From Cancel Culture, With Love

America wins again: Russia is obsessed with the culture wars

A picture taken 23 April 2007 shows Russian President Vladimir Putin paying tribute to the first Rus...
John Ganz

Apparently, nothing can stop the culture war, not even a real war. As the first cruise missiles and bombs rained on Ukraine last month, the takes kept coming. One prominent and tireless culture-war poster offered the notion that “Putin’s war on ‘Nazis’ is the inevitable reductio ad adsurdum of the bad faith stick-figure that U.S. and Canadian politicians have relied on since 2017 to morally launder repressive policies.” Nevermind the long history of Imperial Russia, nor the Soviet Union’s experience of World War II, that still forms a major ideological pillar of the Russian state, nor even the shrewd and cynical calculations of great powers; no, the war flowed logically, “inevitably” out of American cultural politics.

The power of wokeness must be truly limitless, because when it’s not producing Putin’s wars, it’s also weakening the West, making us decadent and vulnerable to his attacks. And on the far right, Putin’s supposed opposition to wokeness has made him a cause celebre. It’s tempting to blame this all on the parochial focus of Western commentators and their total lack of intellectual curiosity about other parts of the word. Or it might be the result of their political and professional need to continually bang the same drum. But they are right that America’s culture war missiles are being deployed around the world.

Last week, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR — its rough equivalent to the CIA — said, "The masks are off. The West isn't simply trying to close off Russia behind a new iron curtain. This is about an attempt to ruin our government — to ‘cancel’ it.” Is the crafty spy master is trying to introduce cracks in the West with this propaganda appeal to its “cancel culture” obsessed right-wing? Maybe, or maybe not. It seems like this discourse is also taken seriously in Russia.

The power of wokeness must be truly limitless, because when it’s not producing Putin’s wars, it’s also weakening the West.

Last year, Putin gave a speech warning of the dangers of cancel culture and comparing it to Bolshevism. It was largely the same kind of cliché-ridden boiler-plate you can find in newspapers and magazines in the West, replete with selective quoting of Martin Luther King. Unsurprisingly, it was feted on the right, from Daily Wire to Rod Dreher’s blog, where he wrote that Putin “confirmed” the thesis of his book and “and if anybody should know about Soviet totalitarianism, it’s a former KGB colonel.” You might want to think about that for a second, Rod. It apparently does not occur to Dreher that as a former KGB officer Putin’s knowledge of “totalitarianism” is eminently practical: he also learned the techniques. Many of those techniques are not subtle: you can now get 15 years in prison in Russia for making statements against the war under a new “fake news” law. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take my chances with a “woke mob” on Twitter over a Russian prison.

The preoccupation with America’s culture wars penetrates all parts of Russia’s elite, not just the ruling establishment. Even the liberal opposition, such that it is, gets caught up in it. For instance, after the 2020 killing of a Russian man in Yekaterinburg by police, the activist created the #RussianLivesMatter hashtag to bring attention to police brutality across the Russian Federation. As Meduza reported, “Libertarian activists who use this phrase on social media, however, have often deployed the slogan not to suggest that Russians are joining a global struggle, but that Russians should dismiss concerns and unrest in the United States and focus instead on injustices at home.”

The situation in America has become a huge concern for liberal Russians. Writing in Foreign Policy, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon reported that “Russian liberals such as Ksenia Sobchak, who ran against Putin in 2018, and the high-profile journalist Yulia Latynina have gone a step further, writing articles and creating social media posts that focus on looting, property damage, and a perceived lack of law and order in the United States — a near mirroring of government media, which portrays U.S. society in a state of chaos.” Russian liberals sound a lot like American conservatives. (I should note here that in Russia these figures are seen by some as “systemic liberals” and their discourse is perceived as an active effort to make Russia appear freer than it is and to distract from domestic issues, an insidious type of propaganda.)

The preoccupation with America’s culture wars penetrates all parts of Russia’s elite, not just the ruling establishment.

Sobchak’s husband, the theater director, poet, and actor Konstantin Bogomolov, even wrote a whole manifesto decrying Western cancel culture, writing, “In the ‘beautiful’ Western state of the future, the artist may lose his job because he supports the wrong value system. However, not only an artist, a figure of influence. The situation is developing rapidly, and today any modest researcher at some provincial American institute or just a peaceful and quite successful student can be expelled from the walls of the institution for a “wrong” opinion about current political or social life.” This concern with Western censoriousness might seem a little odd coming from a country where Yulia Tsvetkova, a 28-year-old LGBT artist, is facing a campaign of state intimidation and imprisonment for artwork that is deemed “pornographic” for including images of vaginas. Or where the Rusisan supermarket chain Vkusvil put a lesbian family in an ad, which caused such a backlash that the family had to flee the country.

What to make of all this Russian appetite for American cultural politics? Just as Russia attempts to brutally assert itself as a great power again using military might, it apparently still labors under the yoke of American cultural hegemony. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs even tweeted out the work of the American realist scholar John Mearsheimer to justify its invasion of Ukraine. And, again, this was not only for foreign eyes. From looking at social media and personal anecdotes, I can tell you Russians have also shared his work with each other.

For all our economic, military power, and pop-cultural power, America was never considered the center of the world’s intellectual life. With the culture wars, we’ve apparently created the industrialized, McDonald’s version of ideas, and the rest of the world… Well, they’re loving it. Hell, we’ve even got the French talking about “Le Wokisme.” American soft power wins again: you may hate us, but you will eat our garbage.