Next week, President Obama will travel to Moscow to attend a summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He should use that opportunity to engage not only with the government of Russia, but to communicate directly to the Russian-speaking world.
Correctly, the Obama administration has focused on the need to reach out directly to adherents of the Muslim faith. Last month in Cairo, surrounded by hundreds of young people, students, and activists, Mr. Obama eloquently conveyed both America's values and hopes for a better relationship with the Muslim world, a relationship rooted in genuine respect.
As of now, no major speech to reach the hearts and minds of the Russian-speaking world is planned, but it should be part of the president's agenda during his visit to Moscow. Russians, and the vast majority of their neighbors, suffer from a freedom deficit comparable to that experienced by all too many inhabitants of the Middle East. In assessing the state of freedom in the countries of the former Soviet Union – excluding the three tiny Baltic States – the nongovernmental organization Freedom House actually finds lower levels of freedom than in the Middle East.
In most of these countries, including Russia itself, a corrupt ruling elite controls and exploits the country's major resources for its own enrichment. Elections are largely meaningless exercises in which there is no viable competition. And any civil society groups that attempt to engage in politically sensitive topics – like human rights or anticorruption – are stifled, sometimes brutally.
Within Russia, all meaningful mass media serve as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. The Russian people are bombarded by a sophisticated propaganda campaign that taps into nationalist sentiments and invents outside enemies to justify the consolidation of power. School curricula have been adjusted to glorify Soviet achievements, while playing down its depredations. In May, President Medvedev announced the creation of a new Commission to Protect Russian History, which will serve to counter historical narratives that portray Russia in a negative light. Even the Orthodox Church feeds the idea of the strong state and Russian exceptionalism.
This campaign has been extremely effective in exploiting Russians' humiliation at the collapse of the Soviet empire. It incorporates both nostalgia for its superpower past with viciously anti-Western, and particularly anti-American, rhetoric.
Propaganda has also capitalized on anti-Bush sentiment to tarnish the ideas of freedom and democracy and to present these values as incompatible with Russian traditions and culture. No matter that these same arguments were once made regarding the culture and history of Asians and Latin Americans and adherents to the Roman Catholic or Muslim faiths – arguments that have since been repudiated by the reality that all people want to enjoy fundamental freedoms.
Can a speech from Obama hope to counter such a well-resourced and sophisticated anti-American and antidemocracy campaign? Certainly not by itself. But, just as in Cairo, it would be an important step if done in the right way. Russians don't like being preached to by foreigners any more than Egyptians, Turks, Iranians, or for that matter, Americans, do.
Yet they may respond to a frank and respectful speech that emphasizes America's real desire – not for a weak and subservient Russia – but rather a strong Russia that shares its democratic values and that can be a real partner in tackling some of the world's growing list of crises.
Even if successful, outreach to the Russian people will not resolve the problem of a Kremlin that subverts freedom and democracy. But the past eight years have taught us nothing if not the importance of the hearts and minds of people. We are already starting to reset our relationship with the Russian government. We should make a strong effort to do so with the Russian people as well.
Paula Schriefer is the director of advocacy at Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world.