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What Not to Say in Moscow

President Obama’s election was supposed to usher in a new era of amity between America and a certain time-zone spanning Slavic nation that fell out with the Bush administration. But, like much else in Russia, Obama’s reception in the country this week was, well, chilly. No screaming crowds. No glaring headlines. Icy resentment at the traffic jams his motorcade produced.

Perhaps, Russians and Russianists who spoke to the American press speculated, it’s because Obama’s hosts are skeptical of politicians or the sincerity of powerful people who profess to hold high ideals. It’s also hard to make a positive impression on Russians when Kremlin-run news organizations don’t spend much time covering the president’s visit. Or it could be just plain racism, a nasty problem even on the streets of cosmopolitan Moscow.

But Obama probably also shouldn’t have said this. The president joked to a group of Russian businessmen about how Czar Alexander II gave America “a pretty good deal on Alaska,” which the United States bought from Imperial Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million in gold.

It’s still a sore subject. The first time I visited the post-Soviet Europe as an exchange student in western Ukraine, Alaska came up as I was speaking to a classroom full of high school students. NATO was in the midst of bombing Serbia -- on whose behalf Russia entered the First World War -- and the ethnic Russian teacher explained that the military action wasn’t the only thing Russians wanted the United States to roll back. Alaska, she said to my astonishment, should be Russia’s again. “We are hoping,” she said earnestly, explaining that this could be a way to deepen trust and respect between Cold War rivals.

Not that sensitivity about the 49th state -- or a bizarre aspiration to get it back -- is warranted. In fact, it strikes of the Russian preoccupation with their unnecessary geopolitical ambitions over, say, the stability of the economy or the country’s massive demographic problems. But Obama delivered the line in the context of a number of other small errors this trip, such as awkwardly confusing Vladimir Putin’s title -- he is prime minister now, not president -- and declining to take part in Moscow nightlife, leaving his hosts feeling spurned.

Though he is so brilliant at messaging at home, every now and then Obama lets the details of his interactions with foreigners send the wrong message abroad. Take, for example, the White House meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, when Obama sent the London press into a frenzy for skipping the customary press conference with the Queen’s first minister.

Instead of inadvertently irritating the sensitivities of foreign leaders and the nations they represent, Obama should be careful to save whatever good will he has banked with them to use in disagreements of substance. Of which he should have many with Russia.

By Stephen Stromberg  | July 8, 2009; 2:53 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Comments

Typical old Soviet style thinking.

Posted by: chopin224 | July 8, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Would they just settle for Wasilla and its population?

Posted by: acboatman | July 8, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

"Or it could be just plain racism, a nasty problem even on the streets of cosmopolitan Moscow."
*********************

In my considerable experience, that's probably a dominant (but not universal) factor. But Mr. Stromberg is right-on in his speculation about Alaska. The funny thing is, President Obama's gaffe strikes me as quintessentially American, as in the "ugly" sense. I could see Bush or Reagan or maybe even FDR making that insensitive joke.

Take that, you conservatives who claim he's really an Indonesian closet Muslim!

Posted by: abqcleve | July 8, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse


Looks like most people were simply too stupid and willing to parrot democrat talking points to realize that being the chief executive of alaska (or California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas for that matter) entails concerns an awareness vis-a-vie foreign nations that being governor of, say, Arkansas, or Illinois simply do not.

if proximity werent important for national security, would castro ever have been treated as anything than a tin-pot dictator?

its amazing people cant realize anything beyond the most obvious of things.

Posted by: dummypants | July 8, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

if proximity werent important for national security, would castro ever have been treated as anything than a tin-pot dictator?

its amazing people cant realize anything beyond the most obvious of things.

Posted by: dummypants | July 8, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

===
Please explain how Reagan's California proximity to Russia helped bring about the end of the cold war.

Also some insights about FDR vis a vis Germany and Japan would help us simple people understand how proximity matters.

Also, if you could explain how Castro is NOT just a tinpot dictator of a poor country that'd be fantastic.

Posted by: mikem1 | July 8, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Sounds to me like there are thinned skinned rabid right wingers in Russia too.

Posted by: AverageJane | July 8, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

See, we French people aren't so mean and resentful. We got screwed pretty bad with the Louisiana purchase, and you'll hear no one making a fuss about it over here!...

Posted by: clem_flejou | July 8, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Russia is not a country known for its diversity neither is it welcoming to other ethnicities. It's them and has nothing to do with Pres. Obama.

Posted by: mstratas | July 8, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Does "stromberg" translate from any language as "picker of irrelevant nits"?

Just wondering ...

Posted by: phoenixresearch | July 8, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Wow, dummypants. That makes astonishingly little sense. Are you actually asserting that Sarah Palin is better equipped to engage Russia diplomatically than Barack Obama? And your evidence is that she can, as it were, see Russia from her house? Am I stupid like most people if I find that argument rather silly?

