Putinist art: Russia cracks down on cultural freedom

Russia's artistic and cultural sphere is coming under attack, as the government tries to use the arts to ensure loyalty to the regime

ECFR Alumni · Former Visiting Fellow

The crackdown on rights and freedoms that accelerated with Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin is rapidly extending to the realm of arts and culture. In the past few years, contemporary art exhibits and film screenings have occasionally come under attack from obscure vigilantes who deemed them insulting to Russian “traditional values”. But more recently, government officials, abetted by top clergy and eagerly assisted by loyal artistic figures, have begun to wage aggressive campaigns against film and theatre productions.

Last week in Novosibirsk, Boris Mezdrich, the executive director of Russia’s largest opera theatre, was fired by Russia’s Ministry of Culture because the theatre’s production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser was offensive to a group of religious activists. The head of the local Orthodox Christian diocese made a complaint; the complaint was picked up by the Ministry; and the Ministry demanded that changes be made in the production and that the executive director apologise to all those who were offended. The director refused, so he was dismissed and replaced by a fellow theatre director, who was also one of his most passionate detractors. 

A loyalist organisation called The Dmitry Likhachev Institute of Heritage has launched a campaign against improper interpretations of Russian classical authors in film and theatre.

A loyalist organisation called The Dmitry Likhachev Institute of Heritage has launched a campaign against improper interpretations of Russian classical authors in film and theatre. The Institute calls itself a “partner” of the Ministry of Culture, and it features prominently on its website a section titled “V.V. Putin on the Institute of Heritage” – to leave no doubt as to where its political loyalties lie.

At a seminar last week on the “limits of interpretation of the Russian classics”, the Institute’s experts lashed out at moral and aesthetic transgressions in theatrical productions of the works of Alexander Pushkin. One production was condemned for not properly conveying the role of “the people as a force of history”, showing them instead as “cattle”. An expert said that the production was generating “an atmosphere of total cynicism”; “the director, she concludes, does not love the government, the inner circle, the [Russian Orthodox Church] patriarch, or the people”. Another expert was scandalised by a scene that imitates “vigorous sex under a sheet”, as well as by a female character being shown smoking and a male character appearing in his underwear. The characters “possess nothing but bodily passion, meaninglessness, and emptiness”. And so on.

These condemnatory remarks sound painfully similar to the formulas used by the Communist censors of the Soviet period.

These condemnatory remarks sound painfully similar to the formulas used by the Communist censors of the Soviet period – except that back then they were based on the atheistic doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, whereas today’s loyalist experts draw their sense of righteousness from a new Ministry of Culture document, the “Basics of the State Cultural Policy”, which emphasises the “special role of Orthodox Christianity” in the Russian “system of values”.

In Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, the chief censoring agency decreed: “When we deal with publishing […] we must look at it from the standpoint of whether it produces the literature we need for the current moment […] We study literature not for literature’s sake, we look at it as an ideological means of educating the masses.”

In Leonid Brezhnev’s day, in 1983, another document proclaimed that the main purpose of literature was to educate the Soviet people as “dedicated builders of a communist society […] endowed with high moral character”.

Putin has his documents too. In December last year, he signed the aforementioned “Basics of the State Cultural Policy”, which states that “the purpose of the cultural policy is to […] consolidate the unity of Russian society […] to create the conditions for educating the citizens”.

The current government policy of disciplining the arts is aimed at eliminating unwanted influences on people’s minds and ensuring absolute loyalty to the regime.

In Stalin’s time, ideological criticism of cultural figures (or of anybody for that matter) meant a long jail term or even execution. Today’s regime is not based on that kind of terror; rather, it draws its inspiration from the softer, Brezhnevist variety. The current government policy of disciplining the arts is aimed at eliminating unwanted influences on people’s minds and ensuring absolute loyalty to the regime. Moreover, as government resources shrink, the competition for budgetary funds is getting more vicious – and in this, the cultural sphere is no different from that of industry or state corporations. Theatre directors who, like Mezdrich, will not trade their art for political opportunism can expect to be purged. And their less scrupulous colleagues can be counted on to be forever loyal to the government bosses to whom they owe their careers. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

ECFR Alumni · Former Visiting Fellow

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