28 September 2018

Africa: Russian Culture Finds a New Home in Africa

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Russkiy Mir Foundation, a Non — Russkiy Mir Foundation, a non-government and non-profit organization, has created a number of initiatives aimed at strengthening the Russian language and promoting the country’s culture could possibly be one way to improve overall image abroad including Africa.

Russian authorities are really struggling to find effective ways of marketing the country's language abroad by establishing regional language centers exactly similar to those that were closed in African, Asian and Latin American countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Professor Georgy Toloraya, the regional director for Asia and Africa Department at Russkiy Mir Foundation, said in an interview with The Exchange that "both Asian and African countries are strong priority regions, much attention is devoted to these regions so that they can benefit from some of the cultural programs and as a way of strengthening Russia's cultural influence abroad."

"In our country, the president and the government pay attention to the development of the Russian language. This work involves the media, as a matter of fact, and in a broad sense, the cultural and scientific institutions that are potentially useful as conduits for promoting the Russian language and culture are under serious consideration," he said.

Toloraya said: "conducive to strengthening the position of the language generally and the influence of Russian culture is the practice of holding the Year of Russian Culture in foreign countries, which with our partners, we organize on regular basis. We expect that interested African educational and cultural experts will share their valuable assessments and suggestions that will help us outline further comprehensive actions."

In the next few years, Russia plans the opening of Russkiy Cabinets in selected African countries where they are currently unavailable and strive to activate the existing centers. There are about 10 Russkiy Cabinets, (for instance in Morocco, Egypt and South Africa) currently operating in Africa.

Modelled as Confucius Institute, British Council or Alliance Française, Russkiy Mir primarily promotes the teaching of the Russian language within Russia and abroad - both to new learners of the language and to those who already know and love the Russian language, and further wish to recapture or maintain its fluency.

The means of the language studies include funding scholarship on its linguistic origins, creating new standards for language instruction, producing educational materials, and sponsoring language courses, competitions, and other educational programs.

Currently, one of the most widespread forms of Russian studies in Africa, for example, is the creation and functioning of what is popularly referred to as Russkiy Cabinet. The Russkiy Mir Foundation supports the creation of Russkiy Cabinets via the provision of a contract-based donation to the hosting organization. This process begins with an official request from the potential host organization or institution about the creation of the Russkiy Cabinet.

If the Foundation approves the organization's request, the two parties then sign a donation agreement that specifies, in necessary details, the materials to be provided, mostly free of charge, by the Foundation. In turn, the host organization is obliged to use the materials for educational purposes with the aim of popularizing the Russian language and supporting intercultural dialogue.

But, experts have suggested that other aspects of the soft power and public diplomacy have been missing on the policy agenda and needed to be pursued with African countries.

Naftali Mwaura Muigai, an expert on Social Communication and Cultural Policy in Nairobi, has explained: "Russia appears quite removed from cultural policy issues. We don't have vibrant Russian cultural centers in many African cities hence the low uptake of the language."

Likewise, there are limited scholarship opportunities for African youth to study in Russia. Nowadays, China is being viewed as a strong strategic partner in Africa given its (China's) strong footprint in diverse areas such as commerce, culture, and technology transfer, Naftali Muigai pointed out further in an emailed interview with The Exchange.

In a similar argument, Ojijo Pascal, an experienced corporate lawyer and guest lecturer based in Kampala, observes that "the Russian government does not carry out Russian cultural events, there are no visible Russian cultural centers as compared with the French cultural and German cultural centers.

"There is a huge cultural gap of new thinking, working with young professionals and associations to promote people-to-people diplomacy through business links, cultural exchanges, and competitions," Ojijo told The Exchange.

On his part, Albert Khamatshin, a researcher from the African Studies Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences, thinks that Africans are showing less interest in learning the language as compared to other foreign languages because the Russian government does little to arouse Africans' interest in the language.

"And what makes the situation worse," he says, "is largely due to the fact many African leaders have turned away from Russia to Asian countries especially to China."

In a media briefing, Artyom Kozhin, the deputy director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA), said "the Russian Federation is successfully implementing programs of cultural and humanitarian cooperation with various African countries, which include contacts in education, science, culture, art, the media, and sport."

According to him, these efforts are aimed not only at consolidating cooperation with the African countries but also at resolving key African problems such as overcoming social inequality and the involvement of young Africans in sustainable economic development.

"Education is a major priority in relations with Africa. Russian universities are open to African students. Apart from the main subjects they have programs oriented towards key areas of the region's public and economic life," he said further.

According to his interpretation, "the importance of specialized knowledge is growing in conditions of globalization and increasing use of information technology. Modern education projects are being created and will be carried out in this context."

In June 2001, Russkiy Mir Foundation was created by a decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore Russian cultural image, promote the Russian language and literature abroad, and its activities (operations) are financed under a special state budget allocation approved by the State Duma (lower house of parliament) and the Federation Council.

*Kester Kenn Klomegah writes frequently about Russia, Africa, and BRICS.

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