MOSCOW — Barack Obama came to the Russian capital this week with a very different message from the ones George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice gave the Russians over the last few years.
The superstar president talked of "resetting" relations, a new start, a new respect for Russia. He went out of his way to appeal to Russian hearts and minds, massaging bruised and prickly egos by admiring Russian achievements in the arts and sciences. He heralded Russian sacrifices in World War II (60 years on, Russians are still in a permanent state of fury that "Americans don't realize that we made the decisive contribution"). He even quoted Alexander Pushkin, Russia's favorite literary icon.
So, how was this historic visit of the world's most famous person greeted in Russia? Wall to wall media coverage? Russians lining the route of the Obama cortege? A buzz of excitement in the Moscow air?
Hardly. The newspapers have been packed with reports and analysis of the summit, but most Russians get their news from the state-run television. The day before Obama's arrival, his impending visit didn't even make the news. His keynote speech on Tuesday was not broadcast live on the main state channels, and the highlights on the evening news were given roughly the same amount of time as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's outing to visit a group of Hell's Angels-style Russian bikers. A news conference with President Dmitry Medvedev was broadcast live, but the main state sports channel scheduled a rerun of a controversial soccer match to coincide with it, as if to draw viewers away.
Nowhere was Obama greeted with the sort of adulation that he has received on previous foreign trips — few ordinary Russians lurked around venues in hopes of glimpsing the president. It seemed that his visit didn't capture public imagination at all.
I carried out an impromptu survey on a busy central Moscow street on Tuesday evening, asking 10 random people of various ages what they thought about President Obama and his visit to Moscow. Utterly unscientific, of course, but interesting nonetheless.
"It's good that he came here; it shows that he cares about Russia. Hopefully both sides will be able to compromise and our relations will improve," said Dmitry Smirnov, a 25-year-old language student. That was the most intelligent response. Three of the 10 interviewees didn't even know that Obama was in Moscow, while four of them knew but expressed no particular opinion on the event.
One elderly lady said that whatever happened life would still be bad and presidential negotiations were of no interest to her. And a young man who refused to give his name giggled and told me it was funny that Americans think their country is a world leader when really they should be humiliated for having a black leader. (Obama's race here is usually a source for sniggers, or worse, rather than inspiration — his portrait adorns advertisements for tanning salons, and an ice cream company launched an advert a few months back depicting a black Obama in front of the White House to advertise a new chocolate and vanilla flavored ice cream)
This indifference to geopolitics is hardly new.
On the day after Obama's election victory, when the world's media could talk about nothing else, virtually none of the Russian newspapers ran the story on their front page. In Kommersant, one of Russia's freest and most reliable newspapers, which is read by most of the business and political elite, Obama's victory wasn't even the top international story — that was reserved for a meeting that had taken place between the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine.
When I wrote an entry about this on a blog that a Russian magazine had asked me to write, I was told that the blog editor thought that Kommersant covered international events perfectly well, thank you very much, and that she had decided not to run my blog entry because she thought it was nonsense.
There's no doubt that Russia's political elite regarded the visit as hugely important, but the state media had clearly been ordered to downplay the visit and succeeded in leaving ordinary Russians distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps those in charge worried that if Russians start to become engaged in geopolitics, engagement in their own domestic political situation could follow.