Narrative X-ray: who are Russia’s compatriots?

30.11.2023

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Russia is spreading the ‘compatriot narrative’, which aims to bind Russians living abroad more closely to Russia in order to exploit them for its goals, as well as to justify its aggressive foreign policy. Russia is trying to play the role of defender of Russians living abroad, using it as one of the means of restoring its former superstate status.

How did this narrative come about?

The narrative of compatriots in its current form began with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, when a large number of Russian-speaking residents remained in the newly independent or restored former union republics. It is estimated that among them was as much as a sixth of all Russians, or about 25 million people. Several million linguistically Russified people with an identity close to Russians were added to them.

For the most part, these were migrants from other regions of the country during the Soviet era, not natives. Their national background is actually varied, but in the Russian approach, according to current interests, all of them can be considered as “compatriots”. This term is quite broad and, depending on the context, can include more narrowly Russian citizens but more broadly all people who share Russian culture, language, historical heritage, religious and spiritual values.

The proportion of “compatriots” varies in different countries, in some the native population has largely switched to the Russian language. After the collapse of the USSR, some of the resettled left. In Central Asia, where less emphasis is placed on European values, ethnic cleansing also took place, during which Russian-speakers were forced to leave en masse. Such events in Tajikistan have been described by Pyotr Aleškovski in his novel “A Fish. The story of one migration” (2006). Ironically, the Central Asian countries currently have the populations most favorable to the USSR in some respects.

Lithuanian, Estonian, Latvian, and Polish Presidents in Vilnius on November 6, 2006. Photo: Scanpix.

The topic of compatriots is related to the approach to the so-called “near abroad”. In the official foreign policy doctrine, this term covers the Union Republics of the former Soviet Union, including the Baltic States. However, based on Russia’s use of words and behavior, in the national mindset there, the rest of the European countries of the Eastern bloc also belong to this group. When Central and Eastern Europe turned towards the West, Russia’s reaction to it was painful, as it was later with the Balkan countries.

The near abroad policy became more systemic after Vladimir Putin came to power. In the past, sharper statements in this regard were made by Russian political extremists rather than members of the country’s leadership. During Putin’s time, on the one hand, Russia used more economic means of influence in relation to the near abroad, on the other hand, it began to apply historical propaganda from the mass media to historical films, and thirdly, intelligence methods were increasingly used in foreign policy. All these tendencies also appeared in compatriots’ politics, when the Russian state began to finance compatriots’ organizations.

What story does it tell us?

Russia’s compatriots’ policy rests on three pillars:

  • the development of the Russian language and culture,
  • the fight against the falsification of history, 
  • the protection of the rights of compatriots.

Its very name sounds like a statement that a part of the population of some countries belongs more to Russia than to their country of residence and needs a special policy. At the same time, the promoters of this policy have tried to create comparisons with the British Council, although the reality is quite different.

In summary, the aim is to give the impression that compatriots who “came to live” in foreign countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union are a minority persecuted by the locals – fascists – in the near abroad, which the Russian state should support.

Propastop mapped Russia-related networks in Estonia five years ago and at that time came up with six different conditional classifications based on the division of labor and connections between them. Some are active mainly in organizing and participating in protest actions. Others represent Estonia in international organizations and try to spread the message that Russian-speaking people are being persecuted here or their human rights are being violated. Third parties manage propaganda portals. The fourth ones are mainly in charge of accusing Estonia of fascism. However, one specific group is the Russian language teachers and youth workers associated with the Russian foundation Russki Mir. All of them are also closely related to the movement of compatriots.

Who is it aimed at?

On the one hand, it is aimed at the whole world. The policy of compatriots serves as one of the justifications for Russia’s near abroad doctrine. Compatriots living in neighboring countries give Russia an excuse to pursue its characteristic aggressive foreign policy and interfere in the internal affairs of these countries. Ostensibly, this is done to support one’s compatriots, but in reality to achieve one’s own foreign policy goals, or in many cases simply to sow political discord. This is not really a feature of modern Russia. As Marquis Astolphe de Custine already states in the summary of his book “Letters from Russia” (2023), originally published in 1839: “Europe is a prey for Russia, which sooner or later will fall into her hands because of our disagreements. Russia is fomenting anarchy in our country in the hope that it can take advantage of the emerging corruption because it matches its views.”

On the other hand, the narrative is primarily aimed at these compatriots. “Russia’s compatriots policy is aimed at people who lived in former USSR territories, Russian-speaking communities and those who feel a spiritual connection with the Russian language, culture and country,” writes Margus Gering in his master’s thesis.

What are its goals?

