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In Russia, Obama's Limited Reach

By Masha Lipman

President Obama spoke brilliantly and powerfully at Russia's New Economic School yesterday. And his broader effort to reach out to Russian society during his trip -- meeting with civil society and human rights activists, as well as a group of opposition politicians -- was commendable. Unfortunately, few Russians heard that speech or got more than a glimpse of the American president on the television news.

If they had heard Obama's address to the New Economic School graduates, they likely would have appreciated that Obama spoke with high respect for Russian culture and history. He paid tribute to Russia’s colossal contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany -- a victory in which Russians commonly believe their role is not properly recognized abroad. Obama was delicate and subtle, yet firm and concrete. He described the end of the Cold war not as a victory of one political order over another, but as a result of “the actions of many nations over many years.” He admitted that America is not perfect. And he referred to democracy not as a moral virtue, but as an effective means toward peaceful, secure and prosperous life.

But the president's speech -- at a westernized institution founded by prominent Russian economists and modeled after the best American universities they attended -- was not broadcast live by any of the mass-audience television channels. These channels, which the Kremlin has long used as effective tools shaping the public opinion, offered a benevolent but restrained coverage of the summit. Obama’s performance in Russia, his eloquence, his ideas and his charms were thus mostly confined to the same limited audiences, venues and outlets where free expression and public debate is still maintained. The Kremlin has mastered the art of keeping these liberal "ghettos" politically irrelevant.

The Kremlin keeps a firm grip on societal forces: Its concept of civil society implies loyalty to the state and rules out genuine autonomy. Those who dare defy the Kremlin vision may be tolerated, but they are consistently marginalized. Assistance to such groups from abroad is treated with high suspicion. Moreover, the West, and the U.S. in particular, are viewed as a threatening force seeking to do harm to Russia.

This dramatically hampers Russian development and leaves Russia still farther behind the developed nations. A summit with Obama, and his attempt to reach out to the Russian people, no matter how brilliant or subtle, can hardly change this state of affairs. It is up to the Russian people to change it, but they will have to overcome their apathy and fragmentation. “Every country charts its own course,” Obama said in his address to the students of the New Economic School. Russia is no exception.

Masha Lipman is a monthly Post columnist and editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal.

By Masha Lipman  | July 8, 2009; 5:57 PM ET
Categories:  Lipman  | Tags:  Masha Lipman  
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the Russians demonstrated that all that is necessary to diminish Obama is to withdraw the adulation.......

Obama--there is no there, there

Posted by: JaxMax | July 8, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

This is a great little article. Insightful, perfectly worded, etc...

Who is Marsha Lipman, and why does Bill Kristol get more column space than her?

Posted by: kurthunt | July 8, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

The praise for Russia's role in WWII was well done as, in fact, they won the war against Germany. They also took the opportunity to kill some Jews on the home front, but that is besides the point.

It will take a long time for Russia to forget our bad treatment of them following the cold war, and they have other just grievances against us. Now that they have assumed their earlier attitudes toward the US and the West, Obama should probably hope for very little in the coming years.

Any avenues of fostering cross-cultural understanding should be opened ASAP.

Posted by: Farnaz1Mansouri1 | July 8, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

27,000,000 WW2 dead would make anybody reluctant to fully engage at the drop of a hat. Some of them have records referring to earlier gun boat diplomacy ventures. So many, if not all, of the Wests foreign entreatys were propagated by businessmen, not diplomats. Meanwhile, the recent 'ripoff' in the West must have caught their eye. You know. The how can ya' trust a bunch of greedy, blathering idiots with anything syndrome? ... Yup. It's gonna' be a while.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | July 8, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

This can explained by the Russians' racism against our President Obama. Neo-Nazi Russian skinheads routinely attack and kill non-white foreigners in Russia.

Posted by: Mickey2 | July 9, 2009 12:31 AM | Report abuse

Excerpts from the speech were shown on the TV news. Why did people expect it would be shown live?

Can you think of even ONE speech by a foreign leader that was carried live in the US? If Hu, Medvedev or Ahmedinajad were to want to speak directly to the US people, would CNN and Fox News carry it live? Of course not.

Posted by: Nicester | July 9, 2009 2:46 AM | Report abuse

Masha Lipman is american lobby in Russia. So for you she speaks things you want to hear. Obama`s speech was in the most russian media sources. Full, quoted, commentated, discussed. Good speach. But Obama is just another foreign presidend for as. Why should we feel some euphoria about his words?

