Image is all!
[b]How does Belarus position itself in the world and how do Belarusians perceive foreigners[/b]To learn about another country, it’s not enough just to visit as a tourist. You really need to live there, soaking up the atmosphere, while finding out about the traditions and people. Then, you can appreciate that we share far more than we might realise. Naturally, it’s beneficial to find something which unites us.It’s no easy task. Sadly, people often simply accept the stereotypes handed down by their ancestors. Centuries may have passed and civilisations have changed but, for some people, Rome is still associated with the Coliseum and America with cowboys, skyscrapers and Coca-Cola. When most think of Russia, they imagine bears and cold winters. It’s interesting to ponder how foreigners see Belarus, since these views shape today’s relations. Victor Shadursky, the Dean of the Belarusian State University’s International Relations Department, has trained thousands of specialists in promoting Belarus’ image abroad over the 15 years of his department’s existence.
To learn about another country, it’s not enough just to visit as a tourist. You really need to live there, soaking up the atmosphere, while finding out about the traditions and people. Then, you can appreciate that we share far more than we might realise. Naturally, it’s beneficial to find something which unites us.
It’s no easy task. Sadly, people often simply accept the stereotypes handed down by their ancestors. Centuries may have passed and civilisations have changed but, for some people, Rome is still associated with the Coliseum and America with cowboys, skyscrapers and Coca-Cola. When most think of Russia, they imagine bears and cold winters. It’s interesting to ponder how foreigners see Belarus, since these views shape today’s relations. Victor Shadursky, the Dean of the Belarusian State University’s International Relations Department, has trained thousands of specialists in promoting Belarus’ image abroad over the 15 years of his department’s existence.
Mr. Shadursky, how do you assess the work of your graduates in creating our country’s image?
The process of presenting our country continues. It takes time and isn’t yielding results as quickly as we’d like but the fruits of our labours abroad are becoming more evident with each passing year. Naturally, the creation of Belarus’ image is the work of more than one department, one year or, even, one generation. It can take centuries. Belarus has existed on the political map of the world for less than 20 years as an independent state. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with the globe’s leading powers in this way, but look at those states which have a similar background, environment, population size, and economic potential. Slovakia is a reasonable comparison.
We have a great deal in common — not only our Slavonic languages, but our similar historical path. The major ‘construction material’ for contemporary Slovak and Belarusian nations of the 19th-early 20th century were peasants, since our ruling elite used to choose the culture and language of the dominating nations for several centuries. In our case, we were given Polish and Russian culture; Hungarian and Czech culture was characteristic for Slovakia. We share this.
How else is Slovakia close to Belarus? I know that it has mountain ski resorts but our tourists still prefer the neighbouring Czech Republic…
This is because Prague has always been a larger and more famous city. In Socialist times, prominent Slovaks headed Czechoslovakia (such as the leader of the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček, who replaced Gustбv Husбk). Meanwhile, political, cultural and tourist life was concentrated in Prague. It’s difficult for Slovakia — as a new state — to claim the status of a well-known country, especially since it doesn’t boast many resources. It’s a challenge for it to conduct powerful advertising campaigns abroad or open cultural and information centres in large cities. Belarus is in a similar situation.
What do you tell those who’ve never heard of Belarus?
First of all, Belarus is a compact and comfortable country, situated at Europe’s geographical centre. Secondly, it hosts a variety of cultures and religions. Thirdly, Belarus boasts rich history and culture. However, the problem is that Belarusian lands were ruled by other states for centuries; these states had no interest in the existence of the Belarusian nation. Fourthly, most of our educated, prosperous people emigrated. Despite hardships and suffering, not to mention the destruction of WW2, our nation has survived and developed. I fully agree with the former Ambassador of the USA to Belarus, Mr. Krol, who was sincere in expressing his adoration of our country. How have Belarusians managed to survive so many wars? Many nations have passed into history, but we remain.
The best Belarus-born personalities are connected with other nations abroad: Kościuszko, Mickiewicz and Chagall, who are considered to be Polish or French…
We’ll always be proud of those who were born in Belarus, brought up among Belarusians, regardless of the language they spoke or their passport nationality. They were born here and are our native people. Of course, it’s difficult to presenting Belarus to the world, since we are such a new state. However, Belarusians have existed for many centuries, although we were subsumed by Rus, Lithuania, Poland or Russia on the map.
