The History of the ‘Russian World’ is a Story of the Failure of Russian Policy in the Post-Soviet Space
March 21, 2024
  • Ilya Budraitskis

    Political scientist, visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Farida Kurbangaleeva
In interview with Farida Kurbangaleeva, political scientist and visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, Ilya Budraitskis discusses how the concept of the “Russian world” has changed over Putin’s administration, especially after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic and, with their permission, is being republished here with some changes.
Vladimir Putin’s addressing the XXV World Russian People’s Council, November 2023 “The Russian world is all the generations of our ancestors and our descendants who will live after us. The Russian world is Ancient Rus', the Tsardom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union. It is modern Russia, which returns, strengthens and multiplies its sovereignty as a world power…”. Source: YouTube
Today the concept of the “Russian world” is associated with the war in Ukraine, and with aggression and violence in general. Is it fair to say that the phrase did not have this connotation initially?

— The concept of the “Russian world” arose at the end of the 1990s as a synonym of “soft power.” And it really didn’t carry any aggressive meaning. The “Russian world” referred to the millions of Russian-speaking citizens in the new post-Soviet states and wasn’t meant to be a justification for territorial claims or deterioration of relations in the post-Soviet space. On the contrary, it was meant to be a bridge connecting Russia to other countries.

And when Putin first made mention of the Russian world, which was at the First Congress of Compatriots in 2001, he said that the Russian world is primarily a cultural concept. In other words, it is the Russian language, the historical connection with the country. It is worth noting that this includes not just the Russian-speaking citizens in post-Soviet states, but also Russian-speaking diasporas, for example, in the USA, Israel, and Western Europe. Moreover, later in his line of reasoning, he claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” which must be overcome by strengthening the state.

So at what point did this idea start to be implemented as practical action?

— This happened somewhere in the mid-2000s, after the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the first Maidan in Ukraine in 2004. Then it became clear that Russia was losing its influence in the post-Soviet space.

The Kremlin began to do consistent work with the concept of the “Russian world” through its network of various non-profit organizations created to influence public opinion and politicians both in the post-Soviet space and in the West.

Among them was the Russian World Foundation, for instance, which was headed by pro-Kremlin political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov, and the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, the Paris branch of which was headed by Natalya Narochnitskaya. These organizations had different functions: some were supposed to promote the Russian language and Russian culture abroad, others were supposed to promote the Russian view of international politics and issues of moral values.
In the latter half of the aughts, the ‘Russian World’ became solidified as a political concept — still a sort of soft power, but now with the added flavor of antagonism between Russian values and those held by Western liberal democracies. This idea of antagonism was promoted through a network of organizations.
And the Russian world’s role as a tool in the struggle for influence was no longer covert.

Did this happen because Putin had already begun to have thoughts of military expansionism?

— I don’t think he had started thinking about that yet. Although sometime between 2005-2006 he had taken an active interest in increasing the combat effectiveness of the army and upping military spending. For example, in his 2006 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin said that the army is the foundation of Russia’s confidence in the future, as external threats are constantly growing.
The Bronze Soldier is a Soviet World War II war memorial in Tallinn, Estonia, where it was commonly considered a symbol of Soviet occupation. In 2007 its relocation from the city center to a cemetery caused a major controversy and mass protests. Source: Wiki Commons
Not only did the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine take place at this time, but relations with the Baltic countries were also declining. In 2007, there was the incident with the Bronze Soldier in Estonia. In addition, NATO expanded east in the early 2000s when the Baltic companies joined the alliance. And the idea that “NATO is advancing,” which was already floating around the Russian information sphere, gained traction. This period is generally associated with the spread of Russian media influence abroad. It was during this period that, for example, the Russia Today TV channel was created.

And all of these processes culminated in the 2014 events in Donbas?

— I think that the events in Donbas became evidence of how ineffective all this action being taken was. After all, if it was meant to strengthen the political presence of representatives of the Russian-speaking population in post-Soviet countries, then in 2014 we saw that in Donbas, there were no political structures representing the Russian-speaking population. There was a segment of the local elite that had business ties with Russia, but they had lost their legitimacy among the common people and there were no pro-Russian movements with serious support in the region.

