Going it alone: can Russian culture survive international isolation?

Going it alone: can Russian culture survive international isolation?

With no sign of detente over Ukraine and with new sanctions and boycotts emerging daily, Russia faces the threat of isolation from the global community. What, asks Nadia Beard, does this mean for cultural life in the country?

21 May 2014

Against a backdrop of geopolitical crisis, it seems a new era has begun for Russian culture — one with serious implications for producers and consumers alike. The on-going political and military disturbances in Russia and Ukraine have proved very divisive, with high-profile cultural figures feeling compelled to make public declarations of solidarity with either Kiev or Moscow. Meanwhile, the international sanctions brought by the US and the EU against a number of Russian officials have sparked fears of an imminent return to Cold War tensions and increasing international isolation for Russia. These worries have some justification: a string of cultural figures and institutions (both domestic and international) have already chosen to boycott performances in Russia rather than be seen to provide tacit support for its government.

Last month, American rock band The National cancelled concerts in Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg. While their official reason was the “the on-going political crisis in the region”, their decision certainly speaks of a new reticence to engage with Russia, a newly toxic brand. Other refuseniks have been more explicit: after Sergei Shub, director of St Petersburg’s Meetings theatre festival signed an open letter in support of Russian actions in Ukraine, the Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania pulled out of the festival immediately. “Unfortunately your act, respected Sergei, has nullified all our efforts and aspirations for cultural exchange,” they said. “You have left us no choice, and we cannot be held accountable for our decision to pull out, because it was you who signed the statement of political bias, not us.”

“Our aim at least should be to turn every cultural project into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies”

Russian cultural figures have also voted with their feet. Also in March, Russian art collective Chto Delat withdrew from the roving contemporary art biennale Manifesta, which is to be held in St Petersburg this summer. Expressing disappointment at Manifesta’s failure to respond to the political crisis in the region, their official statement read: “Our aim at least should be to turn every cultural project into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies.”

Still from Partisan Songspiel, Chto Delat (2009)

Manifesta is certainly no stranger to boycotts, after more than 2,000 people signed a petition last September urging Hedwig Fijen, director of Manifesta, to change the location of the biennale in protest at Russia’s newly passed laws against “gay propaganda”. The media furore around this protest, which then seemed considerable, has since been almost forgotten in light of still more serious political issues.

Many within Russian culture are supportive of the boycotters’ ends, but not their means. Speaking to The Calvert Journal, Katya Girshina, director of projects at Moscow’s Strelka Institute for media, architecture and design, described boycotts as badly targeted and ineffective. “There are two different kinds of relationships between countries; one on the level of governments and the other between ordinary people,” said Girshina. “The people’s relationship exists first and foremost across cultural and educational projects. Therefore, ‘sanctions’ on the level of culture are unacceptable because they damage people’s lives and not government decisions.”

“Sanctions on the level of culture are unacceptable because they damage people’s lives and not government decisions”

The damage caused by these boycotts has the potential to be long lasting. Controversial gallerist and onetime government spin doctor Marat Guelman told The Calvert Journal that the growing wedge between Russian and international cultural spheres, exacerbated by boycotts, denies Russian cultural figures the support of the “international cultural community”, something which is vital if independent art is to survive and thrive in Russia.

Not everyone in Russia, however, is horrified at the thought of the country distancing itself from the global community. Vladimir Putin recently suggested that Russia should launch its own internal “intranet”, in response to American (and specifically CIA) dominance on the internet; the Ministry of Culture has recently published a new policy document which centres on the maxim that “Russia is not Europe” and which explicitly rejects any suggestion that tolerance and multiculturalism belong on Russian soil.

The internalisation of the rhetoric of isolation (or, as some would have it, encirclement) has prompted a return to the paranoid nationalist sloganeering of the Soviet period. Guelman notes the growing mistrust of both cultural and foreign figures that seems to intensify with the imposition of every new international sanction. “Today, when Russian TV or the government talk about cultural figures, they use the term ‘fifth column’. For them, we are the enemy, and the fact that we are part of the global cultural community makes that fact even more legitimate in their eyes. For them, anything international is equivalent to being the enemy.”

“Such inflammatory and xenophobic language has contributed to a growing fear of a return to the cultural binary of Soviet times”

Such inflammatory and xenophobic language has contributed to a growing fear of a return to the cultural binary of Soviet times, in which two cultures, one official and another unofficial, depicted two very different versions of reality. “I think that what will happen to culture in Russia is the same as what happened to it during the Soviet Union,” said opposition politician Leonid Gozman. “There will be an official culture, which will operate at a really low level, and an unofficial one, which will see talented people [in the arts] either leave or go underground.”

Some might argue that a vibrant dissident underground is no bad thing. Many of the richest periods of Russian culture have coincided with state censorship, like the 19th-century novel-writing boom or the unofficial culture of 1980s St Petersburg, which spawned artists like Timur Novikov and bands like Kino, who are now lauded as game-changing geniuses. But official suppression limits audiences and, perhaps, ambitions. Guelman is certain that a two-culture system would spell doom to culture in Russia, with artists driven back towards the “weak, ineffective, ‘kitchen art’ of unofficial culture during the Soviet Union”. In such a system, Guelman believes, Russian authorities will see anything innovative “as a kind of anti-culture, not culture” if it does not correspond with their vision of art.

It flies — you strike, Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev (1990). Bugaev was a member of the New Artists Group established by Timur Novikov in the 1980s

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Reflecting on the way Russian institutions have spent recent years carefully safeguarding their integrity in a political minefield, Strelka’s Girshina spoke with confidence about the future of productive international collaboration, regardless of the atmosphere of tension and mistrust: “All independent cultural organisations are accustomed to working in a very complex and changing environment and fighting for survival.” For her, Russia’s previous experience of pariah status gives cause for optimism as well as dismay: “Even during Soviet times there wasn’t complete cultural isolation, and somehow there was a kind of communication between cultural figures in the USSR and other countries. It was their strong desire and will, their thirst for openness, communication and cultural exchange that opened a lot of doors in a very closed system.”

“It was their strong desire and will, their thirst for openness, communication and cultural exchange that opened a lot of doors in a very closed system”

With positions on the issue multifarious, some commentators have looked inwards instead of out for the answer to Russia’s changing cultural landscape, with some holding the government to account for its tightening grip on social freedom. In an interview with The Calvert Journal, Dmitry Vilensky, an artist, writer and founding member of Chto Delat, said: “I think that growing economic and political isolation of Russia is irrelevant against a backdrop of national repression and the repression of progressive culture which is currently occurring in the country.”

In many ways the current rhetorical rejection of western culture is a highly politicised iteration of the classic Russian dilemma, which has seen the country swing between the west and east in the last few centuries in a bid to define its cultural identity. The possibility remains that it is just empty posturing: with British private schools still full of oligarchs’ children, and British banks still full of their money, it seems unlikely that Russian leaders will want to withdraw from the international community. Ultimately, Russia is too heavily intertwined, economically, politically and socially, to effect a cultural withdrawal from the west.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric and logic of isolation, however short-termist it may be, is already damaging Russian culture. Even more Russian artists and cultural figures are now contemplating emigration and many of the characteristics that came to define the culture of the Soviet era — xenophobia, cultural schizophrenia and limited freedom of expression — appear to be back. Even if talk of Russia’s cultural isolation is just rhetoric, the fervent delivery of the official line against western culture intimates a sickness inside Russia politics. And the willingness of many inside the cultural elite to toe this line suggests there is a sickness in Russian culture too.

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