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Tuesday, 16 August 2022
Russia’s Culture War
James Denselow

The focus of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has understandably been on the state of its military campaign. War has long been a prominent component of journalism, combining drama, human stories, iconic imagery, and the sense of history in motion. What is more the relative freedoms of the media in Ukraine and Russia has meant that the frontline in Ukraine is more accessible than those areas falling under Russian control.  

What is sometimes missed then is a sense of what Russia is doing in occupied territories in the east of the country, which is a vitally important part of the conflict’s narrative as well as signalling Moscow’s strategic intent for the future. Analysts are describing the ‘Russification of eastern Ukraine”.  A sign welcoming people to Mariupol painted has been replaced with one painted in the colours of the Russian flag, instead of the flag of Ukraine. Russian soldiers have started to strip Ukrainian language and flags from occupied territories in the east of the country. Recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People's Republic’ has been added to the school programme on the modern history of Russia.  

‘Our lot is to take back and consolidate’ historic Russian lands, Putin has said. Ukrainian-language signs are being torn off buildings, painted over or destroyed. There are no more Ukrainian language lessons in the region – even the history books have been rewritten to the Kremlin’s order. All these policies back the narrative from Moscow of Russia ‘liberating’ Russia speakers under threat from Ukrainian ‘Nazi’ leader. It is a reminder that the military occupation of Ukraine’s territory is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Russia’s strategy. 

Putin is being incredibly transparent that he is playing a historic Russian playbook of expanding the country’s influence beyond its already vast 6,000 miles wide territory. Catherine the Great was quoted as saying that “what stops growing begins to rot” and Putin, who has now publicly compared himself to Peter the Great, is reasserting traditional Russian norms of privileged interest in their near abroad which essentially equates for limited sovereignty for its neighbours. There are an estimated 22 million Russian speakers living outside of Russia a powerful excuse for these expansionist tendencies.  

There is no doubting how culture and language was part of the geopolitical narrative between Russia and Ukraine prior to the dramatic invasion in February. Following the 2014 Maidan Revolution and years of fighting in Donbas, learning Ukrainian became mandatory in schools in 2017. A law was passed in 2019 that initiated a process to make Ukrainian language materials obligatory in all areas of the public sector. About a third of Ukrainians have named Russian as their mother tongue — in the last census, in 2001, and in more recent surveys — and the majority of Ukrainians say they speak it. 

Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian cultural sites in contested areas of the country’s east and its decision to force Russian school lessons and currency on occupied territory elsewhere represent a systematic attempt to destroy Ukraine’s culture, Michael Carpenter the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said this month, though whether or not the efforts amount to genocide remains legally unclear. 

Ukraine is of course responding in the culture war space too. Ukraine’s parliament has voted through two laws that will place severe restrictions on Russian books and music as Kyiv seeks to break many remaining cultural ties between the two countries following Moscow’s invasion. One law will forbid the printing of books by Russian citizens, unless they renounce their Russian passport and take Ukrainian citizenship. The ban will only apply to those who held Russian citizenship after the 1991 collapse of Soviet rule. 

Pavlo Makov, the official Ukrainian artist, explained that “Russia’s idea … is to eliminate Ukrainian culture. If it has no culture, Ukraine does not exist.” There needs to be far more focus on the cultural component of this conflict balanced from the traditional military one. Whilst Russia’s culture war is of course more subtle and arguably insidious than the movement of troops and tanks, it is of significant importance for the near term future of Ukraine as a state, let alone the relations between the two countries in the future.

BY: James Denselow