Narrative X-ray: Russkyi Mir for domestic use

25.03.2024

Read this article in Estonian

At the beginning of December, the phone rang for Boris Akunin, a Russian novelist living in England. The writer, who has even had more than 20 of his works published in Estonian, began what he thought was a conversation with Aleksandr Tkachenko, the former culture minister representing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. 

Unfortunately, the content of this phone conversation was published a few days later by Vovan and Lexus, the well-known Russian pranksters. 

“The writer was not modest in the conversation with the pranksters – for example, he stated that he does not condemn the principle ‘a good Russian is a dead Russian’ and that he is sympathetic to the Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian cities,” wrote Argumenty i Fakty, one of Russia’s most popular newspapers. 

A storm of patriotic indignation erupted in Russia. It was reminded that Akunin is a pseudonym, the civil name of the writer who works in Russian is Grigol Chhartishvili, and he is not really Russian. It was emphasized that already after 2014, the writer moved to the free world, where he lives so well at the expense of detective novels and history books sold in Russia that he owns several houses. A competition broke out among politicians and pro-Kremlin social figures who demanded a harsher punishment for Akunin, a traitor to the homeland. The sale of his works in Russia was quickly stopped, and then a criminal case was initiated against Akunin.

Akunin is not just a writer, but a favorite of tens of millions of readers of Russian crime novels and historical novels. Without exaggeration, the figure of Erast Fandorin, the detective created by Akunin, can be compared to the meaning of Sherlock Holmes in the English cultural space.

The fate of one of the most beloved writers of Russians is just one example of how Vladimir Putin’s regime is destroying the Russian cultural space after the start of a full-scale war. Although the official goal of the war is the protection and vigorous expansion of Russkii Mir, or the Russian world.

External medicine now for internal consumption

President Vladimir Putin justified the war against Ukraine with, among other things, the desire to protect and expand Russkii Mir, or the Russian world. However, as early as April, Narrative X-ray pointed out, “In addition to Russians living abroad, the narrative of the Russian world has over time become an increasingly important tool of the Kremlin domestically.” 

Fortunately, contrary to Putin’s proclaimed goal, the influence of the Russkii Mir declined sharply after February 24, 2022, due to the end of the use of the Russian language and the consumption of Russian culture in Ukraine, a country of over 40 million people. The consumption of the culture of the aggressor country decreased to a significant extent in the same way in other European countries.

Over time, more and more examples accumulate that the aggressive preaching of Russkii Mir and the accompanying censorship most painfully devastate Russian culture itself. Polls by the Levada Center, which researches public opinion, showed throughout last year that the majority of Russians are not interested in the war in Ukraine. According to a survey conducted last December, war events, even direct Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory, are secondary events for the majority of Russians.

However, in reality, all Russians feel the side effects of the war in their cultural consumption, as the favourite artists of ordinary people gradually disappear from the airwaves. Both at the level of high and pop culture. The most famous of them are Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s most popular singer of all time, and her husband, Maksim Galkin, the country’s most popular TV comedian of the last decades.

When Pugacheva, who lived in Israel for a while, returned to Russia at the beginning of November last year, she was hit by a wave of complaints. This is one of Russia’s wartime phenomena: the grievances of fellow citizens, well known from the Soviet past, especially from the days of Stalin’s terror. Diva was accused of betraying the homeland, which, in addition to leaving the homeland, was caused by her husband Galkin’s clearly anti-war views.

The result was that, after only a few days, the pop diva left Russia again. Of course, her music is no longer heard in Russia, as well as the music of such rock stars as Andrei Makarevich, Yuri Shevchuk, Zemfira, and many others. This is because these pop idols are against the war and the Putin regime. Therefore, they are excluded from playlists and deprived of royalties.

War deprives Russians of decades-old favourites

But if ordinary Russians can overlook the Ukrainian attacks in Crimea or Belgorod, they simply have to notice the silence of their pop idols.

Andrei Makarevich, the leader of Mashina Vremen, one of the most important bands in the history of Russian rock music, was asked last autumn: Where will you give your next concert—in Russia or Ukraine?

Makarevich answered after some thought: “For some reason, it seems that in Ukraine. For the end of the war.”

Last December, the Levada Center also asked Russians who they think are the country’s best male and female singers. By a long shot, the list was headed by the Kremlin nightingale Shaman, who was named by 20% of the respondents. Other pop stars Polina Gagarina, Filipp Kirkorov, Nikolai Baskov, and Anna Asti gathered 3-6% of supporters in the survey.

His best-known song, “Я РУССКИЙ” (I’m Russian), dripping with militant patriotism, has become a symbol song of both the Great Russian imperialism and the war against Ukraine.

