The cultural aspect of the Russian neoimperial policy with the perspective of the Ukrainian world — culture matters11.09.2020
Have you ever wondered why we find the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov or Aleksander Pushkin in Ukrainian, Polish or Slovak school lectures?
Why is there a process of cultural socialization nowadays due to studying the Russian culture?
Why, despite its apophatism, often based on doctrinal enmity, does Russian culture still play a fundamental role in defining the foundations of Eastern Orthodox civilization with a metaphorical definition of Moscow as the Third Rome? The answer to these questions lies in the imperial cultural policy that Russia is pursuing today towards other countries, especially the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Today, most observers and analysts of international relations pay attention to military, energy, economic and technological development. However, they rarely talk of cultural potential which is a constructive part of the so-called soft power, defined and widely discussed by Joseph Nye. Therefore, this article will present the Russian cultural policy which is a successful tool used by Moscow to pursue an imperial policy towards other countries. Cultural incorporation is a mechanism that triggers the next stages of action, which can be traced, among other things, in 2008 during the Russian-Georgian war or in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea and launched a military invasion of Donbass. The temporary proximity of events in eastern Ukraine and the fact that hostilities in the region are still ongoing, all of them have served the reason that Russia’s imperial policy in this article will be considered in the perspective of Ukraine. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that the case of the Ukrainian state is a litmus test for other countries in the region.
Cultural imperialism or, to use a more precise term, Russian cultural imperialism is a phenomenon of using the sphere of culture, understood as a system of values and views, in the specific interests of the state whose actions are based on imperial ideology. This phenomenon is also reduced to the definition of cultural hegemony, which implies that the constitutive role in the analysis of manifestations of power is played by culture, which has a comprehensive and heterogeneous nature. In this context, the war in eastern Ukraine is the «next step» taken by Russian cultural imperialism. There is a belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the presidency of Boris Yeltsin is a period in Russia’s history when it came to its internal transformation, which consisted in the liberalization and democratization of state processes. Unfortunately, there is another view that under the banner of these changes, Moscow continued to pursue imperial policies, changing only its rhetoric, because Cold War-era rivalry based on «intimidation» of the use of nuclear weapons replaced ideological rivalry based on axiological and semantic. Today it is absolutely clear that Russia made a practical conclusion for the reasons that led to the collapse of then Soviet empire. The sphere of culture, or rather the sphere of the culture of reading and the creation of a social, civic narrative, which is an immanent element of critical thinking, is almost completely deformed in modern Russia. A similar strategy was applied to Ukraine, when under the influence of Moscow in 1992-1993 there was a division of the information sphere, which led to the limitation of intellectual discussion about the future of the state, thus plunging Ukraine into an informational trap of struggle that has has continuing up to now. The culture of reading, the culture of critical thinking and the assessment of reality have been replaced in both Russia and Ukraine by a destructive culture of television and the Internet.
The main issue in the context of these considerations is the question of understanding Russia or, in other words, understanding its intentions, which uses the sphere of culture in a pragmatic direction. So why do they still communicate and cooperate with Russia today, despite the interpretation of the Russian state as an entity that destabilizes the territory of the former Soviet Union, and an entity that also destabilizes many Western countries due to its participation from inside? The answer to this difficult question comes down to the question of cultural and historical narrative, which Moscow skillfully embodies in the system of Western values. Therefore, when talking about the change of Russian rhetoric, the importance of the axiological sphere was emphasized. Today, the essence of Russian imperial policy lies in the principles of historical understanding of modern events. Through the prism of the history of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, followed by present-day Russia, a cultural narrative is created that is exported to the West. Georg Simmel, writing about the essence of historical understanding, pointed out the prerogatives of using historical connections in the implementation of specific intentions. After all, the Russian Emperor Alexander I Romanov was an ally of France in the Napoleonic Wars, or the Russian Emperor Nicholas II Romanov, immediately after his coronation in 1896, did not go to anyone but France and proudly greeted at Versailles. It is this historical thought and historical narrative of modern Russia that allows us to maintain close relations with Western countries, despite the many political and economic upheavals associated with the involvement of the Russian state in the war in Donbass. Russia knows how to skillfully use its history and export this story to other organizations in the international arena.
On the other hand, Ukraine, like most countries in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, has not yet offered the West a narrative that would describe it in terms of an independent state and its relations with other entities on the world stage. Two aspects are important in the context of the formation of Ukrainian statehood. The first concerns the establishment of a common axiological version of history and culture. Modern Ukrainian political elites need to understand the significant importance that can be caused by the cessation of cultural antagonisms. Definition of the general version, not Ukrainian-nationalist or Soviet-nostalgic, but strictly Ukrainian state-building. The divisions in the Ukrainian society are certainly being used by Russia to weaken the Ukrainian state. Historical and cultural policies must be given priority alongside economic or security policies. Ukrainian politicians, including all ideological options, must stop thinking about the «now» and reach the historical and cultural discourse of several hundred years ago. In turn, the second aspect is the implementation of this consolidated narrative in the Western space of culture. Ukrainian politicians should learn to talk about Ukraine not only from the point of view of cultural dependence on others, but first of all from the point of view of a country that has its own history and culture.
There is a very simple but extremely effective rule, which is certainly well known to the Kremlin authorities. History is written by the winners, and Ukraine has its original qualities, which it can boast of. So why, in the crisis situations in which Ukraine has found itself over the past few years, have the Poles and Swedes, among others, been able to understand this best and respond as quickly as possible? This is because there is a specific historical and cultural connection that connects Ukraine with these countries. The emigration of Ivan Mazepa to Sweden, the Ukrainian museums in Malmö and Stockholm, and the proximity of the Polish state, not only geographically but above all culturally, are excellent examples of building ties based on historical and cultural proximity. Ukraine needs a political elite that is able to build a narrative that consolidates the entire nation, rather than creating messages aimed at realizing the specific interests of the political community, as well as the relevant social group.
Defining a strictly Ukrainian cultural narrative and presenting it abroad will certainly strengthen the Ukrainian national identity, and at the same time contribute to the fact that the works of Taras Shevchenko, Pavel Tychyna or Ivan Franko will become a must-read list in other Western countries.
Morzhin Viktor political scientist, graduate student of the University of Krakow