1Lecture15 min

Unsoviet Culture

From “Lenin was a mushroom” till cossacks

Experts: Yuri Saprykin

Text expansion for the Lecture

Unsoviet Culture

From “Lenin was a mushroom” till cossacks

00:19 — 01:55 A culture different from the soviet. From “Lenin was a mushroom” till cossacks

On May 17, 1991, Leningrad TV broadcasts a TV-show Fifth Wheel. The host is journalist Sergei Sholokhov. He announces a segment on research into astonishing riddles of the past. His guest, Saint-Petersburg musician Sergei Kuryokhin, begins to talk about Lenin. For 30 minutes Kuryokhin and Sholokhov between fits of laughter tell millions that Vladimir Lenin was actually a mushroom, and also a radio wave.

Kuryokin was an improvising musician. All this is done as a mad verbal improvisation, mixing references to Castaneda a section scheme of the armored vehicle Lenin rode, and more. But due to Kuryokhin’s charm, this all seems incredibly convincing.

The next day, Russians awoke in a different country. People raised on Soviet TV, history textbooks, and official aesthetics cannot understand what happened. To Leningrad’s regional branch of the party comes a group of old Bolsheviks: “Please confirm that Lenin was not really a mushroom but a human being”. The Party ideology secretary stunningly argues that of course he was a human being: a mammal cannot be a plant.

This dispute within the Party is rather symbolic of the situation in which society and art found themselves in 1991.

01:55 — 03:48 Cultural explosion

So, what happened? Unofficial underground art, which followed its own strange laws, at this moment reached millions. Yet it turns out that this art did not have to fight the Soviet regime or to show its autonomy and independence from that ideological yoke. No, it could cut through the ideological layers, turn them inside out, make them absurd, or ignore them completely.

Musicians formerly underground became stars in the blink of an eye. Bands Auktsyon and Zvuki Mu appear in prime time on Channel 1, on a weekend evening and in fact January 7, Christmas. On a Musical Ring broadcast, Auktsyon member Vladimir Vesyolkin dances almost naked. For decades prior, such stage behavior would have led to the asylum or prison.

When Novy Mir publishes millions of copies of Platonov’s “The Foundation Pit” or Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” it seems like restrictions have been scrapped. But when e.g. Vladimir Sorokin’s “The Queue” appears in a mainstream magazine, it simply shatters all ideas of what art is what language it can speak, where its boundaries are.

Again, this comes after many years within a strict ideological canon. The new, unofficial art in the early 90s is like a bomb going off.

03:48 — 05:33 New institutions

The end of censorship, the disbanding of art councils and canons, meant that now one could make money from everything. The early 90s were not only a breakthrough of new art forms and language. Also the first institutions arose to commercialize them.

Independent film studios (“cooperatives”) appear, their films shown in the few cinemas left, which also gradually pass into private hands.

Due to the demand, all this new art could be commercially sold. When the first modern art center opens on Malaya Yakimanka, one thinks it will be an autonomous organization, with slight help from the city. But the galleries inside it make money, for there is such wide interest.

Now, whether from inertia or what is left of the burst of now-free independent art in the late ’80s unbelievable things are happening among the aesthetic camps. Many authors and artists in the early ’90s brought their artistic strategies to their logical conclusions, to a point where they realized they could go no further. In some way, this is the peak of their creativity, a radicalization of their language.

05:33 — 07:26 The radicalization of art

Vladimir Sorokin publishes a novel entitled “Novel”. Unlike earlier works, he does not deconstruct a Soviet theme: workers’ production or a hunting tale. He simply offers a bloody twist on a classic Russian, Turgenev-like manor story.

A new major direction of modern art is actionism: art comes out of the galleries into the streets and becomes part of the social fabric. When artist Alexander Brener leads artist Oleg Kulik on a leash from the Yakimanka modern art center, and Kulik begins to dash at the baffled cars driving past, eyewitnesses recall feeling that reality itself was changing before their eyes.

These are statements so radical, shocking that not only does Soviet aesthetics crumble but also the very foundations of the world as we knew it.

One of the first private galleries, Moscow’s Regina on Myasnitskaya holds an exhibition where paintings are held up by soldiers standing behind a screen. Or where visitors walk on boards over tons of liquid filth specially trucked in.

At one of the gallery exhibitions, a live pig is slaughtered. It’s hard to get any more radical than this.