It’s very difficult to explain all this to a foreigner!
Yes, it’s difficult, but not impossible, especially if foreigners are keen to learn more about our country. I’d like to repeat once again that we shouldn’t expect Belarus to become recognised immediately. We can’t compare it with large states in its process of image formation within the international arena. Nor should we forget that the super powers of Russia, China and the USA possess not only a positive image, but a whole range of negative stereotypes. We’ve only been independent since 1991; even if we spent half of our state budget on promoting Belarus abroad, we’d hardly create a major impact. People don’t form opinions this quickly. However, there’s no reason for pessimism. We simply need to be determined and work towards a long-term goal.
How are you promoting contemporary Belarus as a brand?
How is fame created? Let’s look at sport. Not long ago, our football team crushed France. Can you imagine how many people around the globe were wondering what kind of country Belarus is? Thousands, even millions, of people followed the match — not only football fans. Sport unites a nation during world competitions. The match was followed all over the planet. Of course, some surfed the Net to learn more about our country’s location and history. This is how an unknown land is revealed to the world…
We beat the Swedes in hockey at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Are such sporting victories the key to world recognition?
Yes. This is why we’re focusing on developing sports. It’s an optimal way of achieving recognition from other countries. We should tell others about Belarus by all possible means, from the simple to the more complex. I’ll bring an example from my teaching experience. Three years ago, I met first year students from the Political Sciences Department of the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota, USA). I began my lecture by speaking about stages in Belarus’ history. My colleague, Prof. Hoffman, asked me to stop, asking the students, “Does anyone know anything about Belarus already?” Only half of those present had even heard of Belarus. I understood that it’s necessary to start not with history but with a political map and the basic characteristics of our country. Three years later, our department has implemented joint projects with Prof. Hoffmann. His students are now preparing reports on our country. In January, a big delegation is to visit Minsk and I hope that Belarus will become closer and clearer to them.
With what did those students associate Belarus?
Americans have a specific view of the world. In the USA, people are more interested in their domestic affairs than what’s going on abroad. Only around 10 percent of Americans have passports, allowing them to travel to foreign states; clearly, they don’t feel the need to travel. The average American is only interested in Iraq or Afghanistan if their brother or son serves there.
Don’t you think that many Belarusians are also indifferent to events beyond our borders? I’ve met educated people who aren’t greatly aware of Belarus’ geography, let alone that of other countries.
I think that our people often know more about events abroad than what’s going on at home. This situation is rooted in Soviet tradition, when lectures about the international situation gathered more listeners than films. Even schoolchildren attentively followed events in neighbouring states, as well as in Africa and Latin America. People knew more about Western states than the latter did about the USSR. At first sight, it may seem paradoxical, since our citizens had to read between the lines of official propaganda. Meanwhile, people in the West had wider access to information, yet hardly used it. In 1984, the Belarusian State University welcomed students from the USA. During an open discussion with our students, an American noted that he could read ‘Pravda’, ‘Izvestiya’ and ‘Literaturnaya Gazeta’ (Literary Newspaper) and ‘Communist’ magazine in his university library. He asked whether our students had access to ‘The Washington Post’, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ or ‘Time’ but, of course, our students had nothing to say. We could buy newspapers and magazines published by foreign communist and left-wing parties, but only at a shop run by the Foreign Languages Institute.
However, the discussion showed that our students knew just as much about the history, culture and politics of the USA as the Americans — perhaps more. Regardless of official propaganda and an evident lack of information, Soviet people developed idealistic stereotypes regarding Western countries, which haven’t yet been overcome. Belarusians continue to believe that they ‘lag behind’ the West but this is an old stereotype. Professor Hoffmann, from Minnesota, visited Minsk in April and noted that Belarus is a beautiful country in every way. He sees people as being educated and hospitable and admires Belarusian students, who speak English well. He was also delighted by Belarusian cuisine and our rich culture and arts.
Where did you take your friend?
I invited him to visit the Opera and Ballet Theatre and the American professor was pleasantly surprised. It’s true that you need to tour various places to learn about the country: a station, a theatre, the city and countryside. On being welcomed into a village, he was surprised by our hospitality: a sauna and a table full of delicacies. I actually think that we, Belarusians, should by less hospitable!
By Viktar Korbut