On January 12th, 2023, Dmitry Polikanov, Deputy Head of Rossotrudnichestvo, gave an extensive interview to Mikhail Kurakin, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Journal.
Mikhail Kurakin: Rossotrudnichestvo is often regarded as Russian soft power abroad. Now, after the start of the military operation, soft power has become too difficult to exercise, hasn’t it?
Dmitry Polikanov: It sure has, but the good news is that Russian Houses are still open in European countries. People come there, we hold cultural events, despite the economic sanctions. We did have a difficult time in Spring, even life threatening, and that was when we had to go online. Now, however, our work is offline, including the Russian language courses. It was good that the language learners did not quit the courses.
Mikhail Kurakin: We also remember the expulsion of the Russian diplomats from European countries: the Baltic countries, Czech Republic, Bulgaria…
Dmitry Polikanov: We did lose a few offices because of the mass expulsions, but that was a minority.
Mikhail Kurakin: Rossotrudnichestvo and Russian Houses are centers of culture and science abroad. Nevertheless, there exists a prejudice that the Russian Houses are not about soft power, but about a soft berth; that people arrange an event or two per month for form's sake, compatriots gather to drink tea, and it does not get us anywhere. How would you comment on that?
Dmitry Polikanov: I must admit, over the past couple of years we had to reshuffle our teams and review our programs to make them more efficient. We regard the Houses’ outreach as the main efficiency criterion. Of course we are always glad to welcome our compatriots, but we want to welcome foreigners from among local residents, the local youth, too. Young people take no interest in tea parties or watching presentations. They need more online involvement (to meet these needs, we have specifically trained our employees in social networking). We also understand that our offline events have to be exciting enough to make people want to come again.
We cannot expect an immediate result. Humanitarian effort is long-term. If you hammer away at the same point long enough, in a decade perhaps you will reap the benefit of seeing positive attitude to your country and readiness to cooperate.
Mikhail Kurakin: It has become problematic to work in the West, but the West is not the entire world. What about Asia, Africa and Latin America?
Dmitry Polikanov: We are redirecting our activity towards Africa, Latin America and the near abroad. People in these regions show interest in education in Russia. Next year, 30 thousand students will come to study in Russia free of charge, using the governmental quotas. Every year, we raise the quota. The competition for the free places is high. The current difficult international situation is, in this case, a blessing in disguise for our universities: students that were previously interested in education in Europe are now turning to us.
Mikhail Kurakin: What practical steps should a person take to apply for a state-funded place? Is it about coming to the Russian embassy, or a Russian cultural center, or filing an online application? Who are the competitors for free Russian education?
Dmitry Polikanov: “Education in Russia” is the name of an electronic platform where applicants may upload their documents. (https://education-in-russia.com). It describes every step an applicant should take, as well as the available universities. A person files his/her application on the platform, our colleagues see the application and invite the person to an interview. At the interview they check his/her knowledge of some subjects. The whole bulk of information about the applicant is then sent to the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry distributes potential students across universities.
Medical education is stably in high demand. Then go agriculture, engineering, the humanities. The average annual number of foreign students is 300,000. When they return to their home countries, they make careers, take up high posts thanks to the Russian education. Admittedly, most of them do not get state-funded places, but the education fees, dormitory rent and are the living costs much lower in Russia than in European or US universities, while education standards are high.
Another thing we should promote is secondary education, i.e. schooling, because we observe growing demand for it abroad. For example, more and more often people from African countries prefer sending their children to a Russian school rather than, say, a French one, because they doubt whether the European values taught in European schools are right for their children. As for the Russian schools, parents can be sure they will provide good basic education as well as teach traditional values.
I hope Rossotrudnichestvo and the Ministry of Education will promote the Russian secondary education. For example, lately, Russia has built and equipped several schools in Tajikistan. Teachers are Russian and Tajik, and the curriculum is harmonized with the Russian one. We have such harmonization with Belarus. Other countries express their willingness to join.
Mikhail Kurakin: I remember when the Russian language was declared regional in Ukraine, schoolchildren in Eastern Ukraine had the opportunity to study in Russian, however, the entrance exams to all higher education institutions were in Ukrainian, which created an artificial barrier. Speaking of Ukraine, do any Russian cultural centers or representations communicate Russia’s interpretation of the current events to the population?