Posted by: IWH_rus | July 9, 2009 3:09 AM | Report abuse

Masha Lippman praises President Obama’s speech. She reports, he touched all the right bases, praised Russia, said what Russians want to hear, said nothing they did not want to hear; very subtle, sophisticated, brilliant. But, she observes, the Kremlin diverted the speech into a media cul de sac and few heard it, alas.

Such rubbish.

He pulled a similar feat at Cairo a month ago. There too he complimented, praised, apologized, said exactly what his audience wanted to hear. Said nothing it did not want to hear, as for example, about the hundreds of thousands of bodies piling up across the border, alongside 3 million black Darfurians, driven into exile by the brethren of his listeners. He brilliantly stayed away from that in favor of consoling his audience in its continuing grief over the plight of Palestinians forced to flee their land sixty years ago. Obama bowed from the waist to that region of dictators and fanatics. And again at Moscow.

A truly brilliant, American performance would have hurdled that sandbagging with a provocative speech which the int’l media would have headlined, forcing Russia’s media to accord it ample coverage.

The gist of such a speech might have remembered that the Soviet people not only suffered most and took on the largest part of the Nazi war machine, but that simultaneously endured the burden of Stalin’s tyranny. They overcame the Nazis only to remain saddled with a police state that denied Russians freedom and prosperity for another fifty years.

It would be unforgivable if these brave, long suffering people were now once again denied the kind of prosperity and freedom common in the West, and not just in the West but in Pacific rim countries, and increasingly in India.

Such a melody would have displeased the Kremlin's ears and horrified Lippman, but it would have been picked up by Russia’s liberals and let Putin know that if he behaves like a dictator, he will be regarded and remembered as such.

The Kremlin will do nothing for us out of good will. It will do only what it regards to be in its interest. It cannot govern the Russians if it is perceived to be leading them back into isolation and rejection from the West. That is the message they need to hear.

Putin wants our respect for Russia's fight against Hitler, but he also needs our acceptance of him as a legitimate world leader of a law abiding regime. We do not have to give that to him if he does not demonstrate a willingness to help tame crises like Iran and North Korea.

Posted by: nacllcan | July 9, 2009 5:14 AM | Report abuse

Nice Try Marsha but I doubt that you'll be able to fund opposition groups in Russia any time soon.

For the US to move forward with Russia and prosper it'll need to do something more tangible to gain its trust. Like backing Russia and Serbia on the Kosovo issue.

Posted by: bozana1978 | July 9, 2009 5:18 AM | Report abuse

Good column. Hope to hear more from you, Marsha. Also, some very thoughful comments, mostly. It is clear that, despite the headline, this is a commentary about the Russiaan government, not President Obama.

Posted by: DROSE1 | July 9, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

i find all the harrumphing about the subdued public response to obama interesting.

let's put it into some context, please. how many crowds turn out, lining the streets as the leaders of foreign countries visit washington? how many americans are even aware when foreign dignitaries visit this country?

and how much airtime did the networks/cables give to covering those visits? were their speeches covered live?

the white house press corps really needs to get over themselves.

Posted by: mycomment | July 9, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Not at all surprising. Russia under Putin reimplemented the same Soviet-style propaganda and censorship methods used before perestroika. To believe that he could go there and effectuate anything the way he has elsewhere in Europe, was foolish on Obama's part, and/or the part of his advisors.

Posted by: trambusto | July 9, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

"...Obama’s performance in Russia, his eloquence, his ideas and his charms were thus mostly confined to the same limited audiences, venues and outlets where free expression and public debate is still maintained...."

Oh... If only they had listened.. they would have loved so much! they would have embraced him as their new king and begged for more.

sing hossana to the highest! praise be to the father, the son, the holy ghost, motherhood, apple pie, america, and barack obama!

why can't the russian leadership let their people worship him like the rest of us!

surely, if given the chance, the russian people would have done the rational thing and over-throw their anti-american government after hearing such beautiful music.

Posted by: tyrell_corp | July 9, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

"i find all the harrumphing about the subdued public response to obama interesting. "

I think the media is a tad mystified, in that they are totally in thrall with Obama.

The story I haven't heard enough about -- and Obama's visit would have been a good time to provide this to the American -- is the long-term continuing destruction of the free press in Russia, and the increasing control of all information sources by Putin.

In particular -- and I have seen reports on this (I think on 60 Minutes) -- the use of anti-American sloganeering in Russian domestic politics. The US is used heavily as a bogeyman there (began in the Bush Administration), to avoid any failures of Russian officials (just like Iran!), so they're trying to minimize any positive impact by American officials.

Posted by: balto20 | July 9, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and I know this obvious, but the right-wingers seem very desperate here -- in a sense saying that Russian reaction is the proper reaction.

