From Russia, With T-Shirt
It might be the case that the best Russian soft power is a soft cotton t-shirt. Consider that, on his recent diplomatic trip to Russia in May, John Kerry received a Victory Day t-shirt (and a basket of Sochi tomatoes) from his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. That’s a small step forward in t-shirt diplomacy, but it does hint that Cold War rivals Russia and the United States may actually have more in common than is often supposed.
What’s needed, however, is an entirely new aesthetic for Russian t-shirts. Those “Pobeda” t-shirts commemorating the 70th anniversary of Victory Day that Lavrov offered up are ghastly — it’s hard to imagine anyone — even patriotic Russians - walking around with those t-shirts.
Garish as they are, “Victory Day” t-shirts are a step above the Vladimir Putin t-shirts that are apparently popular in Russia these days.
The problem is that, when it comes to Russian t-shirt design, there are basically two alternatives — the kitschy Soviet t-shirt (think “McLenin’s”) or the over-the-top tackiness that results when you mash up Western pop culture with Russian political culture. Walk down the Arbat in central Moscow (or visit any tourist attraction in Russia), and there are slim pickings indeed for a Western tourist wanting to take home a little slice of authentic Russian culture.
So here’s one idea: create an entirely new Russian t-shirt aesthetic that changes the perceptions of Russia without being overtly political. Something that you might actually want to wear around downtown Manhattan without being called out as some kind of Putin apologist.
Something like this, though, might just work:
The reason is that this t-shirt design combines instantly recognizable Russian iconography — the bear and the balalaika — without overtly mentioning Russia. The design softens the Russian grizzly bear, turning it into a cuddly cub strumming away on a balalaika in the Ukrainian woods. And it uses the well-known message of “Make Music Not War,” making it socially acceptable to wear the shirt around in public. Hey, even if you’re not a big Russophile, nobody likes war, right?
It’s easy to see how this design aesthetic could be adopted over and over again, using similar types of instantly recognizable Russian iconography. It’s possible to imagine Russia-themed t-shirts with Bolshoi ballet dancers, Sputnik satellites, Russian samovars, or snowy wintry scenes with troikas.
You see this type of t-shirt all the time in the U.S. The classic American retailer Gap does this for the British and the French. For example, you’ll see a graphic of an Eiffel tower and a simple phrase like “Je t’aime” or “Bonjour.” You might not like the skinny, baguette-eating French, but it’s hard to argue with a phrase that simply says “I Love You” or “Hello.”
Why can’t Russia do this same type of thing as part of a new soft power campaign? Imagine onion domes and a friendly Russian message that’s been scrubbed of any ideological meaning. From Russia with Love… and T-Shirt, too.