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Anatoly Antonov

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation (RF) to the United States of America, RIAC Member.

The amount of Russophobia in the U.S. media has been unprecedented in recent years. While anti-Russian rhetoric is employed for internal political struggles in the United States, from time to time this propaganda campaign reaches absurd levels, spilling over into areas that have little to do with politics.

The amount of Russophobia in the U.S. media has been unprecedented in recent years. While anti-Russian rhetoric is employed for internal political struggles in the United States, from time to time this propaganda campaign reaches absurd levels, spilling over into areas that have little to do with politics.

An example, a recent article by Graham Bowley in The New York Times implies a Russophobic theory based on totally unrelated facts. Russian culture is portrayed as a powerful tool of the Kremlin to manipulate U.S. public opinion and burnish the image of Russia. He references Fort Ross State Historic Park in California, which was renovated by the State of California and now receives budgetary support, as a part of some Russian operation with a sinister motive. His allegations have been substantiated by zero evidence. Like most people, we do not understand these speculations.

Russian culture and science, that found their way to the U.S. shores through exchanges or immigration, couldn’t help but have an impact on America’s development. But was it a negative impact? Or have there been many positive influences on the U.S. as a result of Russian cultural exchanges, ranging from musical masterpieces, ballet, art and scientific breakthroughs. We suggest taking a more factual look at the issue. 

Experience teaches us that a lack of mutual trust and respect is a road to nowhere. Even during the Cold War, politicians understood the necessity to develop cultural, educational and scientific contacts between our two nations. In 1958, the USSR and the U.S. signed a document which later became known as the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement. It provided for exchanges in science, technology, agriculture, medicine, healthcare, radio and television, cinema, sports, tourism, culture and art exhibitions. The Agreement was signed, to a great extent, due to President Dwight Eisenhower’s desire to promote people-to-people contacts between our two countries which he considered as a “one fine, progressive step toward peace in the world”. The U.S. leadership understood that developing cooperation with the Soviet Union in culture, education, science and technology would bring benefits to all Americans.

Cultural ties became one of the most notable results of bilateral diplomacy in those years. Since the end of the 1950s, the U.S. audience got to know such prominent groups as the Igor Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble, as well as the Bolshoi and Kirov (now – Mariinsky) ballets. The American impresario Sol Hurok, who had also introduced Feodor Chaliapin, Anna Pavlova and Isadora Duncan to the U.S. public, played a major role here. Thanks to their performances, our faraway and mysterious country became closer and more understandable to the American public.

It must be noted that Russian culture came to the New World long before the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement. Few people in the U.S. are unfamiliar with the works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov. In the 1900s, Leo Tolstoy was among the best-selling writers in the U.S., and thankful fans sent hundreds of letters to his country residence in Yasnaya Polyana. The novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy continue to be very popular in the U.S., while works by Chekhov, Turgenev or Solzhenitsyn are frequently among the assigned readings for students at American high schools today. Hollywood stars like Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and others owe their success, in part, to Chekhov’s nephew Mikhail Chekhov, who was an actor and educator. Is there anyone from the U.S. theatrical and movie industry who has never heard of the Stanislavsky system?

There are countless musical examples of cultural exchange as well. In 1891, the genius Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, whose masterpieces were already well-known in the U.S., was welcomed with standing ovations at Carnegie Hall. Back then nobody considered his performances to be part of some “malign intent” from the Russian Empire. Hardly anyone ever cared about the origin of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture which is played annually at Independence Day festivities across the U.S. Many Americans never give much thought to the fact that it was a Russian composer who wrote the music to everyone’s holiday favorite “The Nutcracker”. Does anyone really see in that or any other ballet, brought by the Bolshoi theater over half a century ago, some ideological motive similar to what Mr. Bowley insinuates? 

According to the logic of the article, all Russian culture should be banned, since it diverts attention from the never-ending flow of disinformation about Russia.

Hopefully, the American people will not place a taboo on books by Russian authors or music by Russian composers. If American orchestras stop playing masterpieces by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich, their repertoire will become significantly poorer. How many Americans know that Irving Berlin, who wrote the God Bless America, was born in Russia? Should that song be banned as well? 

Every year tours of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters are eagerly awaited by American lovers of art, with tickets to their performances sold out far in advance. Packed theaters and concert halls roar with applause and appreciation. Residents in all parts of the United States respect, love and cherish Russian culture and its contributions to the arts.

It might be helpful for the article’s author to know that performances of our artists are organized and handled by U.S. concert halls on their own, with no “Kremlin” or “Russian oligarchs”, as he puts it, involved. People who buy tickets – ordinary citizens – understand that these performances are not about some “Russian conspiracy”, but rather about getting to know world culture, with Russian heritage as an integral part.

There are so many more cultural and scientific contributions that the article’s author has not seemed to consider. Russian scientist Vladimir Zvorykin laid the foundation for color television in the U.S.; the helicopter industry is based primarily on the prototypes of Igor Sikorsky; high-octane petroleum was first produced by Russian chemist Vladimir Ipatiev. Russian engineer Alexander Poniatoff, who moved to the U.S., became famous for creating the first videotape recorder. Would anyone seriously suggest giving up these blessings of civilization simply because they were invented by Russian immigrants?

Modern America is still home to many Russian scientists. U.S. companies and research centers have been seeking to hire Russian specialists for many years, especially in hard sciences. Many have joined the Russian-speaking Academic Science Association of America and continue to contribute significantly to the technological development of this country. There’s hardly any discrimination against them for their “Russian” origin.  

Similarly, no one in Russia intends to ban Hollywood movies, American jazz and pop music. Cultural cooperation, scientific and other humanitarian ties not only bring the worldviews of people from different countries closer together, but also mutually enrich them. Moreover, such “conflict-free” areas of cooperation help build foundations for dialogue in other areas. Russians and Americans have more in common than one might think.

On the other hand, cultural disagreements can adversely affect ordinary citizens. For instance, for almost 10 years Americans have been deprived of the opportunity to enjoy Russian artwork and world masterpieces from Russian state museums. This situation stems from a lack of an inter-governmental agreement for protection of cultural objects during exhibition exchanges. Who suffers from it? The visitors to U.S. museums, no doubt. Such cultural barriers should never exist between us. 

Citizens of both countries should have an opportunity to get acquainted with the uniqueness and diversity of each other’s cultures. It is especially important for our young generations as well. Only through frequent and authentic cultural exchanges can they develop their own – stereotype-free – perceptions of each other. And most importantly – shape common values necessary for ensuring a safe and prosperous future for the entire world. Russia and the U.S. as the largest nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, bear a special responsibility for this.

The mutual isolation that has gripped Russia-U.S. politics and economic issues should not now be extended to our cultural relations as well. It is important to stop seeking political expediency and consider both countries’ long-term interests. Everyone benefits from greater cultural understanding between our two nations, now and far into the future.

Source: The Washington Times

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