Dmitry Polikanov: Russian Houses and cultural centers are parts of the diplomatic mission, and they are liable to both protection and certain limitations. We focus on humanitarian problems and try not to go political.
Mikhail Kurakin: What are the priorities of Rossotrudnichestvo and Russian Houses today?
Dmitry Polikanov: Our main priority is expanding the audience. We plan to hold events like festivals – musical, gastronomical, book. In Hungary we have recently held a literature marathon. It was very popular, the place was crowded. Russian writers were the guests of the event, they made reports and then had an autograph signing session. In Kazakhstan we have recently celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations. We held several events, cultural and historical, and finally arranged a flash mob: people from different parts of Kazakhstan collectively made an art object (a multi-piece puzzle) pertaining to the ties between our countries.
Such things are difficult to forget. Our job is to give impressions, to make people want to come again, to learn more about Russia.
Mikhail Kurakin: This job requires attention to regional specificity…
Dmitry Polikanov: It does. We have Russian Houses in more than 70 countries. In each of them, our staff work with regard to regional specificity. The events they arrange are target-oriented, and made to attract particular target audience.
What do we want our guests to feel like, if we show them a film about Africa? or a film about the Great Patriotic War? What will touch home? These are the questions our staff ask themselves when planning events.
We take into account the interests of the audience, their age, and whatever is in demand. For instance, we have held a round table where we discussed the interests of the African youth. If we see that the audience is interested in contemporary Russian films and music, in sport, then we will not get much response from showing them Soviet movies or bringing the Bolshoi to them. Although Soviet movies and the Bolshoi Theater are really good, the audience will be more attracted by another content.
We work with different types of target audience and offer diverse content.
Mikhail Kurakin: What response do you get? Do people say, “Russia is returning to Africa”?
Dmitry Polikanov: II Summit Russia-Africa is expected soon, which gives an impetus for arranging more events than usual. We will put combating neo-colonialism on the agenda. It is what matters for Africans: they see how western corporations pump their countries for resources. Other things that matter are ecology, youth cooperation, women’s rights, developing NGOs, social networking. Russia has a say in all these spheres and can offer her expertise to Africa.
We are planning to expand the geography of our offices and of volunteer organizations, such as “Dobro Mission” (https://mission.dobro.ru) and “Time for the Kind” (https://vremya-dobryh.ru/en). Specialists will travel abroad and share their knowledge and experience. Importantly, we are not mentoring, we are engaging in a dialogue. We meet the demand, i.e. a receiving country expresses her needs, and we try to correspond. We tailor our teams and our projects to the specific needs of each country.
The Association of Volunteer Organizations (https://авц.рф) and we worked together in 2022 in the CIS member states and the near abroad. Now we aim to expand the geography, add Africa and Asia.
Mikhail Kurakin: When a Russian House is working abroad, it relies on contacts with the local authorities. And what about Russian NGOs? Do they have contacts with foreign NGOs?
Dmitry Polikanov: If we make a survey in the Russian missions abroad and ask them what parts of the societies in the receiving countries they communicate with, the answer will be about the three types of NGOs: Russian Friendship Societies, Unions of Compatriots and Alumni Associations. But we understand that the palette should be richer, and we set the tasks for our staff to build partnerships, to go outside capital cities, to find new audiences, find active members of society and business partners. To fulfill the task, our teams reach out to different regions and local NGOs. They do get a response from foreigners and see mutual interest.
We are growing our network. We find local activists interested in cooperating with Russia in Egypt, Algeria, Bali, Sudan, some South American countries.
Mikhail Kurakin: Not long ago the management of Rossotrudnichestvo spoke of the necessity to shift the focus to the post-Soviet space and the near abroad. Is this what is happening?
Dmitry Polikanov: Yes, judging by the budgets and the numbers of experts in this direction, the post-Soviet space is a priority. In addition, resources are being relocated from the European direction to the near abroad, where it is also easier to represent Russia as a country of many opportunities. In the near abroad, many people realize what benefits Russia can offer, they want to find a job in Russia, or to get education in Russia and then build a career in their own country. So, yes, we do work more actively in the post-Soviet space.
