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What's Wrong With Russia's Diaspora?

Any country's diaspora can help build up or tear down the international image of its homeland. What about Russians who've gone to live abroad?

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Do Russians who have emigrated to the West contribute to misconceptions that appear in Western media reports about present-day Russia?

Some observers say yes, others no.

There is a survey now underway to gather insights into the role played by Russia's diaspora in influencing the attitudes of others toward Russia and its leaders. Your participation in this study will be a big help and is highly encouraged. Please click on the link at the end of this article. All survey respondents will receive an advance copy of the final report when it is rendered.

But let's start with some background to frame the issue. An astute observer I recently heard from put it this way:

"There is a large community of Russian emigres in the West who feel alienated from Russia, even while loving Russian culture. Other countries like Israel, China, and India use their emigrant populations to positively shape public opinion in the emigres' new countries. I've observed that in Russia's case many of these emigres are hostile to their homeland. Often, they haven't been back in decades and have very outdated ideas about the country. That means they are vulnerable to believing contemporary Western news reports, many of which grossly mischaracterize what's going on now. The news stories demonize the country and its leaders. Yet these emigres are often regarded by friends and associates in their new countries as experts on Russia. That means they end up actually confirming non-factual stories to those in their new communities. This in fact helps Russia's antagonists to advance lies and for them to be believed."

My own personal experience with immigrants from Russia in the US bears out that observation. Many echo the predominant media theme that Russia now plays a predominantly negative role in the world and is an obstacle to promoting the advancement of peace, democracy, and human rights around the globe.

I can recall a discussion when I was writing The Phony Litvinenko Murder. It was with a woman originally from Russia who was now a college professor in the US and married to an American. I was explaining that the widespread news reports asserting Putin's complicity in Litvinenko's mysterious death were without any known factual basis. The mainstream story is based on a fabricated narrative advanced by a Putin archenemy. "There is no evidence of Putin's involvement," I said. Her reply was, "Yes, that's how they operate. They leave no traces behind."

That may or may not be true. But the point is that she held a presumption of Putin's culpability, even in the presence of evidence that most of the Litvinenko story had been fabricated by a political adversary. Her presumption seems based on a conviction that the negative news stories are indeed the honest truth. This goes well beyond just the Litvinenko affair.

I wonder how many mistaken beliefs this "expert" on Russia has reinforced in the minds of others.

Not all diaspora members are like that. There are likely others who don't share that negative predisposition, but who choose to remain silent. Faced with the overwhelming American sentiment against Putin and Russia, I can understand their silence. Speaking out in opposition to the mainstream misperceptions could bring about the scorn of others, and perhaps even precipitate one being labeled a Putinist. In America, being known as a Putinist is not a good thing. Being against Putin can be seen as a good survival strategy for anyone. Most candidates in the presidential race, judging from their own campaign rhetoric, quite obviously subscribe to anti-Putinism.

Just as an aside: This phenomenon of immigrants having outdated ideas about their home country is not limited to political issues. It manifests itself in their use of language, too. I've heard a number of emigres who arrived in the '80s or early '90s express themselves in what I'd call a Soviet vocabulary. Their word choices are rooted in the language usage that prevailed before the start of the Russian Federation. It is as if these people are frozen in time. The onslaught of new words and phrases that came along with Russia's adaptation of Western business practices and the importation of Western products has escaped them.

I've heard that Putin believes there is too little cultural and interpersonal contact between North Americans and Russians. I think he's right. The absence of contact allows troublemakers to depersonalize the other side, and get away with promoting negative stereotypes that are a far cry from reality.

Certainly if more clear-minded Americans had firsthand interactions with sensible Russians, there would be far less buy-in to the outlandish stories heard in the US that are passed off as news about Russia.

The Center for Citizen Initiatives has done epic work organizing people-to-people exchanges since the 1980s. At its peak it was receiving considerable funding from the US government. After that money went away, the organization had to scale back its activities considerably. Given the amount of anti-Putin provocateurism coming out of the State Department lately, it's hardly likely that it would offer help for reinvigorating the model CCI program.

However, creating a new education and involvement program that targets the Russian immigrant communities around the US could produce a great long-term impact. It could dispel whatever myths and misconceptions these people harbor and propagate, and it would provide validation for the several non-mainstream news sources that are devoted to telling the truth about Russia. The effect of energized emigres could potentially produce pinpoint strikes at the malicious stories about Russia that are so pervasive.

So, what do you think? Is there actually something wrong with Russia's diaspora? If so, what can be done about it? Please contribute your thoughts and take part in the study.

Click here to view the short questionnaire.

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