Russia attempts at yielding soft power often comes across as clumsy. Yet as Nicholas Maltby argues, this does not need to be so.
The notion of ‘soft power’ was first developed approximately two decades ago. The term, originated by Harvard professor, Joseph S. Nye, Sr., essentially defined cultural or ideological ‘cool’. That man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes sitting next to you on the train: that is soft power. It equates to identification with a nation’s aspirations and/or ideology. For Nye, soft power is power that convinces through ideological attraction rather than coercion. Coercion, taking the form of military might or economic dominance, equates to ‘hard power’. Attraction, to the United States for its popular music scene, to Brazil for its sporting excellence, to Ireland for its pantheon of famous writers, these are all examples of ‘soft power’: they enhance the brand of a nation. Russia does not manage its potential for ‘soft power’ with the sophistication of other nations. As a country, it confines its might to the traditional effects of military and economic strength. In spite of its rich cultural heritage, it does little to promote the Russian ‘brand’ abroad. Its media outlets have little influence beyond Russian borders because much of what they broadcast is monitored closely by state authorities.
Comparing Russia with other nations in Europe, it is noticeable that Russia has no substantial state-sponsored vehicle for disseminating Russian culture abroad. France offers the Alliance Française, Spain has the Instituo Cervantes, and Britain, Germany, and Italy have the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, and the Società Dante Alighieri respectively. In London, for example, Pushkin House offers room to discuss Russian culture and hosts a series of high-profile Russian speakers, but has no connection to the Russian state. When the Russian state does employ soft power, it can be unreliable, or prone to the whims of state authority. Take the 2008 London exhibition “From Russia”, which saw Russian galleries loan, with state consent, an array of Russian and French masterpieces to the Royal Academy. The exhibition achieved critical success, but it could only go ahead after solution to last minute political wrangling between Russian and British authorities. Officially, the problem arose because the UK did not offer strong enough guarantees that the paintings would be returned to Russia (since several paintings were originally acquired by the Russian state from private collections after the 1917 revolution, they could have been open to settle private settlement claims). However, it was hard to ignore the context of strained diplomatic relations between Russia and the UK, in the recent aftermath of Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London. At the time, the director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, went on record to say: “Culture should function independently [from politics]”. The “From Russia” exhibition was arranged with the permission of Roskultura (aka the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography), an institution that was disbanded by then President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, also in 2008.
Where the US, France, Britain, and Spain all have highly-regarded film and television industries, acclaim for Russian cinema has diminished since the periods of Sergei Eisenstien and Andrei Tarkovsky. A handful of award-winning independent films such as 4, The Return, and Russian Ark, does not amount to the regular cultural capital, and thus soft power, accrued by other nations’ film and television industries. One of the weaknesses in Russian soft power is that it is often more clearly ‘soft propaganda’: this is the conclusion of Heather Conley and Dr. Theodore P. Gerber, two academics who compiled a report entitled, “Russian Soft Power in the 21st Century: An Examination of Russian Compatriot Policy in Estonia”. ‘Soft propaganda’ is identified by Conley and Gerber as the effect of the Russian Compatriot Policy, the stated aim of which is to publicise Russian culture abroad. The report identifies NGO’s, a strong relationship with the media, legal action, and the Russian Orthodox Church, as key tools of Russia’s ‘soft propaganda’. Photos of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin fishing in Siberia, or him hunting in the country’s Far East, are similarly clearly managed stage shots of Russia’s current President. Whilst the US and France might gain worldwide cultural kudos from the quality of parts of its print media, and Britain has the respected state-funded BBC, Russia Today (the Russian state-funded international TV channel) has neither the editorial quality nor the editorial independence to make it a valuable source of soft power to Russia. Put simply, Russian attempts at soft power do not adequately conceal their intent towards facilitating hard power.
In Soviet times, however divisive it might have been to westerners, the USSR’s ‘soft power’ was primarily ideological. Many left-wing thinkers in a country like the UK, looked towards Russia as a source of ideological hope. The UK’s Open University was introduced by Harold Wilson and based on a Soviet model of remote learning. The USSR showed its soft power on the sports field and by sending Yuri Gagarin to become the first human to journey into outer space. Although the USSR’s attempts at soft power were not always successful, it was clearly part of government agenda. For many people, Russia has a cultural history spanning centuries that is as rich as it is diverse. It is a shame that Russian authorities are unwilling to provide substantial investment to its curation overseas.
Written by Nicholas Maltby for www.links-dar.org