The Russkiy Mir Foundation: State Politics Through Cultural Endeavors?

Between 2007 and 2022, Russian soft power, characterized by its ability to sway other countries through cultural, diplomatic, educational, and media channels rather than through military or economic force, found considerable traction in Europe. This was exemplified by institutions like the Russkiy Mir Foundation and the state agency Rossotrudnichestvo, which played significant roles in fostering cultural ties and educational exchanges between Russia and European nations. Numerous European universities actively sought partnerships with these entities, demonstrating a positive stance towards cultural exchange and academic collaboration. Despite the European Union’s declaration in 2016 of the foundation as a propaganda instrument of the Russian state, cooperation persisted. However, the outbreak of the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine on 24 February 2022 abruptly terminated all avenues for cooperation between European countries and Russia, closing previously accessible channels. As a result, some European institutions reconsidered their partnerships with Russian entities, and there was a more cautious approach to engaging with Russian soft power initiatives.

In my book “Die Stiftung “Russkij mir”. Ideologie, Ziele und Netzwerk” [The Foundation “Russkij mir”: Ideology, Goals and Network], which scrutinizes the role of the Russkiy Mir Foundation in Germany and Austria from 2007 to 2020, drawing on numerous interviews with representatives of the Russian centers abroad, extensive data analysis, and field research conducted between 2018 and 2022, I contend that Russian soft power is not as benign as it may appear to Europeans. Rather, I argue that the Russian state employs soft power tactics in a manner that aligns with its own strategic objectives and priorities. A primary focus entailed the creation of a network comprising individuals sympathetic to the Putin regime, while a secondary emphasis involved the strategic utilization of this network for various instrumental objectives. The question of the functioning of the foundation as an instrument of Russian soft power proves to be extremely complex and defies a simple answer. The multifaceted nature of this topic stems from the fact that the operation of the foundation is not uniform and varies depending on geographical, cultural, and political contexts. The modus operandi of the foundation exhibits significant differences between different countries and displays numerous nuances. The toolkit of the foundation encompasses diverse strategies aimed at promoting Russian language, culture, and identity internationally.

In various countries, the Russkiy Mir Foundation strategically proceeds by forming partnerships with public universities. This approach aligns with the preferred practice of Russian cultural institutions, as universities have a significantly broader reach compared to associations, and the foundation gains recognition as a carrier of Russian soft power in this manner. Additionally, this cooperative effort has the potential to impact the curriculum of Russian language courses and shape students’ perspectives on Russia and its political landscape within an academic context. If public universities show no interest in collaborating with the foundation, it turns to private associations with ties to Russian culture and language, attempting to establish a presence there. If it is not legally feasible to open a location in a particular country, the foundation funds various associations through the financial program grants, seeking to influence these private entities. Although the foundation pursues different approaches to collaboration, three characteristic features of its on-the-ground activities can be derived from the analyzed case study: opacity, lack of defined boundaries, and loyalty.

Graph 1. The network of the Russkiy Mir Foundation in Germany.

Graph 2. The network of the Russkiy Mir Foundation in Austria

Legend: Red – finance direction. Green – cooperation. Blue – membership organization.

The first feature lies in the foundation’s opacity. Its activities operate opaquely in many countries, with some instances showing operations. This opacity is manifested through selective reporting and only partial disclosure of financial and personnel information. The foundation primarily reveals selective information about its activities on its website. This means that the published reports offer insights into organizers, audiences, event types, and objectives, though these details are often selectively chosen. Despite visual supplementation through images, this reporting does not convey the comprehensive scope of the foundation’s activities, which actually extend far beyond the realm of cultural collaboration. Particularly, intentional collaborations with political organizations or institutions are omitted. In reality, the foundation, through its cooperation with the state agency Rossotrudnichestvo, is involved in activities concerning Russian compatriots, often operating within the political sphere. This contrasts with the original focus of the founding decree, which primarily envisioned cultural and linguistic domains.

Graph 3 Locations of Russian centers and cabinets of the Russian language worldwide until 2022.

Legend: Red – Russian center. Yellow – cabinet of the Russian language.

A second characteristic of the Russkiy Mir Foundation is its lack of defined boundaries. The foundation lacks a general strategy for its work abroad; instead, it operates based on specific situations and locations. Between 2008 and 2020, it opened a total of 258 locations worldwide, including 119 Russian centers and 139 cabinets of the Russian language. However, the foundation’s funding has remained consistent since its inception, at approximately 500 million rubles annually (approximately 5 million euros). Managing and financially supporting 258 locations worldwide is a monumental task that not every cultural institution can handle. It is therefore not surprising that some locations had to close a few years after their grand opening ceremonies attended by Russian ambassadors and foundation representatives. In 2018, 13 of the foundation’s locations were closed. This closure can be attributed to the foundation’s initial interest solely in the opening, rather than the maintenance, of these locations at the beginning of the cooperation.

Graph 4: Financial structure of the Russkiy Mir Foundation

Legend: Red – million Russian rubles [Average exchange rate in 2020: 0.0139 USD]. Green – number of Russian centers opened worldwide. Violet – number of cabinets of the Russian language opened worldwide.

On a conceptual level, the Russkiy Mir Foundation promotes a blend of state patriotism and the imperialistic narrative of a “great” Russian culture. This fusion aligns with the state’s notion of a culture embedded in the fundamentals of Russian cultural policy. Patriotically, the foundation, alongside other Russian state institutions such as embassies and local branches of the Rossotrudnichestvo agency, supports activities abroad aimed at positively presenting the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda. These activities include commemorations of Victory Day and marches of the “Immortal Regiment,” which have been viewed as highly controversial and Kremlin-controlled by the broader European population since 2014. Notably, the foundation plays a crucial role in commemorating the “Great Patriotic War,” led by its former chairman Vyacheslav Nikonov, who spearheaded numerous media and book projects on the subject. Since its establishment, the foundation has been commonly perceived as a conservative organization. This perception stems in part from its name choice and is further reinforced by the leadership of Vyacheslav Nikonov, renowned for his conservative views. 

Culturally, the foundation’s work is rooted in a traditional image maintenance approach that is more past-oriented than future-oriented. The canon of classical Russian literature, established during Soviet times, plays a significant role in the foundation’s cultural self-image. It perpetuates the narrative of a “great” Russian culture, including literature, which is disseminated worldwide and cultivated extensively at its centers and cabinets. The foundation organizes numerous events and competitions honoring Russian writers and poets, celebrating their anniversaries in grand fashion. However, only patriotic-minded individuals are favored among contemporary Russian and Russian-speaking artists in the foundation’s work, while regime-critical artists are overlooked. 

The foundation’s activities are ideologically driven, characterized by a conservative value system that became the state ideology of the Russian leadership after 2012. Central elements of this ideology include collectivism, the historical unity of Russia’s peoples, and service to the fatherland. Additionally, the foundation draws on the ideology and spatial conception of the “Russian World” in its work. The concept of the “Russian World” encompasses Russian culture, history, and religiosity, extending to both Russia and the “Russian abroad,” although the definition of the latter category remains unclear. 

Leave a Reply