Pro-Russian parties existed only in Crimea, but they cannot be said to have played a decisive role in the military occupation.
2014 marked the failure of the entire previous concept of the ‘Russian World’. It turned out that Russia does not have any soft power in Ukraine, and it is necessary to use hard power.
Initially, the idea of the “Russian world” as a soft power and cultural influence in Ukraine was not completely unfounded. You remember what Ukraine was like in the early 2000s. Kyiv was predominantly Russian-speaking; most Ukrainian media, including television, broadcast in Russian. Russia found a great source of trust in Ukrainian society, as well as a desire to maintain good relations and the idea of some kind of common cultural field. And Russia lost all this solely because of its own policies. So the history of the “Russian world” is essentially the story of the failure of Russian policy in the post-Soviet space.

So why was the idea of the “Russian world” so important to Putin?

— I think his affiliation with his generation played a role — he formed his identity as a person in the late Soviet Union. This is due not only to the resentment that “there was this big country in which I was born, and it ceased to exist,” but also to the fact that in the Soviet Union, the concept of the “Russian big brother” was secretly implemented across the common family of Soviet peoples.

In the Soviet republics there was the “rule of the second secretary”: the first secretary of the Communist Party in the republic was a native of the local nationality, and the second secretary always had to be Russian, in order to “keep an eye” on the national cadres, who by default were considered potentially unreliable.

Many residents of the national republics perceived themselves as living under Russian rule. Local nationalism was largely a reaction to Moscow's dominance.

How does the idea of the superiority of the Russian nation compare with the feeling of superiority among the Germans during the Third Reich?

— Overall, it makes sense to draw the comparison, but this does not mean that there are strict parallels between the two.

The idea of the “Russian world” is based on a contradiction: on the one hand, it is a cultural concept, implying that the “Russian world” includes not only ethnic Russians, but also everyone who speaks Russian and who is simply close to Russian culture. On the other hand, by the 2000s, Putin spoke of Russians as a “divided people.” This betrays a more ethnic understanding of the “Russian world” — the unity of the Russian nation, which was artificially divided into different states, created against the will of the Russian people.

Germany in the 1920s was in a somewhat similar situation. The German Empire had ceased to exist and millions of Germans lived in new states such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. For Hitler, the imperial syndrome shared by Germans who found themselves outside the territory of Germany became the basis for the aggression and annexation of territories.
In this sense, from its very inception, the concept of the ‘Russian World’ included a passive question of the fairness of post-Soviet borders.
Gradually, this question became an increasingly stronger motif, and after 2014, the question of the fairness of post-Soviet borders became the defining factor.

In the corpus of Putin's propaganda overall, and in the concept of the “Russian world” in particular, no clear boundaries are drawn between cultural affiliation and ethnic or biological affiliation.

For example, there’s a program being implemented in Russia right now called “DNA of Russia.” Here, “DNA” is an acronym for “spiritual and moral culture” (“DNK” and “Dukhovno-Nravstvennaya Kultura,” transliterated from Russian - RP). That being said, it is not very clear whether this “cultural code” is cultural in the sense of an acquired culture or whether it is a quasi-biological code that is present in our blood by birthright. Most likely, it refers to both simultaneously.

On the one hand, the Russian code cannot be said to be only a matter of blood and ethnicity. On the other hand, one cannot completely dissolve the nationalist Russian agenda in culture and say that immigrants from Central Asia, even if they learn Russian very well, will become exactly the same Russians as the Russians in Moscow. Therefore, these concepts can be read in different ways.

I see the potential for racism in the concept of the “cultural code” because some aspect of this concept refers to the fact that people who belong to the “Russian world” are born with this affiliation, that it is in their blood. And if it is in their blood, then any other cultural identity that they have may be considered false or unnatural.
Shaman (his real name is Yaroslav Dronov), a nationalist pop singer, has gained gigantic popularity since Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Source: Wiki Commons
Then we can say that there are people who, by origin, by DNA, by blood, belong to the “Russian world,” but were brainwashed and mistakenly decided that they were Ukrainians. This “misconception” must be overcome by any means in order to return them to their natural state, to their DNA.

Therefore, the concept of the Russian people in its ethnic understanding is “affixed” to the idea of cultural affiliation. Subsequently, the concept became more and more radicalized and shifted towards the idea of ​​a divided people.

If we continue to draw parallels with Nazi Germany Shaman sings the song “I am Russian,” evoking an association with the Nazi boy from the movie “Cabaret.”

