"The Russian House": Chronicles of Europe's Occupation by the "Great" Russian Culture

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Photo: Chronicles of Europe's Occupation by the "Great" Russian Culture, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: Chronicles of Europe's Occupation by the "Great" Russian Culture, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

Russian culture is killing (#russianculturekills) – these words, for many in the Western world, especially those who have long collaborated and even befriended Russian artists, seem unjust and baseless. The cancellation of Russian culture globally, particularly over the last two years, is perceived by many producers, artistic coordinators, and entire theatres as unjustified attacks on "people of culture," because culture, as we know, is "beyond politics." Especially Russian culture.

The grand emergence of Russian culture onto the world stage began during Vladimir Putin's first presidential term. It was no longer the hungry 90s when Western countries sent planes with food to Russia—not for culture—and not the stagnant Soviet 80s when remnants of Soviet greatness were occasionally presented to the "decaying West" through only "reliable" artists. One of the first major actions was the Year of Russia in Germany in 2003 and the Year of Germany in Russia in 2004.

Year of Russia

Photo: Best friends of all time - Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder, Source:

"The presidents of the two countries—Johannes Rau and Vladimir Putin, Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and a thousand selected guests will listen to the sounds of the immortal Tchaikovsky performed by one of Russia's finest ensembles—the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev," solemnly reported DW in early February 2003.

The Year of Russian Culture in Germany featured "365 days and 370 events," essentially offering Germans a touch of Russian culture every day of the year, from major events such as tours in Germany by the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theatres, a Russian film festival at the Berlinale, to smaller chamber events—school plays, poetry evenings, and more. Importantly, major events were funded by the state budgets of both countries. As then Russian Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi put it, Germany planned to spend €15 million over two years, while Russia allocated $10 million for the first year alone. Over 3.5 million people engaged with Russian culture. Notably, the Russian pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Russia was a special guest, featured 150 writers.

Culture for such money could not be purely for culture's sake. The goal was to foster close relations with Western democratic countries in diplomacy, economics, science, and of course, culture, so that even ordinary citizens perceived "Russian" as "friendly," no longer "hostile." This "cultural landing," as Shvydkoi termed it, aimed to showcase a different Russia than the Soviet Union and yield economic dividends:

"No money is spared for this! One of the reasons why there are no serious investments in the Russian economy is a lack of trust. Businessmen won't invest in a country they don't trust psychologically, even if state leaders are friendly. Today, this is one of the problems we hope to overcome through Russian-German cultural exchanges."

In January 2010, the Year of Russia in France and France in Russia began in Paris. It was a cross-year where events occurred simultaneously in both countries, unlike with Germany where each country had a separate year. Over 2.5 million people attended events in France. While France financed this year solely from the budgets of its ministries of culture and foreign affairs and patrons, Russia funded directly from its state budget.

In 2011, the Year of Russia was held simultaneously in two EU countries—Italy and Spain. These were also cross-years. These "years" were inaugurated at the highest level—President Dmitry Medvedev and King Juan Carlos I of Spain, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Even the Bank of Russia issued two commemorative silver coins: the Year of Russian Culture and Language in Italy—a denomination of 2 rubles, and the Year of Spain in Russia—a denomination of 3 rubles.

In 2014, a cross-year of culture between Great Britain and Russia took place. This was a very telling year, as in late February, Russia occupied part of Ukraine—first Crimea, then in March, parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. However, in the report from the British Consulate in Russia regarding the cross-year of culture of these countries, we read the following:

"Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and intervention in eastern Ukraine, we were clear about our intentions on behalf of the UK: 'When political or diplomatic relations become difficult, we believe that cultural exchange helps to maintain open dialogue between people and institutions. Therefore, wherever possible, we would like the exhibitions, shows and performances in Russia to continue.'"

Because culture, as we know, is beyond politics. This allowed Russia to further increase its "cultural" influence in the West and strengthen its positions within democratic societies.

Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cooperation)

Established in the 1990s, Russian Centers for Science and Culture—known as "Russian Houses"—emerged as active players in international affairs by the year 2000 in nearly all influential world capitals.

At first glance, this may seem nothing out of the ordinary, considering the Spanish Instituto Cervantes, the German Goethe-Institut, the French Institute, and many others. However, there is a slight difference. These institutions are unlikely to have such extensive global outreach or overtly interfere in the internal political affairs of the countries they visit or dictate their policies.

Initially, there was Roszarubezhcenter (Russian Abroad Center), which in 1997 became an executive body under the Russian government. Its first head was Valentina Tereshkova, the "first woman cosmonaut" and eternal deputy—from 1966 to 1992 in the Soviet parliament and now in the Russian State Duma, a prominent figure in Putin's United Russia party actively supporting the Kremlin's occupation policies. In 2007, by Putin's decree, the "Russkiy Mir" Foundation (Russian World Foundation) was established. Ostensibly for the promotion of Russian language and culture, it effectively duplicated the existing Rossotrudnichestvo but with an emphasis on Russian language instructors (not just language courses and school electives, but close ties with Russian studies departments at Western universities and generous sponsorship of translators from Russian, writers, and more) and generally Russian-speaking individuals anywhere in the world. "Russian World" provided grants to those interested in Russian language and culture, all funded from the Russian state budget.

The ideology of the Russian World—both the foundation and the definition—is formulated as follows: 

"The Russian World is not only Russians, not only Russian citizens, not only our compatriots in near and distant foreign countries, emigrants, descendants of those who left Russia. It is also foreign citizens speaking Russian, studying or teaching it, everyone sincerely interested in Russia, concerned about its future. All layers of the Russian World—polyethnic, multiconfessional, socially and ideologically diverse, multicultural, geographically segmented—are united by the awareness of belonging to Russia."

In 2008, by presidential decree of Dmitry Medvedev, Roszarubezhcenter transformed into the notorious Rossotrudnichestvo with even greater powers. It is Rossotrudnichestvo that coordinates and finances all Russian Centers for Science and Culture, "Russian Houses," of which there are already 96 centers worldwide. And in Paris there are two of them - Russian Spiritual and Cultural Orthodox Center in Paris and Russian House of Science and Culture in Paris. And again, what does politics have to do with it? This is culture! Employees of these houses are often or have been employees of Russian special services.

For example, in the Czech Republic, after explosions at military depots in Vrbětice (2014) that killed two people, the involvement of Russian special services in the explosions was revealed during the investigation. In 2021, the Czechs finally deported 18 Russian diplomats who coincidentally were also agents of Russian special services. Two of them were not only employees of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Prague but also key figures in the ricin story, allegedly to poison the mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, and the heads of Prague districts Ondřej Kolář and Pavel Novotný.

Even the European Parliament adopted a resolution at the end of 2016 to counter Russian propaganda, clearly stating that the Russian government conducts propaganda against the EU and Eastern Partnership countries and uses precisely the Russian World and Rossotrudnichestvo for this purpose: "the Russian government employs a wide range of instruments, including analytical centers and funds (such as the 'Russian World'), special state institutions (such as Rossotrudnichestvo)..."

After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, some Russian Centers for Science and Culture, "Russian Houses," were forced to suspend their activities in Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania. Efforts were made to close the "Russian House" in Germany due to its involvement in sanctions evasion, but in early 2023, the German prosecutor's office closed the investigation without even starting it because the Russian Center has diplomatic status and its employees accordingly have diplomatic immunity. A similar story occurred in Austria.

