Since taking power on December 31, 1999, the Putin administration has followed a well defined policy of state involvement in the area of cultural development. Putin’s political calculation behind this policy is not accidental, and comprehensible. This has proved a point of continuity since the fall of the Soviet regime. The Soviet Union seemed to have a government ministry for almost every aspect of culture, from literature to movies to education. In a union of countries spreading from the Black Sea to the Pacific, an active policy of state shaping of culture was seen as critical for maintaining harmonious relations within the realm of civil society.
The Russian state has viewed civil society with suspicion from imperial times. Russian cultural history has developed full mythology of the suffering censored artist, from Pushkin to Dostoevsky to Akhmatova to Solzhenytsin. The acceptance of state imposed censorship at all levels of civil society — education, the arts, the media — to name areas with contemporary equivalents — as a given marks one of the main defining features that differentiates the frame of mind of American historians in the field of Slavic studies from those who specialize in American studies.
The surprisingly peaceful fall of the Soviet Union brought a new challenge to the Russian administration — maintaining corporate unity during a time predicated on the disassembly of a multinational state structure. It also pointed to the awkward state of Russia within the Soviet structure. Even though Moscow served as the administrative center of the Soviet structure, it served as the center of a government predicated on the erasure of nationalistic supremacies, while simultaneously preserving national cultures.
The 1990s and the Eltsin era became a period of state redefinition and reconstruction — rebuilding Russia as a solitary state instead of Russia, the great coordinator of continental policy. Following Eltsin’s reconstitution of the Russian state, Vladimir Putin emerged as the redefiner of cultural statism,[i] with a view of a singular, increasingly homogeneous Russian culture as a critical component of a robust post-Soviet Russian state. Putin stated clearly in the first speech he read when he took power on December 31, 1999, that not only unity, but state centralized unity, that would define the future of the post-Soviet state. “Be it under communist, national-patriotic or radical-liberal slogans, our country, our people will not withstand a new radical break-up.”[ii]
In this speech, Putin outlined a vision of a Russia defined by a strong state that maintains a central role in the growth of cultural life.
“Another foothold for the unity of Russian society is what can be called the traditional values of Russians… Patriotism. This term is sometimes used ironically and even derogatively. But for the majority of Russians it has its own and only original and positive meaning. It is a feeling of pride in one’s country… If we lose patriotism and national pride and dignity, which are connected with it, we will lose ourselves as a nation capable of great achievements… For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.
Modern Russian does not identify a strong and effective state with a totalitarian state. We have come to value the benefits of democracy, a law-based state, and personal and political freedom… It is a fact that a striving for corporative forms of activity has always prevailed over individualism… This is why I, personally, am paying priority attention to building partner relations between the executive authority and civil society, to developing the institutes and structures of the latter, and to waging an active and tough onslaught on corruption…”[iii]
Fast forward thirteen years to February 19, 2013, to a session of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations, where Putin net with some leading government officials to discuss his National Ethnic Policy through 2025. At this meeting, Putin presented a six step strategy “to strengthen the harmony and agreement in a multinational Russian society so that people, regardless of their ethnic or religious identity, recognize themselves citizens of a single country…”[iv]
The six policy proposals were:
- Formalizing the recognition of Russian language as the state language, and the language of multinational communication.
- Standardizing school curriculum built on an understanding of Russian history as one uninterrupted unbroken process.
- Civil society non-governmental organizations will operate within the framework of state supported social non-commercial organizations.
- Support of the initiative “For the Strengthening of a United Russian Nation and the Ethnocultural Development of the Peoples of Russia.”
The next one, I have to admit, left me scratching my head at all levels. Unlike the rest of the proposals, which I have translated by myself, I present the Kremlin’s official translation. Anyone who has any idea of what this means, feel free to pipe in!
5. “Our civic chambers operating at different levels also have great potential. Together with state and municipal civic councils, they could promote a dialogue between the Government and civil society on the implementation of national policies.”[v]
6. Sports as a tool for cultural diplomacy. Like when they had the 1980 Olympics. Except that this time, the United States might show up to Sochi.
Looking at all these policy proposals put together, what emerges is a vision of civil society organizations, regardless of the services they provide, or the scope of their missions, increasing falling under the direct supervision of the federal government.
The Russian transcript also includes the statements by government dignitaries who attended the meeting, and some of their statements had a sense of everything new being old and everything new old being new, down to Viacheslav Aleksandrovich Mikhailov’s statement that one of the more serious problems facing this mission is the “problem of the training of cadres” properly trained to carry out this vision of Russian society. This represents a disturbing strategic ideological and structural homogenizing of civil society structures, particularly those engaged in cultural activities. Furthermore, the intense drive to manage the presentation and interpretation of Russian history proves equally disturbing. It is comprehensible that Putin and his administration are maybe trying to smooth out the vision of Russian history after decades of teaching the importance of the “great break” in history, where Stalin called for the collectivization of the Soviet economy.[vi] Can a call for post-modern self-criticism be far?
[i] Statism is one of the favorite terms within the field of Soviet studies. For an example of the Sovietologists’ take on statism, see Robert V. Daniels, “The Soviet Union in Post‐Soviet Perspective” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 74, No. 2 (June 2002), pp. 381-391.
[ii] Vladimir Putin. “The Modern Russia: Economic and Social Problems.” Vital Speeches of the Day. February 1, 2000. pp. 231-236.
[iii] Putin, 233-234
[iv] 19 февраля 2013 года «Заседание Совета по межнациональным отношениям.» http://www.kremlin.ru/news/17536
[v] Meeting of Council for Interethnic Relations http://www.eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/5017
[vi] И. В. Сталин «Год великого перелома: к ХII годовщине Октября», Правда, 3 ноября 1929 г.