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Unarmed Putin wants a culture war with the West

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Last week, President Vladimir Putin opened a new front in the war with the West, even as troops retreated in chaos in eastern Ukraine. It is a “fight for cultural supremacy”. The Russian president has declared that the primary goal of his foreign policy is to lead a global counterattack against “the imposition of neoliberal views by many countries.”

He argued that Russia was uniquely qualified for the task because it could offer the world an alternative to liberalism. “Centuries of history have endowed Russia with a rich cultural heritage and spiritual potential, putting it in a unique position to successfully propagate traditional Russian moral and religious values.” the statement said.

This will sound very familiar to readers of recent Russian history. A hundred years ago, the leaders of the new Soviet Union made similar arguments for a Moscow-centric worldview to challenge liberalism. As communists, they framed the contest from a socio-economic perspective. They were proudly atheists and had little chance of evoking Russian religious values. It was also a “cultural supremacy battle” for that purpose.

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 enough weapons. If anything, it’s not ready for battle. Oscar He, in the words of Wilde (or Shakespeare, or Mark He Twain), should not enter the battle for cultural supremacy when unarmed.

Growing up in India in the 1970s, I used to watch this contest ringside. And I remember how and why the Soviets lost, even though they were leaning in their favour. Although not nominally allied in the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, New Delhi leaned heavily on the side of the Soviet Union. After all, the Soviet Union was backing India in its regional rivalry with US-backed Pakistan, offering arms, industrial know-how and trade on favorable terms.The Russians should be seen as friends. Indians, on the other hand, were encouraged to view the West, especially the United States, with suspicion and even hostility.

It also discouraged me from consuming Western products. Import restrictions kept most American brands out of reach, so the Soviet disadvantage in that area wasn’t a huge handicap. There was no need to compare it with the Volga’s clunky car.

But when it came to cultural property, the Soviet disadvantages could not be hidden. Indians, especially young Indians like me, have consumed Western literature, music, movies and fashion. Moscow shipped a large number of books to India (translated into Indian languages ​​and sold at heavily subsidized prices), but they were not very well received by my peers. did. There was no Soviet equivalent to The Hardy Boys or Betty and Veronica. Even those with more serious literary inclinations noticed a sharp decline in Soviet works after Pushkin and Chekhov. (However, I read Russian writers like Solzhenitsyn, whom Moscow banned.)

There was no Soviet representation in my collection of rock and pop albums, nothing like cool Soviet sneakers. Indian national television channels faithfully showed Soviet films, while local cinemas played much more popular Hollywood films. As a result of this exposure to Western culture, we generally admired the Western lifestyle, which was overwhelmed by liberal values.

All of this helped the West, especially the United States, to become a soft power in India, which the MiG-21 squadron and Soviet manufacturing technology could not match. And in my hometown of Visakhapatnam, the port city of Visakhapatnam, the Soviet engineers seconded to the local steel mills were just as enthusiastic about American rock albums and blue jeans as we were. did not forget

If cultural contests were one-sided back then, they’re ridiculous now. Putin’s Russia produces few, if any, notable cultural artifacts. In a world far more accepting of non-English entertainment, there is no famous Russian melodrama or her R-pop frenzy. Rollywood is not a thing. His RT, the Kremlin’s 24-hour “news” channel, offers its viewers and listeners a parallel universe of conspiracy theories and outright lies, but it gets little attention.

If Russia is inferior to the likes of South Korea and Turkey in the field of culture, Moscow has little else to offer. Unlike the Soviet leaders he idolizes, Putin has no socioeconomic ideology to impress on the wider world. Except for military hardware, no Russian product or service is coveted. (And the damage done by US and NATO military equipment has made Russian weapons less attractive.) Indians may be happy to buy Russian oil at a discounted price, but they weren’t in his 70s. Even more Western leanings than those who grew up.

What little soft power Russia had—most of it a product of shared language and history and necessarily confined to its neighbors—was greatly undermined by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The war also emptied his call of Russian moral values.

And even if he takes the fight to the West, Putin may not even win a cultural contest in his own backyard. Rather than replacing it with a cheap imitation of the original.

Putin’s Russia doesn’t even have as much soft power as the Frappuccino.

More thoughts from other Bloomberg writers:

• Putin and possible defeat: Leonid Bershidsky

• Ukraine’s Victory Makes Russian War More Dangerous: James Stavridis

• Europe’s next Ukrainian mission is on the home front: Editorial

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on foreign policy. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.

More articles like this can be found at bloomberg.com/opinion.