How the Issue of Crimea Is Used in Russian Cultural Diplomacy

The analytical note reviews the main strategic goals of the government of the Russian Federation related to the occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in the context of cultural diplomacy as part of the “soft power” policy. The key tools for implementing the relevant strategies are taken into account, as well as a brief overview of the actors involved in such implementation and the principles of their involvement by the Russian government are given.

The role of cultural diplomacy in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation is gradually increasing. This is shown by the “soft power” reform announced in July 2020, which includes a traditionally significant cultural component. In the case of the Russian Federation cultural diplomacy pursues primarily two interconnected goals:

1. to help to improve its image abroad that was undermined as a result of the armed aggression against Ukraine and a whole range of international scandals (for example, interference in the US elections in 2016, poisoning of Serhiy and Yulia Skrypal in the United Kingdom, etc.);

2. to spread and strengthen Russian hybrid influence by exploiting Russian-speaking minorities abroad and imposing the Russian version of history with focusing on whitewashing the totalitarian regime in the USSR and its role in World War II.

Regarding the second point, it should be noted that the support of the state language and its promotion including the international arena is one of the basic components of “soft power” which a large number of democracies such as the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, etc. rely on. In the case of the Russian Federation, however, such policies often have a destructive ultimate goal for the target society as the growth of Russian-speaking minorities abroad increases the levers of influence which are consistently used by the Kremlin to pressure national governments (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) and can be exploited for armed interventions (Georgia, Ukraine). Article 45 paragraph d of Russia’s “Foreign Policy Strategy” stipulates the “protection of the rights and legitimate interests of compatriots living abroad based on international law and international agreements of the Russian Federation declaring the significant contribution of compatriots to the preservation and dissemination of Russian language and culture“. Paragraph e provides a thesis about promoting “the consolidation of compatriots living abroad for better implementation of their rights in their countries of residence” and “preserving the identity of the Russian diaspora and its connections with the historical motherland“.

In the case of Crimea, however, this entails another strategically important goal – to legitimize the occupation with all available tools including cultural diplomacy. This goal is the focus of the vast majority of Moscow’s cultural initiatives that concern Crimea and are aimed at external audiences. It was most openly publicized in 2016 at the X Convention of the Russian Association of International Studies which had a section that was entitled “Public Diplomacy as a Factor in Overcoming the International Blockade of Crimea”. In practice, the implementation of such a policy has been going on essentially since the beginning of the occupation and is conducted at the highest state level. 

One of its important tools for legitimizing the idea of “Russian” Crimea is cultural appropriation. The Russian government is actively positioning the historical and cultural heritage of Crimea as Russian including it in the strategy for the development of local tourism, which Moscow was ready to support financially with 100 billion rubles in 2019. The project of the Ministry of Economic Development designed for six years relies primarily on “domestic Russian” tourism encouraging Russians to go to Crimea on holiday. This is entirely aligned with the information policy aimed to create the image of the enemy represented by Western countries and with the desire to reinforce the feeling of “national pride” from the occupation (as of October 2020, 30% of Russians were proud of the “reunification” of Crimea with Russia – this is the third indicator after the “victory in the Great Patriotic War” and the “leading role in space exploration” but it decreased significantly compared to previous 2017 and 2018 when it was 43% and 45% respectively). In particular, the portal “Kultura.RF” supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture dedicated a whole special project to Crimea. However, great hopes are also placed on foreign tourists who are encouraged primarily by the natural, recreational and cultural resources of the peninsula.

One of the brightest examples of cultural appropriation in the context of the occupation of Crimea is the case of “Scythian Gold” – exhibits of the Crimean museums of the collection “Crimea – a Golden Island in the Black Sea”. During the occupation, the collection was presented at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and the proceedings to decide where to return the exhibits are still ongoing. The Ukrainian government insists that the “Scythian Gold” should be returned to the territory of Ukraine controlled by Kyiv and the District Administrative Court of Amsterdam agreed with it in 2016. However, the government of the Russian Federation which appealed against the “illegal” decision disagrees. In particular, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergiy Lavrov claimed that “Russian-Dutch relations are blighted by the anti-Russian campaign launched in the Dutch media, the unjust verdict of the Amsterdam court on the transfer of exhibits “Crimea – a Golden Island in the Black Sea” to Ukraine, not to the Crimean museums“.

Another example that goes beyond the Crimean context and considers the broader issues of the struggle for cultural and historical heritage is positioning the world-famous marine artist who lived and worked in Crimea Ivan Aivazovsky as a Russian artist. This is a problematic cultural tradition for Ukraine established during the Russian Empire which Moscow continues to promote actively including at the international level. For example, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where Aivazovsky’s paintings are also exhibited he is identified as a Russian artist. There are many similar examples and the most famous among them is the avant-garde artist, the author of “Black Square” Kazimir Malevich whose work was also appropriated and entrenched in the mass consciousness as Russian. In the case of Aivazovsky, the consequences are indirect but important not only for the struggle for Ukrainian culture as a component of national identity but also for the territorial integrity of the country. When Ukraine insists that Crimea is its territory it is important to fight not only with purely legal arguments but also with historical myths. The reason is the following – there is a relatively widespread sentiment that the so-called “referendum” may not have been legal but was “historically fair”. The international perception of artists who lived and worked in Crimea as Russian does not contribute to this struggle.

