How the network of promoting the Russian language abroad functions

Art: Andriy Yermolenko

The Russian language is one of the key “pillars” of the “Russkiy mir” (“Russian World”) concept, which Russians define as the sphere of their national interests and the area of potential annexation. Russia has given great attention to the spread of the Russian language, its in-depth study, as well as the support of various societies of Russians. In dozens of countries on all continents have centers of the Russian world with its “matryoshka” dolls, balalaikas, and teachers who deal with the Russian language, literature, and culture. 

For several decades, the “Russian world” concept has been used to justify Russian expansionism in its “near abroad” and globally. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is a plain-as-day instance.  

The case of “Russkiy Mir” Foundation

A 2016 resolution of the European Parliament designated the “Russkiy Mir” Foundation as a propaganda organisation.

A report by research agency MZ Hub shows that The “Russkiy Mir” Foundation is a Russian cultural diplomacy institution established as a non-governmental organisation, though closely controlled and coordinated by the Kremlin and funded almost exclusively from the Russian federal budget. The Foundation has become the organisational embodiment of the ideology of the “Russian world”, the geopolitical concept of Russia’s political elites that emphasises the originality and uniqueness of “Russian civilisation”, expressed in the Russian language, culture, and Weltanschacuung. 

The Foundation collaborates closely with the Russian state and pro-Kremlin organisations in Russia and maintains an overseas network of Cabinets and Centres of the “Russkiy Mir” Foundation with fairly extensive geography, especially in locations where the Russian diaspora is concentrated. 

In 2022, the Foundation had 104 active Centres in 52 countries, 128 Cabinets in 57 countries, and over 5700 friendly organisations in nearly 160 countries (including 2700 such friendly organisations in Russia).

The number of Centres, Cabinets, and friendly organisations of the “Russkiy Mir” Foundation in different countries of the world

“The Russian flag will be flown wherever Russian is spoken”

The Foundation’s avowed mission is to “promote the Russian language, which is Russia’s national heritage and an essential component of Russian and world culture, and to support Russian language research programmes abroad.” In addition to promoting Russian language and teaching methods, providing access to Russian educational materials, and assisting Russian language teachers, the Foundation’s list of tasks also includes more comprehensive ones:

  • Promotion of “objective” information about contemporary Russia and “compatriots” (i.e., Russians living abroad) in order to build a favorable public perception of Russia throughout the world.
  • Support for the activities of Russian diasporas abroad, protection of their identity, and preservation of the Russian language as a medium of interethnic communication.
  • Support for the Russian-language media mostly focused on achieving the Foundation’s objectives.
  • Collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church and other denominations to promote the Russian language and culture.

Russian studies, or the study of Russia in its broadest manifestations (language, culture, political processes) is a very important discipline. Especially at a time when Russia is an aggressive unpredictable entity with a nuclear button, which can threaten the existence of humanity due to a whole bunch of psychological, economic, political and other deviations of its leadership and a large part of the ‘turbo-patriots’ population. 

Poster: “Our language is Russian.”

Since Russia did not turn into such a powder keg yesterday, special services and analytical centers close to the government and various business circles have been carefully studying the processes in it. This is one of the reasons why “Sovietologists” paid almost no attention to the study of other member states of the USSR, including Russia’s captive nations.

After the Soviet collapse, Russia continued to be perceived as the “heiress” of Soviet practices. Moreover, since the Union no longer posed a military threat, interest in its legacy was inert, and the quality of studies gradually declined. It is quite likely that the global consequence of this was the “negligence” of the uprise of de facto fascist regime in Russia, which brutally invaded the territory of a neighboring state.

In parallel, since the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR itself has been building networks of controlled organizations of “Russists”, which were supposed to be engaged in the “correct” study of Russia / the Soviet Union and actually promote the spread of the influence of the Russian language, culture, and literature as instruments of “soft power”, first in the countries of the “social camp”, later in the “CIS”, as well as in the states of the “Rotting West”.

First of all, such “ambassadors” include teachers and lectors of the Russian language and literature in local schools and universities, as well as Russian schools themselves, which operate either under embassies or at the initiative of local “compatriots”, with the support of Rossotrudnichestvo / “Russkiy mir” Foundation or local sponsors.

The promotion of the Russian language abroad is systematic and traceable. For example, in the government program “Russian language” for 2016-2020, specific figures were indicated, how many times the number of teachers who will undergo advanced training, internships, translators from/into Russian, the number of Internet sites for learning Russian, the percentage of Russian schools that will receive support with workbooks, the number of books, the number of held School Olympiads, competitions, festivals and other events.

The growth ambitions of these indicators varied from 2 to 10 times. The program was to be financed by about 82 million dollars at the time. (In 2023, $6.5 million). The Pushkin Institute is responsible for the promotion of the Russian language by the government.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, governments and social activists in European countries began to look closer at Russian schools and associations of Russians. A certain number of such associations publicly condemned the Russian aggression (partly with excuses, such as “we are compassionate with all the victims, both Ukrainians and Russians, we will continue to carry the Russian language and culture as a way of international understanding”), a large part continued to work for the promotion of the Russian language, culture and the “Russian” worldview.

For example, the week of the Russian language passed smoothly last year at the end of November in Germany (where there is an association of Russian speakers in almost every big city), and the educational Olympiads in Italy ended a few months ago. And in the competition of the Russian language in Austria, the Lukoil Oil Company gave prizes to the winners

In some cases, the desire of Russians to conduct their cultural ‘business as usual’ causes an ambiguous reaction among local activists. Thus, a scandal broke out in Poland at the beginning of the year due to a meeting of Russian language teachers with representatives of the Russian House in Warsaw (representative of Rossotrudnichestvo), who were supposed to be told about new methods of teaching Russian. 

With the support of the “Russkiy Mir” Foundation, the cities of Germany and Austria (“despite COVID-19 and politics”) during 2021-22 traveled the “institute on wheels” – “Russomobile”, in the framework of which Russian lecturers visited German and Austrian schools, master classes, in order to attract children to study Russian as a second, third, fourth foreign language. As for now, the volunteers “spread” the Russian language in German schools on foot. During these years alone, according to the Foundation’s website, volunteers have made more than 5,000 visits to German schools.

Russians do not hide that in the future, they will only increase their efforts to promote the Russian language in the world. And its spread is directly associated with cultural, economic and political expansion.  The effort to spread the language in various regions of the world may differ in their vector.

So, in Europe and North America, most likely, it is about preserving communication practices among “compatriots” and their bilingual children, in the countries of the “global south” – about attracting new speakers and consumers of Russian-language content (and therefore the Russian political and cultural agenda, propaganda and narratives), which as a result should lead to the emergence of a new layer of political allies of Russia in these regions.

Formally, ‘russists’ are the least dangerous representatives of the “THE GERMS OF THE RUSSIAN WORLD” because they “simply bring the culture with them and spread another language of international communication.” However, the example of Ukraine directly proves that after Russia marks the area of its interests with Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, it takes a little time for the bearer of the “great and mighty” to come “to defend” these interests with tanks and missiles.

The original material was published on Texty.org and was fulfilled with a report made by MZ Hub agency 

Digital Art: Andriy Yermolenko

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