Russia Through Asian Eyes

After finishing my trip to Russia around 5 weeks ago, I headed onwards to six other Asian countries and made the most of my summer holidays. I first took in Japan then onwards to South Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Aside from relaxing and doing all the fun things that you’d expect on a holiday, I tried to keep an eye out for any sort of Russian presence in these countries and to ask the locals what they thought about the country. As with my time in Russia this amounted to a handful of people in each place, but I think the feedback I got is the starting point for a better understanding of exactly how Russia is viewed by the average citizen in these countries and how far away Russia is from achieving its goal of a greater presence in Asia.

The Asian leg of my journey began in Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido prefecture and home of the Hokkaido Slavic-Eurasian Research Centre. At the airport things looked promising; as well as having signs written in Japanese and English, they also had directions in Russian. After I left the airport however, that was virtually the last I would hear of Russia beyond the university. English was ubiquitous in transport areas, and some of the locals spoke English, but I didn’t hear a single word in Russian. Despite this it was a great honour to meet the staff and students at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Centre, with my trip very fortunately coinciding with an end of year BBQ that I was invited along to! There was a range of research projects amongst the group, and researchers from a variety of backgrounds, and it was good to see Russia receiving at least some academic focus at the university. It seemed that very few focused on the Russian Far East, aside from some continuing research on the Kuril Islands dispute, suggesting that the region still has much to do to capture the imagination of foreign scholars. Overall it was good to meet fresh faces who focus on Russia, and with any luck it won’t be my last visit to the institute. After this I was able to meet some other citizens of the city, but they knew little of Russia. One girl had met some Russians before and noted that once she got to know them they were great people, friendly, dependable, great sense of humour, but of the country and its development she knew little. She knew vaguely that the Kuril Islands were disputed, but felt that her own generation cared far less about it than older ones, and was not too concerned if territorial claims were dropped. Carrying on my trip in Japan to Tokyo, I was hoping for at least some more awareness of Russia, but none was forthcoming. Once a day I might hear some Russian words from tourists, but nothing more. I spoke with an older businessman who confessed he had little idea about Russia and had read only one Russian novel when he was younger. I spoke with a group in their 20s and 30s who occasionally met a tourist from Russia, but had never had the desire to visit Russia for themselves. For them it was a cold place all year round, far away, with little to do or see. For some it was even a dangerous place as any news they heard about it was invariably negative.

After Japan I moved on to Seoul in South Korea, and yet the same familiar answers were to be found, even amongst some European expats. For all of them Russia was a country that existed on the news, not something they came across in their everyday lives. Oil, wars and cold weather were common stereotypes to be found amongst Russians, and there was no presence of Russian goods, companies or the language in public places. No-one knew of any Russian restaurants or bars, Russian goods, Russian companies, Russian residents…undoubtedly there were some tourists, but not so many to be a common sight. Journeying next through The Philippines and Indonesia brought no change, though I must say I didn’t visit places like Bali or Cebu which may have had more Russian tourists. The most promising lead I had was the Pochta Rossii symbol on a restaurant in Davao, but the waitress informed me it was just a random picture the owner had found and thought would look cool as a decoration. In Jakarta I managed to meet one girl who thought Putin was the sexiest thing to happen to the world in a long time, though she was most certainly an outlier. Indeed it was only a short time before my flight to Singapore that I started to get a few messages from the people I had met in Asia about Russia, regarding the MH17 flight going down over Eastern Ukraine. The impression they had, after the initial shock and confusion, was that Russia had deliberately shot down the plane over a Russian region called Eastern Ukraine. I had to clarify the geography and nature of the civil war in the Ukraine to make them aware that Russia was not shooting down civilian airliners, but at times it was difficult as their news was mostly recycled into their own language from western media outlets, which have shown since the event that they are heavily invested in blaming Russia for the tragedy. Unfortunately I was unable to read websites and media in the local languages for myself, so whether Russian statements were given full coverage I can’t say.

After reaching Singapore I noticed a definite increase in the amount of Russian language I heard; still not much, but it seemed to have some popularity as a tourist place, particularly amongst Asian-looking Russian speakers. It was here that I thought I’d hit the jackpot and finally found a Russian bar, with a street of bars and restaurants apparently having one called ‘Rasputin’. Alas when I got there, despite the street being lively and all the bars open, Rasputin’s was closed. Permanently or temporarily I don’t know for sure, but perhaps it was appropriate to find it closed after seeing so little Russian presence up until then. From there I finished my journey in Malaysia, where discussion was understandably still focused on MH17 and what exactly happened to the aircraft. As with the other Asian countries I visited, Russia was cast in a negative light by the media stories being filtered through, and people were interested to know if, as a researcher of Russia, I could confirm if it was all true. I may have given those few a clearer overview of the situation, but that still leaves hundreds of millions of more who hear a very one-sided of interpretation of Russia being presented in the media.

What then can I take from my trip across six Asian countries, and Russia’s presence there? For one, it’s almost non-existent to the point of being damaging. There was little or no knowledge about what Russia is, about its territorial presence in Asia, and what the country stands for. On a soft power level there was no Russian food, Russian drinks, Russian bars and restaurants, consumer goods…no Russian anything. Even the vodka on sale was usually Scandinavian or European rather than Russian! News was generally coming through western outlets, meaning that if someone did take an interest they would generally meet a wall of negative propaganda about the country. Russian tourism in Asia seems to be focused most prominently in resort areas given the lack of any information and signage in Russian throughout tourist sights and hotels. All of the above is a worrying sign if Russia is serious about making a presence in Asia. Ask people around the world about Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines…there’s a good chance you’ll hear at least one thing positive, whether it’s the holiday resorts, the food, the people, the technology, the sunshine or the culture. Wherever the natives of these countries go, they take part of their culture and offer it to the host country. Russia needs to offer something positive about itself to Asian countries, not just from the government but from businesses and citizens as well. Pick a country and you’ll find an Irish pub there, but chances are you’ll not find a Russian one. It’s hard to say if there are bureaucratic problems that prevent such moves, or if Russian businesses lack the drive and ambition to expand and take a chance abroad. But if it wants to be part of the Asian development story, and develop its own Far East, something has to change in that attitude. A greater Russian news presence and a greater Russian cultural presence are possible beginnings of that. Make a person interested in your story and they might just pay you a visit and try your borshcht.