What Russians Think They Need to Know About Obama's Visit

On the edge of Red Square, an enterprising vendor is selling traditional Russian matrioshka dolls featuring portraits of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. I know they're there because the English-language Moscow Times had a photo of them on its front page the weekend before Barack Obama's arrival here. But after a soggy morning spent squelching in vain around the walls of the Kremlin to find them, I had to give up and seek refuge indoors from the unseasonably cool, wet weather.

The dolls may become more popular (and easier to find) now that the Russia-U.S. summit has gotten off to what appears to be a solid start. Within hours of Obama's arrival, the two presidents were upbeat at their joint press conference, announcing a preliminary agreement to cut their nuclear arsenals by as much as one third (to 1,500-1,675 on each side) and a Russian decision allowing U.S. troops and weapons to fly across its territory en route to Afghanistan. Russia had previously allowed nonlethal supplies to be transported across its territory, but the U.S. had to rely on the increasingly dangerous route through Pakistan to send other materiel to its soldiers. In the usual diplo-speak, Obama and Medvedev also said they'd had constructive talks about North Korea and Iran, where Obama wants Russia's help in curbing Tehran's nuclear program.

So far, so predictable. Both the nuke and Afghanistan deals were widely expected, with Russia—still haunted by the Soviet Union's failed invasion of Afghanistan—clearly reluctant to see a resurgent Taliban. Indeed, the message from the joint press conference was so unsurprising that the latest cover of NEWSWEEK's Russian partner, Newsweek Russky called their latest cover image "New Program, Old Songs"—an expression similar to the English reference to "old wine in new bottles" to indicate the low expectations from the encounter.

Equally predictably, Obama and Medvedev seemed stalemated on more intractable issues like Ukraine's and Georgia's bids to join NATO and Washington's plans to develop an antimissile shield in Europe. (Russia sees the system as a threat to its security and wants it dropped; the U.S. says it's aimed at intercepting missiles from hostile states like Iran.) Another unknown is what stance Vladimir Putin will take when he has breakfast with Obama on Tuesday. The former president-turned-prime minister is still seen as the power behind the Medvedev throne, making him a key player in any unresolved question. Obama's remark that Putin still took a Cold War approach to relations with the United States, with "one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new," has been widely blamed here for setting a chilly tone for the leaders' encounter. Putin's response so far has been an apparently mild comment that Russians don't know how to stand so uncomfortably with their legs apart, but Russian friends tell me the actual word used is virtually untranslatable—and not one that should be used in polite company.

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In addition to the Putin comment, Russian newspapers have had a field day with Obama trivia. The English-language Moscow Times took a tongue-in-cheek look at reports that Obama has a love for the revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, as well as a cousin who just might have studied in Moscow. Russian tabloids have long claimed that Obama's daughter was named Natasha in honor of Pushkin's wife, Natalya Goncharova—even through Sasha, the name by which the younger first daughter is known, is really a diminutive of Alexandra. According to TheMoscow Times, Obama has not confirmed the reports, but Kenneth Pushkin, the president of the Pushkin Fund in the U.S., told the Interfax news agency in a cringeworthy comment that, "like many intelligent African-Americans, the U.S. president knows and loves the work of the great Russian poet." Pushkin, like Obama, had African roots: the writer's grandfather came from Ethiopia. As for the studious cousin, Russia's Federal Migration Service says nyet. According to the agency, the Equatorial Guinea citizen Remigio Obama Nguema Nzang—registered at the Moscow's Peoples' Friendship University in 2007—is not a relative of the U.S. president after all.

Russians have also had fun with the "reset" phrase that has been used—and overused—to describe Washington's new approach to Moscow. State newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta took the symbolic reset button that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in March to a display on Pushkin Square last week. The paper invited passers by to engage in their own diplomacy by pushing the red button, which was placed between life-size cardboard cutouts of the American and Russian presidents. Visitors, residents, and local politicians were happy to oblige; fortunately for Clinton, none commented on the embarrassing American spelling mistake that turned the word for reset into "overload."

Another historical footnote: Obama's visit coincides with celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the first "capitalist food product" to appear in the Soviet Union. The lucky product was a Pepsi, drunk by leader Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959. To celebrate, Donald Kendall, the former Pepsi CEO who offered Krushchev his soda sample, is among a group of business leaders also in the Russian capital this week. Kendall told The Moscow Times that he remembered Vice President Richard Nixon bringing Krushchev to the Pepsi kiosk, where the Russian leader compared samples brought in from the U.S. with those made for the occasion in Moscow. "Krushchev drank at least half a dozen cups of Pepsi, then turned to reporters and said the Pepsi-Cola made in Moscow was better than Pepsi made in the U.S," recalled Kendall. The Moscow Times didn't speculate on whether Obama knows much about this momentous moment, but what is clear is that, like Nixon, he will use his time in Russia to reach beyond the political sector. On the final full day of his visit Tuesday, the American president will also address a series of meetings with visiting NGOs and business delegations. Perhaps one of those corporate leaders could give that Red Square vendor some marketing tips on how to make those Obama-Medvedev nesting dolls a little more, um, available.

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