— This is a conversation about very complex aspects of the Russian unconscious. Incidentally, there was a strange interest in fascist aesthetics within Soviet culture. For example, Seventeen Moments of Spring, which is Putin's favorite film, clearly flirted with the aesthetics of the defeated enemy.
From the point of view of pro-war hawks (aka Z-patriots), fascists are everyone who opposes the interests of Russia as a state. And Russia is anti-fascist simply by virtue of its essence, its history and its geopolitical position.
We heard this thesis back in the 1990s voiced by various far-right groups: “How dare you say that there is a rise in fascist sentiments or fascist organizations in Russia? If the Russians defeated fascism, they cannot be fascists.” But everyone else — for example, residents of the Baltic countries — not only can they be fascists, but they are, because they do not like Russia. Their history involves collaboration with Hitler, and so on. The same logic applies to Ukrainians today: if you choose your Ukrainian identity, you become a fascist.

In other words, a fascist is someone who does not want to live as part of the Russian Federation. And everyone who wants to live within it and believes that this is the logical and natural conclusion is anti-fascist. Although the “Russian world” initially meant something with which we would have voluntarily associated ourselves, following 2014, this narrative, it seems to me, has ended.
A destroyed house in the Donbas, July 2014. Source: Wiki Commons
— If Putin believes that Ukrainians are Russians who have gone astray, then why is he killing Ukrainian “Russians?”

— It appears that from his point of view, the “Russian world” is not a physical concept, although it is connected with the lives of real people who speak Russian. After 2014, you could hear the Kremlin argument being voiced everywhere: yes, a huge number of people died or became refugees and cities were destroyed, but the long-term historical goal of all this is for the Russian language to triumph within this territory, so that those who survive will study Pushkin and Russian literature. Therefore, the Russian language triumphs, in spite of the lives of those who speak it. These are the great historical tasks that the “Russian world” sets for itself.

In your opinion, how will the concept of the “Russian world” develop?

— I think that, first of all, it will involve the concept of revising post-Soviet borders. It remains one of the tasks and has become a very important element of the current state ideology of Russia. That is, Putin can then go to other former Soviet republics and declare that they are part of the “Russian world.” He has said many times that the existence of these countries is, roughly speaking, a gesture of goodwill on the part of Russia. They exist as long as Russia allows them to exist. And if they cross any red lines, the same thing will happen to them that happened to Ukraine.

I think this is a deeply held conviction. And one that is no longer held solely by Putin. It has become the rationalization used by the Russian state. In fact, it is the official principle behind relations with post-Soviet states—that their sovereignty is constantly in question. And this official Russian state position is ideologically justified precisely through the concept of the “Russian world.”

It turns out that in order for these countries to survive, it is beneficial for them not to support the study of the Russian language and the promotion of Russian culture? Otherwise, “Russian” territories could come to them at any moment and annex them.

For real-world Russian speakers living in post-Soviet countries, the concept of the “Russian world” requires them to make a political choice: you cannot remain a Russian-speaking person and be neutral towards the Russian state and what it does. And if the choice is not made in favor of the Russian state, then these people must completely reconsider their identity.

In general, the concept of the “Russian world” turns the bearers of Russian culture in post-Soviet countries, regardless of their desire, into a “fifth column.” Putin’s Russia almost directly states that sooner or later, it will use this fifth column. Naturally, this positioning leads various post-Soviet states to try to reduce the presence of the Russian language and Russian culture, because this presence is considered a threat to national security. And the policies and rhetoric of the Russian state directly confirm these fears.
This situation is exceedingly tragic, and the victims of the ‘Russian World’ are primarily Russian speakers.
Victims in the literal, physical sense, because the majority of the civilians who died in Ukraine were residents of the east and south of the country, who apparently belong to this “Russian world.”

What do you think about the so-called national minorities within Russia, who are not ethnic Russians, but are now also included in the concept of the “Russian world?”

— This is an interesting facet of the issue, because the concept of the “Russian world” used to mainly relate to foreign policy, to activities outside Russia, while the idea of the “Russian world” in relation to the population of Russia itself appeared not so long ago.
Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there was the idea that there are Russians and there are Russian citizens, who are part of Russia but are not ethnically or culturally Russian. And this is good, because Russia is a culturally and nationally diverse country.

But after 2022, the idea that everyone in Russia is Russian, including residents of the national republics, begins to take root. This concept is based on the consistent practice of defederalization.

Political defederalization was accomplished long ago — the government officials in all regions are simply appointed by Moscow. But there still remains the problem of national identity, which is solved through Russification, because the identity of any national minority is seen as a potential challenge to the unity of Russian society.
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