07:26 — 10:46 New cultural space

In the early ’90s, it must be said the whole cultural space seems to move in a Western direction where there are different types of art existing separately, meant for different audiences, and funded differently.

There’s utterly mass culture, low genres, popular media that are straightforward: they always make money.

There’s a strong commercial mainstream: serious film and books for an essentially mass audience, speaking to its concerns and helping it inhabit the new reality setting ethical values or behaviors. However, this mainstream is able worldwide to pay for itself.

Then there is radical, experiment art. Or inversely, non-commercial academic, educational work not profit-oriented, partially subsidized by the state, philanthropists, but mainly private foundations which believe this art to be valuable for society.

This is how it happens: a commercial mass culture arises at once, the mainstream begins to gradually come together. In place of leftist cooperatives, serious new studios appear, like Sergei Selyanov’s STV. The first large private film festival Kinotavr is founded. Large mainstream publishers appear: Eksmo, Ast, Vagrius. Former audio and video pirates reform and launch legal businesses for a mass audience.

Within this history there are even conscious attempts to build this mainstream business model under the conditions of the 1990s. Several young filmmakers, led by Sergei Livnev, come to Gorky Studio and launch a low-budget film project. OK, the industry has been destroyed. We cannot rely on big blockbusters paying for themselves. So, we learn to make a quality movie, but for very little money. With the money that movie makes, we create the basis for development.

For more experimental art, or more academic but non-profit, institutions arise that can ensure its sustainable development. Thus the Ford and Soros Foundations, for example, arrive in Russia. They sponsor regional libraries, thick literary magazines, and a variety of educational projects and research. A soft landing was created for a movement left without state support.

10:46 — 12:49 Art under suspicion

However, in the early 2000s, modern art is ever more a subject of conflict in society. It turns out that the attention these bold artistic statements got, was largely due to the humanities environment remaining from the USSR. In the new reality this environment begins to erode. The new art comes under suspicion. Ever more often, it must prove its right to exist.

Specially hired social activists, it must be said, did much work towards this. For example, Walking Together, forebears of the notorious Nashi movement. In Fall 2002, Walking Together filmed disposing of works by Vladimir Sorokin, the foremost Russian author of our time, in a specially built fake toilet, thus protesting a production of the opera “The Children of Rosenthal” to a libretto by Sorokin at the Bolshoi Theatre. In their opinion it is an “insult to national values and our cultural foundation”.

Any artist’s statement on religious themes causes scandal, and sometimes criminal prosecution. Everything starts with Avdey Ter-Oganyan, who invites fairgoers in Manezh to hack an icon apart with an ax. Huge scandal erupts, and the artist leaves Russia to live in the Czech Republic.

The Sakharov Center’s exhibitions “Caution: Religion!” and “Forbidden Art” lead to real criminal charges. Center director Yuri Samodurov and curator Andrei Yerofeyev receive suspended but no less real sentences.

Since then so-called Orthodox activists or Cossacks walk exhibition halls. They decide on the spot what is art and what is not.

12:49 — 15:23 A missing system

As for cultural institutions overall, things turned out differently than the mid-1990s led one to expect. If we talk about mass culture, the commercial mainstream, things are more or less fine. But the book market has been monopolized by the sole large publisher Eksmo, and the large film studios rely like before on funds from the state, but these funds largely go to patriotic projects.

As for more radical, bolder modern art, a system of independent institutions, precisely as a system to ensure its autonomy, has not arisen around them. Some are forced to rely on state support, but this is fickle. The Ministry of Culture’s new policy clearly does not aim to support non-patriotic, non-traditional art.

The Soros and Ford Foundations left Russia utterly. Now ties with them cause problems with the authorities.

Mass audiences were hugely interested in all modern art forms 20 years ago. Now they shy away and want nothing to do with them. Society’s tastes have swung in a wildly conservative direction.

Exceptions are the country’s biggest institutions, the cream of its national heritage, such as the Bolshoi, the Pushkin Museum, and the State Hermitage. They can retain state support, attract big names and thus stay relatively autonomous artistically.

It is quite symbolic that in 2015 Sergei Kuryokhin’s music was performed by an orchestra in the Conservatory’s Grand Hall. I think if Kuryokhin were alive today, he’d hardly get to speak on Channel 1 for 30 minutes. His performances would probably cause scandal and legal proceedings. Perhaps this is the only way his radical music could survive today: when it is simply supported by Moscow conservatory authorities.