mariinsky Theater and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra), and - perhaps most impressive - a wonderful live ice skating performance, right there, inside the Jefferson Building.

It was all somewhat overwhelming... so, I should give you a fair warning that my thoughts and reflections on the event might be slightly disorganized and chaotic.

All the photos and videos here are mine (with the exception of the Enchanted Ball video, by the US Embassy in Moscow). Click on the photos to view them in larger size.

The Jefferson Building was completely transformed and, I would argue, was even more impressive with all the unusual lighting and decorations.

The event started with a very lavish reception featuring some Russian and not-so-Russian delicacies.

Despite having very much enjoyed the warm welcome, I couldn't help but think about all the other (more socially oriented) programs that Russia could have undertaken, whether in Russia or abroad, with the amount spent on this one event.

There was a slightly more "academic" part to it, as well. The guests were invited to move to an auditorium in the basement of the Jefferson Building, for the more official part of the evening, involving several musical performances, presentations, and a brief discussion.

The Brass Ensemble of the Mariinsky Theater was first to go, followed by welcoming speeches and addresses, including those by the Librarian of Congress - who gave a brief introduction to the Russian collection housed at the LOC - the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at AU, Ambassador Beyrle and Russian Ambassador Kislyak.

Beyrle, renowned for his knowledge of Russian language, culture, and history and his ability to connect with the greater public, talked about the importance of promoting dialogue and stronger relations between Russia and the US. He emphasized that there is an urgent need to manage the relationship between the two countries and that it should start with deeper understanding of each other.

He addressed the issue of negative perceptions and stereotypes and pointed out that, although the second half of the 20th Century has had a strong role in shaping those, it was largely an exception in the longer history of relations between Russia and the US. According to him, Russians and Americans are two people united by their common misunderstanding of their shared history - one of alliance and cooperation - and that they both can and have to work harder to overcome this issue. Arts and culture, he suggested, could play an important role in achieving this goal.

After a brief story of his own life and interest in Russia, the Ambassador also shared with us a short film made about a "ball" he held in the famous Spaso House in Moscow, in 2010. The ball was commemorating another ball held in 1935, which was attended by Mikhail Bulgakov and, supposedly, inspired him in writing his renowned "Master and Margarita".

Valery Gergiev made the closing remarks followed by a brief Q&A session. The highlight came towards the end, with the stunning piano performance by Denis Matsuev. I was surprised the royale survived the encounter...

The biggest surprise, however, was yet to come in a form of a skating rink, right in the middle of the Main Hall. When the guests returned there, the hall was transformed, with American and Russian gold medalists entertaining the guests with a beautiful skating performance.

Clearly, they were going for a strong effect, and I am sure they succeeded.

Memorable indeed...

In short, this was a beautiful event, organized quite well and, certainly, with style. I am sure, the Russians succeeded in making a very good impression on the guests, most of whom (although, not all) were people working on programs and projects related to Russia and students from various universities around town.

I am a strong believer in that public diplomacy - especially cultural diplomacy - are and should be "leaps of faith", in that they must be carried out and invested in despite their immediate results, that might or might not be "measured". However, there is always a difference between a wise and an unwise investment. And, when it comes down to this, it helps to consider concepts such as opportunity cost and context.

Russia has come to increasingly value the importance of public diplomacy and has been trying to restart its "culture charm offensive", especially in the US, over the past few years. Events like these are impressive and strong on the "wow" factor. How necessarily or useful are they, however, especially given the ever-present "budgetary constraints" when it comes to true public diplomacy? In terms of wider impact: the event didn't even get coverage by any of the media in the area. Clearly, that wasn't all that well-planned, and effectively limited the potential "target audience" to only those who were actually there.

Wouldn't a couple more exchange students or teacher trainings have a more long-lasting effect in achieving the objective of improving mutual understanding and cooperation?

In short, there still is a long way to go. The Russians wanted to come back to the "cultural diplomacy in DC" business with a bang, and they clearly have, two years on. What they really have to demonstrate now, however, is whether they can adapt to the changing times and mentality, and move beyond the approach of merely sprinkling public or cultural diplomacy on unpleasant policies, hoping for success. Especially if their goal is to charm the American public.


  1. I fully agree with your concluding comments Lena. The whole thing I see is extremely impressive and definitely a huge sum is spent to make such an impression.
    But I don't understand and I don't accept such lavish extravagance knowing that it is done ONLY for a limited number of people, and especially that it was not covered by media... I don't understand, perhaps I am really missing something...

