Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Defining "Russian Culture"

Russia's "identity crisis" has been much discussed (and lamented) since the demise of the Soviet Union, and caused confusion not just for public diplomacy and nation branding (What is the "image" that Russia wants foreign publics to have?), but also for its foreign policy strategy and priority-definition. Of course, analysis of the official discourse, as well as that of actual foreign policy could provide pretty reliable indications of where Russia "was coming from" and where it was headed. Yet, the lack of any clear definition of what Russia stands for and consequently, what its long-term objectives are, has been an issue for quite some time now, especially for public diplomacy. Seems like this is finally about to change.

As I discussed in one of my earlier posts, my preliminary research demonstrated an increasing consensus on certain key "values" and aspects which were to become quintessential characteristics of the "Russian culture", particularly as that related to the soft power which Russia wants to wield around the world and, more importantly, in the region. Last week, a piece in Bloomberg View on this very subject caught my attention. The piece suggested that "Putin is planning to put the intellectual and ideological foundations of the new regime into words," and discussed the draft "Foundations of the State Cultural Policy" document initially reported on by Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

"The Three Bogatyrs" [Knights] - arguably, one of the most "Russian" paintings ever... Image from Vedimir.Ru.

According to these sources, the document - which was developed by the Ministry of Culture and is currently under review by the President - can be summed up as "Russia is not Europe, as proved by the entire history of the country and nation". The document also supposedly argues against any official support provided to cultural projects that impose foreign values upon Russians. Nezavisimaya Gazeta then provides the following quote:
"No references to 'freedom of speech' or 'national uniqueness' can justify activities considered to be unacceptable according to the Russian traditional value system. This does not mean restrictions on freedom of speech or human rights; however, it necessitates the rejection of state support to individuals and organizations demonstrating behavior that counters [traditional] cultural norms."
Thus, the main goal of the document is, reportedly, the maintenance of national unity in Russia and the resistance against "foreign values", supposedly coming from the West (Europe and the US).

Whether or not the document will be signed in this form, there has been further indication that this approach has substantial traction in Russia's highest political circles. Perhaps the best confirmation came last Thursday, during Putin's marathon Q&A session with the Russian public. Here's the full video and the transcript (a treasure trove, in itself):


The passage of note regarding this particular issue, however, is the following. This was an answer to the question from a Yekaterina Shcherbonos of St. Petersburg, who asked "What is the Russian people to you? By virtue of your position you’ve probably been to all countries of the world. You’ve seen a tremendous number of nations and ethnic groups and learned about their cultural traditions, national habits, cuisine and arts. In this context I’d like to ask you: In your opinion, what does it mean to be Russian? What do you think about their pluses and minuses, their weaknesses and strengths?”

Here's his response:

"Well, some specialists believe that the people as a community do not have specific features, that only individuals have them. I find it hard to accept this position because if people are using the same language, live in a common state, on a common territory with a certain climate, if they have common cultural values and history, they are bound to have some common features. 
As for our people, our country, like a magnet, has attracted representatives of different ethnic groups, nations and nationalities. Incidentally, this has become the backbone not only for our common cultural code but also a very powerful genetic code, because genes have been exchanged during all these centuries and even millennia as a result of mixed marriages. 
And this genetic code of ours is probably, and in fact almost certainly, one of our main competitive advantages in today’s world. This code is very flexible and enduring. We don’t even feel it but it is certainly there. 
So what are our particular features? We do have them, of course, and I think they rely on values. It seems to me that the Russian person or, on a broader scale, a person of the Russian world, primarily thinks about his or her highest moral designation, some highest moral truths. This is why the Russian person, or a person of the Russian world, does not concentrate on his or her own precious personality… 
Of course, in everyday life we all think about how to live a wealthier and better life, to be healthier and help our family, but these are still not the main values. Our people open themselves outward. Western values are different and are focused on one’s inner self. Personal success is the yardstick of success in life and this is acknowledged by society. The more successful a man is, the better he is. 
This is not enough for us in this country. Even very rich people say: “Okay, I’ve made millions and billions, so what next?” At any rate, everything is directed outward, and oriented toward society. I think only our people could have come up with the famous saying: “Meeting your death is no fear when you have got people round you.” How come? Death is horrible, isn’t it? But no, it appears it may be beautiful if it serves the people: death for one’s friends, one’s people or for the homeland, to use a modern word.
These are the deep roots of our patriotism. They explain mass heroism during armed conflicts and wars and even sacrifice in peacetime. Hence there is a feeling of fellowship and family values. Of course, we are less pragmatic, less calculating than representatives of other peoples, and we have bigger hearts. Maybe this is a reflection of the grandeur of our country and its boundless expanses. Our people have a more generous spirit.
I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this. Many peoples have their own advantages but this is certainly ours. An intensive genetic, informational and cultural exchange is going on in the modern world. There is no doubt that other peoples have precious and useful things that we can borrow, but we have relied for centuries on our own values, which have never let us down and will stand us in good stead in the future."

A crowd in Sevastopol, Crimea watching a live broadcast of Putin's public Q&A session. Image from The Guardian.

In short, Putin tried to boil down the essence of The Russian Soul into something more clearly delineated and, more importantly, more marketable, at home and abroad. We received an official confirmation (and this is as formal as it can get) that Russia - (now, apparently) a communitarian and group-oriented culture, as decreed from above - will be sticking with "traditional" values, promoting them abroad, and using that as both a point of contention with the West, but also as a tool against them.

"Cultural (or perhaps even 'Civilizational') Autarky" of sorts...?

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