A group of prominent cultural figures and organisations have boycotted the Moscow International Open Book Fair to protest a ban on two plays, including a children’s puppet show featuring a “gay” pillow. In an open letter on Monday, Vladimir Aristarkhov, first deputy in the Ministry of Culture, ordered the organisers of the fair to cancel the plays or face the withdrawal of sponsorship.
Following news of the boycott, the Ministry of Culture swiftly announced that it was “just giving advice”, said gallerist Marat Guelman, one of those protesting the ban. Guelman was joined in his boycott by publishing house Corpus, the Polish Cultural Institute and poet Lev Rubenstein among others.
The banned performances included a children’s puppet show, Soul of a Pillow by Olzhas Zhanaidarov. The ministry accused the play of “promoting homosexual propaganda among minors” because it tells the story of an ailing boy who loves his pillow, which happens to have a male name. Herbivores by writer Maxim Kurochkin was banned due to its use of expletives.
In the open letter, published on independent cultural news website Colta.ru on Monday, Aristarkhov accused both plays of “going against the traditional moral values of Russian culture”. Talking to The Calvert Journal, Guelman said: “Aristarkhov accused the plays of being ‘outside of cultural morals’, but all literature and culture deals with things outside of society’s moral code. How many times is murder, something obviously illegal in our society, featured in literature? Putin’s administration is trying to make all culture national, trying to squash privately supported culture. This was a perfect occasion for us to let them know that we don’t agree.”
The ministry’s threat has captured the attention of international organisations, with Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calling the organisers’ capitulation to the ministry “absolutely terrifying”. US free speech organisation PEN America have also weighed into the debate, calling on the Russian government “to halt its sprawling censorship regime today”.
The boycott is just one of a many which have hit Russia in recent months, with a growing number of cultural figures speaking out against the government’s political decisions.