20 years under Putin: a timeline

Over the last decade, Russia’s compatriot policy—officially represented as a soft power tool for advancing Russian culture—has been increasingly used by the Kremlin as a cover to promote its geopolitical interests. Analysis of the activities of the Russian compatriot organizations in the US shows that they tend to speak on behalf of the entire Russian diaspora, hijacking a good-natured debate on US-Russian relations and conflating the often diverging interests of the Russian Americans.

 

Russkiy Mir supports annual celebrations of Russian America in Fort Ross, CA, a center of the southernmost Russian settlements in North America in 1812-1841. Photo: Franco Folini (via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Russia’s annexation of Crimea under the pretext of defending the rights of “compatriots abroad” has engendered a deep mistrust and suspicion of Russian compatriot policy across the former Soviet Union. The “compatriot” label has increasingly become associated with territorial ambition and military aggression—especially in Europe. While the US does not face quite the same problem, Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election elevated the threat level and put the Kremlin’s foreign policy into a different perspective.

According to US census data from 2017, 889,707 Americans speak Russian at home, making it the seventh most spoken foreign language in the country. Given the country’s influence, Russian compatriot organizations could be regarded as a soft power tool and a factor in advancing the Kremlin’s foreign policy narratives. However, according to Natalie Sabelnik, head of the Congress of Russian Americans, most of their activities are directed at improving American perceptions of Russia and Russians in light of recent events in US politics.

How do these organizations attempt to influence US public discourse about Russia? What Russian foreign policy narratives, if any, do they promote? How do these narratives and strategies contradict US national interests?

To answer these questions, activities of the following US-based Russian compatriot organizations are examined: the Russian Youth of America (RYA), the Congress of Russian Americans (CRA), which claims to be financially independent from Russian state organs, and the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots in the US (CCRCUS), the most authoritative compatriot structure at the national level in which all recognized compatriot organizations participate. These organizations were selected as case studies as all claim to promote Russian culture, language, and spiritual heritage to combat Russophobia and improve Russia-US relations. The time frame for the analysis is 2014 (annexation of Crimea) through 2020.

 

Constructing the diaspora

The term “compatriot” in Russian political and public discourse differs from the concept’s usage in the West. If in the West the term implies a fellow countrymen or citizen, then it is used in Russian discourse as an amorphous “catch-all” term that at any given time could refer to Russian citizens abroad, “blood and soil” ethnic Russians (irrespective of citizenship), all Russian-language speakers, or anyone displaying a spiritual or emotional connection with Russia. [1] This means that the number of “compatriots abroad” could be anywhere between five million, if restricted to Russian citizens residing in foreign countries, and up to 146 million in the most inclusive tabulation. [2] Compatriots are also distinct from the Russian diaspora as a whole through their cultural and political activism; to be a diaspora member requires mere self-identification.

In this sense, the development of Russian compatriot policy goes hand in hand with the confused search for a new Russian identity after the collapse of the USSR. The contraction of state borders to their present delineation was a painful and traumatic process for the entire former Soviet population and those “accidental” diaspora members who found themselves on the wrong side of the new Russian border. The emergence of the novel Russian Federation necessitated a reassessment of who could be considered “ours abroad.”

To avoid narrowly ethnic parameters for “Russianness,” compatriots were codified in a 1999 federal law (“On the State Policy Concerning Compatriots Abroad”) using civic classifications, defining them as citizens abroad, former Soviet citizens and their descendants, and emigrants from the Russian Empire without citizenship who want to establish a “spiritual, cultural and legal bond” with Russia. Despite the text’s strictly declarative nature, it addressed the external Russian communities as part of the greater Russian nation, even if compatriots emigrated willingly. As such, compatriot policy’s purpose is twofold: it reduces the internal mismatch between Russian state and national borders by designating islands of Russianness beyond state borders while constructing a pressure group in respective host states that can contribute to Russia’s voice on the international stage.

A number of factors explain the Russian government’s earlier neglect for the diaspora (and compatriots). Until Russia’s economic recovery in the mid-2000s, the Kremlin did not have the resources to engage with the global Russian diaspora amid volatile economic uncertainty, concerns over the new Russian state’s territorial integrity, and separatist sentiment in Chechnya. It was only after Vladimir Putin had consolidated his own power vertical domestically that the state apparatus could turn its attention to the new diaspora abroad.

This compatriot policy reconstruction was also influenced by the 2003–2005 color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. The Russian political elite saw the street protests which brought pro-Western leaders to power as an incursion by the West aimed at bringing Ukraine into the its sphere of influence. However, Russian diasporic organizations both in the US and elsewhere pre-exist the Russian political elite’s attempts to institutionalize the compatriot community. The CRA, for example, was formed during the Soviet period by anti-communist Russian émigrés “rooted in religious Christian Orthodox values.”

