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Russia won the propaganda war in Barcelona

Following Russia’s inexcusable invasion of peaceful Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainian flags, ribbons and other signs of solidarity with this country under attack have been proudly displayed across democratic Europe. Shockingly, they are absent in Barcelona. Instead, quite open public support is lavished on neo-imperialist Russia.

June 10, 2024 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Park Guell in Barcelona designed by Antoni Gaudi. Photo Marina Datsenko / Shutterstock

In April 2024, taking the opportunity of a lull in research and teaching, I enjoyed a spring week in Barcelona. Tourists stream to the capital of Catalonia attracted by the old town’s famous Barri Gòtic (“Gothic Quarter”), Antoni Gaudí’s spectacular basilica Sagrada Família, the innovative National Museum of Art of Catalonia, and the vibrant and always crowded central street and walk called La Rambla. According to visitors and guides, the city has a great vibe and is full of excellent and unusual cafes and restaurants. Tourists love Barcelona to excess thanks to this energy and also due to its neo-Gothic, art deco and modernist architecture, which is often idiosyncratic and unequalled elsewhere in the world.

This prime tourist destination could not be at fault in any corner. That is what I thought. But surprisingly, walking to and fro across the old town and central Barcelona for six full days, I did not spot a single Ukrainian flag or any other sign of support for Ukraine. Catalonia is renowned for its attachment to democracy and progressive issues. Ukraine is fighting not only for its own survival but also for peace and protecting democracy in all of Europe. One would think that the causes merge perfectly.

Apparently, not so much. Despite Spain’s official support for Ukraine, Catalonia’s sympathy seems to rest with the aggressor state. Madrid eagerly advertises its substantial participation in all the EU support schemes for Ukraine. However, in absolute money terms, Spain provides less aid to Kyiv than the much smaller Estonia or Lithuania. On top of that, Madrid’s focus is on non-lethal aid, with barely a third of spending focused on materiel for the Ukrainian army. Barcelona leads the “irenic” way, following Pope Francis’s call for a “peace” in which Ukraine should submit to Moscow’s demands and Russian occupation. Perhaps what may be the issue is Russia’s propaganda in favour of Catalonia’s illegal independence referendum in 2017, alongside close contacts between some nationalists and the Kremlin. Now we know that Moscow pledged half a trillion US dollars to an independent Catalonia, alongside an army of 10,000 Russian mercenaries. From the Kremlin’s point of view, Stalin’s failure to establish a communist Spain in the late 1930s could now be ameliorated through wrenching Catalonia out of democratic Spain.

During my sojourn in Barcelona as an overactive flâneur, I came across just a single expression of pro-Ukrainian sentiment. In a narrow lane in the old town, a bilingual Catalan-Ukrainian paper strip was displayed at the top of a grocer’s entrance door, proclaiming “We [Catalans] stand together with the Ukrainian people!” Almost concealed in this secluded corner, this heart-felt appeal was as unobtrusive and hard to notice as possible.

Banner in support of Ukraine at a grocer’s entrance door in Barcelona’s Old Town. Photo: Tomasz Kamusella

Cultural appropriation in support of Russian imperialism

Otherwise, sympathy for a resurgent and warmongering Russia is clear in Barcelona’s main shops and thoroughfares. On the very first day of my sojourn, as I often do, I paid a visit to a bookstore near the hotel. On the continent, city centres are full of these pleasing and elegant establishments that also double as cafés, intellectual salons or art exhibition spaces. What is more, Catalonia is officially bilingual. Hence, bookshops tend to offer a third of their stock in Catalan, with the rest being made up of Spanish-language books. Often world classics and current bestsellers are paired in Catalan and Spanish translations on the display shelves.

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel The City and Its Uncertain Wall in Catalan and Spanish translations. Photo: Tomasz Kamusella

In the renowned independent bookstore “Alibri” my eye was caught by a beautifully arranged section called Literatura Russa (“Russian Literature”) in Catalan and Spanish translations. At first, I hoped it would be followed by similar sections devoted to literatures in other languages, including Ukrainian. But, no, at least at that time it was the sole section of this kind devoted to any given literature. A young shop assistant explained that the owner was enamoured with Russian literature. This is not a sin in itself but one would expect more empathy and understanding from such a sophisticated bookshop in the context of the third year of Russia’s ongoing genocidal and total war on Ukraine. She disagreed with my suggestion, opining that allowing the current events to dictate the offer of books on the display table would amount to giving in to “cancel culture”. That Russian literature was “too great” to be cancelled.

