Russia, he argued, is uniquely qualified for this task because it can offer the world an alternative to liberalism. “Centuries of history have given Russia a rich cultural heritage and spiritual potential that have placed it in a unique position to successfully spread traditional Russian moral and religious values,” the statement said.
This will sound awfully familiar to any reader of recent Russian history. A hundred years ago, the leaders of the new Soviet Union made similar statements about a Moscow-centric worldview to challenge liberalism. As communists, they framed the contest in socio-economic terms; proudly impious, they were hardly likely to invoke Russian religious values. It was no less a “battle for cultural supremacy” for that.
Putin, who tends to view the Soviet era through rose-colored glasses, seems to have forgotten why his side lost that battle: it didn’t have enough weapons. And his Russia is even less equipped for combat. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde (or Shakespeare or Mark Twain), you shouldn’t engage in a battle for cultural supremacy when you’re unarmed.
Growing up in India in the 1970s, I had a big picture view of the contest – and I remember how and why the Soviets lost, even though the ground was tilted in their favor. Although nominally unaligned during the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, New Delhi leaned heavily on the Soviet side. After all, the USSR had supported India in its regional rivalry with US-backed Pakistan, providing arms, industrial know-how and trade on favorable terms. Indians were encouraged to view the West, and especially the United States, with suspicion, even hostility, while Russians were to be seen as friends.
We were also discouraged from consuming Western products: import restrictions kept most American brands out of reach, so the Soviet disadvantage in this area was not as great a handicap as it might have been. be. We have never been able to compare Ford and General Motors cars to Lada and Volga wrecks, for example.
But when it came to cultural products, the Soviet disadvantage could not be concealed. Indians, especially young Indians like me, consumed Western literature, music, movies and fashion. Although Moscow shipped quantities of books to India – translated into Indian languages and sold at heavily subsidized prices – they never acquired much cachet with my cohort. There was no Soviet equivalent of The Hardy Boys or Betty and Veronica. Even those inclined towards more serious literature found that Soviet offers tended to falter after Pushkin and Chekov. (We did, however, read Russian authors banned by Moscow, such as Solzhenitsyn.)
My collection of rock and pop albums had no Soviet depiction, there were no cool pair of Soviet sneakers, and although India’s state-run television channel dutifully showed Soviet movies, local movie theaters showed the far more popular Hollywood fare. As a result of this exposure to Western culture, we generally admired Western lifestyles, which were steeped in liberal values.
All of this helped the West, and especially America, exert soft power in India that squadrons of MiG-21s or Soviet-made technology could not match. And in my hometown, the port city of Visakhapatnam, it was not lost on us that the Soviet engineers posted to the local steelworks were just as enthusiastic about American rock albums and blue jeans as we were.
If the cultural competition seemed one-sided then, it absurdly is now. Putin’s Russia produced few, if any, notable cultural products. In a world far more receptive to non-English entertainment, there are no famous Russian soap operas, no R-Pop craze. Rollywood is not a thing. RT, the Kremlin’s 24-hour “news” channel, offers its viewers and listeners a parallel universe of conspiracy theories and outright lies, but has not gained much popularity.
If Russia is eclipsed by South Korea and Turkey in the cultural field, Moscow has little to offer outside. Unlike the Soviet leaders he idolizes, Putin has no socio-economic ideology to impose on the rest of the world. Apart from military equipment, no Russian product or service is coveted by anyone. (And damage from US and NATO military equipment has also diminished the appeal of Russian weapons.) Indians may be happy to buy cheap Russian oil, but they are even more pro-Western than those who grew up in the 70s.
What little soft power Russia had – mostly the product of a shared language and history, and necessarily confined to its immediate neighborhood – was greatly undermined by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The war also hollowed out his invocation of Russian moral values.
And regardless of leading the fight in the West, Putin might not even be able to win the cultural contest in his own backyard. Tellingly, the pro-Putin rapper and entrepreneur who took over the Starbucks franchise network is replacing it, not with Russian teahouses, but with a cheap knockoff of the original.
Putin’s Russia doesn’t even have the soft power of a Frappuccino.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Putin and the possibility of defeat: Leonid Bershidsky
• Ukraine’s victories make Russian war more dangerous: James Stavridis
• The next European mission in Ukraine is on the home front: editorial
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion