Welcome to Narrative X-Ray. This is a new series of articles from Propastop, which takes a step back from the daily onslaught of misinformation and sheds a light on the broader narratives commonly used in propaganda. We’ll explore where they come from, why they are used by propagandists and what they intend to achieve by disseminating them.
First up under the Narrative X-Ray is the concept of the ‘russian world’, known in Russian as ‘russkii mir’. This is a key narrative underpinning Kremlin propaganda, although is not always widely understood.
We should start though by clarifying what is a narrative is in the context of propaganda. The term is used often quite vaguely. Here in Estonia, Märt Väljataga has written an in-depth article about narrative in the magazine Keel ja Kirjandus (Language and Literature). He points out that the term is in danger of becoming so all-encompassing that it loses all meaning and explanatory power. In a collection published by NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Scott Ruston, a professor at Arizona State University, defines narrative as a system of stories constructed to make sense of the world around us. This is the definition that we use.
To x-ray that, we won’t be looking at bones and muscles, as our patient is made of stories and meanings so we use an analysis based on public data to present a fuller picture of its whole.
A quick note on language. ‘Russian’ has multiple definitions in Russian, relating to either the state and citizenship or language, culture, and ethnicity, which can be a bit confusing when translating into English. We use lower case to refer to the broader non-state concept of ‘Russian’.
The earliest traces of the term “russian world” come from the 11th century, which is when Iziaslav Yaroslavich, the Grand Duke of Kiev, spoke about “Kherson and the Russian world” in a letter addressed to Pope Clement of Rome.
But the modern concept of a “russian world” has several fathers, according to CGI’s (Center on Global Interest) researcher Marlene Laruelle. It has what could be described as a biological father, Petr Shchedrovitsky, and a spiritual father, Gleb Pavlovsky. In 1995, Pavlovski, a political scientist at the height of his influence as Russia’s chief ‘imagologist’, founded what became known as the Russian Institute. In the manifesto of the Russian Institute, Gleb Pavlovski criticised what he thought was a taboo around the term ‘russian’ (russkii) and an inability to speak calmly about Russian national consciousness (russkoe samosoznanie).
At the time, Petr Shchedrovitsky was working for Pavlovsky’s consultancy, the Foundation for Effective Politics. On 15 December 1997, Shchedrovitsky and his colleague Efim Ostrovsky published an article entitled “The Eagle Spreads Its Wings: 1111 Signs 1111 Days before the New Millennium. A Manifesto for a New Generation”, which addressed the concept of a “Russian world”. It was described as a peaceful restoration of Russia’s identity and reunification with its past and diaspora.
This text from 1997, however, used the term russian world as ‘Mir Rossii’, which is in the context of Russian as a state, not yet of the russian world (ruskii mir). It was not until 1999 that the term appeared in its current form in a new article by the same authors entitled ‘Russia: the land that never was‘.
Petr Shchedrovitsky recalled in an interview that the term ‘russian world’ was born in 1998 when the Foundation for Effective Politics was commissioned to develop a concept for Russia’s CIS policy. Initially, russkii mir was not very convincing to the commissioners, and it was not until 2001 that Vladimir Putin first used it officially in a speech to the first World Congress of Compatriots Abroad. Russia’s new president declared: “The concept of the russian world extends far beyond the geographical borders of Russia and even beyond the borders of the Russian nation.”
Just as ‘Russian’ has varying meanings, so too does ‘world’ here. In the case of russian world (ruskii mir) as a concept, ‘world’ should be understood through its ancient meaning as the the space of a civilization. Historically, we talk about the Greek world, the Roman world, and the Byzantine world as a way of defining vast territories under the influence of a single cultural center. These areas not only shared the cultural values of the center, but were also politically loyal to it and orbited economically in the center’s orbit. In Russian, the word “mir” can be literally translated as both world and peace so there are parallels with the ancient concept of Pax Romana. That ‘Roman peace’ refers to the relative stability and peace that prevailed in the Roman Empire from 27 BC to 180 AD. During this time, the Roman Empire experienced long periods of economic prosperity, cultural achievement, and military dominance.
Initially, the russian world was not an ethno-national idea. Its creators were strongly influenced by philosophers such as Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Berdyaev, while also being specialists in marketing and branding. The russian world is characterized by this double aspect. In marketing terms, it is a brand that represents Russia’s voice in the chorus of nations, but it is also a vessel for philosophical or religious messianism, accompanied by the understanding that Russia’s message to the world has a universal saving value.
