Cultural and Cold Wars: Notes on Multipolar Ideology and Diplomacy

By Maria Chehonadskih
  • Maria Chehonadskih
    Maria Chehonadskih is philosopher, activist, and curator. Born in Stary Oskol, Russia in 1985. She received her MA from the Russian State University for the Humanities in 2009. She is currently a PhD student at Kingston University, CRMEP (London), and member of Moscow Art Magazine editorial board. Her last exhibition Shadow of a Doubt (curated together with Ilya Budraitskis) was dedicated to the problem of conspiracy (Moscow, 2014). Her major fields of interest are Soviet Marxism, Marxist theory of labour and interconnections of art, literature and philosophy. Her texts were published in Moscow Art Magazine, Radical Philosophy, Mediations, and Alfabeta2. Lives and works in London and Moscow.

Among the Russian Revolutionists, too, there still exists a comparatively great ignorance of this side of Russian history. On the one hand, because in Russia itself only the official legend is tolerated; on the other, with a great many, because they hold the Government of the Tsar in too great contempt, believing it incapable of anything rational, incapable, partly from stupidity, partly from corruption. And for Russian internal policy this is right enough; here the impotence of Tsardom is clear as day. But we ought to know not only the weakness but the strength too of the enemy. And its foreign policy is unquestionably the side on which Tsardom is strong—very strong. Russian diplomacy forms, to a certain extent, a modern Order of Jesuits, powerful enough, if need be, to overcome even the whims of a Tsar, and to crush corruption within its own body, only to spread it the more plenteously abroad.

—Friedrich Engels 1Friedrich Engels, “Foreign Policy of Russian Tsardom” (1890), http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/russian-tsardom/ (accessed 2 March 2015).

On 6 December 2014, the Russian Service of the BBC reported the mass protest in Haiti. The headline, “Haitian protesters appeal to Putin for support,” was accompanied by an image of two demonstrators holding a printed portrait of the Russian president with the caption: “Vladimir Putin. Please, help us.” Demonstrators believe that Putin can help fight the local pro-United States government, the report explained.

This summer, two expats from Zimbabwe and Kenya and living in Moscow, uploaded to the Internet a song called “I Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin,” which soon became a hit. In an interview for the only Russian oppositional TV channel, Dozhd, they explained that the song was an ode to the Russian president, who fights for a better future for Russia and the world. But what does it say to us?

You could think that this is pro-Kremlin propaganda at work. Indeed, you would not have such a ‘dizzy with success’ effect without playing off the despair of the impoverished global south, the open criticism of American imperialism, and a huge international media campaign, involving the state-sponsored online channel RT, functioning in Spanish, Arabic, and English. In the best traditions of Brezhnev-era TV programming, it shows the horrifying image of the ‘decaying’ capitalist West and an almost socialist Russia with happy workers, developed social policy, and the messianic international politics of the government. The smiling lefty American and British reporters, some post-Soviet immigrants, and right-wing conservatives perform 1980s Soviet Union journalism here.

There is nothing new about the RT’s strategy. The same is true for Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar and famous for its criticism of the ‘Western’ perception of the Arab world. However, Al Jazeera’s independence is constantly questioned, especially when it comes to their analysis of the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict. 2See, for example, debates over Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/03/arab-spring-arab-tv-credibility/ (accessed 2 March 2015), and here: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/sep/30/al-jazeera-independence-questioned-qatar/ (accessed 2 March 2015). It is also not new that left-wing journalists work for such a channel, where at the very least they can talk openly about what is really going on in the United States and the European Union. What is actually new is that these journalists and some of the speakers they invite have started to believe that Russia is a country of prosperity and that the power of the United States will come to an end very soon. And this is despite the current economic crisis and the strong dependence of the Russian economy on oil prices. They have started to believe that there is a radical or patriotic (depending on their political orientation) war in eastern Ukraine against the neo-Nazi Kiev regime, and would ignore the presence of what we in Russia call the “Cargo 200,” which, since the war in Afghanistan, refers to the zinc coffins in which dead Russian soldiers were shipped home. They also ignore the nationalist nature of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and actually of the Russian state itself.

