In the Daily Telegraph of 26/02/2014, there was a special pull-out to publicise something called the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’. Akin to health warnings now familiar on cigarette packets, the reader was informed that the section, Russia Beyond The Headlines, was ‘…[Sic] published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russia), who take sole responsibility for the contents.’ Quite.
The cover story - about ‘…the lasting legacy of Russian Ballet in Britain’ - was but a detail, with all messages broadcast loud and clear by the cover photo:
The dancers – the very personification of youth, freshness and delicacy – were silently declaring: ‘We, too, are Russia’. The sought-after validation was painfully obvious.
After several months of being battered in Western media (and social media) over gay rights, and then, by proxy, over the Ukraine situation, this was nothing short of a rear guard action; the alluring dancers reminding us that there was more to Russia than 6’6” thugs, called Boris.
So what exactly is the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’? Why does it exist and, just as importantly, is it unique? Is there a Kenya-Russia Year of Culture, or a Nepal-Russia Year of Culture? Was ‘Russia Beyond The Headlines’ being distributed with the Mombasa Times or the Kathmandu Chronicle..? Ermm… Clearly, the need to impress, to present the right image, is a one-way street.
But Russia is not alone, in worrying about how the British see them. The same concern is evident as one walks around the lush exhibition on Islamic art, at London’s Victoria & Albert museum. One can almost hear the sponsors screaming, ‘…we are more than mere Ragheads!’ (Iranians referring to themselves as Persian, are, consciously or otherwise, traumatised over the same issue).
And when Bollywood producers cream themselves over finally reaching an ‘international audience’, their excitement is really over two white folks in Kansas sitting through a whole three-hour extravaganza; which implicitly dismisses the long-standing popularity of Hindi song & dance, in the South: in Filipino cafés, at Nigerian weddings and Iraqi dance halls. The elation of those producers betrays the colonial mindset, wherein, as per the unwritten rate of exchange, two white folks is worth more than the whole of Lagos. The right perception in Western eyes, for non-Westerners, remains the holy grail.
These examples illustrate where the power lies. Europe and America do not expend the same energy, protecting their impression in the eyes of the wider world. (One could argue that they don’t have to – that the global penetration of American TV and film does that for them). On the rare occasions that they do - such as over the Big Brother/Shilpa Shetty row - the concern boils down to money (and in this case, India’s increasing importance to the British export industry).
Money – and PR – are the root of all evil
A proud German once protested to an American, post WWII, that his was the country of Bach, Weber (the social scientist and political theorist) and Johannes Kepler (mathematician), to which a blunt American replied, ‘Not anymore, it isn’t.’ The German was likely not aggravated by a poor economic forecast; rather, psychic harm was being done by others viewing him, and his country, through a Hitler-lens. But the confident answer declared two truths: that the German was impotent to shape his own image, and that the American’s perspective was what mattered.
But should it be so – then or now? Why do those outside of the First World care so much about what Anglo-Americans think of them? And if they feel they are being portrayed unfairly, should they just turn the other cheek? And where they do respond, which option is better: defence (i.e. ‘look at our pretty ballerinas!’), or a more ‘jihadi’ approach?
I don’t really know. But we live in interesting times.