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Sunday, April 24

Russia: A stitch in time, and Foul Weather Friends grace Pundita with a visit

"Pundita! PLEASE answer this letter! I've said it before I'll say it again Putin needs a publicity agent although I think I'm beginning to think he needs a psychologist or maybe one of those motivational self-esteem courses. He lets Condi get away with talking all kinds of trash about him and Russia then he gets sarcastic behind her back. I know from sales work I'd have no customers if I didn't get out there and defend my product. What's wrong with him?
PS: I sent you a chocolate cake to cheer you up since your team's deserted you. The post office better not blow up that package or I'll write the inspector general or someone but I think they have my name on a list now.
[Signed] Reasonably Rested in St. Louis"

Dear RRISL:
Pundita does not have a crystal ball and I've never been to Russia but I would hazard the guess that Putin's problem, as you perceive it, is not psychological but cultural. From my conversations with Russians, my impression is that the males in particular tend to see explanation and 'selling' one's points, of the amount and kind we take for granted in this country, as a sign of weakness or begging--and maybe even a hustle.

Realize that Russians don't have a marketplace, sales-oriented tradition--or even a strong entrepreneurial tradition. Well, let's stop beating around the bush; they don't have much of a tradition as a 'business' culture.

I remember that Putin's idea of selling himself as a leader during his election campaign was to demonstrate judo throws. Granted, John Kerry killed a goose for no other reason than to sell himself as a Regular Guy. But he did a lot of other things as well to sell himself. We in this country understand the profound connection between sales and politics--or maybe Americans created the connection. Anyhow, selling is our way.

Now one could say that Russia has their own way and leave them to it. But here is where the Russians, including Putin, are getting tripped up. The Oligarchs who are trying to take back the Russian government have hired American marketing firms and publicity agents--of the kind who make the salesman in The Music Man look like a hayseed. They've put millions of US dollars into the effort.

If Pundita recalls, it was you who suggested several months ago that Putin hire one of those slick marketing firms, or maybe it was my suggestion, to improve his image with Americans. At the time I thought of the suggestion as a joke but it's beginning to look as if Russia-US relations are depending on Putin's ability to get out his message better. And maybe we need to do some cross-marketing because many Russians are bristling about all the bad press they're getting in America.

In short, there's a communication breakdown and the Oligarchs and their marketing experts have made hay with it. So let's look at what's behind the communications problem:

I think Russians tend to view Americans as shallow in their political views, anti-intellectual. I'd say that's a fair complaint in many cases but it overlooks the two major reasons for the shallowness.

First, Americans are the busiest people in the world. We work longer hours and more days of the year than people any other culture--and if I recall that includes the Japanese.

Second, this is a process-oriented, problem-solving culture: Define the problem in three sentences or less and your ideas for fixing it. We're a highly inventive, 'tinkering' culture and we worship the Do-it-yourself approach.

I think many educated Russians tend to look down on that approach as peasantry. I think that was the case for many in West Europe, as well, even during the post WW2 era. But they became more process-oriented during the past few decades. I think the Russians, by-and-large, are still catching up in that area because they were greatly isolated from the rest of the world while the Iron Curtain was up.

Put these two factors together, and they add up to the need to do hard selling to get the full attention of working Americans. That is if you want us to stop everything and chew over highly intellectual concepts. But once Americans decide to scare up some time to study a situation, we're as capable as any other people of understanding history and highly abstract concepts. Even so, there is still a cultural gap.

Russians will go on and on and on about a situation...then when you ask, "Okay, what do you want to do to solve that problem?" they say, "I've been telling you for the last five hours there is no solution. It's been this way for a thousand years and will remain so."

In America, you tell that to your boss and get fired. In Russia, you're offered a post at a university.

To wrap things up, I put your question to the team, who found time in their busy schedule to call a policy meeting. This was during a wild thunderstorm and heavy rains that blanketed the region yesterday. They enjoyed the cake, by the way, which the postman thoughtfully placed in the garage while I was out shopping. The crumbs I saw on my return looked delicious.

The possum had an interesting fix on the situation, after I showed her a picture of Putin. She asked why his tribal markings were exactly the same as American if he wasn't American.

Maybe it would help everyone remember that we are still a long way from being one clan if officials wore a national costume during formal meetings with officials from other nations. It might help both sides keep in mind that there are still vast differences in the interpretation of many things, even if virtually everyone wears Western-style business suits as their normal attire.

Now here is our Russia lesson for the day. Pundita discovered last week that ZenPundit is a Russia expert. This discovery came after I informed Mark that he was the recipient of a Pundita Prize for his pithy essay,Weimar Russia and the Abyss, which lays it on the line about Russia. Pundita especially liked the bulleted points.

Mark's follow-up, Debating Russia's Discorporation,
written in response to a reader's comments, is also helpful--particularly on the eve of Putin's address to the Russian nation and in the wake of Secretary Rice's visit.
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