Russian Cultural Special Operation | Offensive
“Our (Russian) cultural export is more important than cultural import… And our latest exhibitions abroad are just a powerful cultural offensive. A kind of “special operation” if you will.” – this is a direct quote from Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In an interview, which can be read in Russian and English, he clearly states that he sees Russia’s cultural presence abroad as an instrument for cultural domination. The Russian art exhibitions in Paris are metaphorised as the “Russian flag flying over Bois de Boulogne.”
This rhetoric and attitude from the Russian side is nothing new. It has been widely present in governmental policies, individual attitudes as well as in Russian literature and art for centuries. At the same time, it was skillfully combined with the narratives of art being “out of politics” and “beauty saving the world from cruelty”. However, for a very long time, Russian culture was instrumentalised and turned into an imperialistic tool nourishing the supremacy of Russia over the nations and ethnicities that became victims of its colonial ambitions. The most recognised Russian poets, such as Lermontov and Pushkin, skillfully and convincingly constructed an imperial, colonialist, Russian perspective on the Caucasus and Ukraine. If you pay even the slightest attention to this, the greatest examples of Russian literature suddenly appear to be full of imperialist discourse, romanticized conquest and cruelty – and silence about the consequences.
Let’s take a look at the strategies Russia has been using in the intellectual and creative field for years, decades and centuries.
One of the main rules to succeed in an intellectual or artistic career in the Russian empire at any point in time, including the Soviet era, was blending into the Russian intellectual, academic, professional, artistic milieu. All other national cultures were reduced to ethnography and their development was blocked by a glass ceiling. This led to a disputable belonging of a number of artists. They studied and worked in the Russian empire and even if their national identity was important to them, quite often it dissolved in the dominating context of Russian narratives and language. The Russian Empire’s policy of deportation made defining any national identity even more confusing.
An important detail to bear in mind: Soviet passports included the category “nationality”, which was a “free choice” when Soviet citizens received their first official document at the age of 16. This meant that a child of a, let’s say, Buryat-Armenian couple could become Russian. Such choices were not rare. Being “Jewish by passport” created barriers in future careers and for anyone who belonged to the families of “Ukrainian nationalists”, it was problematic to enter universities. Although the USSR was advertised as an egalitarian community of free, fraternal people, in reality, Russia was the titular nation. The consequence of this was a perception that Soviet = Russian.
On top of that, all Slavic studies worldwide used to be very Russian-centred, with little or no attention paid to other Slavic languages. Russian literature was translated and promoted, while Belarusian and Ukrainian were marginalised and seen as part of the so-called pan Slavic space. It is therefore not surprising that this led to a tendency to associate Slavic culture above all with Russian, especially outside Europe.
One of the brightest examples of such a misinterpretation is the “Russian Avant-garde”, which includes such names as Kazemir Malevich. The description of the famous artist’s origin has now been changed by many museums and media from a simple “Russian” to “born in Ukraine to parents of Polish origin”.
A series of pastels by Edgar Degas also became part of this reviewing process and in 2023 it was renamed by the Metropolitan Museum from “Russian dancers” to “Dancers in Ukrainian dress” and by the National Gallery to “Ukrainian Dancers”.
Nowadays, it is clear that defining the national belonging of artists, previously claimed to be Russian, is much more complex than just the place of birth or stated nationality.
2. Silence and eliminate
Although mimicry and assimilation were necessary elements to succeed, not everyone was ready to betray their national identity and give up on important contexts in their creative work and professional life. Therefore, Russian policymakers of different eras had to look for more radical methods to neutralise the most stubborn ones.
In the 17th – 20th centuries, Russian state policy regarding national languages and literature was largely aimed at erasing “threatening elements”. The strictest prohibitions like the Valuyev circular (1863) and Ems Ukaz (1876) banned writing, publishing and education in national languages under risk of prosecution, arrest and even death.
In official documents, total russification is clearly declared as the goal of the Russian empire. As a result of such forced russification, it was not uncommon to be targeted for speaking Ukrainian in big cities. A common pejorative for Ukrainian, “the language of calves”, marked it as a language for peasants.
One of the most dramatic examples of the attempts to eliminate national cultural intelligentsia is the “Executed Renaissance” which took place in Ukraine in 1936 – 1937. About 200 Ukrainian language poets, writers, and artists of the 1920s and 30s were imprisoned, tortured and, in many cases, shot, accused of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism”. Although a large number of artists were loyal to the ideas of socialism and communism, they were still silenced, as strong Ukrainian voices could endanger Russian dominance.
The Berezil Theatre was an avant-garde Soviet Ukrainian theater troupe founded by Les Kurbas, active from 1922 to 1933.
3. Mark the territory and impose the culture
Having prepared the ground and cleared the space from national cultures, it was easy to impose Russian culture as “the greatest”. In all occupied territories, the Russian language was compulsory at schools and teachers of Russian received a bonus to their salary. The PhD theses in all the Soviet republics could be defended only in Russian and most professional literature was also only available in Russian. Russian literature was a separate key subject in school curriculum, while world literature was not. History was constructed and taught in a Russia-centred way. Translation of foreign literature into national languages was very limited, foreign films were dubbed in Russian only. Soviet cinematography and animated cartoons were predominantly Russian speaking; the heroes representing other nationalities spoke with accents and usually had stereotypical social roles. After the collapse of the USSR and up to the moment of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the influence of (now officially) Russian media and content remained strong. Moscow was seen as the centre of show biz and the entertainment industry, where the big money and real success were concentrated.
In this context, streets named after Russian artists, and monuments to Russian poets in places they never belonged to was nothing but marking the territory and imposing the Russian culture and language on all Soviet citizens. Other, local cultures were described as “primitive”, “ethnic”, or “peasant” cultures in comparison to the, supposedly, superior Russian one.
Years of such policies have a wide spectrum of results. Taking a look at Belarus, where the Belarusian language is no longer spoken by a majority of people whose grandparents spoke it as native, we can see how devastating the effect of forced russification can be.
4. Tell the story the way you need
With a strong propaganda machine, Russia always managed to twist the truth in an Orwellian manner. One of the main pretexts for the beginning of the war against Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022 was protecting the “Russian population”. The definition of “Russian population” was connected to the language people spoke, even though most of Russian speakers in Ukraine defined themselves as Ukrainians and were the victims of a few generations of the forced russification described above.
The attitude to Ukrainian culture in the territories occupied by Russia was brutal and aimed at elimination. Back in 2014, “IZOLYATSIA”, a centre of contemporary art located in Donetsk, had all its art works destroyed and the space was turned into a prison where Ukrainians not supporting the so-called DNR are imprisoned and tortured.
Since the full-scale invasion, over 1000 cultural heritage objects have been damaged and many museums were looted. In the occupied territories, teaching is immediately switched to the Russian program, full of anti-Ukrainian propaganda. At the same time, libraries are emptied of Ukrainian books and the cities are filled with billboards featuring chauvinist quotes from Russian poets. In the currently occupied Mariupol, the faces of Russian writers decorate the fence built around the theatre that was deliberately bombed by Russia while hundreds of local civilians hid inside in March 2022.
Billboard in Kherson, featuring a quote by Pushkin, under the motto “Kherson is a city of Russian history”. The photo was taken after the liberation by Ukrainian army.
Obviously, in the existing context of the war launched by Russia, Russian culture should not be used neither as a tool of reconciliation nor as a mechanism of switching attention to the “good” and “beautiful” things while the Russian army commits war crimes, damages civilian infrastructure and kills Ukrainians every day.