The Kremlin-driven associations and foundations seem to be making tsarist traditions its policy: they are set to integrate the Russian power, business and intellectual elite and promote Moscow’s influence abroad.
The Russian authorities fiercely fought the non-governmental sector, especially foreign NGOs. The introduced the law ordering them to register as foreign agents. As a result, after a series of nerve-racking inspections, many foundations operating in Russia had to close down. But at the same time, the Kremlin is building its own soft power. To tap into various environments and sectors, a network of foundations and associations has been created over the recent years. The elite clubs grouping top oligarchs and intellectuals and politicians (including Vladimir Putin) deserve a couple more words. They focus on the propagation of imperial policy, the Kremlin’s vision of history, and the indoctrination of youth. In the Russian power system, they play an important, though informal, role.
In the summer of 2007, the Arctic expedition headed by the well-known polar explorer Artur Chilingarov descended to the depth of 4,000 m under the surface of ice and water. The goal was to prove that the underwater massif, the so-called Lomonosov ridge, is an extension of the Russian territory in the Arctic. The expedition caused euphoria in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin personally awarded the participants with orders for merits for the homeland. But the project was critisiced by the rest of the world, especially by Arctic states: Canada, the USA, Norway and Iceland. They anticipated that Russian would be eager to alter sea borders to the benefit of Russia.
After all, it is an open secret that there are huge deposits of oil, gas and other raw materials lying under arctic ice. Putin, who has a grudge against the whole world, see a lot of potential in geography. Soon after the above expedition, the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) was established under the protection of the Kremlin. In fact, all that Putin wants is immediately put into effect. The first Russian Geographical Society was established in 1845 under the auspices of tsar Nicholas I on the wave of the nineteenth-century trend and the interest in exploration. The geographers of that time had yet to discover a piece of the unknown territory of Russia. Nowadays the main task of the Society is linked to Russia’s raw material expansion, for example in the Arctic. But it is not the limit.
“Russian political bosses, who rose from the special services and businesses of the 1990s, have the opportunity to be basking in the spotlight of scientists, the old intelligentsia, and it flatters them, because they have already been bored of just spending their money,” Oleg Kashin, a journalist at Echo of Moscow, said.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu takes charge of the society. From the very beginning, the RGS was designed to be elitist and refer to the tsarist past. In light of this, the 19th-century headquarters of the former society in Grivtsov street was renovated. Looking at the list of its honorary board, one can be a bit surprised: the board is headed by Vladimir Putin; there are also oligarchs Pyotr Aven, Viktor Vekselberg, Oleg Deripaska, as well as top Kremlin officials – Sergei Ivanov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, or Igor Sechin, Head of the Rosneft group. Even oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who sometimes flirt with the anti-Kremlin opposition, is here. A few years ago Forbes reported that Shoigu personally phoned the oligarchs and invited them to join the society. No one turned down such a proposal in the hope that he would gain the opportunity to the seniour-most officials and even Putin. Of course, in exchange for being added to the list of members, billionaires willingly pay membership fees and donations. How much? According to Forbes, upwards of $1 mln per person.
Like the case of geographers, the Kremlin’s interest in history has revived. In 2012, Putin also reactivated two former tsarist organizations: the Russian Historical Society (RHS) and the Russian Military-Historical Association. The former was founded by tsar Alexander II in the second half of the 19th century, while the latter refers to the Russian Imperial Military and History Society. Sergei Naryshkin, the current head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, is at the helm of the RHS. As for the Military-Historical Association, it is ruled by Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and Dmitry Rogozin, the incumbent head of Roscosmos. The both organizations are to integrate academic circles and work on ‘the only true’ version of history. In fact, historical textbooks are being developed at the RHS.
“History is an inseparable part of the propaganda narrative, it is a very dangerous weapon, no wonder total control has been exerted over it; for example, the Stalinist crimes were erased from their canon,” Nikita Petrov, a member of the Memorial association, said.
The Military-Historical Association is of more conservative nature. By the way, Medinsky and Rogozin are considered to be so-called neoconservatives. The two strive for a revival of tsarist traditions and imperialism in culture and history. But they are very willing to combine it with the glorification of Soviet imperialism, especially when it comes to the history of the second World War.
The two societies watch over the purity of the ‘canonical’ version of the history of the Second World War and the victorious Russia unburdened with crimes. Russian historians, who keep waging an academic war against Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian colleagues, are still under control of the two Kremlin associations lead by the head of intelligence and the minister of culture. The associations include university rectors and directors of research centres. The Kremlin does have unofficial but direct influence on the shaping of historical narratives.
The Kremlin has repeatedly tried to mobilize young people, but with varying success. At the beginning of Putin’s rule, the presidenatial administration formed the youth organization Going Together. In 2005, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin PR specialist, created the Nashi (Our) youth group. Then Young Guards was created. They, who were popularly called ‘Putinjugend’, were supposed to spread pro-Putin views and organize rallies of support. But these ideological projects crumbled. Young people joined them basically for money, and its youth leaders often gained notoriety for being involved incorruption scandals. And the Kremlin changed the strategy – they decided to integrate talented youth and placed a bet on elitism.
“I anticipate that one day a poster featuring Putin’s pointing finger and the inscription You Can Be Like Me will appear in the Kremlin. Youth, especially from the province, is impressed by the lifestyle of the power elite, many of them will blindly obey to their mentors from various Kremlin organizations and will not ask questions, because they know that this is the proper way to making a career,” Oleg Kashin stressed.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin often visits the gatherings and festivals of ‘the young and talented’ in Sochi. Younger and more sociable Kremlin apparatchiks try to win over students by delivering lectures at good universities. At the end of 2016, Putin ordered to create a government organization for helping talented youth. As a result, the Sirius foundation was established in short order – and it got considerable assets (eg hotels and facilities in the post-Olympics Sochi). In other ‘elite’ NGOs, Vladimir Putin found himself in the honorary council of patrons of the foundation. Interestingly, Elena Shmelyova, a friend of Putin’s reported daughter Katerina Tikhonova, became Head of the foundation.
Shmelyova is an important figure in the network of Kremlin’s schemes. Earlier, she managed Putin’s election campaign, and now she may take up the portfolio of the Minister of Education. It will probably be a reward for her contribution to the success of forming the Kremlin foundation. Sirius provides scientific grants for over 10,000 gifted children, arranges conventions and conferences in Sochi, where the president shows off being surrounded by young people, of course, those chosen, bright and loyal to the authorities. By building exclusive associations and foundations, Putin concretes the Russian elite. Consciously referring to the tsarist tradition, he treats the rest as just actors whom he needs only during elections to secure the necessary vote.