With Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine, the world has started paying attention to cultural aspects of Moscow’s aggression that have gone unreported for decades.
It becomes evident that Russia’s military capability is no longer primarily warfare to conquer territories of foreign countries and minds in the Western nations.
Informational, and cultural operations are critical parts of Russian warfare
Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s army commander-in-chief, published his hybrid warfare concept ten years ago. It explicitly emphasizes that informational, psychological, and cultural operations are critical to military success and that the ratio of non-military to military measures is 4:1 while fighting a war.
The use of culture as a tool in the geopolitical struggle is not much considered, clearing the door for a Russian cultural offensive in Europe.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky stated: “We defeated Russia in the battle for the minds of the world” in his historic address to the U.S. Congress.
Nonetheless, it appears that many Europeans, and even intellectuals in the Western nations, consider Russian culture as having little to do with Russian dictatorship and its geopolitical objectives.
Russian culture’s weaponization supported the wars over last decades
Looking at the apparent nature of Russian neo-imperial and neo-colonial war aggression during the last three decades, Russian culture’s weaponization appears to persist.
Russia has frequently weaponized such a seemingly impartial sector to advance its narratives and imperial geopolitical ambitions, writes Artem Shaipov, a co-founder of the Ukrainian Global University and a Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States Policy Designers Network.
Russian artists praise Putin’s regime instead of revealing and condemning the crimes of dictatorship, independent media closure, opposition repressions, mass murders, unjustified wars, and genocide.
In their naivety, even some European researchers focusing on Russian cultural studies frequently end up supporting Russian writers and even Russian state views. Some end up glorifying the Russian empire in its Czarist, Bolshevik, Stalin, and Putin forms.
Reconsider Russian culture as a tool of support of geopolitical goals
It is vital to reconsider Russian culture and literature from this perspective. Moscow has used this tool to launch an unjustified and bloody war that killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and shook Europe’s economic stability and security.
European intellectuals have to consider the impact of Russia’s soft power at times when the Kremlin openly calls the E.U. an enemy.
The “great” Russian culture has been essential in covering up or excusing acts of aggression, annexation, and genocide while also singing beautiful odes to the dictatorship’s “greatness” and traditional values.
Imperialistic and chauvinist views of Russian writers and artists
Examining their life and ideas without contesting Russian artists’ achievements is critical.
Consider Dostoyevsky, who is generally regarded in Europe. The writer was an imperial chauvinist who advocated for the annexation of Istanbul by the Russian empire and denied the existence of other Slavic peoples, laying the groundwork for the so-called “Russky Mir” (Russian world). It’s a nationalist concept that helped Putin’s regime to mobilize its population for the war against Ukraine.
The Russian writers Pushkin and Lermontov, both from the golden period of Russian literature, praised Moscow’s victories and atrocities against the Caucasus people.
Lermontov recounted a gang rape of a lady by Russian soldiers in one of his poems, exhibiting no sympathy for the victim and almost mocking her instead. Pushkin harshly condemned the 1831 Polish rebellion against the Russian Empire and sang songs to the empire and its Czar.
Without a doubt, the quality of their works is vital to consider how their lives established or enhanced Russian imperialism and colonialism, not to mention how their works are being utilized to “market” Russia and Russian culture in Europe.
This is true not only for the Russian Empire’s cultural elites but also for many of today’s Russian cultural leaders raised on these poems and artworks full of imperialistic views.
The Russian Cinematographers’ Union’s head, Russia’s most (in-)famous modern film director, Nikita Mikhalkov, says that “the Ukrainian language has become a symbol of Russophobia” and poses a threat to Russia. Mikhalkov denies the right of Ukrainian people to exist, which supports Moscow’s genocidal concept of war against Ukrainians.
Putin’s regime used culture as a war propaganda tool against Ukraine
To justify its war against Ukraine, Russia applies historical war propaganda principles. “Respected intellectuals and talented artists support our cause,” reads principle 8 of the 10 key war propaganda concepts.
To legitimize the conflict, the Russian government relies on the support of musicians, writers, and artists through art and music programs. The Kremlin uses well-known figures to persuade the Russian people to embrace an unreasonable, irrational attack on Ukraine.
The propaganda media features famous artists and singers who support the war. In March, just a few weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began, a concert in support of the war was organized.
Following Crimea’s takeover, Russian propaganda made films about the peninsula, pushing the expansionist slogan “Crimea is ours.”
During the full-scale war, the Moscow leadership staged a performance celebrating phony referendums in occupied Ukrainian territory, involving prominent cultural figures.
We only highlight a few songs by various Russian singers that played at events to commemorate the war and the takeover of Ukrainian lands.
Olga Kormukhina, Russian singer: “My palm turned into a fist! And if there’s gunpowder, give me fire!”
Polina Gagarina, Russian singer: “Who will follow the lonely trail? The strong and the brave laid their heads in battle.”
Oleg Gazmanov, Russian singer: “Officers, officers, your heart is in the crosshairs for Russia and freedom to the end.”
Nikolai Rastorguev, Russian singer: “We are advancing on all fronts. Tanks, infantry, artillery fire. We are getting killed, but we survive….”
Dmitry Pevtsov, actor and member of the Russian parliament (Duma): “And make Russia an even stronger, richer, and more beautiful country! Together we will win!”
Ivan Okhlobystin, Russian actor: “It is right to call it a holy war! Fear us, the old world devoid of beauty and true faith; fear us! We are coming!”
Denis Maidanov, singer, member of Russian parliament (Duma): “He can reduce the enemies to ash in an instant. He’s ready to execute the verdict! The U.S. missile defense is not an obstacle for him, he doesn’t fear sanctions! There is only one pleasure for Sarmat (nuclear missile) – to disturb NATO’s sleep!”
Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum, also supports Russia’s war against Ukraine, claiming that “Russia expresses itself” in this way.
He declares that the Hermitage exhibitions abroad constitute “a significant cultural attack, a special operation if you will,” even though many people in European countries still believe that Russian culture is unrelated to politics.
Elena Pronicheva was appointed director of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in early February 2023. Her father is a KGB general and Putin’s buddy, and the previous director was condemned for the shows of the gallery not reflecting the “moral ideals” of Russia. Does this seem familiar in terms of how the regime uses Russian culture?
Russian/Soviet culture propagation in Europe must be reconsidered
So, with the support of naive education and research institutions, a weaponized Russian/Soviet culture is being propagated in Europe, praising Russian culture and producing new generations of researchers with an imperial perspective and mindset.
European intellectual and academic institutions must be aware of the use of Russian culture and imperialistic views of famous Russian writers in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine and aggressive rhetoric against democratic Europe and shape their programs accordingly.
To get rid of the imperial view that Russian culture imposes through the books of Russian writers, it’s vital to understand how Putin’s regime has weaponized it, how it serves the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda, and how it oppresses other nations’ cultures and aspirations.