“A common cause, rather than personal ambition” – Interview with Mikhail Drozdov
Mikhail Drozdov is the director of the coordination committee of Russian compatriots in China and the head of the Russian Club of Shanghai. In an interview with RusskiyMir.ru, he tells us how he and his partners managed to created the most widely visited Russian-language website outside Russia.
– Mikhail, I’ve heard that Russians in China have “consolidated themselves” quite well.
– I believe that we have managed to happily avoid the disputes and disruptions that are famous among Russians living abroad. Perhaps that is due to the fact that our diaspora is quite homogeneous. The first wave of emigration went back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, and those people who live in China now began arriving in the late 1980s. If a person was twenty years old at the time, he is about forty now. We don’t really have generational conflict, which is observed in some other countries. For instance, I was in Australia where people are very clearly divided: the old and young generations of emigre have virtually no contact with one another. Our Russian Club in Shanghai became the first association of Russians since the first wave of emigration. It was established in December 1998; before that there were no such associations. In other Chinese cities - Guangzhou, Harbin, Beijing - associations of Russians, according to their leaders, have begun similar efforts based on the example of our club. They recognize our leadership role, so the elections at the coordination committee went very calmly. We are trying in every way to help promote the establishment of associations in other Chinese cities.
– How did this thought come to you? Did the consulate suggest it?
– It’s an interesting story. In 1998, a family came to Shanghai. The husband was Canadian, his wife was Russian. Their names were Randall and Olga Eastman. Randall had come here to work. Very quickly he found a Canadian organization, and he told his wife that there was certainly a similar Russian one that they could look for. Well, when they couldn’t find one, he suggested that she put a notice in the English language press calling all Russians to meet up. They determined the place, time, made the announcement, and people gathered and got to know one another. That was how our Russian Club was born. Randall and Olga are still in Shanghai, and when we celebrate our club’s anniversary, we’ll be sure to invite them.
It all began, of course, with the monthly gatherings at bars and restaurants. The basic idea of these meetings was that those who had come to China could find a social circle. This was how the Russian Club went along for two years, without a special program. But then we realized that this was not enough, so we held elections, and I was voted in as chairman. We began a series of rather interesting events: interest meetings, theme nights, academic research and outreach, organizing mutual aid, for example. We began to establish contacts with famous Russian cultural figures, and we now have a pretty good procedure for organizing such meetings and also for getting people to find out about us. When people did find out, they started visiting us. We participated in a series of art exhibitions, held film screenings, lectures and meetings for business people. The club played a major role in the formation of the Orthodox community in Shanghai. In 2004, the club held a meeting on board the Nadezhda ship, and in 2008, aboard the Pallas. In 2002, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad (our current patriarch) visited our club.
Often, cultural figures and politicians come to us themselves. This was made possible by the advent of our website. Last October was its tenth birthday; the domain was registered in 1999. This was the first site for Russians in China. Then came Eastern Hemisphere Forum, and after a while there was a site for the Russian Club of Beijing, as well as a site for graduates of the Far Eastern National University, which they called Easterners on-line. All these sites had their own guestbooks where people can write messages. The leaders of these sites all got together, became friends, and thought, why not combine all of these guestbooks into a general forum? That was in 2002. Our agreement stated that all the guestbooks would be abolished and that all links would go to the Eastern Hemisphere Forum. This was how it got its original audience. And then new people started coming.
– And I can see you’ve gone to the Middle East. You’ve got almost all of Asia covered.
– Our name is quite advantageous – Eastern Hemisphere. Even Africa and Australia are in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Our project succeeded insofar as we rejected the idea of competing with one another, put aside our own ambitions and decided to join forces. Another success was meeting Andrei Otmakhov from Germany who did such enormous technical and organizational work that allowed us to take the forum to the edge through the use of modern technology. Unexpectedly, the project simply took off. Perhaps the timing was just right.
It was in the early 2000s that the internet was gaining huge numbers of users, and it was only a matter of time before people began communicating on forums. Eastern Hemisphere quickly began collecting information on topics that were being discussed. When creating this resource it was very important that we resolve the issue of how it would be moderated. We brought in ten volunteer moderators who were happy to give their time in order to maintain the level of discussion on the forum. We’ve decided to keep the level of discussion on the Eastern Hemisphere Forum at a high level, and we try our hardest to maintain that.
– Why isn’t such know-how taking place in the Western Hemisphere?
– I’m not familiar with the Western Hemisphere. I’ve never even been there, so it’s difficult for me to judge. On the Eastern Hemisphere Forum, we are gradually working to expand the geographic coverage. Aside from large divisions devoted to Korea and Japan, we have have small ones set up for other countries in the region. In order for a division to grow, it’s extremely important for there to be interesting people - specialists who know the country well. If you get five or six people who write interesting things about a country, it will be a success.
– Do you rule out the possibility that with such people you might, with time, cross to the other side of the Pacific, to California or Alaska, which will then bring something to the Western Hemisphere?
– No, I don’t rule that out.
– So having created such a platform, you are ready to be the unifying forum for the entire Russian world?
– Yes, that is our ambition.
– I am asking because similar efforts in Europe and the United States have not been very effective. When something comes from above, for example though a coordination committee, or when they ask for money from Moscow, promising to create a unified platform, nothing ever happens and the number of visitors is quite small...
– At the Assembly of the Russian World I took part in a roundtable devoted to the Russian world online, and one of the participants asked a question of the organizers and developers of the Russkiy Mir site. They asked why it was needed at all, that the forum was weak, and so on. For an official site, I believe Russkiy Mir’s is quite good, but it’s not worth thinking that millions of our compatriots are going to go there to discuss things. These forums need to be created according to a network principle by Russians living abroad. It has to be done from the ground up.
Author: Interview conducted by Evgeny Verlin