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Remarks on Creating a Russia Society in America

Map of RussiaDate: Wed, 30 Mar 2011
Subject: Remarks on Creating a Russia Society in America
From: William Courtney <courtneyfsu@gmail.com

World Russia Forum 2011
Panel on the Diaspora's Role in Bolstering US-Russian Cooperation
March 30, 2011, Washington DC

A Russia Society
Remarks by Ambassador William Courtney

A prestigious, independent Russia Society should be created in America. It could encourage wider American interest in Russia, and foster development of Russian civil society. The purpose of these comments is to introduce for discussion the idea of a creating a Society.

For Americans, Russia seems exotic, mysterious, and often tragic. We have conflicting perceptions of Russia and its circumstances. On the one hand, Americans are troubled about the bad news from Russia ­ murders of human rights activists and journalists, brutality in the North Caucasus, rampant criminality and crime, rigged elections, and military aggression against Georgia. On the other hand, Americans greatly admire culture from Russia and hope its people make progress. Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn are icons. So is Andrey Sakharov. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are respected for reforms which ended the Soviet empire, largely peacefully. The bravery and sacrifice of Soviet soldiers and civilians in World War II inspires Americans, although few know enough about it.

While Americans have contradictory perceptions of Russia, they tend more often than not to be pessimistic. A July 6, 2009, Gallup report states that "Americans have become more negative about Russia in recent years, to the point where a majority now say their image of Russia is unfavorable. These negative images are as strong as they have been in almost a decade."

For Americans to develop a deeper understanding of Russia is not so easy. US linkages with Russia are relatively weak -- in the commercial, cultural, educational, and political realms. For example, exports to Russia are only one-half of one percent of total US exports.

Another complication is that Russian statements or actions often cause dismay in America. An example is Prime Minister Putin's complaint on March 21 that the United Nations resolution which authorized military action in Libya amounted to a "medieval call for a crusade." President Medvedev's prompt rebuttal, however, suggests that reformers have some fight in them.

In light of the varying views of Russia, NGOs play important roles by increasing knowledge and communication. NGOs already promote Russian culture in America, such as the Foundation for International Arts and Education and the International Firebird Arts Foundation. IREX and ACTR have long fostered student experiences. The US-Russia Business Council facilitates commerce. The Open World program, run by the Library of Congress, brings emerging leaders from Russia and other Eurasian countries to America for short study tours to see democracy and civil society in action.

These organizations and programs make valued contributions. What is missing, however, is an independent, prestigious NGO which aims to mobilize broad American interest in Russia and its people. The Japan Society, based in New York, is the gold standard of such an NGO.

The Japan Society is "supported by individuals, foundations and corporations that bring the people of Japan and the United States closer together through mutual understanding, appreciation and cooperation." The Society hosts over 100 events yearly, featuring "presentations of Japanese art and culture and open, critical dialogue on issues of vital importance." The Japan Society's board of directors is comprised mostly of senior US business and financial executives, attorneys, and academics. The Japan Society has an attractive facility in New York City, the benefit of generosity from the Rockefeller family.

Interested, prominent Americans who wish for a better future for Russia and its people ought to explore the creation of a Russia Society. It would begin more modestly than the century-old Japan Society but ought to serve similar purposes. A Russia Society would not displace existing NGOs, but rather marshal and engage a wider set of stakeholders and public audiences potentially interested in Russia and its people, and in American relationships with them.

A Russia Society could have no direct ties to or funding from governments. This would compromise its credibility. Likewise, to gain support from prominent Americans and a wide public audience, a Russia Society would have to be controlled by Americans and be seen as an American institution. A vibrant Society would benefit enormously from active involvement by Russian-Americans, but it could not be seen as controlled by the diaspora lest it lose the capacity to engage much wider American audiences.

A Russia Society would promote the study of Russian language and culture, and encourage Russian studies and educational experiences. It would serve as a neutral venue for discussion of matters of public interest, but take no position on them. Webcasts and social media outreach would engage audiences across the two countries, especially young people. In this way the Society could help foster independent NGOs and civil society in Russia. A Society would also complement the deliberations and research of academic centers and think tanks, such as the Kennan Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Getting a Russia Society underway would take intensive engagement by prominent Americans and motivated donors. Organizers would need perseverance and creativity. Some among them should be young people so that the Society can effectively engage youth in America, and in Russia. New York City would be a good locale for the Society because of its concentration of US philanthropy, business, and finance, and its large Russian-speaking diaspora.

One should not underestimate the time and work required to create a successful Russia Society. One hurdle is that Americans are preoccupied with economic challenges and engagement elsewhere in the world. A second is that many Americans who trace their ancestry to Russia have limited enthusiasm or left Russia in ways that do little to breed nostalgia. A third hurdle is that potential organizers and donors have not yet appeared on the horizon.

This said, a strong Russia Society could make an important contribution. Exploratory work to form it ought to begin. Russia is an independent great power and over time America's interactions with it will grow substantially. They will be stronger and more broadly-based if a vibrant Russia Society facilitates honest discussion and encourages mutual engagement.


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