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Nadiia Koval

May 31st, 2024

When Russian Culture Goes to War

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Nadiia Koval

May 31st, 2024

When Russian Culture Goes to War

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

One of the biggest points of contention between average Ukrainian and Western intellectuals is their opposing perspectives on the role of Russian culture in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. Cultural exchanges are generally regarded in the West as strengthening democratic security on the domestic level as well as contributing to peace and mutual enrichment internationally. Thus, maintaining cultural connections even during times of war is regarded as an essential tool necessary to differentiate between an overtly hostile regime and a presumably benevolent society to keep the door open for future dialogue. Limiting cultural links is considered undesirable, with the exception of individual artists and organizations directly implicated in war support and subversive activities.

Nevertheless, such an approach is not reciprocated in Russia, which has inherited the Soviet method of manipulating cultural diplomacy “to establish in the minds of its targets associations between, for example, classical Russian music and the Kremlin’s alleged desire for peace,” as one researcher noted in 1960. In this brief blog, I will elaborate on the key ways of instrumentalizing culture for political and war-related purposes by the current Russian regime, based on the findings of our research on Russian cultural diplomacy institutions, which was published as a book titled “Russian cultural diplomacy under Putin: Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir Foundation, and the Gorchakov Fund in 2007-2022.”

Fully mirroring the Soviet approach, culture is explicitly defined as a foreign policy instrument in Russian theory and practice, at least in two ways. The first way is instrumental: it assumes that strengthening cultural ties with foreign countries and their societies will create a favorable environment for achieving Russian foreign policy objectives. The Concept for Russia’s Humanitarian Policy Abroad, adopted in September 2022, states: “As an instrument of “soft power,” it [Russian culture — NK] contributes to strengthening the international standing of Russia, the formation of its objective perception abroad, and the neutralization of anti-Russian sentiments of political and ideological origin. International cultural and humanitarian cooperation is required to foster favorable conditions for the implementation of foreign policy tasks.” Currently, those tasks are related to winning the war and securing Russia’s place in the future world order.

The roots of this approach reach the 1920s, when the first Soviet cultural diplomacy institution, VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries), was created. Its task has been to upend USSR political isolation and foster pro-Soviet sentiment by bringing sympathetic Western artists to the USSR and showcasing the country to them in a carefully guided manner. With decades of experience, Russian cultural diplomacy has developed into a wide constellation of actors, on the one hand, tightly controlled by the executive up to the president, and on the other hand, connecting horizontally all kinds of state and non-state culture- and education-related institutions, church and diaspora organizations, state budget and oligarchic wealth to collectively project Russian cultural presence abroad. Enhancing this strategic cultural presence with espionage and subversive activities, as well as proactive war propaganda, has resulted in sanctioning the key institutions (Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir Foundation, and the Gorchakov Fund) and their leaders in July 2022. Importantly though, despite the sanctions, these institutions try at all costs not to curtail their presence and operations in the West, eyeing future normalization and influence. Host governments also do not press for the local offices’ closures, citing diplomatic difficulties. Only a handful of Rossotrudnichestvo representations in Europe were closed, those in the biggest EU countries continue to operate through smaller events, like concerts, screenings, and exhibitions at their own premises.

The importance of keeping cultural imprint in wartime is visible in numerous efforts and coordinated campaigns to brand any limitation of Russian humanitarian influence abroad as “russophobia” and “Russia canceling” while cheering the slightest signs of reinstating cultural or educational cooperation. Russian officials were over the moon about the decision to open the 2023 season in La Scala Opera Theatre with the “Boris Godunov” opera, attended by key EU and Italian politicians, as well as about the recent decision of the Slovak government to renew cultural cooperation with Russia.

The second way of instrumentalizing culture for Russia’s political needs is ideological, serving to substantiate Russian claims to be a state-civilization in the multipolar world order it envisions after the war. Thus, the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation as of March 31, 2023, underlines “Russia’s unique position as a distinctive state-civilization, a vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power that united the Russian people and other peoples who comprise the Russian world’s cultural and civilizational community.”

The ultraconservative and expansionist “Russian world” idea (substituting the outdated communist ideals) is a key ideology beyond Russian revanchist policy. In this reading, the collapse of the Soviet Union is “the greatest tragedy of the XXth century,” as presumably millions of “Russians” and “Russian lands” were left beyond the borders of the Russian Federation and should be reintegrated as a “natural” zone of influence or directly incorporated into the Russian state. The concept relies particularly heavily on numerous narratives of the historical, linguistic, religious, and culture-related nature of why whole regions and countries are destined to be with Russia that are spread through Russian soft power in academia, think tanks, media, etc. of the foreign countries. In June 2021, half a year before the full-scale attack started, Putin himself authored a programmatic article, “On the historical unity of Ukrainians and Russians” in which he denied Ukraine’s right to exist outside of Russia. Practically, the promotion of the “Russian world” worldview in the humanities, social sciences, and media discourse is gravely dependent on the cooptation of foreign experts and young professionals through professional exchanges and educational possibilities, as well as on shaping and promoting Russian studies in universities.

Inside the countries that are considered a part of the “Russian world,” the particular attention is devoted to Russian language promotion, especially in the CIS countries, which has acquired additional impetus since the invasion started, and to a speedy forced Russification of the occupied regions through education and media (with the involvement of the Russkiy Mir Foundation). In a similar vein, cooperation and nurturing links with ‘compatriots’ in foreign countries are extremely expedient, both for projecting cultural influence and sustaining the “Russian world.” During the first months of the war (before the sanctions were applied), the compatriot organizations in many countries, with the informational and organizational support of Rossotrudnichestvo, were organizing public rallies in support of Russia and its war aims.

The key problem for democratic security lies in the practical difficulties of curbing Russian influences without jeopardizing the core values of a democratic regime, in particular the liberty of artistic expression and intellectual inquiry as well as the social value of cultural exchange. Nevertheless, a tailored and cohesive approach to the malign actors could make a difference. On a practical level, all loopholes in the sanction regimes that permit Rossotrudnichestvo’s and Russkiy Mir offices and projects to continue activities should be addressed. Any reprise of cultural cooperation with Russia after the war will require the construction of the new cultural diplomacy architecture, based on democratic values and principles. Second, knowledge production regarding the Eastern European region, its history, and current politics should be reviewed critically, not only for Russian manipulation but in general, reassessing the ways of getting expertise about the region through the processes of knowledge decolonization and Russia decentering that have already been launched. The challenge to the abuses of cultural diplomacy and the undermining of democratic security by hostile autocracies is to stay with us for the foreseeable future, so building resilience remains of key importance.

This blog is published in partnership with the Democratic Security Institute (DSI) based in Tbilisi, Georgia. It is part of a series of blogs authored by fellows from DSI’s Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN) on the interrelationship between democracy and security in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood. EDSN is supported by the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

About the author

Nadiia Koval

Nadiia Koval was the Director of the Centre for International Studies of the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine (2017-2019). She was a Member of the Board of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” (2015-2020). Nadia got an MA Diploma in Political Science (European Studies) of the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (2007) as well as a Diploma of a non-degree post-graduate course in Political Science at the Eastern Studies Division at University of Warsaw (2008).

Posted In: Peace and Security | Ukraine

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