There is no doubt that the Kremlin considers the compatriot movement a worthy investment and a useful tool in the foreign policy arsenal.

The current format of Russian compatriot policy was molded by former presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, mastermind of the “sovereign democracy” concept. [3] Compatriots, previously seen as a burden on resources and largely ignored, were re-imagined as objects of national security and a soft power weapon in Russia’s information war against the West. Simultaneously, the civic activist strategies employed by protesters and NGOs that promoted democracy were examined carefully so that the most successful ones could be integrated into Russian public diplomacy. 

With Russia as the territorial core around which compatriots must unite and increased state coffers owing to a large rise in oil prices, Russians residing abroad were included into a top-down structure with centralized “tentacles” that would increase Russian influence in their host states and reinforce Russia’s image as a longstanding “state-civilization” with a thousand-year history. This approach necessarily entailed loyalty from compatriot organizations to Russian foreign policy prerogatives and therefore limited the ability of those groups to shape compatriot policy themselves.

Importantly, a 2010 amendment to the law on compatriots stated that compatriot membership and funding depended on civil or professional activity preserving Russian language, history, and culture, and strengthening relations between host states and Russia, turning compatriots into political and cultural activists working to promote Russia’s external voice.

To this end, the World Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots (WCCRC) was established in 2007 to represent compatriot interests in Russian state organs and coordinate activities between diplomatic missions and local compatriots. The WCCRC forms the top of the Coordinating Council umbrella structure to which each national and regional Coordinating Council of compatriots is subordinated. The Russkiy Mir foundation—a joint project of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science—was created in 2007; Rossotrudnichestvo—the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation, under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Affairs Ministry—was established in 2008. While the former funds projects concerning Russian language, culture, and history abroad, Rossotrudnichestvo is tasked with a broad range of public diplomacy initiatives and defending compatriot interests. This umbrella structure also included regional and country-level Compatriot Coordinating Councils, including US-based offices.

The most important policy areas, according to the compatriot law, concern the formation of a Russian-language information space, popularizing and preserving Russian language, culture, and history, improving Russia’s image abroad and bettering diplomatic relations between Russia and host states. All organizations under analysis operate along these policy principles. Compatriots are mentioned in Russia’s 2015 National Security Strategy, and the 2016 Foreign Policy Concept refers to the need to protect their rights and lawful interests, to enable their consolidation and preservation of the distinct character of the Russian diaspora. This leaves no doubt as to their inclusion in the foreign policy process.

The inclusion of cultural diplomacy in the foreign policy process was stimulated by the success of Western cultural institutions that managed to achieve public relations successes and a positive perception in target countries. From Moscow’s perspective, the compatriot structure is another cultural institution that, by emphasizing language, traditions, and art, should help promote a benign image of Russia, thereby reducing the significance of more controversial bilateral issues. [4] Furthermore, compatriot communities, through their presence and actions, reinforce Russia’s “great power” status and complement Putin’s assertion that Russia is a “state-civilization” in its own right.

What’s more, as an identity category, “compatriot” is highly adaptable and its salience varies depending on the host state under analysis. On one hand, compatriots are de-securitized transmitters of Russian culture, history, and values, as in the US and other Western countries. In countries bordering Russia, compatriots can be securitized objects under Russian military protection outside sovereign borders. The safety and well-being of Russian compatriots in Ukraine was used as a pretext for the military annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This ambiguity is precisely what makes the “compatriot” structure such an appealing wing of the foreign policy process.

There is no doubt that the Kremlin considers the compatriot movement a worthy investment and a useful tool in the foreign policy arsenal. However, most institutions that fund or coordinate activities with compatriot communities, such as Rossotrudnichestvo, are controlled by the government, which essentially undermines the efforts of compatriot communities in improving Russia’s image in their home countries.   

 

Justifying Crimea’s annexation and opposing sanctions

It is difficult to reconcile the various socio-cultural differences that one finds in different waves of emigration from Russia to the US into a homogenous grouping united in their love for Russia. Many so-called “global Russians” and high-skilled professionals have emigrated from Russia to the US in search of better living standards. Their cultural affinities with Russia are unlikely to transform into political capital for Moscow. It is important to remember that the compatriot movement is only a segment of the diaspora as a whole. Compatriots must adopt an activist stance and participate in the preservation of Russian language, culture, and history, while members of the broader Russian diaspora need only self-identify with the “diaspora” label.

Shortly after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian compatriot organizations in the US set about justifying Russia’s military takeover of the peninsula through a mixture of protest and lobbying. The Russian Youth of America (RYA) held a protest outside the main United Nations building in New York, which decried the “rising neofascism” in Ukraine and supported “friendship and cooperation between Russian and Ukrainian peoples.” An anti-Maidan rally in Times Square held by the RYA saw protesters with signs such as “Your Enemy Is Wall Street, Not Putin,” while the organization’s president, Igor Kochan, was filmed at a separate rally protesting the US decision to send arms to Ukraine, with a sign stating “No War With Russia.” 

