Russia battles Hollywood’s 'cultural domination' machine

Is Hollywood sending a wrong message to the world about Russia?
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union may have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but there is a fierce propaganda war raging for hearts and minds in movie theaters and living rooms across Russia’s 11 time zones.

And here’s why. Speaking to students and faculty of Moscow’s prestigious Gnessin College, Russia’s culture minister Alexander Avdeyev said America is conducting a “cultural invasion”.

In the film industry, he pointed out, Hollywood’s output increasingly resembles a modern-age propaganda machine – not an innocent form of entertainment. Indeed, Hollywood continues to churn out hundreds of films each year – albeit, of various levels of artistic quality – while Russia produces about 50 films in the same period of time.

Russia and Russians are regularly typecast as the villains in many of these productions, which could have a profound influence on viewers’ perceptions – both at home and abroad. One reason for such negative typecasting involves military spending: if the taxpayers believe that Russians are as ruthless as Hollywood makes out, they will be more willing to fork out.

America’s leading geopolitical guru, Zbigniew Brzezinski, admits there is a purely political dimension to this exported mountain of "popcorn" culture, which looks increasingly like another form of propaganda left over from the Cold War.

Cultural domination has been an underappreciated facet of American global power," Brzezinski stated in his landmark book, The Grand Chessboard. For Brzezinski, however, the important aspect of the “cultural domination" is not the quality of the product, but simply the fact that it dominates.

Whatever one may think of its aesthetic values, America’s mass culture exercises a magnetic appeal, especially on the world’s youth,” he writes. “Its attraction may be derived from the hedonistic quality of the lifestyle it projects, but its global appeal is undeniable.

American television programs and films account for about three quarters of the global market, he added. Indeed, in Russia, the essence of a “creative product” has dramatically changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, culture minister Avdeyev admits.

"While in the past a creative product was…an intellectual product, it has been turned into a commodity that should be sold," the minister said. "This is a very trying time for high culture."

Avdeyev admitted that there are “fewer good playwrights now,” as it is more difficult to “write a good play than a script for a soap opera.”  Thus, it is necessary sometimes to purchase productions from abroad, regardless of their overall content.

"American 'popcorn' films make up 70 percent of film distribution," the minister added, lamenting that “remarkable Russian films that win awards at international film festivals are not recouped in the Russian distribution network that is mostly privately-owned."

Although Avdeyev did not say as much, a between-the-lines reading of his comments suggests that Russia is leaning towards more political involvement in the cultural realm of art and entertainment.  The minister drew comparisons between the conditions artists work in today, and those of Soviet times.

Culture…relied on state assistance, which provided excellent conditions for artists in the Soviet times,” Avdeyev noted. “At present, artists must find the means to get by, occasionally relying on sponsors.

Given the current realities, and the influence that art and entertainment can have in the political realm, it will be interesting to see how Russia confronts Hollywood’s pervasive message.

Robert Bridge, RT