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Wednesday, 28 April 2010 19:13

Disciples of the Russian World - Interview with Vyacheslav Nikonov, Executive Director of the Russkiy Mir Foundation

NikonovVBy Elena Rubinova 

MOSCOW, April 23, (Russian Profile) - Cultural institutions such as the Goethe Institute, the British Council and the Centre Culturel Franсais fulfill the mission of promoting their nations' language and culture throughout the world. Russia is currently in the process of building such a network, and the 50th Russian Center opened in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.


The idea of promoting the Russian language and Russian culture as national heritage and creating a Russian diaspora abroad has received strong support from the state ever since the Russky Mir (Russian World) Foundation was founded in 2007.


Over the course of 2010, the foundation plans to establish some 30 more such centers all over the world. Executive Director of the Russkiy Mir Foundation Vyacheslav Nikonov, a well-known political analyst and the head of the political science department at the International University in Moscow, outlined the main achievements of the foundation and shared his views on the prospects of the foundation and its further development in an interview with Russia Profile.


Q: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian language had an opportunity to become a global language. Do you agree with this hypothesis? Do you believe that the notion of all things "Russian" is much broader than just issues related to the Russian statehood?

VN: Russian became a global language long before the Soviet Union collapsed some 20 years ago. It happened after 1917 with the fall of the Russian Empire, when the first wave of Russian immigration sent Russian speakers across the globe. Russian diasporas that exist today in Asia or Latin America go back to those times. Of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in another wave of immigration and in the appearance of what is called the "beached diasporas" - Russian people who stayed in the former Soviet republics and who had to become citizens of other states without leaving the country they live in.


The geography of the Russian-speaking population has not become significantly broader, and we can't ignore the fact that the number of Russian speakers has dropped for demographic reasons. Besides the demographic situation, the Russian language is no longer a required subject in the secondary schools in many countries. So we can hardly say that the Russian language is spreading like wildfire. At the same time, it should be noted that in the course of the 20th century the "Russian" ethnic category was separate from the "Russian statehood." The last time the two converged was in the times of the Russian Empire.


However, some positive dynamics can be seen in the Western countries as a result of intellectual immigration. Unlike the previous generations of immigrants, who regarded Russia either as a "lost paradise" or a "hell" that they had managed to escape, those who left in the past 20 years don't have a negative attitude toward their former habitat. Their attitude is neutral, and it works for the benefit of the country.


RusCabinetQ: Similar cultural institutions, like the British Council or Alliances France, operate in the modern world in circumstances that either play for or against them. For instance, French cultural institutions put a lot of effort into the popularization of French culture against the backdrop of the English language's hegemony. How favorable is the global status quo for promoting the goals of Russkiy Mir?

VN: It would be an exaggeration to call the situation favorable, but if we look at the patterns we can decipher a change for the better, compared with the realities of the 1990s when the number of those who studied or spoke Russian plummeted. For instance, back then, in Bulgaria and Poland, where Russian was the second most-used language, it rated only 14th and 16th, respectively. Now Russian has regained ground in both countries, and comes second after English. The Baltic peoples resumed studying Russian after it turned out that Russian was a big advantage in the competitive job market. As for other former Soviet states, the attitudes toward the Russian language vary, but only one country, Belarus, considers Russian as an official language.


The figures speak for themselves: the Ukrainian capital used to have 256 Russian schools, now there are only six. Turkmenistan has only one operating Russian school, and maybe we will soon open another one. The general situation looks dire, but Russia's economic growth over the past decade has fueled interest in the country and in the language as a practical instrument. We had a chance to witness the practical aspects of this resumed interest in the results of a survey we conducted at secondary schools across the United States. We found out that Russian is taught in approximately 3,000 schools. And guess which state is leading? It's Texas, where the national oil industry is concentrated.


Q: The key component of any state's "soft power" is cultural and public diplomacy, which includes language and humanitarian values. Is Russia's cultural and public diplomacy always welcomed wherever Russkiy Mir goes? Have you had cases when complex politics have had a negative affect on cultural diplomacy?

VN: In some countries, Russia's activities have always been viewed with suspicion or perceived as evil. So I can't say that politics never affects cultural and public diplomacy and that our activities are welcomed everywhere we go. In some countries we can hardly operate. For instance, if you look at the latest report from Estonia's security service, Russkiy Mir is labeled as one of organizations undermining national security and Estonian independence. It was very difficult to work in Ukraine under Viktor Yushchenko. We were ready to start, but instructions from the top were not to open the Russian Center at the Shevchenko State University. It opened only after Viktor Yanukovich assumed power. Cultural diplomacy does not open any doors: we had difficulties with our activities in Japan, while in Northern Korea we had no problems. Sometimes difficulties are linked to some objective circumstances, like in Afghanistan, where we already operate in six locations but have not opened a Russkiy Mir center in Kabul.


