Russia in the World of Ideas and Images
Publisher's Column
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
Address: Office 103, 17, Bldg.1 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 119017, Russia

Persistent downgrading of a country eventually produces a persistent image of a loser nation among its citizens – with the ensuing costs paid by future generations.

It is quite obvious now that Russia will have – by virtue of destiny or plight – to act as an independent center of power in the coming years. Russia’s strategic solitude (hopefully, shared with its friends in the Eurasian Union), which will last ten or so years in the least, requires making an inventory of the sources of its power and influence in the world. What instruments will this country use to uphold its pursuit of sovereignty and of a great power status, given the apparent intrinsic genetic nature of the tendency? (While I was writing this article I read about the willingness for grandeur, often irrational and groundless, in Arsenyev’s Life by Ivan Bunin.)

Factors of Power

Countries rely on four groups of instruments, or sources of power, as they interact with the outside world. The instruments are economic, political, ideological, and purely diplomatic.

The latter instrument poses no questions. So far, Russia has been playing the diplomatic game in a corny but skillful manner and it is unlikely to change either the style or quality of its diplomacy – all the more so that the world, which is sliding back to traditional geopolitics, nicely conforms to it in an ever greater measure. The first three sources of power, however, are the most important ones.

It is commonly believed that the world is basically dependent on the economy and that economic factors have the dominant role in determining the global agenda and the power and influence of individual countries. If it were so, Russia’s declining economic growth rates and growing dependence on the exports of energy resources and other raw materials would make it doomed to failure. Yet the tendency towards an economic peg is questionable, as the economy is increasingly falling out of governments’ control. Coupled with the diversification of the centers of economic power, this tendency complicates the use of economic instruments for the purposes of political pressure. The times are gone when different countries – including Russia or its predecessor, the USSR – could fear large-scale economic sanctions or restrictions on access to technologies or finances.

The new freedom of maneuver plus the remaining (albeit unreliable in terms of the future) high demand for energy, raw materials, metals, and foodstuffs make up – to a certain degree – for Russia’s relative economic weakness. Otherwise the willingness to maintain the status of not merely a great power but of power number three among the majors would not look encouraging.

The role of military might looks rather ambiguous. A common conviction suggests that it is diminishing in today’s world where believably no one can win a war. Indeed, armaments are helpless in solving most of the problems the world is faced with now: the need to improve the well-being of the masses of people who are getting increasingly active, climate and environmental challenges, the imbalances of global finances, etc. The lingering nuclear stalemate in relations between Russia, the U.S. and other nuclear powers, which makes massive use of force and large-scale warfare next to impossible, also diminishes the role of military might.

And yet the recent years have cast doubts over this commonly accepted conviction. Wars are breaking out one after another and sometimes they get winners, like the West in Yugoslavia and Libya, or Russia in Georgia and in the intense internal conflict in Chechnya. Contrary to prophecies, Sri Lanka, too, emerged victorious from the many-years-long civil war against the Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers. The new players who benefited from the wave of economic growth are arming themselves fast enough. It is only Europe that continues a large-scale reduction of defense spending and the strength of the armed forces – which reached really symbolic levels in some countries.

One way or another, Russia has obviously put stakes on the defense buildup as the key factor in determining its status and positions. Fairly indicative in this respect are the figures of projected allocations for defense and – to an even bigger degree – the military reform, the only relatively successful one among the reforms the government has launched.

Time will show whether or not the stakes are correct. Anyway, the Armed Forces that Russia inherited from the USSR were outdated and enfeebled since the Cold War; and they badly wanted modernization.

Ideology in the 21st Century World

Yet it looks like in today’s world the positions that countries and societies occupy in the realm of information, ideas and images are becoming crucial in determining the power and influence they enjoy. Simultaneously, the world has entered a period of an intellectual chaos where the old ideologies and explanations do not work, while new ones emerge and come to grips with one another – only to be rejected. Dominant ideologies are absent but the ideological struggle is gaining pace.

The demise of Communism in the 1990s made many speak about the end of the ideological standoff and even the end of ideologies as such. But these assumptions were short-lived. The former Communist countries and even the formally Communist China shifted to exclusively pragmatiс positions in world politics. Christianity had renounced active proselytism much earlier than that, but the problem is that Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, still engage in a residual competition, are all getting weaker. So are the countries where they dominate. Nor do the Oriental religions – Buddhism, Hinduism and Shintoism – engage in active proselytism.

On the contrary, a number of fundamentalist regimes in the Greater Middle East continue active attempts to propagate Islam. The struggle between the Sunni and Shiite versions of Islam is turning into an explicit factor of regional geopolitics and even seems be taking on a militaristic character.

