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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Putin's Cultural Revolution

The New York Times reports:

Just a few weeks ago, the Russian culture minister censored a state-sponsored show of Russian contemporary art in Paris. Criminal charges have been pressed during the last couple of years against at least half a dozen cultural nonconformists. A gallery owner, a rabble-rouser specializing in art that tweaks the increasingly powerful Orthodox Church and also the Kremlin, was severely beaten by thugs last year. Authorities haven’t charged anyone.

At the same time, the Kremlin is courting some big-name cultural figures like Nikita Mikhalkov, the once-pampered enfant terrible filmmaker of Soviet days, today a big promoter of Mr. Putin.

There are signs of a backlash. In late October, a television debate program pitted Viktor Yerofeyev, a prominent Russian author, against Mr. Mikhalkov, who with a few others wrote a fawning letter, supposedly in the name of tens of thousands of artists, asking the president to stay in power beyond the constitutional limit of his term in March. “Have you heard of cult of personality?” Mr. Yerofeyev asked him.

Mr. Mikhalkov fumbled. Mr. Yerofeyev won the program’s call-in vote by a large margin, an event almost unheard of on today’s Kremlin-controlled television.

If you can call any television debate show a touchstone in recent Russian cultural history, that was certainly it. The show’s rating went through the roof. Dozens of writers and artists signed petitions lambasting Mr. Mikhalkov for presuming to speak for them. A battle line over culture had clearly been drawn.

These are not Soviet times, it’s worth remembering, and artists, actors, filmmakers and writers here can do and say nearly whatever they want without fear of being shipped off to a gulag. Stepan Morozov and Aleksei Rozin, who play Michael Bakunin, the 19th century anarchist, and Nicholas Ogarev, the poet, in the Russian production of Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia,” were backstage one recent night extolling how free and lively Russian theater was.

Theoretically, so long as the center of power remains unaffected, anything is allowed on the margins, where serious culture mostly operates (Russian pop culture seems not to ruffle any feathers, or maybe it doesn’t want to, and television is firmly under the Kremlin’s thumb).

Even so, some prominent artists and writers, cognizant of a long, dark history of repression that Russians know only too well, and especially wary of the grip the church is gaining on the state, have been expressing deep anxiety about the government’s starting to encroach on artistic freedom the way it has taken on other aspects of society.

“They’re creating, quickly, a kind of Iran situation, a new-old civilization, an Orthodox civilization,” Mr. Yerofeyev said at his apartment the other evening, from inside the classic thick plume of cigarette smoke that still seems to engulf every Russian intellectual. “The climate has totally changed. What was allowed the day before yesterday now is dangerous. They don’t repress like the Soviets yet, but give them two years, they will find the way. That call-in vote was a shock to the authorities, who thought everything was stable and prepared for the elections.”

Well, Iran’s clearly over the top, but Mr. Yerofeyev is not alone in expressing fear. “Our future is becoming our past,” the well-known novelist Vladimir Sorokin told me. His books, a few years ago, were destroyed and stuffed into a big papier-mâché toilet bowl devised by some ultra-nationalist youth groups. Mr. Sorokin’s most recent novel foretells a Russia that has fallen into an ancient state of authoritarian rule. “We are returning to Ivan the Terrible’s era,” he predicted, speaking about the church and the general inward-turning, anti-Westernism afoot.

The fight is long over here for authority over the security services, the oil business, mass media and pretty much all the levers of government. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, notwithstanding some recent anti-government protests, has won those wars, hands down, and promises to consolidate its position in parliamentary elections. But now there is concern that the Kremlin is setting its sights on Russian culture.

Mr. Mikhalkov, on the set of his next movie, which is a military base outside Moscow, responded to these predictions with disdain: “Listen to what’s on television and radio now and tell me, what limitations do you see?” He tried not to look exasperated. Artists are perfectly free, he said. “My view is simply that the modus operandi of Russia is enlightened conservatism,” meaning hierarchical, religion-soaked, tradition-loving.

That’s certainly the official line. Then again, it’s said that Russia has never dealt with its past the way Germany has, and indeed when the Kremlin culture minister tried to halt the exhibition of contemporary Russian art in Paris this fall, calling what he considered the offending works in it a “disgrace” to Russia, he was just echoing old-school Soviet rhetoric and bringing exactly that onto the country, disgrace. The show opened anyway (apparently some high-level French government intervention saved the day), but not before dozens of works were pulled, including one, “Era of Mercy,” by the Blue Noses group showing two Russian policemen kissing in a birch grove.