This activist strategy among compatriot organizations demonstrates a further alignment with Russian foreign policy narratives claiming that a “junta” had taken power in Kiev and that
inherent “Russophobia” in US policy, not Russian military actions, was to blame for the frozen state of US-Russian relations. Kochan is also the head of the US-based Russian Orthodox Church’s department for youth interaction and has ties to LaRouchePAC, a radical movement promoting conspiracy theories of global domination.

Forms of protest were accompanied by more direct political lobbying as compatriot organizations campaigned to have Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia lifted. In July 2017, for example, Natalie Sabelnik, the CRA leader, penned a letter to Donald Trump asking him not to sign into law sanctions targeting Russia’s economy. The letter, proclaiming the CRA as the “recognized voice of Russian Americans,” highlighted that sanctions had had a positive effect on Russia’s domestic manufacturers by fostering increased production to cope with demand, but also undermined world peace and hindered constructive dialogue bilaterally. What’s more, Sabelnik said in her letter, the “one-sided propaganda barrage” seen in mainstream American media against Russia had engendered a “hatred of all things Russian” in American public discourse. It noted that there was no reason why “two ‘great powers’ cannot find a way to peaceful, mutually-advantageous cooperation.”

Once again, Russophobia is wielded as a weapon that heaps blame for the current state of relations on the US alone, and advocates a global vision of multipolarity, in which Russia’s great power status and subsequent strategic interests are respected. Not only does this obfuscate Russia’s culpability and illegal actions, but it presents such an opinion as characteristic of all Russian Americans as opposed to just “compatriots.”

Indeed, the “hatred of all things Russian” that supposedly pervades US public discourse, according to Russia’s Fund for Supporting and Protecting Compatriots Abroad, manifests itself in the marginalization of Russian speakers from IT jobs in the USA. An article by the Bell cited an unnamed source—a Russian investor based in the Silicon Valley—claiming that “if you speak Russian, have a Russian name and have not lived in the USA for many years, your chances of building a successful IT business are zero.” While this obstacle to career development could be attributed to a lack of US cultural knowledge or a language barrier, the phrasing suggests discrimination simply for being Russian. Russophobia here serves to blur the boundary between legitimate denouncements of Russian covert and overt influence campaigns abroad that have led to Russia’s toxic image in the US.

 

The battleground of Russian-American history

Allegations of Russophobia are not limited to debates about US-Russian relations but also extend to compatriot efforts to preserve Russian, and Russian-American, history. In December 2018, native Hawaiian residents began to consider whether to change the name of the Russian Fort Elizabeth, a structure commissioned and designed by Russian imperial explores and built by native peoples in 1817, to “Paulaula” (“fort” in Hawaiian), so that it reflected its Hawaiian cultural heritage.

This prompted an online petition started by Russian compatriot activists decrying the name change, accusing Hawaiians of distorting the fortress’s historical value and wanting to erase the history of Russia’s imperial presence in the Americas. The story entered the state-dominated Russian information sphere, picked up by a conservative TV outlet, Tsargrad (founded by the pro-Kremlin Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev), which pointed out that the Hawaiian king at the time swore an oath of allegiance to the Russian tsar. In the English-speaking media, Russia Beyond the Headlines (a project launched by the government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which was later transferred to the media company that also manages RT) accused what it called the “Hawaiian nationalists” of erasing Russian history from the island. One US compatriot commented that Russian-American cultural heritage would disappear along with the original name. The controversy’s coverage was so successful that it was picked up by local news in January 2019, and one year later, in February 2020, it was decided that “Paulaula” would be added to the Russian name rather than replace it.

This development encapsulates perfectly the patterns of alignment with Russian foreign policy narratives invoked by Russian compatriot structures and their contribution to the negative image of the US in the Russian information sphere. Cultural activism in the case of the Russian Fort Elizabeth appears less an attempt to initiate a fruitful discussion to preserve Russian-American history than another appeal to Russophobia.

Negative spin on events like the Hawaiian fort controversy, combined with sharp contradictions in US and Russian media coverage, could cause cognitive dissonance among US-based Russian speakers, undermine their trust in the American government, and plunge them into a dangerous “alternative reality” espoused by Russian state-owned media—a situation that could have serious implications for US national security.

The CRA’s conflation of a good-natured Russian cultural heritage promotion with what the Kremlin sees as anti-Russian US politics is represented as a threat to the activities of the Russian compatriot community itself. Despite articulating a distinction between the two, the merging of protecting Russian Fort Elizabeth’s name with a pro-Russian political stance could endanger Russian Americans’ social integration by politicizing purely cultural ties with their host state and raising suspicions among the wider US public against genuinely harmless Russian cultural promotion.

