An organization called in its heyday “Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Peoples of Foreign Countries” (SSOD) fell, along with the Foreign Ministry, the Academy of Sciences and other highly professional organizations of intellectuals, victim to the “Time of Troubles” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The seizure of the famous Friendship House on Vozdvizhenka Street (Yusupov Mansion), the venue of opening ceremonies for a variety of “Days,” “Weeks,” “Ten Days” of Friendship, culture festivals, and protocol events of numerous societies for friendship with different countries, was the most conspicuous expression of the disgrace of those in power at the time. Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman cosmonaut, who was winding up her activities as SSOD’s head, also hardly managed to repel attacks on other real estate properties, especially those located abroad. In the course of ensuing changes, SSOD was renamed Roszarubezhcenter and subordinated to the RF Foreign Ministry. The organization ceased to be an independent organization, and its already meager funding was curtailed even more. In order to survive, the representative offices based abroad were compelled to look out for sources of extra-budgetary revenues to cover the expenses on the maintenance of buildings, the payrolls, etc. It was not until the last few months that the situation began to change for the better. Obvious political and economic problems emerging in the post-Soviet space and Russia’s tarnished image in the world might have been the reasons behind it. In September 2008, Rossotrudnichestvo was established under President Dmitry Medvedev’s decree. One month later, F.M. Mukhametshin, former Ambassador of Russia to Uzbekistan, a seasoned diplomat, was appointed head of the organization. Administrative changes accompanying every restructuring took some time.
On June 17, shortly after F.M. Mukhametshin’s meeting with the RF President last May, the heads of the representative offices and friendship societies got together at the “Russkoye Zarubezhye” (“Russia Abroad”) library. It is these people, real professionals of “people’s diplomacy,” who have dedicated dozens years of their lives to studying the languages and cultures of their neighbors on the planet, are the guardians of good traditions of VOKS, SSOD, Roszarubezhcenter, and friendship societies; it was they who helped residents of different countries across the globe to get familiar with Russian literature and music, study Russian and helped those, who had left their native country for various reasons, keep up ties with their Motherland in both Soviet and post-Soviet times. They waited for statements about how much their work was needed, they also waited for the pledge to bring back decent funding to “soft power” and for an expression of respect for them from the highest power echelons.
What they heard could not only inspire their optimism. Already in his opening remarks F. M. Mukhametshin quoted the President of Russia as saying at the meeting on May 25 that “the establishment of the Agency was prompted by the need for carrying out more serious and more organized work designed to strengthen and develop the Community of Independent States.” He also stressed that Rossotrudnichestvo must turn into a channel of communication with other countries, serve as an effective means of inter-civilizational dialog and become therefore a vital tool of this country’s foreign policy. The head of Rossotrudnichestvo called the Agency’s systemic activities, a rethinking of its activities, and the development of fresh, innovative approaches taking into account the realities of the rapidly changing world a priority task facing the whole of the staff. In accordance with a long-term plan envisaging the opening of the Agency’s Russian science and culture centers, such centers must have been set up in more than 100 countries by 2020.
On behalf of Foreign Minister S.V. Lavrov, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia A.V. Yakovenko called “the strengthening of the integration structures in the CIS space, which ensure the objective communality, our only competitive advantage,” a crucial task. He emphasized: “Rossotrudnichestvo has all the prerequisites to become a unique channel of conveying Russia’s ‘soft power,’ this country’s ability to influence its partners and the general public abroad, while building on this country’s civilizational, humanitarian, foreign policy-related and other kinds of attractiveness. A.V. Yakovenko pledged the senior officials and the staff of the new organization an effective support of the Foreign Ministry’s top management and the Russian diplomatic missions abroad.
S.N. Lebedev, Chairman of the CIS Executive Committee, reminded that the Community will mark its 18th anniversary in December and that Russia will assume the organization’s chairmanship in 2010. The CIS is living, working, and improving, it has good prospects, said the speaker, and urged “to shape relations with CIS not only in terms of economic benefit but from the perspective of geopolitical expediency as well.”
