Even as his troops retreated in disarray in eastern Ukraine last week, Vladimir Putin opened a new front in his war against the West: a “battle for cultural supremacy.” The Russian president declared his top foreign policy goal would be to lead a global counteroffensive against the “imposition of neoliberal views by a number of states.”
Russia, he claimed, is uniquely qualified for this task because it can offer the world an alternative to liberalism. “Centuries of history have given Russia a rich cultural heritage and spiritual potential that has put it in a unique position to successfully spread traditional Russian moral and religious values,” the statement said.
This will sound awfully familiar to any reader of recent Russian history. A hundred years ago, leaders of the new Soviet Union made similar claims of a Moscow-centered worldview to challenge liberalism. As Communists, they framed the contest in socioeconomic terms; proudly godless, they were hardly likely to invoke Russian religious values. It was no less a “battle for cultural supremacy” for that.
Putin, who tends to look back on the Soviet era through rose-tinted glasses, seems to have forgotten why his side lost that battle: It didn’t have sufficient weaponry. And his Russia is, if anything, even less equipped for the fight. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde (or Shakespeare, or Mark Twain), you shouldn’t engage in a battle for cultural supremacy when you’re unarmed.
Growing up in India in the 1970s, I had a ringside view of the contest — and remember how and why the Soviets lost, even though the field was tilted to their advantage. Although nominally non-aligned in the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, New Delhi leaned heavily to the Soviet side. After all, the USSR had supported India in its regional rivalry with US-backed Pakistan, providing arms, industrial knowhow and trade on favorable terms. Indians were encouraged to regard the West, and especially the US, with suspicion, even hostility, whereas the Russians were to be regarded as friends.
We were also discouraged from consuming Western products: Import restrictions kept most American brands out of reach, so the Soviet disadvantage in that area was not as great a handicap as it might have been. We never got to compare Ford and General Motors cars to Lada and Volga clunkers, for instance.
But when it came to cultural products, the Soviet disadvantage couldn’t be concealed. Indians, especially young Indians like myself, consumed Western literature, music, cinema and fashion. Although Moscow shipped quantities of books to India — translated into Indian languages and sold at heavily subsidized prices — they never gained much cachet with my cohort. There was no Soviet equivalent of the Hardy Boys or Betty and Veronica. Even those inclined to more serious literature found the Soviet offerings tended to tail off sharply after Pushkin and Chekov. (We did, however, read Russian authors Moscow proscribed, like Solzhenitsyn.)
My collection of rock and pop albums had no Soviet representation, there was no such thing as a cool pair of Soviet sneakers, and although the Indian state TV channel dutifully aired Soviet movies, the local cinema halls featured the much more popular Hollywood fare. As a result of this exposure to Western culture, we generally admired Western lifestyles, which were shot through with liberal values.
All this helped the West, and especially America, exert soft power in India that squadrons of MiG-21s or Soviet manufacturing technology couldn’t match. And in my hometown, the port city of Visakhapatnam, it didn’t escape our attention that the Soviet engineers who were seconded to the local steel plant were just as enthusiastic as we were about American rock albums and blue jeans.
If the cultural contest seemed one-sided then, it is absurdly so now. Putin’s Russia has produced few, if any, cultural products of note. In a world far more receptive to non-English entertainment, there are no famous Russian soap operas, no R-Pop craze. Rollywood isn’t a thing. RT, the Kremlin’s 24-hour “news” channel, offers its viewers and listeners a parallel universe of conspiracy theories and out-and-out lies, but has gained little traction.
If Russia is dwarfed by the likes of South Korea and Turkey in the cultural sphere, Moscow has little to offer outside it. Unlike the Soviet leaders he idolizes, Putin has no socioeconomic ideology to impress upon the wider world. Aside from military hardware, no Russian products or services are coveted by anybody. (And the damage wrought by US and NATO military equipment has also diminished the appeal of Russian weaponry.) Indians may be happy to buy cut-price Russian oil, but they are even more pro-Western than those who grew up in the 70s.
What little soft power Russia did have — mostly the product of shared language and history, and necessarily confined to its immediate neighborhood — has been greatly undermined by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has also rendered hollow his invocation of Russian moral values.
And never mind taking the fight to the West, Putin may not even be able to win the cultural contest in his own backyard. Tellingly, the pro-Putin rapper and entrepreneur who took over the Starbucks franchise network are replacing it, not with Russian tearooms, but with a cheap knock-off of the original.
Putin’s Russia doesn’t even have the soft power of a Frappuccino.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Putin and the Possibility of Defeat: Leonid Bershidsky
• Ukraine’s Wins Make Russian War More Dangerous: James Stavridis
• Europe’s Next Ukraine Mission Is on the Home Front: Editorial
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
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