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Soft Power Under the Hammer


The Cambridge Dictionary gives two meanings for the word ‘diplomatic’. The first says “involving diplomats or the management of the relationships between countries” as in “diplomatic negotiations”. The second is “acting in a way that does not cause offence” as in “Ask him nicely—be diplomatic.”


In his talk to the Berkeley Circle, amiable Sven Olov Carlsson demonstrated both. A hefty figure on the podium, he nevertheless seemed to drift weightless over the world in a cosmopolitan cloud that floated from the cozy Mediterranean to startling Central Asia and Kazakhstan on the borders of China. But then one would have to be deft and nimble to engage as Carlsson has in a remarkable range of activities. Their scope is not such to be contained in a dictionary definition.


As an official of the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Carlsson served from 1983 in Stockholm, Tunis, and Warsaw. In 1996 he became Deputy Head of the European Commission’s Representation in Sweden. This led him to an administrative role on the European Commission in Brussels considering the addition of Poland, Lithuania, and Turkey to its membership. From 2009 his duties centred on Russia, as Deputy Head of the Commission’s Russian Division and with the EU Delegation to the Russian Federation. He would go beyond it, far into the former Russian Empire when named Ambassador, Head of the Delegation of the European Union in Kazakhstan. He addressed the Third Central Asia Climate Change Conference in 2020, the launching of a dialogue between Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.


We learned that Kazakhstan was in 1991 the last of the Soviet Republics to declare its independence. This came as a windfall, a not unpleasant surprise to its nineteen million inhabitants spread thinly over what is the ninth largest country in the world. They are seventy percent Kazakh and Islamic The remaining thirty percent are mainly Russian and Christian. The territory has a storied past of Turkic nomads, Scythians, Persians, and Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire. Russian penetration came in the 18th Century. The present finds the country the powerhouse of the region, mainly due to its oil, gas, and vast mineral resources.


Ambassador Carlsson had spent his time at Uppsala University in the study of the ill-matched pair of business administration and Slavonic Languages. So it’s no surprise to find his interests going in unaccustomed directions. 


Exploring the ways of soft power, Ambassador Carlsson told us how Italy, which is close to his Swedish heart, was seen in the Russian world. From Peter the Great onward rulers had looked to Italian cities as models. This has morphed into a Russian delight today in holidays in Venice Florence and Rome. Russian high culture had found musical and pictorial inspiration in Italian classical, Renaissance, and Baroque works. On a humbler level, Petrushka remains the most famous puppet show in Russia. It was introduced by Italian puppeteers in the early eighteen hundreds.


From 1920 the weight of Moscow on the Italian Communist Party intensified cultural exchanges. The mid-century excellence of Italian cinema, Neo-realism, and directors like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti, was felt in Russia. The weakening of the Italian Communist Party, the eclipse of its cultural network, and, finally, the demise of the Soviet Union, brought a sea change. Italian soft power in the Russian world now resides in appreciation of its style, design, cuisine, and, strangely for many Italians, its  Harlenquinesque high spirits.


‘Offence’ in the Cambridge Dictionary sense is off the map for Ambassador Carlsson. The Berkeley Circle could have had no better exemplar of the meaning of ‘diplomatic’.



Peter Byrne

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