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Russian soft power from USSR to Putin’s Russia

Soft power is about forming the preferences of other actors on the international scene so that they want what the dominant actor wants (Nye, 2004). In examining the current state of Russia’s soft power, we will look at two aspects: essential and instrumental. The essential aspect is related to the culture of the country, its language, arts, science and educational systems, as well as the attractiveness of its socioeconomic model as a whole. The instrumental aspect of soft power comprises the institutions through which the essential aspect can be manifested - various governmental and non-governmental organizations and charitable foundations, including the media, cultural, scientific and educational institutions, etc.

Historical context

When we talk about modern Russia, it is important to remember that today’s Russian Federation is largely the successor of the Soviet Union, just as the Soviet Union was in many ways the successor of the Russian Empire, especially in relation to geo-politics and culture. In this regard, a significant part of today’s Russian soft power is also based on the pre-eminently civilizational, cultural and geopolitical character of both the Imperial and the Soviet periods of its history.

The destruction of the Soviet Union, which was the leader of the Eastern bloc and enemy of the Western bloc during the Cold War, could not but affect the influence in the world of its successor, the Russian Federation. Communist ideology' based on socialist values, ideas of equality and anti-colonialism were a powerful alternative to the market liberal ideology of the West (Barghoorn and Friedrich, 1956). Soviet ideology, together with the victory over Nazism, its example of industrial growth, advances in outer space and support for the ‘Third World’ formed the basis of the soft power of the USSR, particularly among the countries ofAsia,Africa and Latin America, who, liberated from colonialism, were attracted to and guided by it (Hilger, 2017).

The Soviet intellectual and cultural investment in many developing countries during the decades of the Cold War- including Arab countries (Katsakioris, 2010), South Africa (Filatova and Davidson, 2013), India (Wishon, 2013) and China (Li, 2019) - is well documented. Numerous publications from Moscow’s Progress Publishers, notably English translations of books about Marxism and Leninism, as well as great works of Russian literature, were dispatched to countries around the world, made available in many major languages, including Mandarin and Hindi. In addition, such magazines as Soviet Union, Soviet Life, SovietLand and Misha - in multiple translations - became ubiquitous propaganda vehicles across the developing world until the disintegration of the USSR. The communist, social democratic and left-wing forces in the countries of the West were also influenced by progressive ideas emanating from the USSR.

All this soft power was lost after the collapse of the USSR and Russia’s return to a market ideology. Russia’s loss of influence and global stature was intensified by the economic hardships and failures of the 1990s. On the other hand, the new Russia assumed other characteristics, generating a positive perception abroad. After Gorbachev’s perestroika and its vital role in uniting Germany for the Western world, Russia was seen as a country moving towards democracy and human rights. At the same time the perception of Russia as a source of military threat and risk of universal nuclear destruction started to diminish.

The world had recognized the merits of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazism during World War II. The authority of the Soviet Union in the field of space exploration also remained at a high level. However, in the 1990s, the attention to Russia’s soft power from the federal authorities was minimal. The financing of the instrumental aspect of soft power had disappeared: programmes of economic aid to former allies in eastern Europe and among countries of the global South were discontinued. Public diplomacy was not developed: for example, the number of foreign students studying Russian language and culture decreased dramatically.

By the new millennium, post-Soviet Russia found itself in a difficult economic position and it lost its role as a model in socio-economic terms. Russia was rapidly losing its soft power influence not only in the world, but also in the former post-Soviet area (Sherr, 2013; Kiseleva, (2015; Lankina and Niemczyk, 2015). On the other hand, Russia maintained its image as a country transitioning to democracy, which under Gorbachev had changed attitudes towards the Soviet Union from its former Cold War enemies to become more positive. Instead, the USSR (then Russia) lost some of its former allies as a result of the change in policy.

This situation changed with the ascension to power of President Vladimir Putin. He presented the country with a new philosophy of reviving Russia’s influence in the world. The period of the 2000s was a time of sharp rise in prices for hydrocarbons - the biggest export revenue source of Russia. This resulted in a strong economic recovery and rise in the living standards of the population and, as a consequence, in the sense of national identity. Putin and his team understood, however, that economic growth and defence capability were not enough to revive the country’s influence.The new Russia needed an essential, substantial basis for soft power, to promote it not only to its own population, but also to external audiences.

In summary, the new ideological basis of Russian soft power rests on two foundations: the concept of a ‘multipolar world’ and the aim of protecting conservative values. President Putin spoke about the latter in his address to the Federal Assembly in 2013:

there are more and more people in the world who support our position on the protection of conservative values, which for thousands years have been forming the spiritual and moral basis of civilization, of every nation: the values of traditional family, genuine human life, including religious life, not only material life, but also spiritual, the values of humanism and diversity of the world.

(PoslaniePrezidenta, 2013)

Thus, Russia positions itself as one of the centres of the ‘multipolar world’, standing up against ‘American hegemony’ and ‘globalism’, which destroy national sovereignty. In addition, Russia sees itself as protecting traditional cultural patterns, national values and religious identities, and acts as an apologist for‘reasonable conservatism’, opposing the ‘bulldozer of cultural unification’ that blurs the lines between nations, cultures and even genders. As a result, a part of the Western right-wing political spectrum began to perceive the Russian Federation as a stronghold of‘conservative values’, and even ‘the last hope of white Christian civilization’. For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, a new Russian ideology has a target audience not only within the country but also abroad, including some Western countries.Thus, today’s Russia has managed to find ideological allies within the Western world among its anti-liberal forces (Polyakova, 2014). However, the reverse effect of this development was the creation of an extremely negative image of Russia in the eyes of Western liberal supporters of secularism and globalization.

In Russian discourse the term ‘soft power’ was first mentioned in an interview given by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the problems of interaction with foreign Russian-speaking communities in Rossiyskaya Gazeta in 2008. The Minister defined ‘soft power’ as ‘the ability to influence the world through civilizational, humanitarian, cultural, foreign-policy and other attractiveness’ (Lavrov, 2008). Deputy Foreign Minister G. B. Karasin, in an interview with the magazine Free Thought defined ‘soft power’ as ‘the ability to project abroad the achievements in the economy, science, technological development, cultural and humanitarian sphere, thereby increasing the attractiveness of the country’ (Karasin, 2010). In the Moscow News in 2012, Putin defined it as ‘a set of tools and means to peacefully achieve foreign policy goals, by means of information and other bargaining chips’ (Moskovskienovosi, 2012).

The foreign policy concept of the Russian Federation, approved by the Russian President in 2016, characterizes ‘soft power’ as a tool for solving foreign policy challenges. It is noted that the tool is based on the capabilities of civil society, information and communication, humanitarian and other means and technologies that complement traditional diplomatic means (Gerasimova, 2018). The latest version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept recognizes the use of‘soft power’ tools as an integral part of foreign policy. These ‘tools’ include information and communication, humanitarian and civil society capacities. The aims of this soft power include: protection of the rights of compatriots abroad; strengthening the role of Russia in the international humanitarian area (language, culture, history, cultural identity of the country, education, science, Russian diaspora); strengthening the international position of the Russian media, and fostering dialogue among cultures and civilizations.

The essential components of the modern Russian model of soft power include the Russian language, culture and the arts (music, literature, painting, cinema), universities, science and technology, especially space, and the media. Another particular aspect of Russian soft power is the event-related component, holding large global events, such as the Olympics.

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