Russian literature section in Alibri. Photo: Tomasz Kamusella

Wary that the conversation could take an unpleasant turn, I sighed and cautioned that the unreflective acceptance of the Kremlin’s narrative was the first step toward dismantling democracy and instilling “unfreedom” in Europe. I added that having regained democracy half a century ago, especially young people in Spain should tread carefully to not fall back into the trap of authoritarianism. We agreed to disagree, and the shop assistant took leave of me.

Meanwhile, I further scrutinized the Russian literature section. Soon enough, I found the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin in this section. Indeed, Kurkov writes in Russian. However, the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez composed his books in Spanish, yet it did not make him into a Spanish author. Bookstores in Catalonia are very good at separating Spanish and Latin American authors. One would expect the same level of care with regards to Russian and Ukrainian writers, especially now in a time of war in which the Kremlin’s propaganda portrays the conflict as between “godly Russia” and the “decadent West”.

Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin in Spanish. Book cover from the publisher Blackie books.

The bookstore’s nonchalant approach to Ukraine and its literature amounts to cultural appropriation and the unthinking endorsement of Russian imperialism. This instance is an indication and benchmark of Russian propaganda’s success at suffusing the West with the Kremlin’s narrative. Part and parcel of this phenomenon is the West’s tendency to continue to unreflectively subsume Ukrainian language and culture within their Russian counterparts. This practice is still rife despite the fact that in the ongoing war one of Moscow’s goals is the destruction of Ukraine, alongside the country’s language and culture. Hence, the western countries should know better.

Shockingly, the aforementioned Russian literature section in Alibri also featured a Spanish translation of the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan’s Ukrainian-language novel Voroshilovgrad. In this “choice”, the bookshop fully agreed with the Kremlin’s insistence that neither Ukraine nor the Ukrainian language exist. It is as though the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s books composed in Portuguese were reclassified as “belonging to” Spanish language and literature.

Spanish translation of Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan’s novel Voroshilovgrad. Book cover from Galaxia Gutenberg

The bookstore boasts a specialized section on linguistics and language study. It was another source of surprises. Four bookcases were devoted to the Spanish language and two to Catalan. On the shelf with “other languages” I found one textbook of Ukrainian and two children’s books in this language. On the other hand, Russian was given pride of place with two bookcases brimming with Russian-language textbooks and fiction. This was the same amount of space that was accorded to Catalonia’s native language of Catalan. What is more, while learning courses of a variety languages were squeezed onto a single noticeboard, Ruslandia – or the Academy of the Russian Language in Barcelona – was given its own prominent place. The shop assistant accounted for this privileged treatment by emphasizing that numerous Catalans desire to learn Russian. I wonder whether there are more who want to acquire English.

Advertisement of Ruslandia, or the Academy of the Russian Language in Barcelona. Photo: Tomasz Kamusella

Russia’s continuing hybrid influence

Ruslandia was founded in 2010 and is a successful enterprise and brand. No information on Russia’s war on Ukraine features on the company’s website. That would be harmful to business. In 2022 the EU sanctioned the Kremlin’s pet instrument of cultural hybrid warfare, or the Russkiy Mir Foundation. Yet, its branch in Barcelona, or the Pushkin Institute of the Russian Language, operates unhindered. The institute simply dropped from its updated website any information that it belongs to this foundation and is financed by the Kremlin. Obviously, this website carefully does not voice any opinion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is baffling why to this day the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (or Spain’s intelligence agency) has done nothing to curb this clear-cut breach of the EU’s sanctions and blatant implantation of Russian influence in Catalonia.

Entrance to the Russian House in Barcelona. Source: Google street view. 