  2. While I did not have the privilege to attend, the whole affair, as well-described by you, smacks of yet another officially-sponsored example of poshlost'[for non Russian-speakings readers of your great blog: poshlost'].

    Why does the Russian Embassy not provide funds to preserve the unique Russian book/photograph collections at the Library of Congress, rather than paying for skaters to perform" in its Main Hall? Or how about the Russian government providing scholarships in Russian studies at American University? (If it does so already, why not more of them?)

    This kind of vulgar "show" might be a hit on "Dancing with the Stars," but seems quite out of place at America's premier center of learning. I must regrettably assume such a not-so-subtle distinction is beyond the understanding of the Russian Embassy's cultural apparatchiki, who evidently look at far too much American television.

  3. Lena, I disagree with Mr. Brown's and your comments.

    First of all, how do you know that the Russian Embassy was behind this event? Judging by the programs handed out, AU's IRC, which cooperates with the Russian Embassy, put this event together and I am surprised that you did not check your facts before writing that the "Russians," meaning the Russian Embassy are behind it. Have you contacted anyone at the IRC to learn more about who was behind the event? Have you attended any other events organized by the IRC? Have you ever volunteered as other students have done to help with the events?

    You also fail to mention the IRC's website for people to learn more about this program's goal to expose American students to Russian culture. They not only organize beautiful events, but provide fellowships and summer trips for many students in the Consortium.

    The Thursday event inspired many students to learn more about Russia and to go there to see for themselves what it is all about.

    I also find Mr. Brown's comment absolutely preposterous. Without even attending the event, he claimed that it was an example of пошлость, or kitsch. You need to read Vladimir Nabokov more carefully, sir. There was nothing "falsely beautiful, falsely clever, or falsely attractive" about it. The event was educational, something Vladimir Nabokov would have hailed, and beautiful, the aesthetics of which he would have appreciated as well.

    It's unfortunate that as someone who was lucky to attend the event, but without checking any facts, Lena misinforms her readers instead of enlightening them. This is an otherwise very provocative blog.

  4. I see the conversation is getting lively, here.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Firstly, Vera, I do appreciate you taking the time to provide "feedback". However, before we go down the lane of meaningless argument, I would also suggest that you re-read the entire text of the blog and check out the links that I have provided (these are the ones in orange -- I don't think they are that difficult to miss). You are right, IRC is a wonderful initiative, and had you taken the time to check out my previous entry on it (referenced above), you would see that I have provided more context on it. You would also be able to tell that I have attended some of the other events that were put together. Besides, this post was specifically on the event, and not on the IRC itself.

    Regarding your concern about the Embassy -- isn't it a member of the Initiative's Board? They might not be providing funding for it, per se, but they are co-organizing all the various events, right? Not so sure about the scholarships, but that's a subject for a different post.

    Lastly, had you read my reflections correctly, you would see that my criticism was not directed specifically at the Embassy, but rather the extreme extravagance of it all. And the wording I used when suggesting an alternative was "a couple more exchange students or teacher trainings", which also demonstrates that I am not all that oblivious to the fact that these *do* take place. But, their present level is no where near enough, and could provide a more useful avenue for investment in the longer term.

    Again, the event was absolutely beautiful and impressive. I was hoping that the photos I posted would have conveyed it somehow... as much as photos can do. And again, if you read any of my other blogs and/or work, you would see that I am only *for* better understanding of and education about Russia (and vice-versa), especially here, in the US. But that is precisely why it pained me to think about everything else that could have been done instead... of even just that skating show, whether the government had anything to do with it or not.

    I would have perhaps been a little less critical had there been - at the very least - a couple of prominent reporters with demonstrable results. Not even RT had a story on it... How can you explain THAT?

    I would also be very curious to know how many students - *really* - decided they're interested in Russia enough to study the language and/or culture, *just* by attending this event...? This is not a rhetorical question.

    And Dr. Brown, indeed, there is more context to IRC than just the LOC event. However, I do agree with you - yet again - that they could have found a much more productive way to spend this money in the attempt to charm the public. Such events - as impressive as they might be - do not stand a chance of beating the short attention span problem. That is why the cost-benefit analysis is so important.

  5. A very interesting post and such valuable comments from you, Yelena and (as always) from John. Keep up the good work.