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A banner in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the symbols “Z” and “V,” Sep 2, 2022

‘Help with self-identification’ A Russian presidential fund is handing out millions to projects supporting the war in Ukraine

Source: Meduza
A banner in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the symbols “Z” and “V,” Sep 2, 2022
A banner in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the symbols “Z” and “V,” Sep 2, 2022
Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

A year ago Russia launched the Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine the fund has been giving out multi-million-ruble grants for films, books, music festivals, and educational programs on the condition that their creators support the Russian invasion of Ukraine and intend their work to help “integrate” residents of the self-proclaimed Donbas republics into the “Russian world.” Meduza explains who is applying for grants and which ideas have already been approved.

The Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives was established in May 2021, on Vladimir Putin’s orders, for “support of projects in the sphere of culture, art, and creative industries.” Under the leadership of general director Roman Karmanov the fund issues grants for patriotic exhibits, concerts, festivals, plays, and books.

Karmanov has worked with the Komsomolskaya Pravda media group since the 2000s, initially as the first deputy general director, and later as the general director of the company’s radio station. Judging by information from the DaDobro corporate volunteer center, whose board of trustees he sits on, Karmanov has received personal thanks for his work from Vladimir Putin, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and the head of the internal political block of the presidential administration Sergey Kiriyenko.

Kiriyenko also sits on the Presidential Fund’s coordinating committee, which includes 27 other people. Among them are Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage; Bishop Tikhon, often called Vladimir Putin’s confessor; Konstantin Ernst, the general director of Channel One; Alexander Zharov and Oleg Dobrodeyev, directors of Gazprom Media Holding and the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK); Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova; Deputy Minister of Science Elena Druzhinina; and Elena Bunin, the former general director of Yandex, who left the company due to her anti-war position. Also on the committee was Vladimir Gabrielyan, the first deputy general director of Russian media giant VK, who was killed in June of this year in the Nenets Autonomous Region. All board members develop strategies by which the fund disperses grants: choosing winners, allocating award amounts, and ensuring a “level playing field” for applicants.

Aside from the coordinating committee the fund has an expert council, comprised of 28 people. Among them are museum directors, actors, theater critics, composers, and writers.

Both private companies and public societies from all over Russian can submit grant applications. The Fund offers eight themes, which focus on Russia’s “global competitive advantage” and include topics such as “The Place of Power,” “Nation of Creators,” and “The Great Russian Word.” Projects types range from education to fine art to startups. In addition to four regularly scheduled contests per year, there are special contests on themes like “the popularization and preservation of all-Russian cultural identity, counteracting the cancel culture phenomenon.” These support a Russian propaganda agenda that responds to sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation following its invasion of Ukraine. According to the Fund, the contests are necessary to “strengthen traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.”

‘The Victor’s word’ and ‘True to their Vows’

The Fund recently prepared a report on the completion of this year’s second contest. It allocated 2 billion 879 million rubles to 905 projects. Among grant recipients were 29 projects about the “special operation” and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), which were allocated 293.8 million rubles.

The DNR and LNR, however, did not participate in the contest. The projects which received grants and will be presented in the self-proclaimed republics were submitted by other regions of Russia, from Moscow to Bashkortostan. The point of the initiative is to allow residents of the Donbas to establish contact “with society at the forefront of the Russian world.”

The creators of a number of the projects, both unsuccessful applicants and grant recipients, use the official symbols of the war in Ukraine–the Roman letters “Z” and “V,” as do official materials related to grant contests.

A banner with photographs of Russian soldiers on Red Square in Moscow. August 31 2022
Maxim Shipenkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

One such project is “True to their Vows” by the Volunteers of Victory movement, which received 19 million rubles. The project consists of exhibits at the Victory Museum about the “feats” of Russian soldiers during the invasion of Ukraine. The show, which will run until spring 2023, compares the army of the Russian Federation with the soldiers who fought in World War II. 

Volunteers of Victory also received a second grant of nearly three million rubles in a special contest. These funds were allocated to the project “The Victor’s word. Donbas.” It is a cycle of hundreds of video clips containing reminiscences from participants in World War II who are “directly or indirectly connected with the Donbas.” It is intended to “emphasize the close cultural connections between Russia and the DNR and LNR.”

