Russia’s new stance on art: more conservatism, less liberalism

A scene from Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House in London. (Photo credit: Tristram Kenton)

Considering the political conflicts abroad, United Russia tries to unite the country under traditional values – and is on the verge of artistic censorship

A YouTube video published in August 2015 shows a young bearded man, named Dimitry ‘Enteo’ Tsorionov, surrounded by other Orthodox activists. He tears Vadim Sidur’s linoleum engraving of a naked Jesus Christ sculpture from its platform and stomps on it.

On the recording, he can be heard saying: “Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are being mocked here. This is punishable under the criminal code.”

Tsorinov is referring to the criminal blasphemy law which makes it an offense to insult an individual’s religion. What exactly is considered an insult remains unclear. The law, enacted after Pussy Riot’s church performance in 2013, punishes violations with up to three years in prison and hefty fines.

Art under attack

Sidur’s exhibit in Moscow is not the only creative work which has been under attack since then. In September, an exhibit of American photographer Jock Sturges, showing portraits of naked children and their families, had to close after a protester brought a bottle of urine to throw on the prints.

In October, the Siberian city of Omsk cancelled the performance of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar after protesters claimed it mocked religious faith. Ironically, the same musical was considered religious propaganda in the Soviet Union – now it is blasphemy.

Even Lolita, a twenty-year-old one-man stage show, based on Nabokov’s most famous work about a middle-aged man who is sexually attracted to a 12-year-old girl, has suddenly been deemed offensive by some Russians. According to The New Yorker magazine, the main actor was threatened, the producer beaten up.

Where is all this outrage coming from? Even if the government does not intervene directly, it is hard to imagine that laws such as the one concerning criminal blasphemy do not encourage protests. “What is utmost surprising is the passive reaction of the state authorities to the unlawful acts by such groups,” says Lena Jonson, author of the book Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia.

Let all the flowers grow, but we will only water the ones we like.

The government’s involvement

However, the government does not always remain passive either, especially when it comes to artworks which are financed by the state. The Tannhäuser opera in Novosibirsk is likely to be the most controversial case in Russia. Here, protests came to include the local authorities, which ultimately led to the removal of the opera from the playbill and the dismissal of the theatre director, Boris Mezdrich, by the ministry of culture.

Since the appointment of Vladimir Medinsky as minister of culture in 2012, the restrictions for state-funded art are much tighter. “In order to get state-funding, you need to fall in line with the new political paradigm and its official interpretations of values,” says Jonson. To put it in Medinsky’s own words: “Let all the flowers grow, but we will only water the ones we like.”

Jonson believes that Medinsky’s new cultural policy, formulated in the state documents of 2014-2016, “looks upon the arts as instruments for forming a common Russian identity, fostering the individual, and strengthening values of patriotism and conservative values.”

Today, most theaters in Russia receive some kind of funding distributed by the state. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they were able to choose their content more or less freely, but now the government reserves the right to closely monitor the respective program and put financial pressure if things fall out of line.

This is why Konstantin Raikin, director of Moscow’s Satirikon theatre, gave a critical speech in October in front of other theatre professionals. According to UK newspaper The Guardian, he urged his colleagues to “stop pretending that the authorities are the only bearers of morality.” Speaking out publicly against the government is not without consequences, Raikin found after he faced harassment from a biker group following his speech.

United Russia’s traditional path

There are only few Russians who feel so offended by some art pieces that they decide to take the blasphemy law into their own hands. Nevertheless, the law and its corresponding restrictions for art financed by tax-money receive widespread support from the public.

Regarding the Tannhäuser case, WCIOM, Russia’s main sociological centre, conducted a poll to find out who actually felt offended by the content of the opera. According to the investigation, 47 percent of the respondents indicated they felt insulted by the play. Nevertheless, 31 percent said that they did not feel offended by it at all.

Polls like these — combined with the growing number of citizen-filed reports received by the ministry concerning movies or exhibits believed to carry anti-Russian propaganda— bolster the current cultural policy.

Jonson is convinced that the cultural sphere is used as a “battlefield for values and worldviews.” Russia’s traditional-oriented electorate is large, while the ongoing Ukrainian crisis has also served to bolster patriotism in the country. Consequently, as of 2012 United Russia seems to have decided to support art primarily for the rural audience, not the metropolitan elites. After all, these more conservative parts of society respond better to the overall path of the Kremlin.

Alteration of cultural work

The guidelines for state-funded art can also delay production or cause artists to alter their work in the first place. The screenplay for Alexander Mindadze’s 2015 film Dear Hans, Dear Peter had to be altered despite the director being assured the film would receive funding approval.

The reason? The ministry believed it exposed close links between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany on the eve of war. However, in the end a compromise was reached, and the movie went on to win this year’s Nika, the oldest national movie award.

The discussion about whether the new cultural policy can be considered a suppression of artistic freedom or not keeps getting louder, since censorship itself is forbidden by the Russian constitution of 1993. According to Russia Beyond The Headlines, in 2012, Medinsky already emphasised that “there is no censorship in Russia.”

Without state funding, however, many projects are likely to never make it to the big screen or onto the stage. This will be Russia’s loss.

This article first appeared in the student magazine of St Petersburg State University

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