Photo: The monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Borodyanka (Ukraine), which was shot by Russian occupiers, demonstrates all the "greatness" of Russian culture in all its ruthlessness, Source: Andrieiev Andrii Facebook

But this is a story from the distant past. Starting in 2008 when Russia attacked Georgia and occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the world turned a blind eye to any violations of international agreements by Moscow, deaths, deportations because culture is beyond politics. And when Mikhail Shvydkoi was asked whether he feared that isolation of Russia would lead to isolation of Russian culture, he confidently reassured that there would be no isolation: 

"There will be no isolation, no. People of culture are a special type of people. I have very good personal relationships with European cultural figures, American ones, in the East—China, India, Japan. I try to work in such a personal capacity now."

And it is precisely this "special type of people" and personal relationships with cultural figures and politicians that allowed Russia to act with impunity, killing and occupying territories in Georgia, Syria, Ukraine.

Russian Seasons

In 2017, one of the most extensive and regular events in Russia's global outreach commenced—the Russian Seasons—an international cultural project of the Russian government and the Ministry of Culture aimed at showcasing Russian culture abroad. The reference was made to the historical "Russian Seasons" that took place in the early 20th century, primarily highlighting Sergei Diaghilev's successful ballet productions in Europe.

"From classical music concerts and theatrical performances to film festivals, art exhibitions, and educational projects," as announced on the Russian Seasons website. "Since 2017, Russian Seasons have captivated over 13 million viewers." Within this project, the focus was on truly influential cultural events worldwide—orchestras, ballets, films, museum exhibitions of world-class, alongside a series of smaller-scale events.

For example, in 2019, Russian Seasons in Germany covered 90 cities with over 400 events. In 2017, Russian Seasons took place in Japan (200 events), and in 2018 in Italy (over 300 events) - attended by 9 million people. In 2020, the Seasons were planned in three countries simultaneously—France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Even before the introduction of COVID restrictions in early 2020, over a hundred events were held within the Seasons. Then they transitioned to online mode, but in September 2021, they resumed in Belgium. In the same year, the Seasons began in South Korea.

In 2022, Russian Seasons were planned to take place in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, but Russia launched a "special military operation" (SMO), and the Seasons initially shifted to a "hybrid format"—online and offline, and later, as mentioned by Mikhail Shvydkoi, the special representative of the Russian President for international cultural cooperation, it was stated that the Russian Seasons would now focus on neutral and friendly countries—the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and generally expand tours within Russia.

In 2023, Russian Seasons toured Uzbekistan, and for 2024, the Seasons are announced in Brazil. They were supposed to start in June, but the programs are still unknown. Only from an interview with the acting Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, Olga Lyubimova, can we find information that the Seasons in Brazil will take place in three cities of the country and will consist of about 20 events. What a striking difference in numbers... or perhaps in Brazil, they simply do not appreciate the "great Russian culture." And next year, the Seasons will tour Bahrain and Oman.

Informal Culture

Parallel to the official state cultural program, an informal one was also carried out. That is, the carriers of culture—Russian citizens—brought Russian culture into European social life. This primarily refers to affluent Russians who decided to settle permanently or temporarily during vacations and summer holidays in comfortable countries of the European Union. If Spanish Malaga became a center for the Russian middle class, then on the French Riviera, the so-called Côte d'Azur, the wealthy settled—wives with children of top-level Russian politicians and oligarchs. The most vivid event of the French Riviera was the annual "Bal des Fleurs" at the Ephrussi de Rothschild villa on Cape Ferrat near Nice, Cannes, and Monaco. The "Bal des Fleurs" first took place in 2003 and was the annual key social event of the Russian public on the Riviera until 2014. A parade of models in flower dresses was a traditional feature of the ball. There were also performances by opera singers or ballet stars. And not just any performers but the best. Every year a special guest from the "locals" was invited—Ornella Muti, Fanny Ardant, or Jerry Hall—who by their presence lent more significance to the event, although in reality, the guests were only interested in their compatriots, the size of diamonds, and yachts moored in the marina. But at the "Bal des Fleurs," there were also rich and influential people from the Western world, making it another platform not only for presenting Russian culture but also for informal conversations with Russian politicians and businessmen. Russians became "their own" for Europeans, not strangers and not dangerous.