It is also important to mention that Aivazovsky was one of those who painted the Swallow’s Nest on his canvases – a castle that became an informal emblem of Crimea and is now exploited by the Russian government. The Central Bank of Russia produced a commemorative coin depicting the castle with a circulation of 10 million dedicated to the act of occupation in 2014. A 100-rubles commemorative banknote with the Swallow’s Nest was produced in 2015.

The inclusion of Crimea in the Russian cultural context is progressing not only based on such symbolic gestures but also through work with much wider audiences. One of the biggest events in Russian cinema was released in 2015. It was the propaganda “documentary” film directed by Andriy Kondrashov called “Crimea. The Way Home” which contained interviews with top politicians including Vladimir Putin. The film was intended primarily to strengthen the “patriotic” feelings in the Russian audience but eventually gained widespread attention in the world media. The film was planned to be translated into 36 languages. However, although this film became one of the most famous propaganda media products about Crimea, it wasn’t the only one. More than 40 films of various genres have been shot on the territory of the occupied peninsula normalizing the perception of Crimea as an integral part of Russia’s historical and cultural space even more, including in those countries that export Russian content for their own distribution.

One of the key institutions that aim to legitimize the image of the “Russian” Crimea in the cultural and historical sphere is Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, compatriots living abroad, and international humanitarian cooperation). The main tool for the implementation of Russia’s “soft power” abroad along with foreign-language propaganda media such as RT and Sputnik, Rossotrudnichestvo is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Serhiy Mironov who is the State Duma deputy of the “Spravedlyva Rosiya” political party proposed to move the headquarters of this organization and Rostourism to Crimea in 2017. The same opinion was publicized by another deputy of “Yedyna Rosiya” political party Dimitry Belyk in 2020. He claimed, “Sevastopol and Crimea have always been at the forefront of the struggle for Russian peace, we have the unique experience of preserving our historical identity and love for Russia. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that our regions not only sought to return to Russia themselves but also spread this idea in Ukraine“.

Considering the direct affiliation with the authorities of the Russian Federation and the general political climate in the country, the position of Rossotrudnichestvo is quite predictable. It is noteworthy that Rossotrudnichestvo refused to support the popular all-Russian action “Total Dictation” in 2020 due to the choice of the author for it – Dmitry Glukhovsky. The writer criticized the occupation of the peninsula and as a result, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo Yevheny Primakov refused to give him a “platform at public expense” while claiming that the author’s political views are “of no interest to him at all”.

Both proposals to move the headquarters of Rossotrudnichestvo to Crimea were rejected but its Moscow location does not affect the policy pursued by this organization regarding Crimea. Rossotrudnichestvo actively conducts international events aimed to consolidate the perception of the occupied territory as Russian. In particular, the “Crimea in the History of the Russian World” quiz was held in the Republic of Moldova in 2019. A photo exhibition “Beautiful Tavrida” took place in Gomel, the Republic of Belarus, in November and December 2020. The results of another quiz “Do you know Crimea?” were summed up in the occupied Georgian city Tskhinvali, the capital of another Kremlin marionette entity, the Republic of South Ossetia, in December 2020.

Particularly interesting was a series of events held with the participation of Rossotrudnichestvo in Yerevan, the Republic of Armenia in 2019 dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the occupation including a ceremony of laying flowers to Aivazovsky monument. It is noteworthy that the Russian government has resorted to proven tactics involving primarily local organizations that are under its control and/or taking relevant measures abroad to create a further impression of international support. Among the participants were, in particular, the newspaper “Komsomolska Pravda in Armenia”, the business and cultural center “Crimea”, the NGO “Association of Regional Research and Training Centers” and the Armenian branch of the international association “The Friends of Crimea”.

“Komsomolska Pravda…” that is legally registered in Yerevan fully reproduces the editorial policy of the parent newspaper in Russia which is a tool for propaganda and disinformation like the vast majority of Russian media. The center “Crimea” was established by the marionette “parliament” of the occupied Crimea in 2014 to increase the investment attractiveness of the Republic of Crimea in the international arena as well as to present the culture of the Republic of Crimea in Russia and the world“. It is obvious from the purpose of creation that this structure is directly involved in the exploitation of Crimea by Russian cultural diplomacy.

“The Friends of Crimea” association was established later in 2016 but, in fact, for the same purpose – “the development of intercultural communication, contacts, and interaction with regional, national and international organizations“. Its activities are a clear example of lower-level “hybrid analytics” that promotes disinformation through the involvement of formally independent experts working primarily with Western audiences. The association clearly focuses its activity on the international vector which is proven by its coordinating council that consists exclusively of foreigners. That gives the impression of broad international support for “Russian Crimea” in an expert and activist environment. However, a more detailed analysis shows that all members of the Coordinating Council are consistently involved in the government activities and/or are members of other Kremlin-affiliated organizations. For example, Council Chairman Jan Charnogursky, the former Prime Minister of Slovakia, is a staff expert at the well-known Valdai Club, one of the Kremlin’s main “hybrid analytics” institutions, which engages top-rank politicians including Vladimir Putin.

