The Kremlin’s “soft power” in action. How Russia is putting its “cultural product” on export to Ukraine

Some tend to think that Russian propaganda is notably presented by Kyseliov and Solovyov, the most prominent propagandists. Using the outright lie as the main means of propaganda, on the TV screens they are seen as self-confident, arrogant, and brutal figures. However, there is another weapon which, at first glance, does not look like a weapon at all but is being frequently used in the field of information warfare.

Although this weapon is applied in a “soft” manner, it targets the object as precisely as the “hard” ones.

Russian rapper and video blogger Alisher Valejev (a.k.a. Morgenstern) who planned to arrange three concerts in Ukraine in June 2021, announced that he will have to cancel the tour.When explaining the reason for the cancellation, the rapper had to confess he felt scared going to Ukraine. However, the tickets for the concerts in three Ukrainian cities were still available for some time after the announcement while the events were well-advertised. Numerous posters with the image of the Russian rapper stayed for a while too in the streets of Kyiv. Moreover, the Department of International Relations of the Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts even encouraged its students to compete for the tickets on the Instagram channel.

The 22-years-old rapper, originally coming from the Russian city Ufa, has earned extreme popularity among Russian teenagers and youth. Now, Morgenstern is continuing to expand his audience, mostly focusing on Russian-speaking teenagers aged 12—19. 

His first visit to Ukraine took place in December 2019 and led to a scandal. Back in 2019, the rapper ignored the national mourning day which was announced in Ukraine due to the terrible accident that happened in Odesa on the eve of his concert. A fire took the lives of 16 people. Despite this, the rapper went on stage and when mentioning the tragic event that happened just the day before, said the mourning is nothing else but a “show off”.

Although now the concerts that were arranged for Summer 2021 are cancelled, an informational cause was created. In general, the visit of the Russian rapper looked like a totally possible thing to happen. Arguably, the problem we are dealing with goes far beyond this particular case and beyond the topical discussions of music styles and preferences — similarly to the cases of other Russian pop stars who visit Ukraine on a regular basis.

The question that we raise concerns the issue of Russian propaganda influence and particularly, the usage of the so-called “soft power” tools. Which specific instruments were applied in the case of Morgenstern?

  • The uncritical audience. Young groups are considered as the main target of the information operations influence. Within these groups, popular video bloggers, “Tik-Tokers”, and performers like Morgenstern have confidently taken the place of the teenagers’ role models, becoming the “idols” for the youth.
  • The indirect influence. It is also indicative that Russia exports its “cultural product” indirectly. Obviously, no one among the Russian performers would encourage Putin’s aggression right from the stage. Instead, they usually refer to the well-known narratives such as the “unification of the brotherly nations”, talking on a fictitious “shared cultural space”.
  • The attractiveness of being apolitical. Previously, when talking about the possible visit to the occupied Crimea, the rapper expressed his willingness to come. However, he mentioned that in case he would, it is very likely that Ukraine will ban him from entering Ukraine’s mainland territories. In other words, for Morgenstern it was not a question of the violation of the state sovereignty – it is rather more important to have the opportunity to perform for the Ukrainian audience at all.

In the interview with the Russian journalist Jury Dud’, Morgenstern openly praises Vladimir Putin. In doing so, he stresses that the Russian leader earned his credibility specifically due to his personal traits — “not because of his political achievements”.

Interestingly, it was not so long time ago when Morgenstern was engaged in Aleksey Navalny’s campaign, playing the role of the “opposition rapper”. Nevertheless, today, Morgenstern expresses his sympathy to Putin’s regime. Recently, he officially joined Alfa-Bank, affiliated to Putin’s clique, as the Director for Youth Engagement. 

More facts witness his closeness to the Kremlin. For instance, a person called Artem Kliushin, currently the Head of the rapper’s advertising agency, is also known as an employee of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. Moreover, the rapper publicly speaks about his ties to the leader of Chechnia Ramzan Kadyrov’s family. Morgenstern also mentions that the Kadyrov family supports him on the rights of his direct sponsor. As such, the rapper was engaged in the family’s PR campaign and persons’ affiliated with them. The campaign focused on attracting followers to the social media accounts.

Why then the visits of the Russian pop stars should be considered a threat? At least for the reason that they enable the spread of the Kremlin’s narratives such as the idea that Russia and Ukraine, the so-called “brotherly nations”, exist in the common linguistic and cultural spaces. From the Kremlin’s perspective, this idea is being promoted as a ground for the following logic: “So if we are listening to the same music, then why should we fight against each other in a war?”

The indirect propaganda methods and the usage of the information influence on the large masses — all together “packed” in the attractive wrap — are considered as the key “soft power” elements. Precisely, that is what the case of Morgenstern can illustrate. When applied against the target state, such methods possess a threat to the state’s national security, given that, unlike outright propaganda, this threat oftentimes stays out of sight.

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