We have to say that Russia is not the only country to use media and other such instruments in order to recreate the image of past imperialist glory. While Russian PR advisers consolidate around the prospect of populism, attached to the reincarnation of Slavophilia (the unity and primacy of the ‘Russian world’), anti-colonialism, and the dogma of peace and stability, the Western world is playing with the media image of the resisting post-Soviet singularities fighting for democracy and freedom of speech. The best example of this game is the two notorious ex-members of one radical Russian feminist group, Pussy Riot. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina mirror Putin: he represents an image of the brave macho “who controls everything,” while they insist that the only possible way to resist such an image is to create an ideal model of the brave individuals who will compete (at least in the eyes of the media) with him in an equally brutal manner, i.e. simultaneously play the role of the rebels and, for example, meet with the Norwegian prime minister and conservative party member, Erna Solberg. 3For some reason there are no articles in English about the meeting between Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Erna Solberg. However, there is a report of the meeting in the Norwegian press: http://www.ba.no/puls/article7371657.ece (accessed 2 March 2015). Similarly to Jackson Pollock, who in his opposition to the dictatorship of socialist realist kitsch became a symbol of the freedom of expression in the United States in the 1950s, artists from the global East, such as Ai Weiwei, become ideological symbols of the liberation from totalitarianism. The current cultural wars reached a peak when Sony Pictures released a comedy about the assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Finally, the recent tragedy at the Charlie Hebdo office shows that the rhetoric of freedom of expression masks a deeper problem, which is the political context and outcome of the right to criticize in any kind of manner (i.e., racist or colonial). This outcome goes beyond the soft power of cultural war, and signals how the ideology of ‘liberalism and democracy’ can become ‘hard power’, which turns to the same ‘oppressive regime’ with regard to those suspected of violating its principles—Muslims in France today or the black community in Ferguson.

The media weapon of the Russian government is the poor proletariat and the weapon of the West is culture. Perhaps it is for this reason that liberal Western institutions and artists boycotted Manifesta 10 in Saint Petersburg last summer. Indeed, it is the prerogative of the West to initiate contemporary art biennials, spread freedom of expression, and decide who is Westernized enough to host an international art exhibition and who is not, as if a state determines the development of art, or, to put it differently, as if artists were identical to their reactionary governments and institutions. Indeed, on the institutional level, many biennials became CIA creations of Jackson Pollock-model propaganda, because the spectacle of a boycott staged by the international art community expressed concerns that the Western monopoly over contemporary art and radical political topics could be sold to a authoritarian country alongside the oil budget. The concerns of the art community are obviously understandable: biennials, triennials, and art festivals in Dubai, Kabul, or Russia are a kind of global capitalist obscenity similar to the promotion of the European Union’s cultural values by means of austerity in the poorest parts of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, it is also understandable that there are no better options in the so-called authoritarian countries than to host biennials and use these opportunities to make new artworks and invite international artists and critics to talk about current political contexts. However, similar to the lefty RT journalists who cannot escape their shameful nickname, “Putinists,” the artists of the imagined Cold War are ‘pro-Western’ buffoons that consciously and unconsciously speculate on political complexities in the region and play the role of the new dissidents. But, in the end, who cares about these buffoons? Only we, who are the buffoons ourselves. I believe that the most powerful image is of the working-class people of eastern Ukraine, not to mention the proletariats in postcolonial countries, who support a myth about Russia’s guarantees of stability, social justice, and change. What kind of world do we live in if the last hope for the poor is the far-right president of a foreign country?

