By Artem Shaipov and Yuliia Shaipova
Feb 15, 2023
In the wake of Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine, the world just started to pay attention to things about the aggressor that have been unnoticed for decades. Yet, Russia’s war arsenal is no longer predominantly conventional, write Artem Shaipov and Yuliia Shaipova.
Russia’s Commander-in-Chief, Valery Gerasimov, published his hybrid warfare doctrine ten years ago. It clearly states that informational and humanitarian operations are key, and the ratio of non-military to military measures when waging a war is 4:1.
This is rarely taken seriously into account, paving the way for a Russian cultural offensive in the West.
In his historic address to the US congress, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy boldly stated: “We defeated Russia in the battle for the minds of the world”.
Yet, it appears that many people, even in the West, including intellectuals, see Russian culture as having nothing to do with Russian geopolitical ambitions. This seems to continue, despite the apparent nature of Russian neo-imperial aggression over the past three decades.
Russia has regularly exploited this attitude to advance its imperial geopolitical objectives, weaponising such an ostensibly neutral field.
Western universities and research centres focusing on Russian cultural studies often end up in a way glorifying the Russian empire both in its Czarist, Bolshevik, and current forms instead of uncovering and condemning the track record of dictatorship, mass repressions, mass murders, deportations, and genocide.
It is necessary to rethink Russian culture and literature and the effect of their soft power. As a curved mirror, the “great” Russian culture has been instrumental in covering up or justifying crimes of aggression, annexation, and genocide and singing majestic odes to the “greatness” of the empire and its heritage.
Without taking anything away from great literary and artistic works, it is still necessary to look at the lives and beliefs of the “masters”.
Take, for example, Dostoyevsky, widely praised in the West. He was an imperial chauvinist who called for the annexation of Istanbul and denied the existence of other Slavic peoples, in some ways setting the stage for “Russky Mir”.
Pushkin and Lermontov – from the golden age of Russian literature – both glorified Russian conquests and genocide of the people of the Caucasus.
In one of his poems, Lermontov described the gang rape of a woman by Russian soldiers, showing no pity for the victim, practically ridiculing her instead. Pushkin strongly condemned the Polish uprising against the Russian Empire of 1831, singing hymns to the empire and its Czar.
Without denying the genius of their works, it is necessary to see how their lives laid the foundation for or strengthened Russian imperialism, not to mention how their works are used to “sell” Russia to the West now.
This is true not only for the cultural elites of the Russian Empire but also for many of today’s Russian cultural leaders brought up on the “great” Russian culture.
For instance, the Artistic Director of the Oleg Tabakov Theater, Vladimir Mashkov, initiated the instalment of a large “Z” – the main symbol of Russia’s war of aggression – on the facade of his theatre, two weeks after Russian bombers destroyed the Mariupol Drama Theatre (which had some 600 civilians inside and a big graffiti reading “Children” on the square next to it).
It is noteworthy that Russian occupiers concealed the theatre’s remains behind giant portraits of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
The Head of the Russian Cinematographers’ Union, Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia’s most (in)famous modern film director, believes that “the Ukrainian language has become a symbol of Russophobia” and constitutes a threat to Russia.
Today it is Ukrainian. What if tomorrow it is English, German, or French?
This is true not only of actors but also of people from the artistic sphere. Director of the Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky also supports Russia’s war against Ukraine and stated that “Russia asserts itself” this way.
He proclaims that the Hermitage exhibitions abroad constitute “a powerful cultural offensive, a special operation if you will”, while many people in the West keep thinking that Russian culture is outside politics. In early February 2023, Elena Pronicheva was appointed head of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
So what, would you ask? Her father is a KGB general and Putin’s crony, and the previous Director was criticised for the exhibitions of the gallery not reflecting the “moral values” of Russia. Does this ring a bell on the ways in which Russian culture is used?
Germany healed from the imperial Nazi ideology through repentance. Russia must follow suit to overcome its imperialism. Unfortunately, the idea of repentance is foreign to Russian imperial culture.
It is instructive that even one of Russia’s brightest and praised intellectuals working on remembrance – Jan Rachinsky of Memorial – in his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, rejected any idea of repentance about the war of aggression against Ukraine, not to mention other aggressive wars Russia has waged over the last 30 years – in Moldova, Ichkeria (Chechnya), and Georgia.
Thus, a weaponised Russian/Soviet culture is being promoted in the West with the help of gullible education and research centres, eulogising Russian culture and raising whole new generations of scholars with an imperial paradigm and mindset.
“Come comrades, forget your petit-bourgeois concerns, broaden your horizons, and enter the Soviet world!” writes the Institute of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University on its Film Club’s webpage.
Had anyone in the West lived through a mere fraction of the horrors that the people of the former Soviet Union went through, they would probably not be so enthusiastic about slogans like this.
Following Colin Gray’s point made back in 1984 in his “Comparative Strategic Culture”, Western academics should understand that they are dealing with a fundamentally unfriendly culture rather than an unfriendly policy and remove illusions and wishful thinking from academic and political deliberations.
It is important for academic and political institutions to be mindful of this phenomenon and design their programs and responses accordingly.
It is necessary to understand how promoting Russian imperial culture serves the goal of marginalising or omitting other peoples, their histories, cultures, aspirations, and tragedies to finally get rid of the imperial view the Russian culture presents on both history and modernity and break the curved mirrors to uncover the truth.
Artem Shaipov is a Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States Policy Designers Network and a co-founder of the Ukrainian Global University. Yuliia Shaipova is a Ukrainian parliamentary advisor and European integration team lead at the Center for Economic Recovery.
DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the authors, not of EURACTIV Media network.