The goal of Russia’s compatriots’ policy can be considered the restoration of Russia’s status as a superpower, one of the means of which is to keep compatriots under Russia’s sphere of influence. In essence, it is about keeping and preserving the fifth column. In turn, one of its tools is the distortion of history, from simple slandering one’s opponents as fascists to much more complex defamation campaigns.

One might wonder if language teachers and youth workers should really be lumped in with characters who accuse Estonians of fascism or human rights violations. However, Russia’s understanding of such activities is quite different from that of, for example, the Germans or the French, who also support the spread of their culture.

In Russian foreign policy, there is a term “humanitarian trend”, which deserves attention for the term used alone. While other parts of the world usually talk about “soft power” following the example of Joseph Nye, the Russians have adopted a different expression. The humanitarian trend indeed envisages the spread of the Russian language and culture in the world and the gathering of people of Russian origin living outside Russia into a single Russian diaspora. However, the goals of this foreign policy concept are very unambiguously compatible with Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. The “National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2020”, which was approved by the President of Russia in May 2009, does not even try to hide the fact that a unified diaspora should be an important tool for the country in achieving its foreign policy goals.

Agnia Grigase, a US political scientist from Lithuania, divides Russia’s policy towards the countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union and/or the Russians living in them into seven stages:

  1. soft power,
  2. humanitarian policy,
  3. compatriot policy,
  4. information activities,
  5. distribution of passports,
  6. protection by military means, 
  7. annexation.

There is not necessarily a fixed order for these stages, and it is not necessarily planned to implement all of them for all countries. Policy by country can be quite different if you look at the past experience of the Baltic countries. At a time when in Estonia things went as far as the Bronze Night rebellion and the organization of cyber attacks, in Latvia, they tried to exert influence through local oligarchs.

The Russian Orthodox Church blesses the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for fighting in Ukraine. Photo: Alexey Pavlishak / Reuters.

On the Ukrainian line, clerics and more pro-Kremlin parishioners of the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church have also been involved in supporting Russian aggression. Signs of their cooperation with other propaganda channels can also be seen in Estonia. Immediately before the outbreak of aggression, in January 2022, the branch of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia published a special issue of its magazine Pravoslavnyi Sobesednik, which contained slander and lies against Ukraine and Estonia.

In Russia, the work with compatriots is supervised by the corresponding government commission. All kinds of institutions are engaged in its implementation, the most central of which is the autonomous federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Affairs of CIS States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) under the administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Yevgeni Primakov, the grandson of the former prime minister.

Notably, according to the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, compatriots in Russia are under the increased attention of the main intelligence unit of the FSB – the Department of Operational Intelligence (DOI) of the 5th Service. Some of the heads of this department have always been among the members of the government commission dealing with issues of compatriots living abroad. Also, the FSB has long been associated with the Institute of Diaspora and Integration, founded in 1996, headed by State Duma member Konstantin Zatulin, which deals with the investigation of the near abroad and the justification of Russia’s foreign policy.

Both the FSB and other Russian intelligence agencies are engaged in recruiting collaborators from among their compatriots to obtain intelligence information. However, an additional interest of the FSB is finding collaborators to spread propaganda that praises Russia and denigrates the West.

Russian intelligence organizations also use Rossotrudnichestvo and its branches abroad – Russian scientific and cultural centers – as well as other institutions linked to compatriots to create a “cover” for their own personnel. Thus, FSB employees are on the payroll of the Moscow Compatriots’ House under the Moscow City Administration.

How is it going at the moment?

As long as the Russian state likes to present claims against its neighboring countries, this narrative will probably find widespread use. In connection with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the justification of the war and the undermining of the unity of the Western countries were added to the policy of the compatriots as an additional line.

Russian propagandist Andrei Andronov. Source: Telegram.

For example, in April 2022, Rossotrudnichestvo organized demonstrations, including vehicle convoys, in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine across Europe. In connection with the charge of treason brought against Aivo Peterson, the leader of the KOOS (TOGETHER) political movement, who achieved a result that surprised many in this year’s Parliament (Riigikogu) elections in Ida-Virumaa, a Russian citizen propaganda worker who can be associated with the compatriots’ movement has been arrested along with him.

Also, the number of Russians, although not necessarily too friendly to the current Russian regime, has now exploded in several countries where it was not very large before, for example, Georgia.

However, Russia’s attack on Ukraine significantly undermined the credibility of Russian propaganda and its distributors in many parts of the world. Thus, the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the war-supporting Patriarchate of Moscow , has come under attack, primarily in Ukraine, but also elsewhere.

The images used are screenshots from the referenced pages. The infographic was created by the Propastop editorial team.