How Z and V got into Russian

‘Z’ How Russia transformed a letter of the Latin alphabet into the official (and ominous) symbol of its invasion of Ukraine

How Z and V got into Russian

‘Z’ How Russia transformed a letter of the Latin alphabet into the official (and ominous) symbol of its invasion of Ukraine

Fantasy collection about the Donbas

Nine million rubles for the “integration of the LDNR into Russia” were awarded to the Moscow company Alphabet Laboratory, which develops and oversees media projects for businesses. Among its clients are the Hermitage and the Moscow television station Moscow 24. Its founder is businessman Alexander Koretsky.

Koretsky himself received a grant, also for almost 9 million rubles, to his private company for the project “Experts’ Club of the Russian Donbas.” The club plans to open between October 2022 and January 2023 in the occupied territories of the LDNR, Kherson, and Zaporizhia. It will seek out “the historical prerequisites for the revival of neo-nazism in modern Ukraine.”

Alphabet Laboratory’s grant will be spent in Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, Donetsk, Mariupol, Artemovsk, and Horlivka at the international literary festival “Stars over the Donbas – 2022.” After the festival the organizers plan to publish a collection of fantasy fiction about the Donbas. The desired outcome of the event is “to update the base of Russian cultural figures as participants in the festival and supporters of the special military operation in the Donbas.” What this means is unclear. But the stated goal of the festival is “the mutual involvement of cultural figures from Russia and the republics.”

Grant applications for more typical literary festivals, not on the topic of the integration of the LNR and DNR, were received from Crimea and Astrakhan, but the Fund did not approve them.

The Russian rock festival “SNC 35 Years” received a 20 million ruble grant. The festival was held at the end of August and featured many artists who support the war against Ukraine. Descriptions of the festival said it would be attended by refugees from the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR, as well as from Ukraine. However Meduza did not find any reports from the festival suggesting that such people were actually in attendance.

Meduza tried to find out from the Presidential Fund whether mention of the self-proclaimed Donbas republics or the “special operation” influenced a project’s chances of being sponsored, but we received no answer. Organizers of the festivals “SNC 35 Years” and “Stars over the Donbas – 2022” likewise did not respond to Meduza’s requests.

‘Proving’ history and ‘helping with self-identification’

A project called “Children of the Donbas” from the online publication Political Russia received a grant of almost eight million rubles. Its creator is Ruslan Ostashko, who is himself from Donetsk, and who is on the advisory board of the Fund for the Development of Internet Initiatives, which the Russian government itself started. Political Russia advocates for a “fundamental paradigm shift” in demography – the “sphere of questions of the highest importance” for Russia. “The upbringing of children should be made a part of the self-realization of every citizen, man or woman” says the publication’s website.

The site also hosts more than 300 propaganda videos with titles such as “Why Russia’s victory is inevitable,” “Operation in Ukraine – denarcotization in Russia,” and “Poland opens a second front in Ukraine.” The videos’ authors are Ostashko and Anna Sochina who, according to the site Political Russia, was formerly a radio host and YouTuber on the channel Politics Paralytics, where she “covered opposition movements and the interference of Western funds in domestic politics.” The channel no longer exists.

The team at Political Russia says “Children of the Donbas” is necessary to the “preservation of historical justice during a special operation.” It will feature documentary footage and first-hand accounts of life in the DNR.

Other projects about historical narratives and Russian identity include “Expert on the Russian Donbas,” funded for fourteen million rubles. This project questions results of the 2001 Ukrainian census, which showed a significant Ukrainian population on what the project calls “primordially Russian lands.” A project by the company KMEDIA received almost 34 million rubles – it will have residents of the DNR form “professional competencies in Russian culture, traditions, and values.” KMEDIA was formed in 2021 and is registered at the same premises as the PR firm ProAct Media, which has been in operation since 2002 and which counts the State Duma, VGTRK, and Aeroflot among its clients. The organizers of a festival of “modern Russian culture,” which received almost 33 million rubles, will do similar work. And the Russian historical society, chaired by Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian foreign intelligence service, received 17 million for the modernization of the Luhansk Regional Museum.

Bonus: war, not ‘special operation’

In studying the applications and winners of the contests the Fund ran in 2022, Meduza noticed two main features – in addition to “patriotic education” and “helping residents of the Donbas with self-identification.”

The first was that the titles of the projects themselves didn’t use the term “special operation” but the word “war.” The phrase “scorched by war” is especially popular. The second feature was that in explaining the significance of their projects, grant seekers all repeated the same idea: uniting World War II in people’s minds with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and “consolidating historical truth.” The description of one successful project read: “Russia has never been an aggressor.” 

Additionally, the term “the Russian world” often appears in project descriptions. Meduza asked the Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives what they had in mind with this phrase, but we received no answer.

Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Abridged translation by Emily Laskin

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