Mikhail Kurakin: The CIS member states are very different from each other, and the relations with them have been different, too. They must have different attitude to Russian Houses, mustn’t they?
Dmitry Polikanov: In most countries the attitude is friendly. The thing is, many countries of the near abroad are in the phase of nation building. For the past thirty years, they have been building their national identities. Our activities must not interfere with these nation building processes.
There is also the Eurasian Economic Community. It used to be the realm of economists from the member states, but now we are trying to add a humanitarian dimension to it. People need to see what interconnects us, what we have in common, in what ways we can be useful and helpful for each other. One of the things may be student and academic exchange.
Mikhail Kurakin: In the light of the recent events, are there any spurts of Russophobia in the near abroad?
Dmitry Polikanov: There are nationalists in any society. What matters, however, is how a government reacts to their wrong-doings. And in the near abroad governments suppress them. However, in the Baltic countries governments abet nationalism and Russophobia. They ban the Russian language, education in Russian. But I think they are shooting themselves in the foot: the pool of professors, teachers and scientists they had was all Russian-speaking. Soon the Baltic countries will be lacking educators.
Mikhail Kurakin: In the Baltic countries the language is being prosecuted at the governmental level, although at the mundane level Russian is in demand: people speak it in the street. Also, technical documents, manuals and guides to equipment built in the Soviet times are all in Russian. In the Baltic languages, or in Ukrainian, there are simply no equivalents for the terminology used. Attempts to “forget” Russian may even lead to industrial disasters. Do You think it possible to bring Russian back to Eastern Europe?
Dmitry Polikanov: A person’s choice to learn a language is of practical nature. The person needs a language for some practical purposes, and it motivates the learning. Those in Europe who wanted to do business with Russians, or develop tourism, or just to master an exotic language, or even to prevent Alzheimer's (it is one of my favorite examples: elderly foreigners sometimes take up Russian because it is a difficult language and it keeps the brain active), learned Russian. Economy determines the choice of a language. When Europeans are ready to trade with Russia again, they will learn the Russian language.
In Slovenia they shut down our Russian House in 2022 in violation of intergovernmental agreements. But before that, there had been many schools of Russian, and they had been in demand, mainly for the purpose of supporting tourism.
In many CIS member states Russian is still a second official language.
Mikhail Kurakin: You have mentioned the Alumni Associations of Russian/Soviet Universities. Are the Associations helpful in the day-to-day work of Russian Houses?
Dmitry Polikanov: They are. The alumni often become ambassadors or mediators of our cultural projects and other initiatives. They are also living examples to advertise the Russian education. Whenever we call for applications for the quotas for free education in Russia, we involve the alumni to promote the recruitment. The alumni come to Universities Fairs, they speak of their studying experience, of how the education received in Russia helped them build careers. They make online and offline appearances to exhibit the benefits of the Russian education.
In 2022, we launched an electronic database of the alumni to get the picture of who these people are, what they have achieved and in what spheres. The database will allow us to be more efficient and better meet the demand of foreign applicants.
Mikhail Kurakin: How do Russian Houses tailor the events to the needs of diverse target audiences?
Dmitry Polikanov: One of the criteria is the age of the target audience. We need to be interesting for people on every stage of their lives, i.e. to offer something to children, then to school leavers and potential students, and then to young professionals. That’s why we offer events for children, Education Fairs for the school leavers, in-job training for young professionals, etc. The aim is building a continuous chain of education and career.
A big annual cultural festival that attracts thousands guests is one thing, but smaller, audience-specific events are another, and perhaps more effective thing.
Speaking of big events, in Belgium they had an annual festival of the Russian culture and cuisine on the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity, which is a perfect day to promote the traditional values, and welcomed families with children to performances, to souvenir fairs, to tables with refreshments like blini. In England they had this thing, too. The festivals received thousands guests. Such mass events are necessary, since they are the easiest way to reach out to large audiences.
