The USSR and the Limits of Relational Public Diplomacy

June 13, 2011

I’m reading Gienow-Hecht and Donfried’s very interesting edited collection Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy. I was struck by an interesting juxtaposition of two chapters; the first by Jean-Francois Fayet on VOKS:  the Soviet All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries that operated from the early 1920s to the late 1950s,  the second by Rosa Magnusdottir  on the Soviet embrace of cultural relations in dealings with the US at  the end of the 1950s.

VOKS operated by building relationships with the intelligentsia in non-communist countries in the hope that these networks offered to develop a more positive portrayal of the Soviet Union.  In retrospect this can be seen as an application of what we would now call relational public diplomacy.  The emphasis on combining communication and organization strikes me as a signature of 20th century communism but it’s interesting to note that this was an insight that wasn’t confined to the communists,  in International Political Communication W. Phillips Davison (1965) argues that the most important impact of public diplomacy communication is in supporting friendly organizational efforts a thought that hasn’t had much prominence in recent thinking.

In a sense Magnusdottir is pointing to the limits of the VOKS model, She argues that in 1950s America the only people who were listening to the USSR were the members of the CPUSA and its associated front organizations. In network terms the pro-Soviet organizations were suffering from closure (eg Burt 2005) they were unable to effectively form new relationships to expand their reach. Part of this was due to the comprehensive ideological opposition in 1950s America but also reflected the type of stereotypical propaganda material that circulated within the network. The lesson that the more thoughtful Soviet observers drew was the need to use alternative networks with different content in order to have a real impact in the US, for instance publishing magazines with interesting content and decent translations.

The broader lesson is that network building is a powerful tool but one of its characteristic pathologies is closure. The network turns in on itself and doesn’t allow engagement beyond. This can happen for reasons of protection as in the case of the Soviets sympathisers  in 1950s  America but can also happen because people gain status as insiders and have an incentive to keep others out.

Burt, R.S. (2005) Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Davison, W.P. (1965) International Political Communication. New York: Praeger.

Fayet, J.-F. (2010) ‘VOKS: The Third Dimension of Soviet Foreign Policy’, pp. 33-49 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.

Magnusdottir, R. (2010) ‘Mission Impossible?: Selling Soviet Socialism to Americans, 1955-1958’, pp. 50-72 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.


  1. Dear Sir ,
    Could you make judgments on the next proposal:
    To promote international understanding.

    The analysis of the news and discussion programs on the Russian television, the discussions on the Internet shows the disappointingly low level of the knowledge of the history and the modern life in the U.S. Significantly, this applies to both the ordinary citizens and the intellectuals.
    In the society dominate the mistrust, and, frequently, the dislike for the so-called “West” and especially the United States. And it is not explained only by the echoes of the Cold War – these views are shared by many citizens of the young and middle-aged, educated and formed after the Cold War. This is not surprising – referred populations form such attitudes in dealing with the older generation which emerged in an era when the West (USA) was the synonym of the enemy.
    The most accessible media, and, above all, public television stations, affecting most the mass audience, are oriented at best wary, distrustful attitude to Western countries. In the circumstances when the most part of the population do not speak foreign languages, they did not understand the foreign-language TV channels, even when they available. Broadcast, even in the Internet version, in contrast to the Soviet and the early post-Soviet period, now is not so popular.
    For much of the population an attractive source of the information as previously could be the well illustrated journals , telling about of interesting for the mass topics. These were previously the such magazines as “America”, “England” and similar.
    Nowadays, a wide spread of the Internet becomes the primary source of the information for a fairly general population. Analysis of the various sites , the forums and the discussion sites on the Internet shows a lack of the specialized sites, where could be provided systematic information on the history and the today life in the U.S.
    This site may have the following characteristics:
    For each topic, the information should be presented in 3 versions:
    1 – The summary for the ordinary citizens (“Housewives”, “dummies”)
    2 – The detailed information for the “advanced” intellectuals
    3 – For the professionals – with many citations of the professionals and links to the sources.
    Alexander Dronov
    June 14, 2011

  2. Part 2
    Such the site must have:
    1.Inquire office – where the visitors could request with their question for the answer. From the questions of the visitors formed the Frequently Asked Questions , which is constantly updated with the received new questions and, most importantly – updated with the new information on previously questions.
    2.Discussion subsite – a forum where the visitors could hold discussions among themselves and with the participation of the representatives from site staff. This kind of the discussion will give an excellent material for renovation and updating of the site, as well as to attract to him a wider audience.
    3.Useful links on the site.
    4.Source for English language learners – English versions of articles from the site, which can be used by teachers as the topics of some sort educational material. A great addition would be the audio recordings of articles from the site. Here is to use the audio or video recordings of political leaders and the lectures of the scientists and the specialists on site.
    Very attractive, especially for the youth audience of the site , could be holding the various competitions and the quizzes on the theme of the site. Prizes can be very different – from an audio-recording of the artists, the laptops (notebooks, tablets) and to the travel as a tourist or for the training courses in the U.S.
    Such the structure of the site with the set of information, focused on the very wide range of the users, both in the terms of their age and the education level and the occupation, will bring it to the massive interest and to ensure that the needs of these communities in the credible, relevant and accessible information.
    The success of this site may be provided only in one case – in its creation and operation the “first fiddle” must play the people living in the midst of the audience on which is oriented the site. They know exactly the level of the knowledge and the interests of the site audience,.
    Alexander Dronov

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