Having said this, he urged Rossotrudnichestvo to initiate and coordinate humanitarian cooperation programs with a view to forming a single education and cultural CIS space.
“I’m profoundly convinced that Russia’s might and authority not only depend on the results of ongoing economic and social processes but also on how our country is represented in the world arena,” said A.M. Babakov, deputy chairman of the State Duma. “We have every reason to believe that a structure has now emerged that will address this issue effectively, and all we can do is only give it our help.”
After reading a message of greetings from S.M. Mironov, Chairman of the Federation Council, A.P. Torshin, his first deputy, stressed that all the participants in the meeting are imbued with the spirit of creativity and initiative and are ready to formulate robust proposals on the further development of Russia’s relations with CIS member countries and other states and also proposals regarding a greater effectiveness of international humanitarian cooperation.
M.Ye. Shvydkoy, the President’s representative in charge of international cultural cooperation, said, “Rossotrudnichestvo has gathered for the first time in the wake of serious organizational changes. All of the colleagues of mine who are present here are participants, veterans, and invalids of many predecessor organizations and are therefore concerned about a stock-taking of emerging difficulties. There are a lot of such difficulties, which are mostly new and linked to new challenges facing the Agency in a world where many things, including Russia’s role, have changed.” He called for the gathering to “play all instruments and before all audiences” and promised help from the Foreign Ministry and its overseas diplomatic missions.
K.I. Kosachev, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma, wished the meeting participants success in their new mission “linked not only to the fact that the previous failed in a certain sense but also to the changes occurring in the world and changed working methods.” The use of “soft power” implies an impact on the shaping of elites and through them a growing impact on the target territories of interest to us. It is something that our rivals in the post-Soviet space, in Georgia and Ukraine, for instance, are engaged in. They often prove more effective than we in the spaces where there is a vacuum of other interests. Rossotrudnichestvo is called upon to become Russia’s “soft power.”
A.Ye. Busygin, Deputy Culture Minister, O.A. Rozhnov, Deputy Minister for Youth, Sports and Tourism Affairs, A.V. Ochirova, chair of a committee of the Public Chamber, and M.A. Gusman, Deputy Director-General of ITAR-TASS, came up with greetings and cooperation proposals in specific fields of activities. The address made by V.A. Nikonov, Executive Director of the “Russkiy Mir” foundation, aroused a particularly lively interest. His organization is engaged in much the same work abroad in parallel with Rossotrudnichestvo. A slide show illustrated the account of the head of the foundation that has been around for a mere two years. The speaker reported that there are already several Russian Centers operating abroad. In CIS countries alone, there are more than a dozen of such centers.
“It is very essential for us to interact with the representative offices of Rossotrudnichestvo based abroad and to share the use of these platforms. We want ‘Russkiy Mir’ to be not just a reminder of the past but a dream of the future of our great people and our great civilization, which has the capacity to bring the world the ideals of freedom, justice, dignity, and the sovereignty of a civilization and a nation that is able to live in peace with itself and the rest of the world,” V.A. Nikonov emphasized.
After a break, F.M. Mukhametshin presented a detailed report. Yu.Ye. Prokhorov, Director of the Pushkin Institute of the Russian Language, A.G. Bystritsky, Chairman of the State Radio Broadcasting Company “The Voice of Russia,” G.L. Muradov, Director of the Department of External Economic and International Relations of Moscow, and L.I. Shvetsova, a member of the governing board of the Russia-France Society, outlined opportunities for interaction with Rossotrudnichestvo. The ensuing discussion involved representatives of Russian compatriots’ organizations and societies for friendship with different foreign countries.
The second day of the meeting’s deliberations was dedicated to the discussion of the introductory report of the CEO of Rossotrudnichestvo. The remarks made by the heads of representative offices operating in a variety of countries contained both their concern about the prevailing situation and their optimism. The “soft power” professionals are now set for a fresh start.