It seems that the recent reconfigurations of global geopolitical structures are reawakening the old ideological dogmas of the Cold War. However, it is evident to everyone, from officials and mainstream politicians, to activists and intellectuals, that the old division of power and the front lines demarcated after World War II by the Western and Eastern blocks do not exist any longer. There is, of course, an alternative view of what is going on. One could say that it is simply a mess, the result of the American and Russian presence in the Ukraine and their struggle for dominance in the region. Thus, we are passive spectators of this drama. We cannot take sides, as we would be forced to choose between the two. In the end, Maidan and anti-Maidan are simply not exciting, both are confusing and conservative. Maidan ended up with the rise of the new neoliberal and nationalist government and anti-Maidan brought civil war into the country. Another ideological platform is the ideal of the so-called multipolar world, which the United States does not want to recognize. In this multipolar world, various forms of capitalist power would control and dominate over certain regions. China would fully control the Asian region, Russia would take the post-Soviet region, Latin America would have to be independent, and so on. The crazy imaginary of this semi-decolonial project shows that the period of the Western education of the young postcolonial and post-Soviet democracies is about to end, and that those who entered the markets in the 1980s and 1990s want to play independently. Finally, word has been circulating both locally and abroad, painting the following geopolitical picture: the Russian state stood up against American imperialism and now it is about to create an economic coalition with China that would lead to the crash of the dollar and, with it, American hegemony. However, what we can see is the Chinese canceling the economic deal for the South Stream Gas Pipeline and the rapid fall of the ruble which is down 50 percent against the dollar now. China is an independent player and instead of aggressive ideological war with the West, it chose to play a smart economic war: it may give credits and make a new deal at the moment when Russia will be too financially weak to disagree with what China proposes. The new Russophiles may think it is all about a war of sanctions against Russia and the plunging price of oil. They would repeat that Russia will fight back, because it has a strong economy and looks to connections with the new East that would make a huge difference in the global economy in the near future. In the RT, the American liberal economist Michael Hudson even fantasized that the country does not have neoliberalism and for this reason will quickly recover and strengthen its national economy. 4See: Michael Hudson debating the G20 summit in RT: http://rt.com/shows/crosstalk/206819-g-20-brisbane-abbott/ (accessed 2 March 2015).

In reality, what we do have is a sharp decline of the local currency since 2012 because of credit, a real estate bubble, massive corruption, and new austerity measures, so much so that access to free medicine and education has been dismantled, all staged in the context of constant primitive accumulation (corruption, violence) and a semi-fascist ideological parade of the so-called Russian world. This situation reveals one important fact: the West wins this confusing economic fight and Russia wins ideologically and politically. Does it mean that there is no geopolitical decomposition of global power? No, it does not. However, it is important to remember that, similarly to the 2009 crisis, the current events will not necessary lead to a ‘final collapse’, but, instead, they demarcate a new reactionary turn in global politics. Indeed, Russia entered this new ‘multipolar world’ as a demagogue and ideologist, ready to annex Crimea, to suffer from sanctions in order to save the status quo in the post-Soviet region, and to provoke discussions and possibly create new alliances.

After all, even admitting the fact that, yes, there is a reconfiguration of global power, we do not know yet where this will lead us. We still remain unarmed on the levels of information and international solidarity. It is simpler and easier to box all these contradictions into the concepts of fascism and anti-fascism, imperialism and anti-imperialism, colonialism and postcolonialism. But what if all these concepts got mixed together in order to complicate the current political situation? Clearly, no one from the Left takes the rhetoric of the ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ produced by the West seriously. This is why we also have to be more critical toward the rhetoric coming out of Russia. Unfortunately, to recognize Russian anti-fascism would mean to support populist conservatism, and, together with that, to appreciate the new far-right parties in Western Europe. 5See an article in The Guardian about a recent scandal with the French far-right party Front National who accepted cash from Moscow: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/08/russia-europe-right-putin-front-national-eu?CMP=twt_gu/ (accessed 2 March 2015).

In my view, a more correct and accurate interpretation of what is going on would tie modern Russia not to the Soviet heritage of the Cold War, but to the politics of Tsarist Russia and other Western countries in the late nineteenth century as a dialectical exercise. In his late writings, dedicated to the analysis of the international politics of the Russian Empire, Marx shows how diplomatic tricks, including bribery, participation in various plots with Western politicians and diplomats, the skillful use of conflicting interests, ideological accounts of patriotism and Orthodox religion, and colonization under the mask of liberation, led Tsarist Russia to success and hegemony in nineteenth-century Europe. 6Karl Marx, Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1899). See: http://www.egs.edu/library/karl-marx/articles/secret-diplomatic-history-of-the-eighteenth-century/the-eastern-question/ (accessed 2 March 2015). It is obviously not very far from any other Western country, but Marx, and later Engels, stresses that Russia’s international success is based on the politics of negotiation and a peculiar usage of ideology. These included simultaneous support of conservatives and liberals, religious parties and secular intellectuals, to establish the most reactionary alliances. On the level of ideology it is the maintenance of an order (‘stability’, in today’s terms), the balance of power in Europe, and the sanctity of contracts and law. The current competition between the West and Russia is trickier and more postmodern in its usage of decolonization, if you like, than that of the Cold War. It is important to keep this in mind in order to act effectively even if on a small scale such as that of cultural politics and journalism.