It's very funny that the GOP, the bastion of anti-communism in the Cold War, would think of Russia as ideal.

Posted by: balto20 | July 9, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

The Russians are ruled by a former KGB agent! How else do you think they would react.

Posted by: PalmSpringsGirl | July 9, 2009 6:41 PM | Report abuse

article and all of the comments were translated to russian and soon will be published on russian site of foreign press.

Thanks for comments comerades. ;)

Posted by: molten | July 10, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

With U.S. troops at war with the Taliban the relations with Russia is critical. The Serbs in Croatia now have the freedom to worship as they choose, Russia is licking its wounds over allowing them in Turkey. When the U.N. looks to Egypt for a decision it knows Turkey will vote the same way; which is how the Iranian people got to vote. Islam is one state now, and if the United States is to maintain this peace so that we can ferret out the Taliban, Russia has the Golden Key.

Posted by: edtroyhampton | July 10, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

With room in the sidecar for TWO cases of beer, plus ice!

But, enough about international politics...don't forget the ice!

Posted by: walkerbert | July 11, 2009 1:33 AM | Report abuse

Yes, yes,...but won't Russians be able to view his speech on youtube? Or does the government block that?
Grandma's Cold War censorship is much harder to maintain now....just ask the Iranians.

Posted by: ohsonic | July 11, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Obama is adored by the enemies of America, including Russia and Venezuela - but not respected as a statesman who continuously apologizes for past white U.S. christian governments. Then how did he become president of the U.S.A. if America was so terrible? As long as bashing George W. Bush is still politically potent, president Barack Hussein Obama will always remain the object of Satire as we are now seeing, rather than a Statesmanship - as the Black president, rather than the American president.. or as another Michael Jackson's "dual nature" phenomenon.

Posted by: hasinc67 | July 11, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

An article a couple of days ago said that Obama limited his access to those in power by being available for dinner on only one of the two nights spent there, choosing to spend the second night with the family. That is commendable for a dad, but apparently his meeting with Putin was then scheduled over breakfast, without considering that Putin is reportedly not an early morning person.

He represents the US pretty well usually, but he didn't seem to understand that this was a state event and not a vacation with the family.

Posted by: annetta3 | July 11, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

The more Obama plays the global community organizer, sowing the seeds of political dissent among out-of-power factions; the more he will be marginalized and compartmentalized, eventually becoming a lonely man on a tattered soapbox, ignored by the people in power.

Posted by: Common_Cents1 | July 12, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

The whole President Obama's speech was broadcast live by the most influential Russian TV channel "Vesti":

(The link contains video recording of the live broadcast of Obama's speech.)

Therefore, M. Lipman's claim that "the president's speech ... was not broadcast live by any of the mass-audience television channels" is a DIRECT LIE.

I believe, that spreading direct lies is in the spirit of the Cold War, but is against the spirit of good relatioships between the U.S. and Russia.

This is the official request to the editorial board of the Washington Post to take measures against M. Lipman's course of action (as an author of the Washington Post) aimed to worsen U.S.-Russia bilateral relationships.

Posted by: filatovev | July 13, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

You ask who such Masha Lipman? She is the journalist who lives in Russia and for the American and European grants waters Russia with a dirt.
It is simply shocking lie. Speech of President Obama was broadcast on the state round-the-clock news channel "Vesti" (Conduct) on the air.
Other channels, both state, and private gave the big comments and detailed reviews. And in Sunday total releases of evening news there was a detailed analysis of visit.
How it is not a shame so frankly to say lies?
I ask myself a question: how the people given to the world of such great writers as Heminguej, Jack London, Edgar Allan Po, Mark Twain, Teodor Drajzer can trust such nonsense and frank propaganda lie?
I Russian and me for 40 years. But never, even at the time of "cold war" us did not learn to hate the American people.
There was an official propagation which spoke: "the hardworking American people" and "the American imperialism of money-bags and rich men" always thus dividing these two concepts.
How it is possible to say, what we intolerantly concern the Afro-Americans if we since the childhood are brought up on books of Garriet Bicher-Stou "Uncle Tom's Cabin"?
I understand that there will be somebody and will tell that I the agent of KGB. God to you the judge. When there is no real arguments to accuse the interlocutor in something easier.

By the way Mister Obama was late for a meeting where he said the speech at 1 o'clock. He was late at our primer-minister V.Putin. They drank tea from a samovar and a fur-tree Russian fritters with cranberry fruit candy, a smoked salmon and other. So how to be told in our proverb: "to Whom war, and to whom and mother native."
I do not know as it will sound in transfer. At us it sounds in a rhyme and it makes sense deep enough.

Posted by: clubdo | July 13, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

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