Noticeable is the structure of the organization seeking to expand its influence abroad through the opening of local “The Friends of Crimea” clubs usually headed by members of the Coordinating Council of the General Association. Such clubs operate in Greece, Turkey, China, and several other countries. A similar principle of simulating support abroad involves countries whose representatives may not be members of the Union itself but in which Russia has significant influence, such as in Serbia. Belgrade hosted the event “Belgrade Dialogue: for constructive relations with Russia and recognizing the people of Crimea’s will” in 2019. The Serbian side was most actively represented by the Serbian Radical Party deputy Aleksandar Sheshel [1]. Sheshel was a representative of the state in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe where he consistently promoted the Eurosceptic views traditionally supported by Russia including one of the Kremlin’s most popular narratives that the pandemic demonstrated the European Union’s failure and the “anti-Russian hysteria” narrative. He also publicized that it was necessary to start the integration of Serbia with Russia. Sheshel is a representative of the far-right forces actively supported and used by Moscow in the international arena aiming to legalize the aggression against Ukraine.

The Association of Regional Research and Training Centers is a less successful example of the same activity. The organization positions itself as a non-governmental entity but does not have its own website except only for a passive Facebook page in Armenian and Russian showing regular partnership with Russia. It was likely made for such a partnership since the role of local proxies as pretended independent actors has been and remains crucial for Russia’s hybrid influence.

It is worth returning to Belyk’s thesis on the popularization of the idea of ​​Russian Crimea in Ukraine where Rossotrudnichestvo also plays an important role. Considering the tense relations with the Ukrainian authorities, the organization significantly limits its activities and mostly relies on local actors to indirectly promote ideas that may cause public resonance and provoke attention from the side of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. An example of such symbiosis is, in particular, the activities of the International Pedagogical Club in Kyiv. The organization which seems unrelated to political processes at first glance is overseen by two members of the Russian Language Support community and, despite its name, focuses exclusively on promoting the Russian language, literature, and the Kremlin-defined version of world history. The International Pedagogical Club participates in events together with Rossotrudnichestvo including those that are aimed at the international community, such as the forum “Europe’s Youth Stands for Peace” held in 2016. One of the organizers of the forum was the foundation “Russkiy Mir”. The club advertised the event “Prospects for education in Russian” which was held in the occupied Sevastopol in 2019 with the support of the same foundation whose cooperation with educational institutions in Ukraine was banned.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Summing up, it should be noted that Russian cultural diplomacy in the context of Crimea is aimed primarily at legitimizing the occupation and spreading the idea of ​​historical and cultural belonging of the peninsula to the Russian civilization. For this purpose, in particular, cultural appropriation is actively used, which is a broader component of Russia’s cultural policy towards the states of the former USSR. The Kremlin makes extensive use of state institutions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Tourism to promote the necessary agenda. However, one of the key actors is Rossotrudnichestvo as an organization whose focus is the introduction of “soft power” of the Russian Federation.

Both Russia and the Russian government generally rely heavily on the local agents of influence to mimic the international community’s support for the occupation and to disseminate relevant narratives. A number of formally independent organizations which operate on the principles of “hybrid analytics” are created in Russia, Crimea, and abroad for the same purpose. The key international partners for such initiatives are public figures and politicians who profess Euroscepticism and represent the far-right forces supporting foreign policy rapprochement with Russia and consequently are its traditional partners.

Based on these statements it seems possible to give the following brief recommendations:

  • Intensification of the struggle for the Ukrainian historical and cultural heritage at the international level. Involvement of art critics and historians in the factual substantiation of Ukrainian law on objects appropriated by Russia. Conducting information campaigns for various target audiences abroad with the participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Institute, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, and other relevant institutions.
  • Active monitoring of all initiatives of the Russian government aimed at the exploitation of Crimea in cultural diplomacy and systematic rapid response to such threats. Involvement of the expert community for appropriate communication with international target audiences.
  • Mapping Russian agents of influence abroad, which promote the Kremlin’s agenda regarding Crimea, and disseminating such information among international partners with an emphasis on the threats posed by their activities to these states themselves.
  • Launch and active development of the Crimean Platform.
  • Establishing contacts and active involvement of the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian diaspora in Ukrainian cultural diplomacy in the context of Crimea.

[1] Alexandar Sheshel

Alexandar’s father Vojislav Sheshel was indicted for war crimes by the Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for helping Slobodan Milosevic. Alexandar also professes radical right-wing political views.

Implemented within the program activities of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” at the request of the Ukrainian Institute within the Initiative for the Development of Think Tanks in Ukraine, implemented by the International Foundation “Vidrodzhennya” in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE) with financial support from the Swedish Embassy in Ukraine. The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Swedish Embassy in Ukraine, the International Foundation “Vidrodzhennya” or the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE).

Олександра Цехановська

Oleksandra Tsekhanovska, Head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of Ukraine Crisis Media Center