Posted by: phranquethegreat | July 8, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Their economic future will hinge on oil production with fewer Russians (like Europe) being born compared to decades past. The Bear is still the most formidable strategic foe, Islamic terrorists notwithstanding as the greatest threat. The reserves in Tajikistan are larger than Saudi Arabia and getting the Afghan/Pakistan pipeline built will probably see Putin take over it's oil production. Oil at $60/bbl for decades will help world economies, especially India, China and us. The price via production then will no longer be with the Arab producers. We have had too much cooperation from Putin for a deal to redeploy the missile shield not to be part of it. The writer says snub, I say the missile shield is gone and Obama is feeling his oats. The non-veto of N. Korea sanctions, the unbuzzed NATO exercises by Georgia, 4500 unpaid military delivery flights from a landbridge without the Taliban in between, reduced nuclear arsenal and delivery vehicles on both sides (the boomers are the safe strategic weapon, unhittable by first strike) came at a price we have not heard. Perhaps this is what Jeb Bush was alluding to about telling the truth since his presidential aspirations went out the window with his brothers performance.

Posted by: jameschirico | July 8, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

The gaff is not Obama's mention of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He mentioned Stalin. When I visited Russia in 1973, Stalin was not mentioned, nor was he in their history books at the secondary level.

In reality, Obama made no gaffs. He was very straigthforward in his review of history and trying to establish an appropriate historical context for his remarks. His speech at the NEC was a masterpiece.

Too many in this country have no knowledge of history, much less an understanding of history. It is high time that we begin the slow, tedious process of educating the American public as well as others to the history that connects and impacts us all. The historical revisionism, as seen and heard on FOX News, is not history at all.

Posted by: EarlC | July 8, 2009 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Using a Ukrainian school-teacher's opinion in the '90s as a bellwether of current opinions among Moscow's elite is unprofessional and stupid. The loss of the Warsaw Pact and 14 former USSR constituent republics have always been much larger pills to swallow. But, they are swallowed.

Posted by: andrew_romeo | July 8, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

OBAMA EMBARRASSES THE USA

just send Hillary, she will READ the briefing book and know the name of the President of Russia.

Obama--Stuck on stupid

Posted by: JaxMax | July 8, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Three things:

1) Nothing Obama did or said was out of line.

2) If there was a chilly reception, I'd chalk it up to racist attitudes in Russia, which, beleive me, prevail there.

3) Without first-hand knowledge of Obama's reception in russia, I chalk this article up to WaPo's ongoing effort to take Obama down. Obama's not playing ball with the neocon zionists, so they're going to do everything they can in the press to hurt him.

Posted by: kurthunt | July 8, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Obama will need to get educated on the world before he makes any sense to other rulers!!

The world is laughing at naive Obama. It is a pathetic example of a man with no experience in anything -- accept knocking on doors in South Chicago!!

We are in for some big trouble with this faux President!!


Posted by: hotdad14 | July 8, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Big deal. Spend some time in Russia and see what THEY say about US. We don't have to kiss their butts.

Posted by: allknowingguy | July 8, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Russians are pathetically anti-Semitic and homophobic, so being racist too is not a surprise.

Posted by: paris1969 | July 8, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

In my experience the Russian people are pretty thick skinned, able to take opinions as much as give them. Most people also have a very good sense of humor, and anyone Obama deals with will have an international cultural sophistication firmly based in Eurasian history. Anyone familiar with the country will understand its deep wells of pride, and determination to play a strategic role in international affairs.

I am disappointed to read that Obama decided to sit out his second night in Moscow in his hotel. Russians place great weight on showing hospitality. It was an opportunity missed, and a mistake. He was there on business. In Russia business means dinners.

Posted by: bobfonow | July 8, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

WEll, it was an "imperialist" sort of comment, hard to believe, given our President's much touted "cultural sensitivity." On the other hand, I could not help but thinking he might have offered Gov. Palen as reparations....

Posted by: Farnaz1Mansouri1 | July 8, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse

one of the really stupidest articles the Post has published.

Posted by: dudh | July 8, 2009 9:08 PM | Report abuse

Obama has turned out to be such a stinking disapointment on so many levels.

Posted by: georgejones5 | July 8, 2009 9:54 PM | Report abuse

I lived in Russia for some years, made some good Russian friends, but also must join with others in this thread in pointing out that Russians can be racist. Hey, but read some of the comment threads to WaPo's articles on Obama, and you'll find no shortage of good old-fashioned, home-grown U.S. racism as well. At least I never heard Russians refer to Black folk as "monkeys", as readers of the Post have.

Posted by: alloleo | July 8, 2009 9:58 PM | Report abuse

Stromberg: "...the ethnic Russian teacher explained that the military action wasn’t the only thing Russians wanted the United States to roll back. Alaska, she said to my astonishment, should be Russia’s again. “We are hoping,” she said earnestly, explaining that this could be a way to deepen trust and respect between Cold War rivals...it strikes (sic) of the Russian preoccupation with their unnecessary geopolitical ambitions "

chopin224: "Typical old Soviet style thinking."

Did Putin ask Obama for Alaska? Did Medvedev? Has any Russian official ever hinted to any US official that Russia might like Alaska back?

No, no and no.

