Censorship and propaganda: culture as a battlefield in post-Soviet Russia

As the invading Russian army destroys and loots Ukraine’s cultural heritage, the West boycotts Russian artists and Moscow expands its grip on Russia’s arts and culture sectors. State censorship continues with renewed vigor against films, plays or books deemed “pro-Western”. Evgeniya Pyatovskaya is pursuing doctoral studies in communications at the University of South Florida. He previously worked to develop and implement implementing the internationalization strategy of a Russian state university. He recently co-authored several analytical articles on Russian propaganda and politics in light of the armed conflict in Ukraine.

A decree on “strengthening Russia’s traditional, spiritual and moral values”, signed in November by President Putin, gives state officials the means to block “Western influences” in the arts and culture. What are the implications of this new law?

One of the main consequences concerns the return of state censorship. This can potentially slow down the development of culture. Censorship can also ironically undermine the nation’s ability to communicate to the outside world the culture and values ​​that the state is trying so hard to impose and “protect” through mandate. Ultimately, this could lead to a deeper isolation of Russia from the global cultural landscape, or even the severance of some remaining ties with the rest of the world. Even before the mandate became popular, Russia was largely excluded from the sports and arts sectors. Limits on potential cooperation with outsiders, such as state control to ensure that members of the artistic community adhere to “traditional, spiritual and moral values”, will only increase Russia’s isolation. Another consequence of this law concerns the dangerous ideological manipulation of culture.

Can you give concrete examples of the effects of this control?

After the approval of the decree, it became possible for anyone in a position of authority to control the cultural sector. This influence comes from the uncertainty of the law and the subsequent possibility to interpret it subjectively. People, for example, are fired or fired from their jobs when they defend a critical position in the current war. This happened to teacher Nikita Tushkanov. Others are targeted if they read poetry to high school students by authors who are long dead, but are deemed by the high school principal to be “accomplices of fascism” or “enemies of the state”. Of course, these cases may seem a little isolated and insignificant, but I think they illustrate a trend where those in power are given carte blanche to judge artistic and cultural products and to impose their interpretations. There are many opportunities for the state and its officials, who can punish those who show any kind of disagreement with the government. The decree also removes the multicultural aspect that the state, ironically, presents as one of the main traditional values ​​that must be protected.

What are these “traditional, spiritual and moral values”?

In my opinion, the order is based on three assumptions defended by the government. The first says that Russia is surrounded by enemies. The second postulate asserts that the powerful United States, with its pervasive culture, presents the main adversary. The last postulate proves that Russia has a unique role, cultural and spiritual, to play in the world, a role that is really different from the West, which is said to be “soulless”, which would also explain the supposed Western will to destroy Russia.

Violation of a law to crack down on “LGBT propaganda”

Are anti-Westernism, patriotism and traditionalism taking us back to the USSR era?

Absolutely, and especially with the forbidden return of state censorship of art (films, exhibitions, etc.), once the norm in the USSR. I say “illicit” because the decree appears to be open to malicious interpretations and is contrary to the Constitution, which prohibits censorship. The language of this order is very similar to that of the Cold War: “We are surrounded by enemies who seek to destroy Russia; the United States should be placed in the same group of terrorist and extremist organizations; if we do not protect our culture and our values, we will be destroyed…” Bullying and blaming the West for everything that went wrong was very typical of the USSR. The Russian government today, similarly, believes in an external threat without actually proving it. This order, however, goes beyond what was seen in the days of the USSR: there are separate documents that regulate censorship, while the new document that affirms the traditional, spiritual and moral values ​​of Russia is the first of its kind. The Russian media is still full of state-sponsored propaganda. However, to support efforts to persuade its own people of the truth of what the state thinks is true, an executive order like this is needed. The state has now swallowed culture in the same way it has swallowed free media. There is no room for critical thinking and therefore for resistance.

How did artists react to these new conditions?

Some prominent leaders of the theater sector in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as Alexander Kalyagin, president of the Union of Theater Professionals, spoke out against the order. Artistic directors of Russian companies such as the Bolshoi and Chekhov, Sovremennik and Satirikon theaters wrote a letter of support for criticizing Alexander Kalyagin’s order. The calls are made to create a common opposition at the behest of theater professionals. Comedian Oleg Basilashvili, winner of the title of People’s Artist of the USSR, pointed out that the order gives too many rights and powers to the state over cultural institutions.

What is the connection between cultural control and the war in Ukraine?

The order appears to be an extension of Russian law on “foreign agents”. Russia, in my view, is struggling to form a unique identity after the collapse of the USSR, an identity that is intended to be different from what Russia stands for as the main republic of the Soviet Union. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, the two people facing each other are alike. They often speak the same language and share similar cultural references. It therefore becomes important for the Russian state to justify its right of aggression, especially within Russia. The recent order symbolically makes it possible to express the (assumed) superiority of traditional values ​​and to defend the role assumed by Russia as a bulwark against Western influence that is considered malignant. Since the war is seen as a struggle between the West (led by the United States) and Russia, it is necessary to emphasize the main difference in the enemy. The easiest way is to praise Russian values ​​and portray Western values ​​as morally inferior. For people inside Russia, this position sends another signal, that the war is only because it aims to “protect” Ukraine (not conquer it) from the dangers of Western influence.

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