Western countries and societies, which seemed to have won the ideological contest of the past, have not yet renounced the proliferation of the ideology of liberal democracy. More than that, the U.S. has apparently tried to export its ideological-political model through the use of force (in Iraq and Afghanistan). These attempts have failed. The West, which is losing the economic/geopolitical competition to “new” countries, particularly the Asiatic ones, has intensified the ideological struggle (which probably explains the desire to present the Arab Spring as a new wave of democratic revolutions) – although it will most probably lead to Islamization and degradation (in terms of Western values) and to the strengthening of ultra-conservative Islamic forces and countries.

An ideological struggle is unfolding and even intensifying in the competition for most attractive development model that determines a country’s influence and global “capitalization” in an ever greater measure (even though immeasurable in quantitative terms). “Soft power” measured by other nations preparedness to voluntarily follow the example set by a country and/or society, comes to the foreground.  A special role in the “soft power” is played by the accumulated cultural stratum of a country and society and the capability to propagate its culture, as well as by the readiness of others to assimilate it. (Let us recall that “hard power” implies a possibility to coerce countries by threat or direct military violence, economic sanctions, blockades or, vice versa, by aid preconditioned by political concessions.)

From the angle of influence and capabilities of various countries, the problem with “soft power” is that they cannot use it extensively as an instrument of foreign policy, although it sometimes does play a decisive role in world politics. Just recall the recent flight of East-European countries and a considerable part of Soviet society to the Western system of values and the Western political system.

 IT penetrates all spheres of life, including international relations, and accelerates the “re-ideologization” of societies considerably. The growing amount of information consumed by people, especially via the Internet, leads to virtualization of private life and politics (particularly international politics) and reshapes the psychics of individuals and societies. People’s perceptions, either genuine or false, are determining the weight and meaning of material phenomena, including those related to the power and influence of different states.

It is important to improve Russia’s image for the purpose of bringing in more money and for stimulating people to stay back instead of abandoning the country. In this situation, the positions occupied by states or societies in the sphere of mass communication provide a particularly capacious source of power and influence. The Old West still dominates in that sphere owing to the accumulation of numerous information brands and a relatively high quality of information, which however has started deteriorating in the past few years due to re-ideologization and loss of moral guidelines.

Governments and societies traditionally have been actively using their positions in the informational sphere, but the snowballing of information over the recent years makes its targeted management increasingly difficult. Information is getting more democratic and – getting out of control. At the same time, the flows of information sweep aside arguments and push emotions to the fore. Conditions for managing them do appear but the way they come into being remains unclear.

In the new world of informational openness and virtualization of the reality, the dominant vision of the vector of a country’s development starts playing an ever greater role in exerting its influence on other countries. For instance, China is projecting an apparently more powerful image than its real material capability can provide in practical terms. Simultaneously, the U.S., which has suffered a chain of geopolitical defeats amidst the unfolding budgetary and internal political crisis, and Europe, which has found itself trapped in a durable systemic crisis, look apparently weaker.

The accumulated technological, moral and historical assets, trust in or the habit to use the Western mass media make them the last bastion of influence and power of the traditional West. Along with losing the prime positions in the production of commodities and ideas, the West continues to play the key part in interpreting and promoting them. It performs the part overtly or – more often – tentatively, as it promulgates the images and notions facilitating the growth of its influence. 
One can cite dozens of examples where domination in the informational sphere helped beef up the power of a state in other areas – political, economic and, quite naturally, military.

New players in the international arena are yet unready and unable to start imposing ideological notions that would help boost their influence. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which played a key role in the Arab Spring in order to enfeeble the secular and non-Sunni Arab countries, is an exception.

Obviously, the struggle for the influence on the outlooks and ideas of the masses of people whose activity is on the rise, as well as on the international community at large will make up an important area of competition among states and groups of states in the 21st century.

What about Russia?

To have an opportunity to defend its sovereignty and positions in the world with at least some efficiency, Russia must have sufficient military capabilities and a much more diversified economy – at least for being able to nurture other factors of power, such as military or soft power.

While the economy is still untouched by modernization, a buildup of military power has begun.

