Timeless civility (from a Russian vault)

Few would argue that, at its core, the public relations role is about engagement. It’s about conversations and building relationships with stakeholders, both identified and unknown. In the social media sphere some proclaim that there are new rules for engagement…but I don’t actually think that much has changed. Ideally, debates and behaviours should be egalitarian and communal, and be based on facts or a body of knowledge and analysis, rather than opinions or conventional wisdom (unless conventional wisdom is clearly identified as such).

And when one is communing in a public space (such as a blog or twitter or an organized conference), there is even less excuse for bravado or overt (or covert) alliances and bad behaviour. This is because forums are shared ones and must serve the best interests of the many, rather than a select few. That’s not to say every thought or opinion must be sanitized and serve to maintain the status quo. Rather, forums must remain open to new voices and ideas, creativity and vision—from females and males, old and young—plus a cornucopia of backgrounds, both in terms of ethnicity and areas of expertise and functions. No one person (or clique) possesses all of the answers.

Backgrounder to Rules from the vault

Recently in de-cluttering mode (mainly print information accumulated over time), I came across a small piece of paper I picked up roughly 10 years ago in that great treasure trove of creative output and documentation, The Hermitage. Although social media hadn’t really been birthed in the late 1990s (and certainly not during the time of Catherine the Great), it struck me how apt remains the majority of the empress’ (old) rules for engagement. Such as her in junctures against rank, parochialism and gnawing at things..! I particularly liked her desire that visitors remain open and enjoy (”be merry”) their civilized exchanges.

For posterity and for sharing purposes, I decided to post the 10 rules here. (But believe I’ll also hang on to the physical proof, too.) I hope you also appreciate their timelessness.

After reading, I’m wondering if anyone will feel (“moderately”) creative enough to suggest modifications and/or provide some 21st century additions to the list?

Rules for the Hermitage as determined by Catherine the Great
For the Behaviour of All Those Entering These Doors

(About 1770-1780; St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum)

1. All ranks shall be left behind at the doors, as well as swords and hats.

2. Parochialism and ambitions shall also be left behind at the doors.
(Discovered an alternate 2 from another source: Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the doors.)

3. Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything.

4. Be seated, stand or walk as it best pleases you, regardless of others.

5. Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present do not get an earache or headache.

6. One shall not argue angrily or passionately.

7. Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.

8. Agree to partake of any innocent entertainment suggested by others.

9. Eat well of good things, but drink with moderation so that each should be able always to find his legs on leaving these doors.

10. All disputes must stay behind closed doors; and what goes in one ear should go out the other before departing through the doors.

If any infringe the above, on the evidence of two witnesses, for any crime each guilty party shall drink a glass of cold water, ladies not excepted, and read a page from the *“Telemachida” out loud.

Who infringes three points on one evening, shall be sentenced to learn three lines from the *“Telemachida” by heart.

If any shall infringe the tenth point, he shall no longer be permitted entry.

[*The “Telemachida” was a contemporary Russian poem about the adventures of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, which most contemporaries found tedious and long-winded.]

Recommended reading

Although the introductory paragraphs and the posting of the rules is my own creation, I have been inspired by some earlier readings, which I’ll list here:

– From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website vault: Rules of engagement for the social media set, Ira Basen
– From Vermont Public Radio’s vault: Catherine’s Rules, Allen Gilbert
– From the Naked PR blog’s vault: Why I Won’t Join Your PR Blog Party, Jennifer Mattern

Finally, a recommendation to check out a recent blog posting by Mark Schaefer on his Business Grow blog: The Social Media Country Club. Note the “engagement” and/or civility (or lack thereof) in the comments section.

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3 Replies to “Timeless civility (from a Russian vault)

  1. Thanks for the input, Bill.

    Of course applying (and relating) Catherine the Great’s Rules to today’s social media “conversations” is somewhat a conceit on my part. Many of the Rules work very well, others likely don’t translate completely across time (and maybe language). For example, although I understand and agree with your suggestion and reasoning to eliminate the word “passionately” in number 6, I suspect that in an historical context, “passionately” might have translated differently. For example, perhaps arguing with “passion” would include threats with weapons or body contact or blackmail against property or family. Ideas of rights and justice were quite different, both in law and thought.