But smaller events are necessary, too. They ought to be more frequent, and niche-oriented. To such events we invite experts of specific subjects, for example, historians, women’s rights advocates, educators, cosmonauts, specialists knowledgeable about Russia’s latest achievements in space research, medical workers knowledgeable about the anti-COVID vaccines… well, anyone depending on the topic of a particular event. And the experts speak with the audience, explain things, give simple examples from everyday life, so people can understand that the present is based on the past, that Russia relies on a long history of achievements in different spheres.
Mikhail Kurakin: Let’s move on to sport. It seems like a good idea to open sports schools and teach sports Russians are traditionally good at, like rhythmic-sportive gymnastics, for instance, or volleyball. Does Rossotrudnichestvo work in this direction?
Dmitry Polikanov: This line has fine prospects. Some Russian Houses have sports clubs. Our compatriots are enthusiastic about them. They have ballroom dancing, chess, cyber sport, they have World Games of Young Compatriots.
Chess clubs bring together players of all ages, professions, political views, races and religions. Chess is a neutral sport, and an exciting game, and Russia has produced many Grand Masters.
Also, cyber sport is on the rise. The Russian government is planning to arrange Games of the Future in 2024, the so-called Phygital (a very prospective format uniting physical and digital activity). We are going to promote them to both compatriots and local people in different countries.
Mikhail Kurakin: In many European countries we see vandalism on the state level: desecration of war memorials, demolition of monuments associated with Russia. So, leaving out Europe, does Rossotrudnichestvo take steps to memorialize prominent Russians who came to Latin America, Asia and Africa and contributed to the development of their receiving countries?
Dmitry Polikanov: Cross-cultural projects work best. They must be equally important for Russia and the receiving country. For instance, we celebrated 800th anniversary of Alexander Nevsky, the Russian Prince who fought in the Battle on the Ice against the Teutonic knights in 1242. What can we say about him to the people of Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Peru? To sound interesting, we find an “equivalent” hero in their native culture, or some features in Alexander Nevsky’s life that would make him understandable to the local audience, like his turning from a warrior into a saint, or the weapons his army used, etc.
As for war memorials, they are the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense. We are responsible for the memorials of our other prominent compatriots. The work is not just about keeping graves and steles tidy, but about making the memory of those prominent Russians who died abroad known to the local residents. We take excursions to the memorials, place QR codes for passers-by to read information about who lies there, try to erect monuments in picturesque locations, offer interactive maps.
Mikhail Kurakin: Does Rossotrudnichestvo cooperate with the Russian Orthodox Church?
Dmitry Polikanov: We cooperate with the Department for External Church Relations. There are Orthodox missions in many countries. They have Sunday schools, they implement social projects, they arrange the Single State Exams by the Russian standards for school leavers, they offer courses of the Russian language. So, the Russian Orthodox Church is our active partner.
However, in many countries there is great interest in Russian Islam, in the Muslim culture. In Indonesia and Malaysia people show interest in martial arts popular in the Caucasus, or in traditional dancing. Russian regions Tatarstan and Bashkiria have a lot to offer in these directions, too, and we bring together potential partners.
Mikhail Kurakin: What are other forms of cooperation with the foreign audience, to name a few?
Dmitry Polikanov: Rossotrudnichestvo purchases new books in the Russian language and distributes them through Russian Houses. We try to make sure the books are distributed among the people who really need them. It can be school textbooks on different subjects, not necessarily fine literature.
There is also our joint initiative with LitRes: they make compilations of e-books that can be downloaded free of charge. There is the large National Electronic Library (https://rusneb.ru). There is the Institute for Literary Translation (https://eng.institutperevoda.ru) whose specialists translate Russian books into a lot of foreign languages aiming to promote Russian literature around the world. Sometimes it is better to offer a good translation into a foreign language and show respect to another culture than just to send books in your own language. The main thing is to let people know your literature, which is possible thanks to translations.
We are trying to find the right balance between literature in Russian and translations, between e-books and hard copies, between fine literature and books on specialized subjects, between online and offline events.
We work with bloggers and social networks, and are always glad when the number of subscribers grows.
Mikhail Kurakin: Thank You very much for the conversation, and good luck!
Dmitry Polikanov: Thank You.
Translated by Olga Tipaylova
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