The picture tells you how tepid the art is that can provoke a reaction here; it surely wouldn’t make the slightest stir in an art gallery in the West. But then, context is everything. Quality hardly ever matters in these affairs. What caused an uproar with Roman Catholics and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum some years back wasn’t great art, but its calculated mix of religion and pornography (and elephant dung) had the desired effect, and the same holds true here: politics, religion and sex, the Molotov cocktail of censorship, are also the topics over which Russia’s cultural battle is being fought. It’s the culture wars we all know, but in a country with a legal system that’s notoriously ineffectual, if not corrupt.
The Paris show’s curator, Andrei Yerofeyev, Viktor’s brother, now faces criminal charges, initiated by a vice speaker of Parliament, by pro-Kremlin youth groups and by members of the church. Charges have also been brought in recent months against Yuri Samodurov, the head of the Sakharov Center, the civil rights organization and museum, for showing some of the same art (the charge is essentially for hate speech).

As in all culture wars, there’s a dose of farce, too: Mr. Yerofeyev’s boss, Valentin Rodionov, the director at the state-run Tretyakov Gallery, apparently embarrassed for having so obediently gone along with the censorship, has now sued the culture minister, Aleksandr Sokolov. Rumors are flying about the possible financial motives of those who benefit from all the controversy connected to what’s censored. This is Russia, after all, where money has itself become an ideology, and, of course, we’re also talking about the art world.

Still, it’s not a little shocking that no Russian artists in the Paris show protested when works were removed. “I don’t think the art community in Russia is organized enough to protect its own interests,” Mr. Yerofeyev remarked. He looked, not surprisingly, crestfallen.

Complacency, self-interest and fear are sometimes hard to distinguish in these circumstances. Marat Guelman was a Putin ally and a political operative who has since turned critical of the Kremlin. When a gang of men came into his art gallery last fall and beat him, he was exhibiting the work of an ethnic Georgian artist. Russia and Georgia were then in a major spat over Georgia’s arrest of Russian military officers on spying charges. The Kremlin was expelling hundreds of Georgians.

Mr. Guelman doesn’t know exactly who was trying to send him — and perhaps others like him — a message by his beating. As he has phrased it, “power has many different hands in Russia”: the Kremlin doesn’t have to issue direct orders for its many allies, religious, nationalistic and otherwise, to act in what they believe, rightly or not, to be its behalf. At the very least, though, he thinks it shouldn’t be hard to find the criminals — if the authorities want to.

“The anti-Western hysteria rising in Russia has now impacted on the arts and, of course, the main role in this is played by the church,” Mr. Guelman said. “Russian art is ironical. That’s our tradition. And that’s what both this government and the church don’t like.” He spoke in his apartment, which happens to have a great picture-window view onto a symbol of the resurgent church, the newly rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral, the one that Stalin notoriously blew up.

Mr. Mikhalkov, on the military base outside town, was directing a sequel to his Oscar-winning “Burnt by the Sun” the other day. He was surrounded by actors in Soviet uniforms stomping their feet against the freezing cold in deep trenches dug into a vast, lonely snow-covered field. The sky was leaden gray. Aside from the Putin re-election letter, Mr. Mikhalkov has raised eyebrows lately by filming a pro-Putin election advertisement, and he produced a gushing birthday tribute to the president, which was shown on state-run television. He retreated to a trailer to hash over the debate, which, even as someone who loves attention as much as power, obviously continued to gall him.

“Why are people frightened of patriotism?” he asked. He wanted to differentiate it from xenophobia. “There’s a lot of worrying among the intelligentsia about teaching the basics of Orthodox culture. It’s a hysteria.”

Russia needs authority, he said. “Maybe for the so-called civilized world this sounds like nonsense. But chaos in Russia is a catastrophe for everyone. Even if Putin isn’t always the most democratic, he should nevertheless remain in power because we don’t know that the new president won’t begin by undoing what Putin has done.”

When I mentioned this remark to Alexander Gelman, a high-profile playwright during the perestroika days, he shook his head. “In the Soviet era there was only one party but there were plays and books that supported the idea of democracy, ” he recalled. Despite the different spelling, he is the art dealer’s father, so not exactly unbiased. That said, he made a good point: “The less democracy, the more cultural figures matter. If the tendency against democracy continues, cultural figures will gain more influence.

“It’s a disgrace for Russia that writers would replace political parties,” he added. “But maybe that is what will have to happen.”

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