But some batty old teacher once allegedly said it within Stromberg's hearing. Thereby setting off a riff about Russia's "unnecessary geopolitical ambitions".

With extrapolation like that, imagine the hay foreign pundits could make out of all those American rednecks who keep saying things like "nuke Mecca", "turn (insert country here) into a glass parking lot", etc.

As for "unnecessary geopolitical ambitions", since the end of the Cold War America has built bases in Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia, Kazkhstan, Iraq and Afghanistan. They also want to put missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland.

How many bases have the Russians built in the Western hemisphere? Er, zero.

Posted by: Bud0 | July 8, 2009 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Stromberg is Swedish for mountain stream. Not a "picker of nits".

Posted by: mnarchitecturefreak | July 8, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

No doubt the chilly reception was the result of Obama's failure to bow. After all, it's been done before.

Posted by: ddnfla | July 8, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

Re Obama's staying in the hotel on Tuesday evening, rather than enjoying Russian hospitality:

1. Obama did spend time with President Medvedev and his family--even met Medvedev's son, about whom the Russian public knows nothing.

2. More importantly, remember that Moscow is 8 hours later than Washington, DC. The "rule of thumb" is that it takes one DAY for each hour difference to get over jetlag.

I fly back and forth to Russia three or four times a year for extended stays, an 11-hour time difference from my Silicon Valley home. And while I'm there, I often have guests from the US.

As much as one can try to overcome the time change by sheer willpower, it does not work: The second day it's the rare person who doesn't feel like s&*t and want to collapse.

I think it was wise for Obama's schedulers to leave that evening free of official events so that he could get some rest and avoid situations in which "jetlag brain" would be unfortunate.

Posted by: spbphil | July 8, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

Stromberg appears to represent some kind of fringe view of what is important in international politics. At the time of the sale of Alaska to the USA, most observers would have agreed that the Czar got top price for his worthless "ice box."

Posted by: gargoyle22 | July 8, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm trying to remember the cheering Russian crowds welcoming George. W. Bush.

So Mr. Stromberg heard one teacher say Alaska should be Russian again. I've heard southerners say the south should be a separate nation. Doesn't mean the whole country feels that way.

This article is just silly.

Posted by: arancia12 | July 8, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

Clearly those in charge of Russian affairs on Obama's team don't really understand Russia. What sounds cool and funny in English may not translate that well.

My fellow Russians are a skeptical bunch. Talk is cheap; promises and assurances were made by Bush I, Clinton and Bush II. Pres. Obama may mean well, but is he willing to take real steps to address Russia's concerns about missile defense and the ever-growing US military presence on her borders? It is not about good intentions, it is about hardware capabilities.
Phrases like "projection of US power" and "US global leadership" are commonly used by US politicians and commanders, what else do other countries need to be suspicious?

Posted by: Obsrvr | July 8, 2009 11:45 PM | Report abuse

Stromberg wrote:"Or it could be just plain racism, a nasty problem even on the streets of cosmopolitan Moscow."

It's very likely due to the Russians' racism against our black President Obama. Non-White foreigners are routinely attacked and killed by Neo-Nazi Russian skinheas with silent support of the Russian authority.

Posted by: Mickey2 | July 9, 2009 12:20 AM | Report abuse

He shouldn't have skipped the dinner, and should have spent breakfast with his family instead. This was a bigger blunder than is being appreciated here.

Posted by: Nicester | July 9, 2009 3:03 AM | Report abuse

Aliaska was not sold, it was rented for 99 years. At first at least. I don`t quite remember how this bargan was complete.

Posted by: IWH_rus | July 9, 2009 3:17 AM | Report abuse

Neither the French nor the Russians can complain, since they both offered their respective territories to us without being asked. In both cases, the seller was (justifiably) afraid of losing the territory to Great Britain (Napoleon was getting ready to break the truce with Britain, and Russia had recently fought the Crimean War against both Britain and France).

In any event, if the Russians press for Alaska, we might just support the Chinese in the repeal of the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, by which the Tsar "appropriated" everything north of the Amur River from China, essentially the entire Russian Far East. Do'svedanya Vladivostok!!!

Posted by: fdbetancor | July 9, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I am not persuaded that Obama committed a gaffe. "The president joked to a group of Russian businessmen about how Czar Alexander II gave America “a pretty good deal on Alaska,” which the United States bought from Imperial Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million in gold."

1867 was approximately 150 years ago (7-8 generations). Imperial Russia no longer is the governing body. The era of Czars is long past. And of course, the America of 1867 is long past, surviving our own revolutions and civil war.

The world economy does not trade in gold these days, but rather currency, and oil barrels.

The gaffe here is made by Stromberg who scratches in dirt.

Posted by: rmorris391 | July 9, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Voted twice for Bush, even though he was something of an empty shirt. Better than no shirt at all.

Osama Obama is the worst thing we've had since Jimmy Carter and FDR.

Right now, the media is kow-tauing to idiot, out of political correctness. This guy has accomplished exaclty nothing in his political life other than rabble rousing.

Sounds like Hitler all over again.

Posted by: ssmorehouse | July 12, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

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