This would have been in the mid 2000s: a time when it didn’t feel too comfortable being a foreigner here. I was teaching a PR professional. Usually this is essentially an editing job: I turn up and they have a load of texts that have been written in bad English by the young woman who got her job with the company on the strength of her perfect English. Nobody else in the company would know perfect English if they saw or heard it, not that this stops them pronouncing on live journal at great length concerning grammar rules that were taught to them in soviet times by people who had this perfect English too.
When I roll up, the people with the perfect English go hide in cupboards in case I speak to them in a crowded room and unmask them. I never would, but fear is a powerful thing.
On the day in question my PR hero had a new project that was something to do with the Kremlin, whether he was bidding for a tender, had won one, or was involved in some other way I never knew. Still at the time the wise folks in the corridors of power appeared to be spotting that Russia’s image in the world was not all it could be, and discussions were afoot concerning what was to be done. What was done involved employing foreign PR firms, and over time the moments where you read a quote from a prominent Russian politician and cringed in shame and horror grew less and less common, which is nice.
But our PR man was struggling with a different notion of what national PR might be: somehow he had landed on the notion that the secret was to tell the truth. Now, you don’t have to spend much time around PR people to see that truth is a tricky concept: if they were genuinely worried about it one suspects they would have continued working as journalists, not that that was any guarantee of probity in recent years, but still, a passion for truth is not a PR professional’s best friend, not in any country.
What he said was that, if we could only communicate to the outside world the actual lived reality of Russia, then they would understand and thus sympathize and welcome her into the community of nations. I inquired as to whether the “lived reality” that needed communicating was the one that people actually lived: the one where they ranted against bureaucracy and corruption and policemen and dirty roads; the one he too had dismissed on numerous occasions. It turned out that it was not that reality at all, but rather one that had been discovered elsewhere, and accepting it was an act of faith, apparently, for it had no obvious basis in reality.
I suggested, tentatively, that an honest admission of the problems the country faced, combined with a call for recognition of just how much had already been achieved in less than two decades, would probably be a wiser move, if truth was absolutely necessary, well there was a truth there that wasn’t all that bad. But I had confused the truth with what actually exists, and it had nothing to do with that. As he explained this to me his eyes took on a certain shine, and his voice gained in conviction and I understood that we were at the point where my job was to smile kindly and shut the fuck up.
I came across the same notion quite often around that time: the idea that there was no need to lie to the world about Russia, but simply to communicate a truth that was deeper, greater, more profound and yet unhindered by facts. It reminded me of Rove et al deciding that they could determine reality and all that remained for the journalists was to write that reality down until they were provided with a new one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality-based_community
Maybe because I am a foreigner some people assume that they can get away with this nonsense, but I have talked to Government ministers with a far more negative assessment of the nature of the country’s problems, and to journalists in real papers and agencies, Russian and foreign, and they are as far removed from this sort of RIA Novosti optimism as the taxi drivers and accountants.
It is what it is, and it’s not hard to find out what it is. The problem is not that foreign media are incapable of understanding Russia; the problem is that they can come here and look and ask people. That’s not to say they will get it right even then, but offering a beautiful new “truth” ain’t gonna cover it, which may be why this notion failed to last.
In the years since, I have thought a lot about this encounter and other similar ones that took place at the time, and I’ve discussed it with Russians. Some call it a cult, and suggest that the way to understand what’s going on is essentially the same as when trying to make sense of a religious persons views: they may be good and sincere, but there is a fundamentally skewed premise underlying their conclusions and thus they can’t but be wrong.
The other aspect that seems to me central stems from asking the question “Who are they talking to?” When editing texts for PR folk for large Russian and Foreign companies you rapidly gain the impression that they are going to great lengths to persuade the public of points on which that same public has no opinion whatsoever, have no desire to form an opinion and, indeed, are utterly ignorant of, and indifferent to, the whole question of what this bank plans to do with its corporate lending strategy over the next quarter. Then it occurs to you that the only people who are concerned with this question are working in various state organizations. Much of PR in an autocratic society is necessarily GR: that is government relations. The public could care less if you change your interest terms for corporate clients, people at the central bank and the ministry of finance are more interested, as well as having far more power to hurt you and your company. I have wondered since whether this strategy of “truth” that briefly seduced many in the communications industry had a similar cause.