    (In the 21st century, generally the less admirable “passionate” arguments in social media results in a derogatory blog post against an individual or organization, pile-ons in the comments section against a poster or the threat/action of “unfollowing” someone on twitter!)

    And, yes, #10 doesn’t really work in social media or public forums. Of course the basic premise of Catherine the Great’s Rules was based on inviting only certain segments of Russian society (e.g., the nobility) to The Hermitage; it definitely wasn’t a forum for the majority of the population (who were rural based).

    As I recall, one of the goals of the the immigrant empress (who came to Russia via an arranged marriage) was to “civilize” the nobility in her adopted homeland by cultivating an interest and taste in the various arts; the creation of The Hermitage Museum being one of the most overt examples.

    By the way, I think you are being discreet when you say “won’t speak their minds for fear of being escorted from the room.” In social media there can be a pack mentality, including chasing an individual out of the forum for debate.

    * * *

    Toni, you made me laugh (and cringe) in reading your interpretation of Rule number 9, particularly as someone whose nose is very sensitive to the smell of urine. (Talk about a smell that evokes feelings of pathos and a degenerative state, fear and loathing.)

    Russia is definitely a country in continual transformation (politically, economically)—not all of it positive. But one thing I observed in my two visits (the last one in 2005, to Moscow) is the legislated efforts that were made to make the cultural institutions open and available to all citizens (in sharp contrast to Catherine’s period). For example, the difference in admission prices for citizen and non-national/tourist is quite pronounced. School groups are quite numerous in the historical museums, palaces and churches, as young people are introduced to their past and present history and culture.

    (On a side note, we benefited from the price discrimination, as a tourist guide helped us obtain excellent, last-minute opera seats at the Bolshoi, for much less than it cost our travelling compatriots in advance. I’m sure we purchased the seats of a subscriber/Russian national, with only about a 15 per cent mark up. We paid about half the price of the others, for the same calibre of seats.)

    I do think The Hermitage is flourishing, perhaps in part to its multi-year, multi-part travelling exhibition (with a mere fraction of its huge holdings) to key cities in the world. Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the museums on the circuit. And, yes, I did go to see the first travelling exhibit a few years ago. I seem to recall the crowd was quite awed (at the opportunity to see these treasures) and civilized. I definitely don’t remember the smell of urine, anywhere…. 😉

  2. Judy,

    in the summer of 1992, the hottest for years in St. Petesburg and in a very itchy political and economic period (neither here nor there, yet..with drugs, alcohol, escorts and armanidressed gangleaders roving around glitzy restaurants and hotels) I passed my first four hours visiting the Hermitage.

    I was so overwhelmed by what was in front of my eyes and at the same time terrified that I might be one of the last humans before the heat would actually liquify the treasures.
    No air conditioning, enormous crowds, windows wide open to a highly polluted atmosphere with a strong scent of urine.
    I later discovered in walking around the city that beyond the front entrance of all those beautifully restored facades people peed in the corridors.

    Rome sometime gives you this feeling, Venice also, or even the lower east side of New York when heat and humidity combine…..

    Of course I am told that all has changed now in St Petersburg and that the Hermitage has survived and flourished since.

    Yes I thought of this, in reading Catherine’s number 9.


  3. Thought provoking list. But I will suggest one revision.

    I might edit No. 6 to read simply: “One shall not argue angrily.” A logically sound argument can be strengthened by passion, combining logos and pathos.

    While I agree with No. 10 wholeheartedly, in 21st century online discussion, the door is left open. That can be good and bad. Open discussions are more inclusive. But people often won’t speak their minds for fear of being escorted from the room. We see this a lot in social media.

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