Compared to its earliest definitions, the idea of the russian world has developed over time in accordance with the Kremlin’s goals. In the 21st century, the narrative can be summarized as follows: the russian world relies on Russian civilization, which is supported by the entire Great Russian nation, which carries a common Russian idea and shares a common Russian soul (distinctive spirituality, morality and culture), a common political center (Moscow), a common cradle (Kiev, “Mother Rus”), a common language (Russian) and a common church (Russian Orthodox Church), united by a common patriarch (Patriarch of Moscow) who works in a “symphony” under the leadership of a common secular leader (Vladimir Putin) to rule this “world” and enforce this “peace” on a de facto common territory (embodied by Russia’s control over its immediate neighborhood and its integration based on Eurasian ideology).
At first, the concept of the russian world was primarily aimed at ethnic Russians living outside of Russia (especially in the so-called near abroad), which is indicated by the official introduction of the term just before the World Congress of Compatriots. Also, on June 21, 2007, a foundation called Russkii Mir, established by Putin’s directive, stated on its website that its purpose was: “promoting the Russian language as an important aspect of Russian national heritage and Russian and world culture, and supporting Russian language study programs abroad”.
The foundation manages hundreds of Russian centers around the world. In Estonia, their representative is the Pushkin Institute in Tallinn. The opening of the Russki Mir Foundation’s representative office in Tallinn took place on December 18, 2008 in the premises of the Pushkin Institute. Under the auspices of the russian world, the international Russian recital “Totalnyi dictant” was also held for several years and the global central venue in 2019 was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
The Estonian Internal Security Service states that, since 2006, the policy of compatriots is increasingly shaped by this so-called russki mir based on the concept that emphasizes the principle of the native Russian area. “This ideology tries to unite Russians around the world based on the principles of culture, language, faith, etc. in order to preserve their identity. In 2008, the Russki Mir Foundation began to actively operate in Estonia as well, financing several projects of our “compatriots” here,” the Internal Security Service wrote in its yearbook.
However, in addition to Russians living abroad, the narrative of the russian world has become increasingly prevalent in the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda too. Putin mentioned the russian world in his speech on March 18, 2014, justifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The main goal of the russian world narrative is to create a unified post-Soviet identity for all Russians (and those who want to define themselves as Russian).
During its existence, the Soviet Union was able to nurture a sense of statelessness among relocated populations, who, when the empire collapsed, who were left scattered across many different countries. The russian world allowed them to regroup under a common identity and regain their self-respect.
The common values of the russian world, a common faith and, above all, a common leader enable the Kremlin to successfully mobilize these people who define themselves as Russians and direct them to the fulfillment of common goals.
The russian world recognizes only one Russian nation, and according to this narrative, neither Ukrainians nor Belarusians can exist as separate nations. Based on this narrative alone, the Russian troops who invaded Ukraine are promoted as heroic liberators of this world.
And for those who do not identify with the russian world, this narrative attempts to demonstrate that the empire has not disappeared – it is big and powerful and will sooner or later take back everything it considers its own. Apparently, the russkii mir signs painted on fuel wagons rolling into Estonia from Russia, among others, fulfil this purpose.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has dealt the Kremlin’s soft power tools, which certainly include russkii mir, a major blow in democratic Western countries. It is not for nothing that the Foreign Intelligence Agency has entitled one of its chapters in this year’s Yearbook “The Russki mir’s candle goes out”. Although this chapter mainly focuses on the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church, the idea also extends to the entire narrative as a whole.
Russkii Mir’s narrative was declared a false teaching and denounced by a number of Orthodox theologians, which has also been published in Estonian.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine naturally made it much more difficult for the Kremlin to spread its narrative glorifying a united Russian world in democratic Western countries, including to those who speak Russian as a mother tongue and identity as Russian culturally. Also, last year, the traditional “Total recital” was not held in Tallinn, which was advocated in previous years by the mayor of Tallinn, Mikhail Kõlvart. Nevertheless, fuel tanks with ‘Russkii Mir’ labels have been seen on Estonian railways this year as well.
Domestically, however, the russian world narrative continues to grow inside Russia because the war in Ukraine has forced Russians to choose sides, and this narrative makes confrontation with the “collective West” on the us-versus-them axis very easy. The gap in values between the Russian state’s empire-driven narrative and the rules-based world of sovereign states continues to grow, as does the Kremlin’s detachment from reality.