Yet all the efforts may go down the drain if Russia does not launch a simultaneous – or maybe even outstripping – fight for positions in the virtual world. This country is “insufficiently capitalized” – in the West as a minimum. There is little doubt the world of nowadays offers few chances of passing bleak reality off for a dream of mankind, the way the USSR did it almost successfully in the 1920s and 1930s. The Russian reality is the first thing that is crying out for change. But I would venture to surmise that even a much more attractive Russia will continue being insufficiently capitalized” if it carries on a policy that is independent from or even conflicting with the West. In a sense, it was heavily “over-capitalized” in the early 1990s when it was doing its best to follow Western prescriptions. The abhorring Russian impoverishment, injustices and rampant crime of the 1990s fell on blind eyes in the West. The shelling of a legitimately elected parliament, even though many people (including myself) felt uneasy about it, got support not only from the Western media, but also from the majority of world leaders.

Many of those who dislike the current state of things in Russia will probably ask me why the image should be improved. Is it for making the incumbent system look more respectable? Image improvement is needed for inviting more money to Russia and to make it stay here, since many of those displeased with the current situation benefit from the redistribution of that money in reality. In addition, it will ensure that more worthy and educated people come here to stay and few people leave for abroad.

Also, the regimes come and go, while countries most typically outlive them. And the image of a country also outlives decades and centuries. And if people keep portraying it endlessly as a misfit, the image of a non-achiever may eventually get firmly embedded in the national mentality – something the price of which will have to be paid by future generations.

That is why we should not spare efforts to improve Russia’s image, together with our attempts to improve reality. Improvements should focus on the commodity per se, but a better wrapping will also help the sales, especially in the world of today crazy about virtualization.

Promulgation of ideas can be modernized using various methods. In August, a promising proposal to create a media empire appeared at the website of the Rossiskaya Gazeta daily.

But first we must decide what we should sell and whom. We cannot sell anything, for example, Russia’s unsightly political system. Nor can we sell Russian climate, Russian cars or Russian medicines. Alas, Russian cuisine, too (Russian readers should not take offense at this – the American or British cuisines are even worse).

What we can sell is a proud history of military victories, weaponry, processed raw materials, foodstuffs, huge spaces and opportunities.

But the main thing that should and must be sold is Russian culture and arts.

This is the sphere where Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Tchaikovsky, Dyaghilev, Shostakovich and others left a brand that is probably the world’s best. We really have something to support this brand with – at least among the educated international audience and the elite. Russia still has a superb literature and, generally, very talented intelligentsia.

And now I will dwell on the vendors. The intelligentsia and the intellectual class play a key role in the formulation of images and opinions inside the country – among the grassroots and the educated sections of the population of all countries, in fact. This is especially so in Russia where Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn meant much more than the emperors, communist secretaries-general or presidents whose rule fell the writers’ lifetime. The intellectuals play an equally key role outside the country, too. They are trusted much more than the propaganda spin-doctors, all the more so that their intellectual brethren – more liberal, more cosmopolitan and freer than the majority of the population – dominate the world media and the Internet.

The problem is that the incumbent authorities have contrived to repel a greater part of intelligentsia. To repel in the aesthetic sense, in particular by de facto refusing to recognize the great Russian culture along with the great and glorious defense tradition as two main pillars of Russia’s national identity, its national idea. What will be left of Russia in the history and collective memory of humankind if one removes the names of the great Russians I have cited, as well as the names of Prince Dmitry Donskoy, Prince Alexander Nevsky, Suvorov, Kutuzov, Yermolov, Zhukov, and Rokossovsky? Very few things will.

Like the majority of other development groups, intellectuals have practically no representation in the political system and do not feel associated with it. And this means a loose association with the country, too. In the 1990s, this very intelligentsia sided with the government by and large and it had its own envoys in the agencies of power – Sobchak, Sakharov, Yabloko party leaders, and a host of other colorful personalities. And the “overcapitalization” of Russia’s image abroad was very much owing to these personalities. As a result, the actual pressure on Russia was weaker than it could have been.

The intelligentsia rescued the powers that be on several occasions during the 1990s. It also saved the newly born capitalist class – and did so largely unselfishly or, rather, out of an understanding that Russia was their homeland. In the late 1980s, quite like in 1917, it played a crucial role in the revolutions because the vast majority of intellectuals viewed this country and its government as alien. As I am writing this, I am rebuking my own class, which wrecked the country to later die under the debris.

A conclusion to be drawn from this article is unambiguous. Russia should fight for positions on the market of ideas and images, since they are playing a much greater role today than ever in the past. The alternative is an inevitable loss in international competition.

This fighting requires up-to-date propaganda tools, but not only them. One must understand what brands, images and ideas can be sold. And it is even more important to ensure that Russian intellectuals, who are the main producers of ideas and images for the country and for the whole world, begin to side with their homeland and – at least partially – with the government.

But this is again a problem of our inner organization, which we will have to restructure anyway. If we do not, the result will be a flop in international competition.

| Rossiyskaya Gazeta