Days of Russian...

The first Day of Russian Culture was celebrated by Russians in Estonia under the name "Day of Russian Enlightenment" in 1924, dedicated to the 125th anniversary of the birth of poet Alexander Pushkin. After the Bolshevik Revolution, many Russians fled from the former Tsarist Russia, and among the emigration, there was a fervent hope that this was only temporary, therefore it was necessary to preserve the Russian language and traditions for eventual return, especially concerning children who were beginning to speak Russian poorly. Within a year, a project for an annual Day of Russian Culture was created in Prague, with a call "To the Russian People Abroad," the text of which was published in emigrant publications. In 1925, the Day of Russian Culture was celebrated in 13 countries, and in 1926 – in 20.

Thus, it was around Pushkin that a Russian community was forming abroad from the second decade of the 20th century. And since Pushkin was also "respected" in Soviet Russia, in the early 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, efforts from both sides were able to unite to prove to the world that "Pushkin is everything to us!"

Days of Russian Culture, Days of Russian Cinema, Days of Russian Language and Literature – these were also international projects that took place around the world. They were smaller in scale but played a very important role – a constant presence in the public eye – from language courses to student scholarships, Trans-Siberian railway journeys for foreign writers, and the creation of theatrical projects. Monuments and busts were also installed. The Pushkin bust appeared in Prague in 2014, despite protests from local residents to whom Pushkin had no connection. This year, a Pushkin bust was installed in Caracas, Venezuela. Pushkin also appeared in Italy in 2000. There are over 40 Pushkin monuments around the world.

Photo: Puschkinstraße in Eastern Germany, Source: Google map

If you want to see a vivid example of what Pushkin truly represents in the hands of the Russian regime (hint - a marker of influence spheres), search for Puschkinstraße and look at the geography of streets named after the Russian poet. Of course, this will be in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) territory, where there was a Soviet military contingent, whereas in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), there are no streets named after him in memory.

And then there's Dostoevsky, whose monument was installed in Florence in 2021, and Tolstoy, installed in Washington and Seoul.

After such intensive cultural therapy, it is very difficult to believe that these are the same people, the same culture that can ruthlessly kill and terrorize the entire world with threats of nuclear war. It's very difficult to acknowledge that these are the same people who yesterday performed on your stage, but today openly support the Kremlin's policy of seizing new territories and destroying peaceful populations. 

"I will not allow Putin to take Chekhov away from me," 

says Germany's Minister of Culture Claudia Roth.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 shocked the Western democratic world. Only a few artists and researchers of Russian culture have opened their eyes to its true imperial and aggressive nature. This is evidenced, for example, by the resonant article in the New Yorker by the American writer, journalist, academic and Pulitzer Prize winner Elif Batuman "Rereading Russian Classics in the Shadow of the Ukraine War: How to reckon with the ideology of "Anna Karenina," "Eugene Onegin," and other favourite books." But the majority of the world community still perceives Russian culture only in the artistic context, saying "The enemy is Putin, not Pushkin". 

It's simpler to concentrate responsibility for everything on one person, Putin, but it's not him who has been destroying Ukraine for the past 10 years, sending agents to kill Skripal, blow up ammunition depots in the Czech Republic, or enterprises in Germany. Putin is collective Russia. This includes Anna Netrebko, an opera diva who, only after her participation in performances and concerts was canceled in 2022, simply stopped commenting on the Russian-Ukrainian war, and until that moment, actively supported the Kremlin in the occupation of Crimea and Donbas and did not hesitate to be photographed against the backdrop of the flags of the occupied "republics." 

