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In Russia, Obama’s Star Power Does Not Translate
07-09-2009, 11:40 PM, (This post was last modified: 07-09-2009, 11:42 PM by ---.)
In Russia, Obama’s Star Power Does Not Translate
July 8, 2009
In Russia, Obama’s Star Power Does Not Translate

MOSCOW — Let other capitals go all weak-kneed when President Obama visits. Moscow has greeted Mr. Obama, who on Tuesday night concluded a two-day Russian-American summit meeting, as if he were just another dignitary passing through.

Crowds did not clamor for a glimpse of him. Headlines offered only glancing or flippant notice of his activities. Television programming was uninterrupted; devotees of the Russian Judge Judy had nothing to fear. Even many students and alumni of the Western-oriented business school where Mr. Obama gave the graduation address on Tuesday seemed merely respectful, but hardly enthralled.

“We don’t really understand why Obama is such a star,” said Kirill Zagorodnov, 25, one of the graduates. “It’s a question of trust, how he behaves, how he positions himself, that typical charisma, which in Russia is often parodied. Russians really are not accustomed to it. It is like he is trying to manipulate the public.”

Others suggested that after decades of social turmoil, Russians were simply exhausted with politics, and had been so often disappointed by Western leaders that they were not inclined to get excited by the latest one. Asked by one Moscow newspaper what they expected to come out of Mr. Obama’s visit, most respondents had the same answer: traffic jams.

Some Obama aides said they were struck by the low-key reception here, especially when compared with the outpouring on some of his other foreign trips. Even Michelle Obama, who typically enjoys admiring coverage in the local news media when she travels, has not had her every move chronicled here.

In the background is the question of race, which Russians view through a complicated prism. For decades, Soviet propaganda hammered home the idea that the United States was an irredeemably racist country, as opposed to the Communist bloc nations. But Russia in recent years has been plagued by racist violence against people from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, as well as other immigrants.

Yet many young Russians, like David Zokhrabian, 21, who recently received a graduate degree in international relations from Moscow State University, said Mr. Obama’s race cut both ways. “Students in Moscow, they are pretty positive about this,” he said. “It’s cool, modern, progressive. All the students know American history, they know about segregation, so it shows us about democracy, how it can be.”

But the same cannot be said for average Russians, he said, adding: “It looks weird to them. They just think that America has gone crazy.”

Many here noted that Russia went through an enthusiastic phase with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, when Russians were reaching out to Americans. Mr. Clinton conducted a town hall meeting in Moscow that was broadcast across Russia (and featured a woman in the audience jumping up and hugging Mr. Clinton on camera).

By contrast, Mr. Obama’s speech on Tuesday, billed as his third major foreign policy address after speeches in Cairo and Prague, was not shown live on any of the major Russian channels, to the White House’s disappointment.

Mr. Obama used the speech, at the New Economic School, to declare that Russia and the United States “share common interests.” The Kremlin tightly controls Russian television, and it was not clear why officials chose to disregard the speech.

They may have believed that there would be little public interest, or they may not have wanted to provide Mr. Obama with unfettered access to the country, which might have allowed him to overshadow Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin or President Dmitri A. Medvedev.

Tom Malinowski, who was a speechwriter for Mr. Clinton, said Russian audiences were always the toughest to connect with.

“It is a jaded political culture that has had a very hard experience with a system that professed universal idealism while delivering unbearable suffering,” said Mr. Malinowski, now Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Some degree of cynicism about high-minded ideals is a natural outcome of that.”

He said Mr. Obama’s facility with language gives him the ability to talk around governments directly to people. Mr. Obama, he said, has the talent to “do that in every part of the world, except possibly Russia.”

Sergei Brilev, a top television anchor at Rossiya, the state-owned national channel, said that Mr. Obama’s oratory might not translate well into Russian. He recalled that when he watched Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo with dubbing in Russian, he found it lackluster. It was only when Mr. Brilev, who speaks polished English, saw the original that he realized what all the fuss was about.

Russians tend to view Mr. Obama not so much with hostility as with indifference. “Despite Russia becoming part of the rest of the world in the last 5 or 10 years,” Mr. Brilev said, “the interesting thing about Russia is that so many things which fascinate the American and European publics are Page 26 stuff here.”

After relations with the United States curdled in the final years of President George W. Bush’s tenure, many people here were relieved by Mr. Obama’s election. But that does not necessarily mean they are overly optimistic about his pledge to improve ties.

Valery Kanishev, 68, a designer for the state circus company, said he was pleased that Mr. Obama had brought his children with him to Russia. But Mr. Kanishev said Mr. Obama’s address on Tuesday would not get him far with many older Russians, who grew weary of political speeches after enduring the wooden recitations of Leonid I. Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader.

In Soviet times, speeches were composed by committees, Mr. Kanishev said, “10 or 12 people who would drink a glass of cognac and then put something together.”

“Russians are the smartest people in the world,” he said. “The main thing is results. Our people don’t trust anyone.”

Younger people were generally more welcoming. Oksana Sytnova, 24, graduated first in her class at the New Economic School, an honor that was particularly sweet because Mr. Obama presented it to her at the graduation on Tuesday.

“For my generation, he is a very attractive politician,” Ms. Sytnova said. “And today’s speech showed that.”

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