When St. Petersburg’s renowned Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra performed Bach in the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria in early May, days after Syrian and Russian forces had forced Islamic State fighters to retreat, the Kremlin pulled off a media masterstroke. Millions of TV and Internet viewers around the world saw Russian power — military and cultural — defeating the barbarism of the Islamic State. Before the Islamic State’s expulsion, the terror group destroyed parts of the UNESCO World Heritage site and used its Roman ruins as a backdrop for beheadings and executions.
On May 14, however, that same Russian regime was musically mugged at the Eurovision Song Contest by Susana Jamaladinova — known as Jamala — a Crimean Tatar who won by singing about Moscow’s oppression of her kin.
Music and culture are increasingly important tools in conflict
Eurovision is a kitschy and popular Europe-wide TV talent show in which one artist or band from every participating country performs an original song and viewers cast votes. About 200 million viewers watched Jamala perform “1944,” an emotional lament that mixes Turkish-style harmonies with a cool, Western beat and tells how the Soviet Union deported Tatars from their Crimean homeland during World War II.
“The strangers are coming,” Jamala sang. “They come to your house. They kill you all, and say, ‘We’re not guilty, we’re not guilty.’ ” Her song, she admitted, was openly political. And while it referred to the Stalinist-era exile, it also implicitly referred to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.
In this confused era of unconventional confrontations, can music be an active tool of conflict? Music has been part of warfare for a millennium, whether it was medieval trumpeters, Scottish bagpipers or military parades with marching bands. But there may be reason to argue that music, and culture more generally, are increasingly important in conflict.
Why? First, the importance of “soft” power is rising.
Joseph Nye defined this as “the ability to get what you want through attraction,” and described culture, popular culture, commerce and governmental policy as soft-power instruments. Whether one believes this — and plenty of international relations “realists” don’t — nation-states think soft power is important and are investing in it and linking it to other forms of power for what one might call full-spectrum effects.
Second, many fighters in unconventional or irregular wars are not professional soldiers, especially those who fight for non-state actors. Think of terrorist groups and insurgencies, such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban. Music and other cultural products help sell a cause and recruit and motivate fighters.
Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda make extensive use of “nashids” — anthems sung without instruments — as well as traditional-form Arabic poetry to appeal to tribal populations, themes explored by Oxford University’s Elisabeth Kendall. On the Arabian Peninsula, Kendall argues, poetry and nashids reassure militants that they are soldiers of God in an apocalyptic battle that reverberates through history. The art demonstrates that their lives — and deaths — serve an epic purpose and will be celebrated alongside famous warriors of early Islam.
Third, music helps deliver and reinforce political messages to non-political audiences. That’s true particularly in our media-saturated age, when a single event can be transmitted globally in real time. The musical spoonful of sugar helps the political medicine go down.
Those audiences have always been important. Half a century ago, Roger Trinquier, a scholar of irregular warfare, argued that civilian support was the sine qua non of modern warfare. However, the diffusion of political power — albeit uneven — and the growth of the Internet are turbocharging that trend, giving more power to more people than ever before, not only to receive news but also to shape and comment on it.
Russia uses culture’s soft power — often and effectively
Few nations — or rather few nations’ leaderships — have attempted to combine as many levers of power and influence as Russia has. The Palmyra concert was arguably the most successful soft-power event that Russia has orchestrated in recent years, in part because it reached non-political audiences. Although Western news reporters cautioned listeners that the event had been managed by Russian PR, the pictures and music reached audiences at an emotional level. It was be the sort of thing that would have moved my apolitical, Bach-loving mother.
The Mariinksy and its gifted conductor, Valery Gergiev, have engaged in politics before. In August 2008, the Mariinsky performed a victory concert in South Ossetia after Russia seized the tiny Caucasus area during its five-day war with Georgia. Gergiev, who hails from the area, is an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The orchestra played Shostakovich’s Seventh, the “Leningrad Symphony,” which was dedicated to the city — now St. Petersburg — that endured a long German siege during World War II. It is a piece of music with clear political overtones, evoking the memory of the half-million people who died.
Yet in Ossetia, the overtones became arguably linked to a more partisan Russian political agenda. The Leningrad Symphony subliminally supported the Kremlin’s narrative that its opponents are extremists, a trope that Russia has used against governments of the former Soviet republics seeking to align with the West.
Scholars of contemporary Russian warfare argue that culture is just one tool used by the Russian state to achieve its goals. The internal security service of the tiny Baltic republic of Estonia, for instance, has accused the Russian government agency Rossotrudnichestvo of establishing cultural and historical societies designed not to aid but rather to prevent Russians and Russian speakers from integrating into Estonian society.
Russian messages — that Estonia supports Nazism, that Russians are discriminated against and that Estonia is a failed state — can be seen as forms of information warfare delivered through culture.
In some ways, this tactic mirrors the complex disinformation campaigns of the Cold War, known by the euphemism “Active Measures,” run jointly by the KGB and the U.S.S.R.’s Communist Party.
Russia won a cultural battle at Palmyra
The message from Palmyra — reinforced by a video link to Putin — was that Russia, unlike the West, was defeating the Islamic State. And it was a useful foil for hiding a more complex Russian agenda. This includes targeting and attacking “moderate” Syrian fighters who oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally of Russia, as well as the Islamic State. It also includes allegedly bombing civilian areas of territories held not by the Islamic State but by those moderate rebels, driving tens of thousands of people toward Turkey and the European Union, both of which Putin vehemently dislikes. That tactic has been called the “weaponization of refugees.”
When RT (Russia Today), the global broadcaster funded by the Russian state, ran the headline “Concert Held in Ruins of Palmyra to Honour Victims of Syrian War,” it failed to mention that the Syrian government, Russia’s ally, had slaughtered the majority of those victims. Anyone interested in where Russian bombs have actually fallen should download the Atlantic Council’s Distract, Deceive, Destroy report.
These alleged tactics, while morally depressing and possibly illegal, show an extraordinary meshing of violent and nonviolent methods and tools: military, cultural, political and economic, going well beyond the standard Western conception of “hybrid” war.
But Russia lost the next one, at Eurovision
Less than two weeks later, Russia received a cultural dressing-down from Jamala.
After her victory, some Russian politicians predictably complained. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Federation Council, called it a victory for geopolitics and for war in a 15 May Facebook post. Equally predictable was the Ukrainian government’s reaction: President Petro Poroshenko declared that Jamala had spoken to the world — on behalf of Ukraine.
“The truth, as always, prevailed,” he tweeted, calling for Jamala to be made a United Nations goodwill ambassador.
The political/cultural battle continued during the week. RT reported that a petition was circulating demanding a review of the competition’s voting rules and broadcast a news report on its English-language channel criticizing Ukrainian treatment of the Tatars before Russia’s 2014 annexation “rescued” them.
However, like the Palmyra concert, Jamala’s music was the handmaiden for a political message — in this case, one of claimed injustice and oppression. The song delivered that message outside the narrow worlds of policy wonks, academia and activists, to hundreds of millions in Europe and globally. Winning Eurovision put Crimea’s Tatars back on the map, and Russia, softly, in the dock.
Robert W. H. Seely is a research associate at the Changing Character of War Program, University of Oxford. His area of study is irregular, unconventional and full-spectrum warfare. Find him on Twitter @bobseely.