 

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses?

It comes as no surprise that Russian compatriot organizations coordinate with foreign policy bodies. After all, most countries maintain linkages with their diasporas and build platforms for homeland–diaspora dialogue. This is complemented by the fact that US political culture is very accommodating of diasporic activities. In this sense, Russian compatriot activities can, in fact, serve a positive and wholly reasonable purpose. For instance, in February 2020, the RYA coordinated with Russian Americans in New York to find housing for Russian citizens and students unable to return home after Russia closed its borders to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Where, then, is there cause for concern?

Despite the seemingly benign strategies of the compatriot organizations, their Trojan horse nature cannot go unnoticed. Compatriot activities are largely funded by the Russian government through organizations like Rossotrudnichestvo and Russkiy Mir, whose sole purpose is to advance the Kremlin’s interests through soft power tools. CRA, RYA, and CCRCUS all engage in influencing US public discourse by promoting Russian foreign policy narratives—from its great power ambitions and grievances over alleged Russophobia to complaints about the hypocrisy and double standards of US policy toward Russia.

The espoused unity among Russian compatriots denies the divisions present among the Russian-speaking community on political questions, such as the annexation of Crimea. Indeed, calls from the Russian embassy for US-based Russian citizens to support the Kremlin’s Crimea policy drove a wedge between different groups, with some accusing the embassy of turning the community into a “fifth column.” In the 2016 Duma elections, Russian Americans cast 39.72 percent of the vote for the liberal Yabloko party as opposed to 20.37 percent for the pro-Kremlin United Russia.

Additionally, compatriot organizations tend to misrepresent themselves as speaking for the entire Russian diaspora. For example, while lobbying for the lifting of US sanctions against Russia, CRA attempted to paint themselves as representatives of all Russian Americans. This leads to the misguided perception that this stance is shared by the Russian diaspora as opposed to a much narrow group of compatriots. In other words, this group tries to hijack a constructive cultural and social dialogue and project pro-Kremlin ideas onto the entire Russian-speaking community in the US, which can obstruct the diaspora’s normal relations with the US government and contribute to the proverbial Russophobia in American public discourse.

Still, due to their dependence on the Russian government’s funding and influence by narrow political interests, it seems that compatriot structures fail to gain traction in the US.[5] Paradoxically, by trying to assert itself on the world stage by a mix of hard and soft power tools, the Kremlin has acquired such a toxic reputation that most compatriot organizations’ efforts are rendered futile. Moreover, Western liberal culture seems to have rejected them—and the Kremlin’s cultural diplomacy in its current format—as a whole. Successful “people-to-people” engagement requires an open dialogue and capacity for self-criticism that Russia’s authoritarian leaders cannot endure.

 

Potential change in policy?

However, there are signs that the Russian government has woken up to the challenge and become aware of the compromised legitimacy of its compatriot organizations. In June 2020, Yevgeny Primakov Jr., age 44, namesake and grandson of the noted Russian diplomat, replaced Eleonora Mitrofanova, 67, as the new head of Rossotrudnichestvo. The change in leadership is resulting in a shake-up of Rossotrudnichestvo’s activities amid criticism of its effectiveness as a soft power tool. Notably, Primakov stated that the agency needed to build relationships with compatriots on common interests and not demand a pro-Putin political stance. This appears to acknowledge the inability to push contentious foreign and domestic policies when they continue to damage compatriots’ reputations.

Whether this change strengthens the Russian compatriot movement or causes even larger fragmentations within its communities is still to be seen.

 

References: 

[1] Natalya Kosmarskaya, “Russian and Post-Soviet ‘Russian Diaspora’: Contrasting Visions, Conflicting Projects,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, No. 1 (2011): 54–74. Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13537113.2011.550247

[2] Lincoln Pigman, “Russia’s Compatriots: Instruments or Responsibility?,” RUSI Journal, May 31, 2019. Available online: https://rusi.org/publication/rusi-journal/russia%E2%80%99s-compatriots-instruments-or-responsibility.

[3] Mikhail Suslov, “Russian World”: Russia’s Policy Towards Its Diaspora. Institut Français des Relations Internationales, July 2017. Available online: https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/suslov_russian_world_2017.pdf.

[4] Milos Popovic, Erin K. Jenne, and Juraj Medzihorsky, “Charm Offensive or Offensive Charm? An Analysis of Russian and Chinese Cultural Institutes Abroad,” Europe-Asia Studies (2020; ahead-of-print): 1–23. Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epub/10.1080/09668136.2020.1785397?needAccess=true.  

[5] Ibid.

 

* Anna Williams is a political scientist based in New York.

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