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Russia Experts Met in NY to Promote US-Russia Relationships but Overlooked Obvious Roadblock

Reconstructing a spirit of cooperation isn't going to be easy

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Would you invest in an office building that's been condemned and is slowly being demolished? Indeed, who would? It's an investment opportunity that not only has no future, but would open investors to ridicule for making such an unwise deal.

That's a metaphor that rolled across my mind while attending "Russia Forum New York" on April 21, a gathering aimed at rebuilding the foundation for US-Russia business and cultural cooperation.

The program design was excellent. It skillfully blended prospects for business collaboration with the topic of Russian-American cultural cooperation. Speakers had top-notch credentials and put a wealth of experience into their well-organized presentations. The overall message was that Russia is a great place to invest.

Nonetheless I couldn't get that "condemned building" metaphor out of my find. Finally I decided to speak up and ask a question. The gist of my remarks went something like this:

"I'm really grateful for the fine presentations today. They offer a lot of valuable information. A poster behind the panelists talks about promoting constructive Russian-American relationships. But I think there is an elephant in the room that no one is mentioning. It is that Americans don't like Russia. Recently I completed a study that shows that Russia's diaspora in America doesn't like Russia either. A couple of months ago a TV crew from the Russia 1 TV network came to my US city to interview me. At the conclusion I asked the journalist how Russians currently view Americans. She quickly responded that Russians don't like Americans. The anecdotal evidence is that Russians and Americans have bad feelings toward each other. And the situation isn't getting better. In fact it is on a troubling downward trajectory. Efforts to counteract this through logic and truth-telling have been ineffectual. I'm an executive producer of a Hollywood motion picture under development called "For Love and Country" that hopes to address this at an affective level by portraying Russians to American audiences as real human beings with whom they share feelings, emotions, and life's challenges. But singular efforts alone cannot fix this problem entirely. It's too big. Without coordinated intervention the problem will continue to diminish interest in business cooperation. And so my question to the panel is this: would you be willing to join a concerted effort to ameliorate the mutual negativity between Americans and Russians?"

After asking my question one panelist remarked that he was born a German and doesn't now like Germany, and so the Russian diaspora disliking Russia is nothing unique. Another panelist, an official of an American-Russian NGO, claimed that mutual dislike is a problem that they work on every day. I didn't have a chance to respond to those comments. But my general reaction to the German is "so what." As to the American NGO official, I wish I could have asked why, if they've been working on the issue every day, there's been no clear sign of substantial change in the fundamental problem? And my specific question regarding collaboration to put more horsepower behind ameliorating the problems? No one gave a direct answer.

My question preceded a coffee break. And I found myself deluged by attendees wishing to comment on my remarks. The general take was that my remarks hit the nail right on the head. One woman suggested that at that moment I was the most popular person in the room.

Metaphors aside, I see no evidence that Russia is in reality like a condemned building that is slowly being demolished. But if one were to rely upon how the country is characterized in the Western media and by Western political leaders, that conclusion would be inescapably supported. There are many people out there who honestly look upon Russia with condemnation and with an expectation of an impending collapse.

I want to be sure that my remarks here don't paint a negative picture of Russia Forum New York. It was a very positive event. A Moscow city official gave a fact-based presentation of efforts to further develop Moscow as a venue for very beneficial Western investment. The founder of the Carmel Institute gave a reality-based illustration of how Americans and Russians have successfully cooperated in space science on the International Space Station, and a representative of the Russian Embassy in Washington made clear his country's openness to productive cooperation.

On the cultural side, I really appreciated the presentation by a representative from the Guggenheim Museum. He talked about the 2005 exhibition titled "Russia!" I attended that exhibition myself. In addition to the marvelous art collection, there was a presentation by noted Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It included not only recitations of his work, but also very candid disclosures of his personal experiences in life during Soviet times. It was very touching, entertaining, and memorable.

So where do we go from here? That's an open question. 

There are irrefutably-serious problems between Russians and Americans. Most, as I see it, are based on mutual misunderstanding and misguided actions of political leaders. But attempts to erase that misunderstanding through direct refutation of false allegations and further reasoning have thus far proved largely ineffectual. 

What's needed is to put this all together into a project with sufficient competence, one that has the know-how for dealing with both the political and affective issues at stake. 

I know of people capable of doing this, given proper help and support from others. But who will be willing to join in? The panelists weren't. 

Pre-Sochi overtures of expert assistance to the Kremlin were not seized upon. And look where that's gotten the Kremlin. Is the official stance still the same today? If so the current ill feelings between Russians and Americans will continue to be a great impediment to creating more constructive business and cultural relationships.

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