Q: What lacks in Russia's practice of popularizing its culture? Do you agree that Russia is mainly focused on exporting its famous cultural brands of the past, rather than promoting modern and contemporary culture?

VN: I am convinced that if Russia possessed strong modern cultural brands comparable with those of the past they would be carried around and popularized without too much effort. We lack such brands and first of all, Russia needs to work hard on its own branding as a country. By the way, I was very impressed by the experience of South Korea, which has a special agency on national branding that cooperates with major companies like Samsung or LG, constructing the image of a modern Korea in the world. As for the practical aspects of the foundation's activity, we deal mainly with the Russian language and support of teaching practices.


The Russian libraries we open comprise a wide selection of books that represent not only classical literature, but the latest examples of modern Russian literature. One of the projects we are currently implementing with the UK-based Academia Rossica is the promotion of modern Russian authors in English publications. Unfortunately, the young generation in the West is not so familiar even with world-famous Russian cultural brands or with Russia in general.


RusMir1Q: How has the idea of "Russkiy Mir" developed and changed since the foundation was set up in 2007?

VN: The idea of Russkiy Mir was made public in Vladimir Putin's address to the Federal Assembly three years ago. In June of 2007, president Putin signed a decree establishing the foundation, then in the fall we convened the first assembly. The foundation is a joint project of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science. At the early stages we mainly had state funding, but now the foundation is supported by both public and private funds.


We started our grant activity from the very beginning. Initially we accepted grant applications throughout the year, but their number grew so large that we had to assign two periods in a year when applications are received and considered. The idea to set up Russian Centers as educational and communicative platforms came about later in the process of practical work. Once Russian Centers were on the way, we discovered that the so-called Russkiy Mir Studies, serving the same goals as Russian Centers, can be added to out expanding network. Russkiy Mir Studies are opened in locations where we face limited resources in Russian teaching staff and it's more reasonable to have smaller centers.


On the subject of new dimensions in our work, it's worth mentioning the program called the "Professor of Russkiy Mir." The foundation hires Russian teachers from local staff or sends out teachers of Russian from here to work in the field in various locations. For instance, we recently visited Guatemala and Nicaragua and found out that there were no Russian teachers at all. So this program is crucial for such countries. Right now we are in the process of setting up a Russian Center at the University of Central America, and it will become the first center in Nicaragua. A Russian native teacher who is a professional linguist will head this center on behalf of Russkiy Mir.


Q: Does the activity of Russkiy Mir vary from country to country? What factors are taken into consideration and who develops the strategy for the policy in a particular country?

VN: We have five regional directors who are responsible for Russia, the CIS countries, Europe, Asia and Africa, and the Americas. All of them are professionals with experience in a certain region, so when building a regional strategy we rely on their expertise. A lot of our priorities and strategy depend on the local conditions and needs, the level of interest in Russia and its language, and the availability of local Russian teachers we can or cannot rely on.


We try as much as we can to use the local Russian teachers. And, of course, we have to operate within the limits of our funding that so far is hardly comparable with that of the British Council, which runs into the billions of dollars a year. The difference in the mechanisms of all cultural institutes is largely defined by their budgets, and thus the scale of the projects can hardly be compared.


Q: Does Russkiy Mir consolidate the efforts of various institutions such as Rossotrudnichestvo, cultural sections of the embassies and the Russian Orthodox Church in promoting Russian culture and the Russian language in the world?

VN: Our foundation is not an integrating organization, although we have mutual projects and programs with Rossotrudnichestvo in 60 countries and with the cultural sections of Russian Embassies and other organizations involved in promoting Russian culture abroad. Organizations already present in the region often help us to set up. We have an agreement on cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, and it really works well. The first Russian language courses in Hong Kong were opened at the Orthodox parish but funded by Russkiy Mir. The foundation is a very flexible organization; it does not limit its activity to the capitals of the countries we work in, unlike Rossotrudnichestvo.


Q: In an earlier interview you mentioned that Russkiy Mir is not a recollection of the past but "a dream about the future". How does this statement define the activity of the foundation on a practical level?

VN: The ultimate goal of the Russkiy Mir Foundation is not only promoting the glorious legacy of the past, be it Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky or Yuri Gagarin - it is a matter of the future for the Russian civilization, which has contributed a lot to mankind and can continue to do so. It's useless just to look back and regret that it's not what it used to be. It's unproductive to look into the days of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Dreaming about the future is something that must drive people. We need to look into the future to see the opportunities ahead.

***Interview for Russia Profile by Elena Rubinova



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