Russia’s arsenal of soft power tools has been the subject of a growing number of articles and commentaries in recent years. Yet relatively little consideration has been given over to how these overtures are actually received by target audiences. This is strange given that Russia’s cultural promotional activities are known to have misfired and alienated sections of the population that should have been attracted.
This is particularly the case in Ukraine, the focal point of this article. Prior to the conflict, Ukraine was a high-water mark of Russian cultural influence abroad due to elements such as shared language and history, media influence and porous borders, not to mention a large number of ethnic Russians among the population.
In the pre-war calm of autumn 2011 a mixed methods study was carried out to see how Ukrainian students reacted to the culture, value and foreign policy related ideas being promoted by selected official Russian representatives. To capture a cross section of Ukraine’s historical diversity, the researcher went to four cities, which revealed findings both expected and surprising. In West Ukrainian L’viv, respondents to the quantitative survey expressed the anticipated scepticism towards Russia’s cultural and foreign policy narratives, although they were surprisingly sympathetic towards the value perspectives, suggesting more commonality with the worldview of the Russian state in this regard. Survey returns from the Eastern cities of Kharkiv and, particularly, Donetsk reflected generally closer alignment with Russia’s ‘official’ outlook across the board, while the metropolitan capital Kyiv vacillated between the two poles.
While the familiar East-West difference also played out in the focus group interviews, these in-depth discussions simultaneously revealed scepticism and antipathy towards Russia’s leadership aspirations and representatives. Such negative outlooks were expressed rather consistently across the groups in all regions. Clearly, despite efforts to use soft power, Russia’s attraction of this key educated generation of tomorrow remained suboptimal. Future research will aim to build upon these findings to explore the impact of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.