BY Maxim Edwards in Opinion | 10 FEB 20

Russia’s New Minister of Culture Has Artists Uneasy

Russia’s artists see Olga Lyubimova as a chequered figure – but anybody has to be better than her predecessor

BY Maxim Edwards in Opinion | 10 FEB 20

Russia's Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova, 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; Photograph: Dmitry ASTAKHOV / SPUTNIK / AFP) 

In Russia, everything is changing so that everything can stay the same. On 15 January, the country’s entire government resigned. Outgoing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wished to avoid encumbering constitutional reforms designed to give Vladimir Putin a measure of formal rule, even after his current term as president expires. When Medvedev’s successor, Mikhail Mishustin, announced his cabinet on 21 January, many in Russia’s arts community breathed a sigh of relief. Tubthumping patriot Vladimir Medinsky, who had served as Minister of Culture since 2012, was finally gone.

But there were also concerned murmurings at his replacement, 39-year-old Olga Lyubimova, who has been Deputy Minister of Culture since 2015. Not only will she have immense influence over the allocation of state funding on which Russian artists depend but also, if she’s anything like Medinsky, over deciding what the public should and should not get to see. Lyubimova comes from Moscow’s cultural aristocracy: she is the daughter of Boris Lyubimov, acting president of the prestigious Mikhail Shchepkin Higher Theatre School, and great-granddaughter of prominent actor Vasily Kachalov. In the early 2000s, she worked on several Russian Orthodox-themed documentaries; in 2016, she became head of the state-owned Channel One’s directorate of social and journalistic programmes; and, in 2018, she was appointed head of the ministry’s department of cinematography.

Lyubimova is the first woman to hold the role since Yekaterina Furtseva was Soviet Minister of Culture between 1960 and 1974. She has also been praised for giving interviews on cultural policy to the independent publication Meduza, rather than speaking exclusively to reliably pro-Kremlin and state-owned newspapers. Yet, in a 2008 blog post, seemingly written by Lyubimova, she admits that she ‘cannot stand museums, the opera, or exhibitions’, and gives short shrift to classical music and ballet. The post was eventually removed after attracting significant attention last month.

Monika Sosnowska, Exercises in Construction, Bending, 2020, installation view, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Ivan Erofeevn © Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

This incident is not the lynchpin in most criticism of Lyubimova, however, nor has it marred enthusiasm among her well-wishers. Anton Belov, director of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, values Lyubimova’s family ties to the arts. In an email exchange, Belov stressed to me that he had not worked with Lyubimova but praised her as ‘sensible, intelligent and understanding of the tasks of state institutions’. ‘Apart from more resources,’ he added, ‘I would like to see the minister promote open mechanisms, such as competitions, and invite experts to play a greater role […] More attention must be paid to the regions; projects tend to develop centrifugally around Moscow and St Petersburg, which are then cloned […] What [is needed] are more local cultural centres: projects like the Diaghilev Festival in Perm, the Smena Center for Contemporary Culture in Kazan, Zarya Center for Contemporary Art in Vladivostok or Tipografia in Krasnodar.’

Alexey RetinskyCamille, documentation, Diaghilev festival, Perm, 2018. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Edvard Tihonov

This optimism for Lyubimova speaks volumes about how cultural life has changed in Russia in recent years, suggesting a degree of exhaustion with the conservative culture wars fought under Medinsky’s watch. In 2015, the ministry sacked the director of a theatre in Novosibirsk after he staged a modern production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhӓuser (1845). In 2017, the theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov was put under house arrest for 18 months on fraud charges that were widely seen as dubious. In a recent interview, Valeriy Pecheykin – Serebrennikov’s colleague at Russia’s leading avant-garde theatre, the Gogol Center – described Medinsky as acting like ‘a deranged traffic controller, standing at the crossroads and setting the stage for a [cultural] collision’.

On several occasions, Medinsky also took his censor’s scissors to film. As head of the department of cinematography, Lyubimova conceivably played more than a bit part in these controversies. In 2018, the ministry revoked the distribution certificate for Armando Iannucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (2017), which state officials described as ‘offensive’ and ‘disgraceful’. It was far from the only movie in recent years to suffer the same fate in Russia.

‘There’s not a single sign that Lyubimova will detach from Medinsky’s general line. She made her career first as a propaganda journalist and producer, then as a bureaucrat. Unlike Medinsky, however, she’s not alien to most Moscow artists and socialites,’ Mikhail Kaluzhsky, the Berlin-based Russian playwright, tells me. ‘Her appointment is about reputation management, an effective step to pacify Moscow’s artistic community. Her role is to be nice to artists, follow the party line and make the ministry more technically and bureaucratically effective. Nothing will change in Russian cultural policy, but she will refrain from Medinsky-style provocative public statements. Nevertheless, I suspect she may want to prove how important Russian Orthodoxy is – for her personally and for the country.’

Catriona Kelly, professor of Russian at Oxford University, told me she believes the appointment suggests a prioritization of cinema, which was never obvious given the ministry’s huge remit. ‘In some ways, Lyubimova is probably a breath of fresh air after Medinsky, whose main interest is patriotic history, and who was deeply unpopular with more or less every sector. But it’s notable that it’s mainly the more commercial film directors who have welcomed the appointment,’ says Kelly.

Indeed, in recent weeks, the Russian press has increasingly approached film directors and producers for their thoughts on the new minister. Director Alexander Sokurov voiced grave concern, while Andrei Plakhov, cinema critic for the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, writes that even award-winning directors such as Andrey Zvyagintsev struggle to obtain not only state, but also private, backing for films that might ‘cause trouble’.

Between the lines, there is a sense that Russia’s artists and cultural figures would rather build bridges with Lyubimova than burn them – or have them burnt, sooner or later, in ugly and unpredictable ways. ‘I suppose we can only hope that the intelligence and pragmatism for which some people praise her are more important in shaping the direction of what she does than the political and ideological currents of the day,’ concludes Kelly.

Perhaps that insight explains why, for now, all artists can do is laud Lyubimova as an ‘effective manager’, to use the Russian phrase. It may be too early to know exactly what project or cultural vision she will adopt. If the trend of recent years continues, however, an ‘effective professional’ could be a greater threat to Russia’s cultural evolution than an incompetent ideologue.

Maxim Edwards is an editor and journalist specializing in Eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Germany.