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Words for a Russian Ghetto

Thursday, July 9, 2009

President Obama spoke brilliantly and powerfully at Russia's New Economic School Tuesday. And his broader effort to reach out to Russian society during his trip -- meeting with civil society and human rights activists, as well as a group of opposition politicians -- was commendable. Unfortunately, few Russians heard his speech or got more than a glimpse of the American president on the television news.

If they had heard Obama's address, they probably would have appreciated that Obama spoke with high respect for Russian culture and history. He paid tribute to Russia's colossal contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany -- a victory in which Russians commonly believe their role is not properly recognized abroad. Obama was delicate and subtle, as well as firm and concrete. He described the end of the Cold War not as a victory of one political order over another but as a result of "the actions of many nations over many years." He admitted that America is not perfect. And he referred to democracy not as a moral virtue but as an effective means toward peaceful, secure and prosperous life.

But the president's speech -- at a Westernized institution founded by prominent Russian economists and modeled after the best American universities they attended -- was not broadcast live by any of the mass-audience television channels. These channels, which the Kremlin has long used as effective tools for shaping public opinion, offered benevolent but restrained coverage of the summit. Obama's performance in Russia, his eloquence, his ideas and his charms were thus mostly confined to those limited audiences, venues and outlets where free expression and public debate are still maintained. The Kremlin has mastered the art of keeping these liberal "ghettos" politically irrelevant.

The Kremlin keeps a firm grip on societal forces: Its concept of civil society implies loyalty to the state and rules out genuine autonomy. Those who dare defy the Kremlin vision may be tolerated, but they are consistently marginalized. Assistance to such groups from abroad is treated with great suspicion. Moreover, the West, and the United States in particular, are viewed as a threatening force seeking to do harm to Russia.

This dramatically hampers Russian development and leaves Russia still further behind the developed nations. A summit with Obama, and his attempt to reach out to the Russian people, no matter how brilliant or subtle, can hardly change this state of affairs. It is up to the Russian people to change this, but they will have to overcome their apathy and fragmentation. "Every country charts its own course," Obama told the students of the New Economic School. Russia is no exception.

-- Masha Lipman

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