The performance by the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre orchestra in Palmyra, earlier destroyed by Islamic State militants, made it possible to once again think about Russia’s soft power potential. Such an incontestably attractive and accessible political and cultural code must become the semantic content of the country’s foreign policy. This is especially important for relations with the European Union.
The shared background of contacts between Russia and the EU is currently marred by sanctions. And essentially political sanctions were met by Russia’s purely economic response (countersanctions). Any impact delivered by a response of this type may be felt financially, but not in any way to do with image. The resultant worsening of conditions for European farmers may have some influence on their relations with their own governments but will do nothing at all to modify Russia’s position in Europe.
It is worth recalling that the Russian Federation’s presence in Europe’s cultural field predominantly takes the form of news agencies like Sputnik or Russia Today, which fulfil an important function in reporting the Russian perspective but have no substantial effect on how Russia is perceived in European countries. Russian culture (literature, theatre, classical music, film), on the other hand, is famous and enjoys great popularity in the West, albeit being seen more as part of the global cultural heritage.
The crux of soft power strategy is the presentation of a myth – a selection of values and meanings – for the purpose of enhancing one’s own attractiveness, politically and otherwise, in the eyes of the world community. And in this regard, Russia also has things to offer the world; for example, its unique experience of combining various peoples and confessions in peaceful and neighbourly coexistence within the structure of a single state. This issue is now more topical than ever for Europe, caught in a vice grip between the collapse of its multiculturalism policy and the migration crisis. The questions related to cultural coexistence within Europe which have led to problems in the security sphere and demonstrated that Europe itself gave rise to the monsters engaged in conducting acts of terror in its very heart (and that the Cologne police can only respond with silence to these massive violations of its citizens’ rights) cannot be interpreted as a conflict of civilisations.
However, the image of Russia abroad – even in countries like those of the CIS or Europe which are historically, culturally and geographically close – is being formed without Russia’s participation. It is naïve to presume that the country’s scientific, cultural and historical achievements will speak for themselves during the global struggle for spheres of influence.
In the very least, periodic attempts to appeal to, for instance, Russia’s great past, are met with strivings to nullify, in the informational arena, all of her achievements. Mention of the victory over Nazism will be countered by films on the alleged military crimes of the Red Army or the general character of the Stalinist political regime. The struggle for minds cannot be totally lost as long as monuments to the Soviet soldier yet stand in Berlin in Tiergarten and Treptower Park, indeed. But the demolition of Soviet period memorials in other European states clearly demonstrates not only the conceptual and symbolic significance of such monuments but also the overall trend.
Stereotypes of the attitudes that some Europeans hold towards Russia extend back for centuries. This does not, however, negate the other fundamental component of Russian-European relations – the historical and cultural affinities constituting the identity of individuals and nations. In this respect, the reaction of Russian citizens to the terror acts in Paris and Brussels and EU citizens to the bombing of the Russian airplane over Sinai is indicative. In both instances, people brought flowers and candles to embassies, speaking not only of the common enemy terrorism but also of common values.
Thus, the need for Russia to maintain a permanent presence in the European cultural milieu, independent of the prevailing political agenda, takes on a key role. Russia, possessing great soft power potential, does not, as of yet, do more than declare its intentions. But experience clearly shows that any economic ties may be dissolved or revised for political reasons whereas the same cannot be said about relations based not solely on profit but also on mutual cultural and political acceptance.