On Sunday, Russia releasedits new National Security Strategy. In many ways, it picked up from where the 2015 version left off — on a crusade to politicise and polarise every aspect of Russian culture. This is not a strategy for the country’s security but for the government: the document sets out to mobilise the Russian nation, even Russian identity itself, against western bogeymen at home and abroad.
Apart from some more sober references to ecology and partnership with China, most of the strategy reads as a paranoid diatribe against Russia’s oft-cited ‘internal and external enemies’. They loom large on nearly every page, lurking within discussions of national interest, societal cohesion, economics and strategic stability. But these threats are most explicitly referenced in the frequent pages that address culture, historical truth, and spiritual and moral values.
According to the authors of the strategy, Russia must grapple against the destabilising influence of the US and its allies as they desperately seek to preserve and reimpose their disintegrating global hegemony. Western-US hegemony is defined here in cultural as much as military or geopolitical terms.
Such references to the threat of ‘cultural westernisation’ emerge effortlessly from the Russian political discourse of the last decade, which has depictedthe Russian nation as living in grave peril from American cultural colonisation, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Russian state media has told audiences that this colonisation would turn Russia into Gayropa, an offensive term used to distort European tolerance towards sexual permissiveness.
By contrast, Russian politicians have sought to depict Russia’s global role as almost counter-revolutionary, leading the defence of the ‘true’ Europe, traditional values, and ‘cultural sovereignty’. This last phrase peppers the 2021 National Security Strategy, especially the section entitled: ‘The Defence of Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values, Culture, and Historical Memory’. Here, the vocabulary, if not the prose style, is borrowed from Dostoevsky, claiming that these traditional values ‘are subject to active attacks from the USA and its allies’ who propagandise for a society where ‘anything is permitted’.
The Kremlin’s intended responses against these ‘destructive forces’ are staggeringly expansive. A few concern the international sphere, namely increasing Russia’s role in the global science, education, and information spaces (namely via RT, Sputnik). Responses include strengthening family and traditional values; using state-controlled media to promote ‘Russian values’; funding ‘patriotic formation’ youth clubs; controlling publicly available historical narratives; promoting the church and religion; and the terrifyingly expansive promise to defend the Russian people from external ideas and values.
The 2021 National Security Strategy explains how such ‘alien ideals and values’ not only destroy the foundations of cultural sovereignty, political stability and statehood, but also cause irreparable damage to the ‘moral health’ of a person. In this way, the threat is targeted simultaneously at the person and the state. In both cases, it is presented as existential, aimed at destroying identity, whether individual or national.
This deliberate blending of national, state and personal identities works to submerge the individual’s and country’s rights and needs within those of the state. This is also part of an ongoing Russian government campaign to mobilise the Russian people against universal concepts such as rule of law and democracy by conflating them with an invasion and imposition of western values. The security services’ increasing control over previously open Russian universities, the crackdown on opposition politicians and media, and the effective blacklistingof major educational exchange programmes with US and UK institutions — these are all acts aimed at isolating and alienating Russians from the West.
Western governments and peoples should make every effort to undermine the Kremlin’s argument. Many would agree that Russian culture is unparalleled in its richness. It deserves more than to be used as a vehicle of securitisation, polarisation, and division. Moreover, whatever the 2021 National Security Strategy says, the Russian government and the Russian people are not the same thing — and western nations should celebrate this difference.
This could take many forms, from festivals of Russian literature, to financial and logistical support for a new Eastern European university for students and academics repressed in Russia. Single-handedly, the UK could expand the Chevening Scholarship to allow more of Russia’s brightest to study here, rather than privileging the gilded heirs to the Kremlin kleptocracy as we do right now.
We can’t do much about the Russian government — arguably there isn’t much the Russians can do. But as the Kremlin accelerates its efforts to isolate Russians from the West, those of us in liberal democracies need to offer ever larger and warmer hands of friendship.
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