It'll Take More Than PR to Lift Russia's Image

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Some countries have better reputations than they deserve. The Netherlands, for example, emerged from World War II with a nobler image than they warranted. In Poland, however, just the opposite held true. Russia today also seems to be a place whose image is worse than the reality.

Part of the problem, as always in Russia, is the weight of the past. The country can't seem to shake off the legacy of its brutality and injustice in the 19th and 20th centuries, which can be summed up in two words -- pogrom and Gulag. And so it didn't help that Vladimir Putin's presidency was littered with corpses in Shakespearean profusion. Spin and hype can't do much for that.

But what can turn things around are dramatic acts of enlightened clemency. It is an ideal time to free former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Having served half his sentence, he has the right to appeal for early release. Releasing him would win great good will for the new presidency of Dmitry Medvedev without necessarily reflecting badly on his predecessor. On the other hand, piling more years onto Khodorkovsky's sentence will only make Medvedev look weak and malicious, at best.

In a smaller gesture of enlightened largesse, the government waived the visa requirements for British fans attending a football match in Moscow in late May; a valid ticket and a passport were enough to get through the border. After something of a false start, a similar quick-footed intelligence seems to be behind the recent relaxation in issuing visas to BP employees, conveniently timed on the eve of the Group of Eight meeting in Japan. Smart moves win respect.

With some time lag, actual changes in reality bring changes in perception. Not that long ago, Moscow was known as a grim and dreary city where dumpy women stood in long lines for potatoes that would make them even dumpier. Now its image is of a rich and flashy city, resplendent with beauties and billionaires. What changed? Moscow itself.

New leaders and new policies change images. The European leaders who met with Medvedev lately sensed in him someone who has moved past the humiliations of the 1990s and the aggressive posturings it engendered in the second half of Putin's administration. Let's hope that Medvedev's recent America-bashing was intended mostly for domestic consumption, to prove he is a tough leader able to stand up to Washington.

For foreign business people, the image of Russia is a corrupt society. Medvedev's idea to use the Internet to fight corruption is, at first glance anyway, inspiring. Still, the country's appetite for graft is age-old and enormous, as Medvedev has acknowledged many times. Hackers and con artists are no doubt already busy figuring out how to siphon money out of any new online anti-corruption campaign.

Culture can improve image. A film about the Battle of Kursk -- the largest tank battle in history fought by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in July 1943 -- could remind the United States that it no more won World War II single-handedly than it did the Cold War. And it could make money.

A feature length animation based on Russian fairy tales using the Art Nouveau style of the great illustrator Ivan Bilibin could bring Russian culture to a new generation of children worldwide. And it could make money.

On the lighter side, I once took part in a blind taste test of various vodkas. Interestingly, Stolichnaya Krystal was the unanimous winner, proving that quality will out. Maybe some sort of Vodka Olympics could be organized with Stoli, Belvedere and Ketel competing in various capitals. And it could make money.

In the end, the real problem is that post-Soviet Russia still isn't sure what it wants to be. For that reason no obvious adjective like tsarist or Soviet has yet been affixed to its name. Russia is ambivalent about its own past and about which elements of the 21st-century mix it wants and in what proportion. When Russia's self-image is in sharper focus, it will be easier to burnish its image in the world.

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."