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Cue WikiLeaks: Russia's Image Abroad

Wikileaks Screenshot from RFE/RLThis week we are thinking image, what with WikiLeaks on everyone's mind and lips.

Batman and Robin. A mafia state run by an Alpha dog. If you need to go to Google to see who those comments refer to, you not only haven't been following the WikiLeaks story, you haven't been following Russia. In which case how did you get to reading this little piece?
[Apparent WikiLeaks screenshot, from www.rferl.org; materials at rferl.org copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036, www.rferl.org]

Anyway ­ and bear with me for a moment here ­ a day or two after this WikiLeaks barrage hit the ether, I accompanied my in-laws on the express train to Domodedovo airport. There isn't much to look at out the window of the train, especially when you've made the trip dozens of times. So I let my attention wander to the TV set hanging over my head.

Most of it I'd seen before. The ad of someone's idea of pop stars roaring like lions and tigers to bring attention to the fact we are about to lose our exotic wildlife. Travelogues ­ this time from Bavaria. The requisite, and absolutely stunning, footage of birds in flight over rivers, mountains and streams. The clunky safety spot reminding people that running across train tracks in front of speeding trains can be hazardous to your health.

And then came an advertisement that I had never seen.

MTC Storefront and Woman PedestrianMTS, one of Russia's most popular cell phone providers, put together a three-scene spot informing us what great roaming coverage it has throughout the world.

Scene One: An African village is thrown into confusion as it apparently mobilizes against an attack. Sure enough, a young Russian man has thrown the prettiest girl in the village over his shoulder and is kidnapping her, jauntily running off into the African plain.

Scene Two: Rome. The same young Russian man has lathered up generously and blithely takes a soapy bath in a historic Roman fountain.

Scene Three: Our young Russian hero has hired a speedboat and is waterskiing in a Venetian canal. As he approaches a couple of gondoliers, he veers towards them, inundates them as he races past and, laughing his head off, careens down the canal.

I guess the point is that no matter how obnoxious you are, you can still call home if you have MTS roaming service.

What does this have to do with WikiLeaks, you ask?

As I say, we're talking image here. Somebody is sure to have said somewhere that Russia's image abroad has been damaged by the documents leaked last week.

But MTS, part of one of Russia's major companies, seems to be proud of the image it projects in its new ads. And that image is one of the Russian tourist abroad as a kidnapper, a defiler of national monuments and a hooligan who mocks the residents of the countries he visits.

Funny? Frankly, I think Batman and Robin is funnier.

But all of this brings to mind a phrase I have heard many times ever since the so-called "new Russian drama" came into being at the beginning of the century.

"Don't you think," people have said to me, "that those awful new Russian plays about drug addicts and drunks and uncouth losers are written expressly in order to tarnish the image of Russia abroad? In order to justify the bad opinion Westerners already have about Russia?"

Nope. I don't think that. Not for a minute.

On the contrary, Russian politicians and Russian businessmen often besmirch the image of their nation quite successfully on their own, without anyone's outside help.

All it takes, for example, is to throw a couple of political opponents in jail and keep them there for a decade or two if you can't kill them (businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, serving an eight-year prison term and awaiting sentencing next week on new charges, and attorney Sergei Magnitsky, "allowed" to die a year ago in prison); turn a blind eye as journalists are killed or attacked (Anna Politkovskaya and Oleg Kashin); fire elected officials and replace them with people from your own inner clique (Sergei Sobyanin being appointed to replace former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov).

Or run an ad campaign glorifying hooligans.

The new Russian plays that tackle difficult questions are coming from an entirely different place. These are works struggling to find what spirituality or, at least, what fodder for art might be left in the sea of contemporary problems that surrounds us.

This is what good writers do everywhere. It is what Sarah Kane did in England in the 1990s. It is what Suzan-Lori Parks is doing in the United States today.

Consider Yury Klavdiyev's "The Polar Truth," which tells the story of a group of HIV-positive youths struggling to build a new world in which they can live with dignity, even if it means having to abandon society and fight the police.

Consider Vadim Levanov's new "Gerontophobia," which I saw presented at the Lyubimovka young drama festival in September. In it a woman goes around killing off old people to put them out of their misery ­ until a young person comes along and kills her because now she is growing soft.

Consider "Drunks," a play by Vyacheslav and Mikhail Durnenkov, which had its world premiere in London last year and tells the story of unscrupulous politicians attempting to make political hay by manipulating a Chechen war veteran who was thought to be dead.

These plays aren't attacking Russia's image. They are doing what good writers have always done: They are taking on difficult problems and seeking to make sense of them.

As for who is really upholding the best possible image of Russia in the world, I can tell you that I have traveled to several countries with many different Russian playwrights. Everywhere I have seen them received with grace, respect and even reverence.

I don't know about the pundits. I don't know about the politicians or the businessmen. But you watch: In a couple of decades we'll look back to this time and we will see that some of the best, most decent and most impressive representatives of Russian society were the playwrights who were writing all those "nasty" plays.


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