This past weekend I had a rare chance to observe Russia’s soft power in action: Gandermenmarket, one of the most beautiful squares in Germany (at least, this is what Berlin guides say), turned into a scene for Russian artists for an evening. Dancers and singers entertained the public at this free open-air concert organized by “Rossotrudnichestvo” – an agency subordinated to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Culture, and, of course, Gazprom. Evidently, the idea was to convey to international audiences messages that politicians were unable to properly articulate.
The three-hour-long cultural display in the heart of the German capital certainly sent a message. On a positive side, this message clearly said that Russia is not a country dominated by ethnical Russians and their Orthodox culture: it is ethnically and religiously pluralist cultural space. Unfortunately, many Russian nationalists deny this seemingly obvious idea. This elementary picture of Russian internal diversity, of course, was meant to hide deep political divides that split Russia from inside. We all know the reality: events such as the growing tensions between Chechnya and Ingushetia in the Caucasus and a recent series of terrorist assaults against muftis in Tatarstan, Russia’s heartland region. But what we have seen from the Berlin scene is choreography of peace and harmony. Did it bring some therapeutic effects? I am not sure, and this is due to a number of reasons.
First, the spectacle was very poorly advertised in Berlin and remained almost unnoticed as a cultural event in the media. Since the information has been distributed mainly through “The Russian House” run by the Embassy, most of the spectators were Russians living in Berlin and presumably nostalgic of their motherland.
Second, the choice of repertoire was very traditional for a country that – at least rhetorically – wishes to modernize itself through innovations, and quite predictable. In fact, most of the well-known Russian stereotypes were intentionally reproduced here: from ‘Kalinka-Malinka’ and ‘Katiusha’ songs to birch-trees decoration. Perhaps, this is exactly how a Soviet “export” dance show would look like during the times of the USSR: large-scaled and politically correct. The Georgian singer Tamara Gvertseteli magnificently performing a popular Russian folk song may be a new epitome for a post-Soviet version of “people’s friendship. Third, the show-makers went too far with culturally Orientalizing Russia, (unless this was one of their hidden political messages addressed to Europe). With a Buddhist masquerade performance and a legion of sabre dancers from the Caucasus, the event –created an atmosphere of cultural distinction with Europe, rather than unity.
Of course, the very fact that Russia’s officialdom, with all its technocratic mentality, invests money in public diplomacy and “soft power” resources, is remarkable. But the show was a monologue, not a dialogue. It was the Kremlin’s story of Russia, narrated in the language of music. Yet soft power embraces much more than spectacles. If Konstantin Kosachiov, the head of “Rossotrudnichestvo” is serious about Russia’s presence in European cultural landscapes, he perhaps has to spend money more effectively: to supportRussian artists all across the world, to sponsor international expositions of Russian painters and photographers, and to helpi organize lectures and presentations of the most authoritative Russian speakers abroad. Otherwise it would be hard to elude impression that Russia repeatedly prefers to talk to herself.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.