However, the most interesting case of insidious but subliminal Russian influence is seen in the Casa de Rusia (Russian House) in Barcelona. While walking in the old town, near the maritime embankment, I glanced at an architecturally appealing building from the 18th century. Event announcements in Cyrillic surely intrigued passers-by. Upon inspection it turned out that the information was given both in Catalan and Russian. But the institution’s name was the rather cryptic “CR”. The security guard helpfully revealed the full name, or the Fundación Cultural CR (Cultural Foundation CR). My interest whetted, I went online and dug. The acronym CR (or sometimes CdR) stands for “Russian House”. Apparently the foundation’s name was abbreviated in the wake of Russia’s 2022 onslaught against Ukraine to not offend public opinion.

Russian House rebranded as CR in 2022. Screenshot from the institutions website casaderusia.es

After all, it was the Kremlin’s main money spinner, Gazprom, that financed the founding of Casa de Rusia in 2010. In 2016 this foundation became part of the Russkiy Mir network. Three years later, the Russian House assumed another role as an official representative of St Petersburg State University in Spain. In 2021 the foundation even positioned itself as the leading facilitator of attracting even more Russian tourists to Barcelona, whose number increased from half a million in 2016 to 0.8 million in 2019.

The Casa de Rusia and its multiplying links with Russia’s elite and top institutions flourished under the watch of CEO Anna Silyunas. She assumed the post in 2018. Silyunas’s position in and access to Russia’s governing structures was perhaps ensured by her former husband, the Russian oligarch Konstantin Ernst. He is the Kremlin’s favoured media and propaganda profiler. Not surprisingly, due to his pivotal role in Russia’s war on Ukraine, Ernst found itself buried under a pile of western sanctions. Apparently, the Russian House was also instrumental in forging operative links between the Catalonian nationalists and the Kremlin.

In early March 2022, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian House suspended its activities. However, the foundation did not condemn this attack and carefully avoided using the term “war”, giving preference to the Kremlin’s approved expression “military operation”. After all, Gazprom’s money pays their salaries. Instead, the foundation began fighting against the infrequent anti-war protests, which the Russian House chose to brand as “Russophobic” in line with the Kremlin’s rhetoric. Somehow, the tragic fate of the Ukrainians under Moscow’s relentless attack and the acts of genocide perpetrated by the Russian military in Bucha or Mariupol failed to register in Catalonia.

On this wave of not-so-tacit pro-Russian sentiment, Foundation CR resumed its activities already in autumn 2022. Walking past the foundation’s building, I noticed they had an event open to the general public. It showcased the writings of the young Russian fantasy writer Anna Starobinets. In March 2022, the author had condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine, left Russia and subsequently settled in Georgia. Yet, by coming to the Russian House in Barcelona, Starobinets somehow overlooked the institution’s links to Gazprom and the Kremlin. It was as if the war was not a cause of her own family’s grief and forced emigration.

The event was well attended by fifty or so participants. The official bilingual announcement promised consecutive translation to Catalan. But it was just a front to make the unpalatable situation acceptable to the Catalonian public at large. The Russian House de facto functions as a Russian social club. No mention of war marred the pleasant atmosphere. No one voiced any support for Ukraine. No Ukrainian flags or symbols were on display, and neither their Russian counterparts. Yet, the second-floor lecture hall, where the event took place, featured on its door a large photo of the Kremlin entrance gate topped with Russia’s double-headed eagle.

In Barcelona, Russians feel like they are at home. On the one hand, they enjoy western values and opportunities, which are banned and criminalized in Russia. On the other, no one bothers them about the “trifling matter of some war” in Ukraine, with which they have nothing to do, as the typical remark goes. A young man and father who participated in this pleasant event with his family, flabbergasted by my surprise, explained in plain English that Barcelona is “Russian-friendly”. Indeed, the lack of reaction on Madrid and Catalonia’s part to Moscow’s creeping hybrid influence may be interpreted as Spain siding with the Kremlin in its genocidal and total war on Ukraine. It is as though, in a fit of absentmindedness, a western country was facilitating Moscow’s imperial efforts to sow discord in Europe and destroy democratic Ukraine.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and the Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.

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