It was sung by thousands of Russian high school and college graduates last summer and amplified in countless social media posts. This song and all the creations of Shaman and the state’s favourite artists like him are used to glorify the “Russian Great Power.”.

“Russians identify themselves with Russia as a “great power” most during military campaigns, when the share of propaganda increases sharply and the desire for revenge and the desire to dominate the post-Soviet space increases,” Levada Center sociologist Lev Gudkov analyzed this phenomenon, referring to the wars in Chechnya, the attack on Georgia and Ukraine.

According to Gudkov, however, propagandists are not entirely successful in convincing Russians that it is better to live in a militarily powerful and intimidating country than in a country that provides economic well-being to its citizens. “Only a small minority is willing to pay for the national desire for greatness, which seeks military superiority and the ability to threaten other countries,” wrote Gudkov, based on decades-long polls by the Levada Center. “On average, over the past 25 years, 76% of respondents prefer that “the efforts of the Russian state should be aimed at achieving a high standard of living for its citizens”, and only 16% prefer “developing Russia’s military power”.

Despite the war, Putin’s regime has managed to maintain economic prosperity in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other big cities. Elsewhere in Russia, they are trying to maintain satisfaction by increasing all kinds of state subsidies, the peak of which is the time before the presidential elections in March.

In the field of culture, Putin’s goals are being achieved in two ways: firstly, by paying cultural events and cultural workers to make propaganda, and secondly, by introducing more and more powerful censorship.

More and more, what is happening in Russia’s cultural space is starting to resemble the Soviet era, when great figures of culture who fled abroad were silenced. For many years, these great Russian writers have been living abroad and have something to say to the readers of the free world: Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Mikhail Shishkin, Vladimir Sorokin and others. Many of the works of these writers have been translated into Estonian. This is because they, like Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Jossif Brodsky and others, who were previously hated by the Soviet authorities, have something to say to the world.

However, the works of writers and musicians are still available to Russians in the Internet age. Despite the censorship of the Soviet era, Russian cinema was able to offer the world brilliant works by, for example, Andrei Tarkovsky.

After the outbreak of a full-scale war, Russian films have been cut off from the world. Critic Anton Dolin, who described the situation of Russian cinema in Tallinn on January 17, said that it is impossible to produce good films without state support. 

However, only films with the “correct” content receive state support. And even if a good film is made with state support, the logo of the Russian Ministry of Culture in its credits means that no prestigious international film festival will include it in its program.

“Both censorship and self-censorship work,” said Dolin. “Obscenities are taken out of films, exposed bodies are blurred, scenes that might irritate the censors are taken out just in case.”

Putin banned Stalin in Hell

Director Aleksandr Sokurov, Tarkovsky’s apprentice, became world famous despite Soviet censorship already in the 1980s. Since then, the now 72-year-old man has been a major figure in Russian cinema.

Last year, Sokurov presented his anti-war positions in Ukraine and criticized the Kremlin. As a punishment, he lost his job as a lecturer, and his experimental film “Fairy Tale” was banned from being shown (This work, whose characters are Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Churchill in Hell, can be viewed in poor quality on Youtube).

In an interview with Ksenia Sobtshki, a trendsetter very popular among Russians, Sokurov compared life in today’s and Soviet-era Russia. He did not directly answer the question about whether he was afraid of arrest.

“During the Soviet era, everything was forbidden, not only my activities,” said Sokurov. “The state was against (19th-century dissident) Radishtsev, (writer) Saltykov-Shchedrin, (composer) Shostakovich, (writer) Solzhenitsyn, (composer) Prokofiev, the state was against everyone all the time. All the time, the writer, composer, and director seemed maniacally enemies of the state. It was madness! Instead of creating a country with the help of national culture as a nature reserve and protecting this culture, dullness, dullness, dullness, and aggression reigned!”

Sokurov did describe the Soviet era, but over a million people who watched this interview understood that the description also applies to Putin’s regime.

Contrary to the promised expansion of the Russian world, Putin’s regime is killing the vibrant Russian culture that has given the world talented writers, composers, and directors. Instead, the regime numbs its people with massive propaganda.

On the one hand, this is good because it reduces Russia’s soft influence outside the country’s borders. On the other hand, it is dangerous, because it is easier to incite a dull nation to expand the Russian empire.

In other words, as Narrative X-ray already stated in April, “the common values of the Russian world, a common belief, and, above all, a common leader allow those people who define themselves as Russians to be successfully mobilized by the Kremlin and directed to the fulfilment of common goals.”

The screenshots are taken from the sources used in the article. The infographic was created by Propastop’s editors.