Photo: Russian violist and conductor Yuri Bashmet has supported Putin's policies since 2014, particularly the annexation of Crimea. "I had no time to notice that Crimea was not in my country" - said Bashmet at the celebration of his 70th birthday in 2023

This includes Yuri Bashmet, who was an ambassador for the Russian Seasons but also does not hesitate to support the Kremlin's position and recently received an order of labor from Putin himself. And Valery Gergiev, a well-known conductor on world stages. This includes Sergey Naryshkin, who opened the Year of Russia in Paris in 2010 and already in 2022, as head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, confused everything and, at a Security Council meeting of the Russian Federation, instead of words about independence, spoke about the annexation of "DPR" and "LPR" to Russia.

And there are many such cultural Russians—millions.

Ukrainian and Western Artists and Scholars on the Impact of Russian Culture on Western Society

Artem Chekh, writer and military member of the Armed Forces of Ukraine:

Source: Facebook

"Awards are given to Russians by those people whose cities Russians are not bombing. They don't have the same concepts we do, especially regarding physical safety. When people talk about Russians, some Ukrainians start shaking because they fear this Russia that bombs their cities. It's terrifying. But here are just 'good Russians.' And why not support them? They too are victims of the regime, like Ukrainians. But they are different because Ukrainians suffer physically and en masse, while 'good Russians' are simply slightly oppressed at home by a bad tyrant."


Serhiy Zhadan, poet, writer, musician:

Source: Facebook

"During World War II, not all Germans were Nazis; not all Germans supported the Nazi regime because there were anti-Nazis, including artists, who opposed the Hitler regime. From my experience communicating with Germans, I think they try to project this onto the current situation. For them, it's a familiar matrix where you can't dehumanize an entire society; there are unworthy individuals but also people who resist evil and injustice even in such circumstances. Whether this position is constructive and justified is a rhetorical question. Undoubtedly, Russian culture is part of the 'Russian world' concept. In this case, it serves its function more or less effectively. Russians use this opportunity, again, for advocacy of their war crimes. They say: 'Yes, okay, you don't like our missiles, let's put them aside, but look at our cultural heritage, which is humanistic! You understand that a nation that created such literature cannot be criminals or aggressors. So let's try to talk.

And it is obvious that culture will be the platform from which a large advocacy for Russia will begin. This Russia, the Russian political system, and everything that is happening there. Therefore, we should be prepared for this. When the cannons fall silent, the cultural war will continue.'"


Oksana Zabuzhko, writer, literary critic, publicist:

Source: Facebook

"I refused to participate in a program with the Russian writer Boris Akunin. The organizers argued that Akunin opposes Putin. And this was actually a serious challenge at the time – to explain to people that it's not enough to be against Putin; you also need to be against the Russian Empire, and it took some time to formulate this discourse: let Ukrainians finally speak, you have listened to Russians, excuse me, for 300 years.

You see the aftermath of Russian culture in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol; who was raised by this culture, what else do you want to hear from these people who, sorry, in 30 years, did not even warn you that fascism was maturing in their country? Where are you inviting them now, when it's too late?

All of Russian culture, as such, has lost the right to a voice on par with Ukrainians. This is also part of what is called the narrative war."


Timothy Snyder, historian

Who is Behind the Promotion of Russian Culture in Europe? 

The answer to this question is seemingly simple – Russia. But in fact, it is an almost endless list of organizations, initiatives, and funds that actively promote Russian narratives in European society under the guise of cultural events, whitewashing Russia's criminal image and shifting the focus:

  • Rossotrudnichestvo

  • Russian World Foundation

  • Russian Science and Culture Center

  • Russian Seasons – an international cultural project of the Ministry of Culture and the Russian government

  • Union of Theater Workers of Russia (STD) with the program 'Support Center for Russian Theater Abroad'

  • Foundation for the Support of Regional Cinematography under the Union of Cinematographers of the Russian Federation and with the participation of the Cinema Foundation

  • Pushkin Project - organization and conduct of scientific symposiums, conferences, colloquiums in the field of science, culture in Russia, and abroad

  • International project 'Read Russia'

  • 'Russian Library in the USA'"



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