BY Valentin Diaconov in Opinion | 29 MAY 14
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Issue 164

European Dropouts

The consequences of Russia’s cultural policies

BY Valentin Diaconov in Opinion | 29 MAY 14

Victoria Lomasko Untitled, from the series ‘Graphic Reportage from Recent Political Show Trials in Russia’, 2012–14. Courtesy: the artist

It has become customary for the writers of op-eds in Russian monthly periodicals to begin by acknowledging that their words will be printed in a political situation that is potentially quite different from the one in which they are writing. The same goes for the words you’re reading now: I hope that, by the time this issue comes out, we’ll be living in a better situation than the current one. Let me give you a short update (backdate?) on what’s going on today, 21 April 2014: shoot-outs in Eastern Ukraine; the us Secretary of State, John Kerry, arguing with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov; and highly suspicious pro-Russia activists demanding the army’s intervention. One thing, at least, seems pretty clear: President Vladimir Putin’s policy, designed – so the state loyalists would have us believe – to spare Ukraine from the fate of Greece, is slowly turning our neighbouring country into a present-day Yugoslavia.

An impending war is a lot like the impending death of a loved one: it has everyone clutching at increasingly fragile straws to avert the inevitable. Cue the noise: any half-formed opinion is listened to, provocations on both sides abound and neutrality is all but impossible. This kind of war has everyone on the front lines: old friendships are shattered in real-time Facebook commentaries and the art world is astorn as any other intellectual field. Ukrainian artists Nikita Kadan, Lada Nakonechna and Mykola Ridnyi cancelled their forthcoming show at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow the day after troops entered Crimea. Kadan took to Facebook to explain the political impossibility of showing work in Moscow while Putin was a planning ‘a bloodbath’ in Ukraine.

But the art world also has its share of pro-Russia supporters, whose opinions are not far from those of the official media: Crimea belonged to Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it away in the 1950s; Ukrainian nationalists are fascists, etc. Perhaps they simply want to experiencea sense of unity with the majority: the 83 percent of the population that supports Putin. The most current and, perhaps, surprising example of such support for Russia’s foreign policy is the statement by the artist collective Voina, available (in Russian only) on their website. However, for artists in their 60s and 70s, the events in Crimea strike a different – if familiar – chord. Most of them think that the anti-Stalinist thaw ended not with Khrushchev’s impeachment but in August 1968 when the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia, which Moscow deemed too liberal. While you cannot possibly call the last few years of Putin’s third term a thaw, for most of the opposition the decision to snatch Crimea is already a sign of a return to Soviet-era policies.

An anonymous policy document from Russia’s Ministry of Culture, leaked to the press on 10 April, seems to further divide the country from the West. In an interview with Kommersant, a business daily I work for, the Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, was quick to point out that the text is merely a draft, a work-in-progress. Yet, the document – which employs trademark conservative expressions such as ‘Russia is not Europe’ and ‘traditional values’ – seems to trace the contours of a new ideology. Simultaneously, the Ministry has overhauled the councils that distribute funding for the theatre, arts and cinema, giving prominent positions to officials and intellectuals who are famous for their scepticism toward – and sometimes even hatred of – contemporary artistic expression.

In his interview, Medinsky declared that Russia knows Europe better than Europe knows itself: ‘We read [Honoré de] Balzac more often than the French do; the same goes for [Arthur] Conan Doyle and [Thomas] Mayne Reid.’ This choice of writers says all we need to know about the direction the Ministry of Culture wants us to take: back to the 1970s, when every Soviet family had a set of the complete works of Balzac on their bookshelves. Medinsky wants us to become dropouts from Europe, revisiting a safe, comforting culture that is only marginally relevant to contemporary artistic debate.

There are two ways to nurture cultural creativity, both of which take time and considerable effort. The first is to let go of stale values, to decline state help and to reject neurotic aspirations towards a clear East-West divide. The second is to take a long, hard look at the traumatic experiences of the 1990s, when the traditional Soviet identity was discarded to make way for an embrace of Western values based on action-movie tropes and models of socialist economy and lifestyle. There, in that fracture, lie answers to our current crises. Twenty-first century nationalism directed against immigrants, complicated foreign policies toward former Soviet republics, and delusions of currently unattainable grandeur (of which endless discussions regarding how to promote Russian art internationally are clearly part): it all began some 20 years ago with the fall of the Soviet Union and it will not stop unless we scrutinize the trauma of the ‘new Russia’. The problems we face are too real to be cast aside with sloganeering and aggressive dissidence.