It’s an open secret that Russia is flooding the information space with propaganda to manipulate the image of itself and other nations. Close followers of RT, one of Russia’s international broadcasting arms, have noted the outlet’s attempts to stir provocations since its inaugural debut in 2005. RT’s scope has grown significantly since its early years; today one can access their website and view laudatory articles hailing the construction of the bridge to Crimea as a project of grandiose size and beauty that will soon result in the sharp economic growth of the peninsula, while also having access to defamatory articles that attempt to discredit neighboring democracies for alleged discrimination against Russian speakers. While propaganda has existed for centuries, it may come as a surprise to some that Russia has been attempting to manipulate its image abroad since before Peter the Great. This was the subject of Dr. Vladislav Rjeoutski’s lecture on April 11th, aptly titled “Creating the Image of Russia: Language, Ideology, and Political Propaganda in Eighteenth Century Europe.”
French was the lingua franca in the early eighteenth century. This reality meant knowledge tended to circulate through publications in the French language. With the Russian language carrying comparatively little weight in the sphere of culture and diplomacy, Russia faced a major hurdle in the fact that many French publications simply would not publish any positive news about Russia. The stereotypes about Russia being ruled by barbarity, tyranny, and superstition were firmly ingrained in the minds of most publishers in the early eighteenth century, asserts Dr. Rjeoutski. Even major military achievements, like Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Battle of Poltava, were not published or circulated. So what’s a country to do when it wants to improve its image but faces restrictions imposed by major outlets of knowledge circulation?
The Russian response was to get a bit crafty. In some instances, this meant opening up its proverbial wallet, such as when Russia commissioned the French philosopher Voltaire to publish a work on the Russian reign under Peter the Great. These efforts were greatly aided by Catherine the Great’s very public acts to distinguish herself as belonging to the privileged circle of refined Western elites. She famously purchased Diderot’s library, a move that brought knowledge of her and her progressive statewide reforms into a broader audience. Russia also worked in both the scientific and literary realms to improve its image, using the Russian Academy of Sciences to establish relationships with Western countries, while also working to translate works of literary significance into Western European languages.
Dr. Rjeoutski’s lecture presented a fascinating mixture of early attempts made by the Russian government to push back against negative stereotypes it faced abroad. Perhaps by understanding the stereotypes which have clouded our understandings of Russia for centuries, we can better approach ways to improve our relations in the future.
Dr. Rjeoutski led one other talk for the Russian Studies Workshop this semester, entitled “Languages of Russian Diplomacy in the 18th—First Half of the 19th Century.” Dr. Rjeoutski is currently a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Moscow. To receive more information on his current works, see his research page (in German).