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Russia’s Red Army cultural diplomacy backfires in Turkiye

May 15, 2024 at 12:57 pm

A remembrance wreath seen at one of the 74 graves with a Red Army star in the center, inside the Soviet Red Army cemetery in Rzeszow [Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Russia’s mastery of symbolism extends far beyond its geopolitical manoeuvres, permeating even its cultural diplomacy. Renowned for leveraging diplomatic tools as soft power, Moscow often employs seemingly innocuous events to advance its agenda on the global stage. One such example emerged with the scheduled tour to Turkiye by Russia’s Red Army Choir, originally scheduled from 14 to 22 May.

While ostensibly an artistic endeavour, the timing and choice of concert dates by the choir reveal a calculated nod to Russia’s historical narratives and geopolitical ambitions. Specifically, the decision to hold concerts during the week commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Great Crimean Tatar Exile (18 May 1944) and the 160th anniversary of the Great Circassian Exile (21 May 1864) has prompted widespread controversy and condemnation.

In Turkiye, where the scars of ethnic cleansing, forced migration and exile run deep among many sections of the population as the result of long phases of Russian conquests, the Red Army Choir’s performances resonate not as harmonious melodies but as painful reminders of historical injustices. Every year on these days, Tatars and Circassians living in Turkiye organise various events to commemorate their losses and share the painful memories.

The deliberate alignment of the concert dates with these solemn anniversaries underscores Russia’s disregard for the sensitivities of affected communities and its ongoing efforts to reshape historical narratives in its favour. As civil society organisations and ethnic associations opposed this symbolic affront vocally, the broader implications of Russia’s cultural diplomacy tactics came to the fore.

There are few people living in Turkiye who do not have relatives or acquaintances with a history of forced migration.

Anatolian lands have welcomed migrants and exiles from Crimea, Rumelia and the Caucasus, distributing them across Turkiye. The Crimean Peninsula, which was the homeland of the Kipchak Turks for many centuries, fell under Russian occupation and, eventually, domination. The former inhabitants of Crimea sought refuge first in Romania and Bulgaria and then, when those territories lost Ottoman rule, in Anatolia. The number of Crimean Turks migrating to Anatolia from the early nineteenth century until the end of the First World War is estimated in the millions.

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Nevertheless, even during the Second World War, more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars still lived on the Crimean Peninsula. On the night of 18 May 1944, all of them, regardless of age or gender, were packed into trains and deported to the steppes of Central Asia and Siberia. Many could not withstand the brutal conditions of the journey and died.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, only a very small number of the exiles were able to return to their ancestral homeland. However, after Russia’s occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, many felt it to be the start of another cycle of persecution. Some Crimean Tatars found a safe haven in Turkiye after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The Red Army, primarily responsible for the ethnic cleansing and tragic deportations in the past, intended to tour Turkiye with its choir, portraying the event as a cultural endeavour. The choir’s performance on the anniversary of the deportation, would serve as a painful reminder to Crimean Tatars of their past suffering. Given that the Red Army Choir is linked to efforts to downplay Soviet atrocities and promote Russia’s soft power, the decision to stage a concert on such a significant date would undoubtedly unsettle those with a deep sense of historical awareness. It was incredibly insensitive.

The announcement of the choir’s concert dates in Turkiye has triggered a significant backlash. This response transcended mere verbal expressions of surprise; there have been active engagement on social media and meetings with political figures. Descendants of the Red Army’s victims, as well as other concerned citizens, have raised their voices against the event, describing it as unacceptable. As a result of public pressure, the organisers have agreed to postpone the tour.

Russia’s public diplomacy is notorious for its propaganda, both implicit and explicit, to rewrite history. The Red Army Choir is a tool of this propaganda. The timing of the tour of Turkiye was in no way coincidental. It aimed to cast a shadow on the commemoration of the Crimean Tatar and Circassian exiles and whitewash the crimes the Red Army through music while promoting a militaristic image as an integral aspect of Russian culture.

Although some sensationalist, left-wing Turkish media outlets have criticised the public outcry, the subsequent mobilisation of concerned citizens led to the postponement of the concerts.

Public diplomacy must avoid manipulative tactics that seek to normalise tragic historical episodes, and instead opt for transparency and acknowledgment. Sweeping such events under the carpet only perpetuates injustice and impedes genuine reconciliation. On the other hand, honest engagement with the past fosters understanding and empathy, paving the way for constructive dialogue and a meaningful healing process.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.