The concept of the "Great Geopolitical Game" is integral to today's government discourse in Russia. The phrase refers to the foreign policy aim pursued by President Vladimir Putin to once again position his country as a global superpower. This "game" also includes the Kremlin's realignment of its foreign cultural policy, manifested in 2008 by the restructuring of the competent authority.
At that time, the Russian Centre for International Cooperation in Research and Culture (Rossarubeschzentr) was turned into the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) and placed under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This government agency is pursuing a massive expansion course as Moscow apparently tries to hark back to the days when the Soviet Union wielded global influence as leader of the socialist world revolution. Soviet experience and old contacts are therefore being re-activated, albeit using modern methods and contemporary rhetoric.
Tellingly, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo since 2015, Lyubov Glebova, began her political career in the Komsomol, or Young Communist League. In the Soviet era, this political training organisation also played an important role in international educational work.
Russia's cultural offensive in the Middle East
The Russian cultural offensive is particularly evident in the Middle East, where Moscow is asserting greater military power. Many Russian cultural centres have been opened since 2009 in Arab countries where none previously existed. Examples include Jordan, the Palestinian territories (West Bank), and most recently the United Arab Emirates in 2012. There have been Russian cultural centres in Egypt and Syria since the 1960s.
The realignment of Moscow's cultural policy has led to an increase in both the number of staff deployed to the Middle East and their professionalism. In addition, Moscow's foreign cultural work has been receiving media support, in particular from the TV channel Russia Today and the news portal Sputnik, most comprehensively in the respective Arab-language versions.
The fact that these Kremlin mouthpieces have close links to the Rossotrudnichestvo agency is demonstrated by the number of former agency employees who now hold key positions in Russian cultural institutions in the Arab world, especially in those cases where these employees speak Arabic. The director of the Cairo centre, Alexei Tevanyan, for instance, was an editor at Russia Today in 2009 and 2010.
Besides educating the public about Russian culture in all its many facets – where possible, with a certain political slant – Moscow culture officials stationed in Arab countries are trying to forge ties with schools and institutions of higher education. Russian has thus been introduced as a subject at several Arab universities in recent years.
In Syria – a major focus of Russian foreign policy in the region – a Russian language and culture course was launched at the University of Damascus in 2014. Only recently, in October 2017, a Centre for the Russian Language was established there as well. The tasks of this new centre include training Syrians to become Russian teachers. They are needed in the growing number of Syrian schools where Russian is being taught as an elective since 2014.
Construing long-standing cultural ties
The Rossotrudnichestvo actively promotes study in Russia for foreign students and is awarding more and more scholarships to Arab students. Young Arabs' interest in Russian culture is rising accordingly. One of the reasons why Moscow is currently so active in fostering this interest is because many of the Russian-speaking Arabs who studied in Russia in Soviet times and later went on to hold influential posts back home have retired by now – although they still remain an important pillar and are often mobilised as "ambassadors" of Russian culture and state interests in the Arab world. They pass on their knowledge and contacts to the younger generation not only in the context of the relevant alumni associations but also in books that cast Russian–Arab relations in a sympathetic light.
In these books and in exhibitions too – most of which gloss over the Communist era – the attempt is made to construe long-standing cultural ties between Russians and Arabs that go back several centuries. In the case of Palestine, there is even talk of Russia's age-old connections with the Holy Land that stretch back thousands of years.
The Palestinian Authority is easy terrain for Moscow's cultural officials because they have a particularly prominent friend there: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was already part of the PLO leadership back when it was supported by the Soviet Union. Abbas studied history in Moscow and wrote a dissertation there in the 1980s in the spirit of the Soviet government-mandated anti-fascism, discussing "secret relations" between the Nazis and the Zionists.
President Putin paid a visit to Abbas in Ramallah in 2005, and in 2010, Russia acquired a large plot of land in Jericho from the old holdings of the Russian Orthodox Church and built on it a Russian history museum with lavish gardens. It is located on a street named after the then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Medvedev visited Jericho in 2011 to officially open the museum.
During Putin's visit to the Palestinian territories in 2012, it was said that the aim of the museum was also to strengthen the Russian presence in the Holy Land. Each of the two sections of the exhibition there suggests in its own way that this relationship goes back a very long time,
On display, for example, are historical photos from the 19th and early 20th centuries of Russian pilgrims to Jerusalem who had their pictures taken at the Temple Mount. Also presented are archaeological finds from the museum grounds that can be traced back to a Byzantine church that once stood there. In line with the Neo-Byzantinism propagated by the Russian government, these exhibits conjure up relations reaching back thousands of years between the Russians – the historical heirs to the Byzantine Empire – and the Holy Land. The museum has long been a mandatory stop for Russian "Bible travellers".
Promoting the study of Russian in the Middle East
As in Damascus, a centre for Russian language and culture was opened in Jericho in October, at Al Istiqlal University. The idea for this centre came from the chairman of the university's board of trustees, Tawfiq al Tirawi.
A Fatah official and general, Tirawi was Yassir Arafat's right-hand man and the first head of intelligence for the Palestinian Authority. Although he did not himself study in Soviet Russia, as a member of the Fatah elite, he must certainly have had contacts to the country. Tirawi wants to make Russian Studies a major academic focus at the university in Jericho. The plan is that members of the PA security forces will also be educated there.
Closer co-operation between Fatah cadres and the Russian security authorities can therefore be expected, further reinforcing the already lively bilateral cultural exchange. In addition to Jericho, Bethlehem also has a Russian cultural centre, which Putin inaugurated during his visit in 2012.
In May 2017, Bethlehem acquired yet another Russian institution, the Putin Foundation for Culture and Economics, the headquarters of which were officially opened by the Russian President and his Palestinian counterpart via video transmission when they met in Sochi. The building in Bethlehem is located on Putin Street, thus named in 2012.
That same year, Russian was launched as a subject at An-Najah National University in Nablus, located on terrain governed by the Palestinian Authority. The initiator was the historian of ideas Amr Mahamid, who studied in Leningrad and today lives in Israel. In addition to lecturing at the university in Nablus, Mahamid has also been active for many years as an unofficial cultural ambassador for Russia in his Palestinian hometown of Umm al Fahm (today located in Israel), where he runs a small Russian cultural centre. Mahamid, whose father was a founding member of the Israeli-Arab Communist Party in his hometown, has published several books on Russian–Palestinian cultural relations.
One of them is about the history of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society founded in 1882, which under its present leader, Sergei Stepashin, a former Russian Prime Minister, has for some time been portraying itself as a symbol of longstanding Russian–Arab friendship. In April, Stepashin visited Damascus and announced the opening of a local branch of the society and a Russian school there.
Generally speaking, Russian–Syrian cultural relations are well and truly alive in the Syrian capital at the moment. The two sides are celebrating being comrades-in-arms once again and hailing their joint victory over "terrorism" – for example in photography exhibitions such as "Syria Will Triumph", which was shown at several venues in Russia and was recently on view in Damascus.
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor