“Russian world” imaginary

The concept of the ‘Russian world’ has been the subject of much debate and interpretation, both in Russia and elsewhere. Originally, the term referred to the cultural and historical heritage shared by the people of Russia, regardless of their ethnicity or citizenship. In recent years, however, the term has taken on a more political connotation and has been used to justify Russian intervention in other countries and to assert Russian dominance over the region.

So what is the Russian World imaginary and how did ideas of the Russian world develop through cultural policy? 

To understand these questions, we need to examine the conservative turn in Russian cultural policy that occurred around 2012-2014. In my presentation, I will provide a short account of the cultural policy transformation and its role in the construction of the Russian World imaginary. Before that, I will briefly outline the mainstream Russian world discourses in official thinking and academic literature. 

It is not surprising that many Russians still refer to the war as a “military operation” aimed at expelling neo-Nazis from Ukraine. In Russia, this war is portrayed as a mission to establish “peace” in Ukraine, and as a “self-defence” strategy from Western aggression, as Putin says. It is a rescuing mission to protect the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas region from oppression by the Neo-Nazi Ukrainian government. 

Many studies show that the 2004 revolution in Ukraine became the starting point for the first steps of the Russian establishment in conservative thinking. The Kremlin justified the consolidation of power within the anti-Western rhetoric and the construction of a threatening Other. At this point, Putin’s political project launched a massive campaign to construct a national identity. The United Russia party was in charge of the administrative and coercive part of this enterprise. However, state power does not rely only on coercion and order. For the state power to be hegemonic, it must be recognized and supported by most of the population. There should be some elements of consent and participation in the reproduction of the state ideology. Putin knows this well, and from the very beginning of his nation-building enterprise, there was a great share of cultural and ideological work. 

At the beginning of his presidency, Putin did not have enough power to give orders. Instead, he was courting cultural elites. On several occasions, the president encouraged cultural managers, scholars, and artists to participate in rebuilding a strong Russia, invited to revive cultural heritage and promote Russian arts abroad. Within these discursive practices and new positivity of rebuilding a great Russia, many Soviet-type ideas were revived and sedimented in institutions. Ideas of a strong and paternalistic state, of society that must be regulated, and of culture that must be defended from the destructive forces of modernity. 

In 2006, Putin recalls words of a Soviet dissident and Gulag prisoner Dmitry Likhachev about cultural mission. But Putin interprets this mission differently. First, the president of Russia emphasized the unitary function of culture. And then, he suggested to see the mission of culture in its ability to bring peoples of a big country together. In other words, to unite Russians on the basis of spiritual belongness to a unique culture. In Putin’s words, the mission of culture is ‘to make “the people out of a mere population.” To make a unity out of the diversity.’ Within this perspective, culture is seen as a field where the constitution of a new political agent, the people of Russian civilization, must emerge from the demos. Later in his Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin defines the ‘state sovereignty’ of Russia through its ‘cultural and spiritual distinctiveness.’ The Russian language is proclaimed as ‘a true language of international communication’ that should be ‘popularized to secure a living space for the multimillion ‘Russian World’, which, of course, is much broader than Russia itself.’

In fact, a range of Kremlin statements dramatically changed the original meaning of the ‘Russian World’ that represented a philosophical framework derived from Georgii Shchedrovitsky’s writings. Shchedrovitsky (2000) formulated the Russian world as a ‘network structure of large and small communities that think and speak Russian’. This way, the Russian world embraces not only post-Soviet territories but the whole world where people speak Russian. Initially, the concept of the Russian World supported political priorities of the so-called Russian soft power. It included references to an innovative economy and development of human capital. 

Thus, until 2004, the Russian World imaginary was a positive platform for cooperation with European countries in the spheres of education, culture, and economy. After the 2012 anti-government and anti-Putin mass protests, the political establishment put itself against the concepts of Westernization, modernization, and globalization. These tendencies were regarded as dangerous to Russian culture, the Russian state, and its domestic social stability. Since then, safety priorities of the ‘State cultural policy’ have been dominating in academic and political debates. 

On top of that, in 2014-2015, national security of the state was depicted in various forms of antagonism regarding sex, gender, patriotism, and national identity as well as orthodox morality and race. Putin’s conservative project became hegemonic after the Crimea annexation. It totally re-articulated the meaning of what belongs to culture and established new lines of inclusion and exclusion. Culture became a moment of a conservative discourse that fixed its meaning as highbrow culture = cultural heritage = traditional culture = national culture. Associations with human rights and freedoms as well as cultural diversity and democratization were excluded from the regime of normality and linked to liberal and, therefore, dangerous influence of the Western culture. Finally, the idea of national security linked together cultural conservatism and state censorship that together aimed at preservation of the national culture from Western attacks. 

These discourses demonstrate consent of intellectual and cultural elites with a state-centred approach in cultural policy formation. Numerous declarations in cultural policy discourse proclaim that the national state is concerned with the moral, ethical, and economic features of the global market and cosmopolitan imaginary in the name of preservation of Russian national culture. The concepts of ‘Russian World’ and ‘The West’ became empty signifiers around which two frontiers of discourses and, therefore, practices of coercion and consent were constituted. This way, the current regime of truth marginalizes not only political but cultural diversity. The totalizing logic of equivalence can be detected in the legislative as well as administrative processes not only in the sphere of the cultural sector but in social, family, and economic policies. These official discourses split society into two oppositional camps of positive ‘Us’ and negative ‘Them’ and construct new subject positions through the key nodal point of traditional values and dangerous liberalism.


Putin, V. 2022. Address by the President of the Russian Federation. February 21, 2022. The Kremlin. Moscow. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828

Shchedrovitsky, P. 2000. “Russian World and Transnational Russian”. Russian magazine, March 2. http://old.russ.ru/politics/meta/20000302_schedr.html

Read more in the article: Tatiana Romashko (2023) Russia’s cultural policy abroad as a projection of the “Russian World”, Cultural Trends, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2023.2171771

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