Russian culture is hit hard during the war in Ukraine
Last month’s showdown epitomized the darkest times enveloping a country with one of the world’s richest cultural heritages. As Russia wages its brutal war against Ukraine, the Kremlin suppresses dissent within its own borders. Artistic expression, which openly flourished for more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, can quickly provoke threats and arrests.
“Russian cultural tradition has now been interrupted. It was also discontinued during the Soviet era, but at the end of the Soviet era, generations of intellectuals were born,” said Ukrainian film producer Alexander Rodnyansky, who worked in Russia for a long time. “There was serious literature, serious cinema. … But I’m afraid he’s lost again.
The consequences are frightening for musicians, dancers, filmmakers, authors and poets. The decisions they make — and the risks they take or don’t take — could shape the country for decades.
“For us art people, there are no orders,” Lubimov told a local reporter after the concert, casting doubt on the police claim that an anonymous bomb threat meant that the building had to be evacuated immediately. “Our arena is intellectual and cultural space, and there simply cannot be coercive orders.”
President Vladimir Putin’s February 24 announcement of a “special military operation” in Ukraine almost immediately sparked an exodus of artists and intellectuals from Russia. Actor Chulpan Khamatova, a former Putin supporter, issued an anti-war statement and moved to Latvia. Young directors, including Cannes winners Kantemir Balagov and Kira Kovalenko, left to pursue international projects.
The officials didn’t seem to shed tears for the lost talent. Putin called those fleeing “traitors of the nation” and said in mid-March that “such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”
The president has also gone on the counter-offensive. After the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra fired Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a close ally and friend who had not spoken out against the invasion, Putin accused the West of trying to erase a ” millennial country and our people”.
And artists who have tried to appeal to both Russian and Western audiences are forced to choose between the two.
“It’s really a matter of choosing which side of your career is the one you want to keep,” said Catriona Kelly, a professor at the University of Oxford who specializes in Russian culture. “If they don’t make up their minds to reject the current policy of the Russian government and reject the war, they will simply lose their career in the West.”
Artists who remain in Russia face an existential dilemma: to work and express their feelings openly, risk being imprisoned if they anger the government, or being used to rally public support for the war.
People who made the first choice are already facing serious consequences. Sasha Skochilenko, a 32-year-old artist from St Petersburg, could face 10 years in prison for an anti-war show in which she replaced price tags at a local supermarket with summaries of the bombing. bomb a theater and art school in Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city besieged by the Russians.
What is happening looks “much worse” than in the last years of the Soviet Union, said Andrei Zorin, chairman of the Russian department at Oxford.
“Back then you knew what level of intrusion beyond official ideology would mean for you. [You knew] for what you would lose your job or be expelled from a university, and for what you could be imprisoned, so you can calculate the risks,” Zorin said. “Now it is absolutely impossible. You can be jailed for posting online, and no one can figure out what’s going on and why.
New laws against “spreading false news” and “discrediting” the military have left few opportunities for Russian artists to showcase their work. In Israel, for example, Russian writer Linor Goralik recently launched Roar magazine to provide a platform for those at home or in exile. The first issue published at the end of April with dozens of essays, poems, photographs, paintings and drawings.
“My team and my authors – those who are in Russia – are taking very big risks,” Goralik, who was born in Ukraine, told the Meduza news site. “I’ve written the same words to almost every writer who hasn’t left the country: ‘I fear for everyone. Let’s post this anonymously.’ ”
Some well-known personalities, including athletes, use their notoriety to support Putin. Nearly a dozen Russian Olympians made an appearance at a patriotic rally held at Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Stadium on March 18. Putin delivered a fiery unity speech to the flag-waving crowd, with a concert featuring the pop singer Oleg Gazmanov.
The social contract between Russian artists and the government has existed for years. Writers, actors and directors could work with little interference if they avoided political controversy.
Funding and exposure have become a separate issue in recent years as the Kremlin has increased its control over television channels, still the main source of information and entertainment for millions of Russians. The result was a cultural bubble of censored shows and movies commissioned by these channels with the aim of promoting “national unity”.
In 2021, a BBC Russian Service investigation revealed the struggles of dozens of TV and film actors, screenwriters and producers, who have been forced to promote traditional and patriotic values, cut off from work for expressing opinions opposition or writing on taboo subjects.
The foundations for much of this were laid by Vladimir Medinsky, an ultra-conservative nationalist who served as the country’s culture minister from 2012 to 2020. He was far more political than his immediate predecessors and focused on revamping of Russian history – especially its military past – in the most favorable light.
Medinsky directed major public funding to projects of his choosing, amassing significant control over television programs, films, and theatrical productions, and had ample opportunity for historical revisionism. He made headlines criticizing filmmakers for their lack of patriotism, advocated limiting foreign film releases in Russia, and lobbied for footage made in the country.
“State protectionism measures in the field of cinema must be strengthened, otherwise our cinema will sooner or later be destroyed by the global Hollywood machine,” Medinsky said in late 2018, according to the Interfax news agency.
He was deposed as minister in 2020, spent the next two years editing history textbooks – his work was criticized for inaccuracies – and at the start of the war became Putin’s chief negotiator in futile peace talks with Ukraine . Yet his efforts to shape Russian pop culture and history endure.
“There’s no room left for real, high-quality films with great authors, powerful statements about current social issues,” Rodnyansky said.
Zorin tries to keep a positive outlook on what the future might hold, saying “no tyranny lasts forever”.
“But the problem is what happens after,” he said, “whether the culture will have left inherent strengths and potential for regeneration after the tyranny has ended or whether the decadence is terminal. And I think that it’s an open question.