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Multiplication of the state
From self-removal to expansion: how Russian State interacted with culture and what came out of it
February 2015 saw two major Russian scandals. The Ministry of Culture was central to them.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky harshly criticized Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”. The film had already won at Cannes. It got an American Golden Globe. But Medinsky called its makers opportunistic, fame-seekers. The state would no longer support creators who disparaged elected officials.
Meanwhile a Novosibirsk production of “Tannhäuser” was prosecuted. Producers were charged with offending religious feelings. The Ministry of Culture now intervenes: a council convenes to discuss the production. Most on the council demand canceling “Tannhäuser”, firing director Boris Mezdrich. They threaten the creators with Charlie Hebdo’s fate. They say any revival of “Tannhäuser” will bring out millions in protest.
The two things ended differently. “Leviathan” hit Russian cinemas, criticism gradually subsided. “Tannhäuser” was really called off, director Boris Mezdrich was fired. Taking his place was Vladimir Kekhman, from Saint Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kekhman had been a prominent critic of “Tannhäuser”.
Yet both stories open a new chapter in state-culture relations. The Ministry openly says it will only support ideologically approved works. It will block works considered provocative or blasphemous.
Russia’s state cultural policy, like its culture budget, is a holdover. The new Russian state inherited a huge Soviet cultural infrastructure: myriad museums, theaters, cultural centers, village clubs – institutions founded in a different time, for a different people. It’s not clear why it’s all needed, but its continued existence seems important. Employees continued to be paid.
Little money is spent on it. Cultural spending in the early ’90s was 1% of the budget. We can see its effectiveness from statistics. In 1990–2010 the number of theatres grew by 1.5 times, museums doubled. Yet, theatre-going dropped by a third. Museum visits fell by 40%.
There is another model for managing culture: patronage. Different authorities always have their favorite cultural figures, whom they support or are friends with, just because they like them. They must go on stage with Kobzon, Gazmanov must be invited to city festivals, a gallery for Shilov and Glazunov must be opened. The Petrosian Theatre must be funded, even if it doesn’t actually put on plays.
Both these models have something in common. Both imply that culture exists, but it’s not clear what for. It’s not clear how to evaluate effectiveness, it’s just important that work be done. The state doesn’t fund museums’ work but rather museums’ existence.
A new understanding of why culture is needed comes in the early 2000s, at the level of cities. Authorities in various cities come to a similar idea: cultural initiatives can revitalize cities, make life there more interesting.
What does that mean? Young people will be less likely to leave, tourists more likely to visit. These cities will draw notice nationwide, internationally. Others will start to emulate them, and even praise their leaders. New opportunities for business will open up, new jobs. Most importantly, people won’t despair, their lives will be brighter, they will experience new things, and common benefit will result.
Culture in this sense is not just theatres, museums. It’s city festivals, pedestrian streets, parks, and much more that now city authorities put under their cultural policy.
Moscow’s cultural department under Sergei Kapkov is creating new social spaces, making theatre reforms. Perm authorities under Gov. Oleg Chirunov and a specially invited team led by gallery owner Marat Gelman, organize dozens of new festivals at once, each more interesting than the last. In Voronezh there is education in the arts, a project led by theater producer Eduard Boyakov. Other cities have such initiatives, and they all have something in common: with targeted actions, and at a small cost, culture will change city life for the better.
These efforts have borne fruit. Moscow’s Gorky Park has become Russia’s best. On the site of the old Gogol Theatre a new, modern Gogol Center arises. After Chirkunov stepped down as Perm governor the festival movement flags, but the city has a world-famous opera under Teodor Currentzis.
All this is well and good, but a point comes when it clashes with the state’s thinking about culture at the federal level.
The Ministry of Culture, now under Vladimir Medinsky, is clear: culture, as the state sees it, must primarily teach, raise up.
This was most colorfully expressed by vice-minister Vladimir Aristarkhov: “The state will only support creators who ensure the spiritual and physical well-being of citizens”. The state, represented by the Ministry, sets out a new plan of action. Culture (at least state-funded) must primarily raise the fighting spirit of citizens, show them Russia’s glorious past, or show how true patriots ought to behave.
In practice one can draw certain conclusions. For example, the Ministry denies help to festivals, whose directors criticize the government, or they ban release of films “distorting Russia’s history”, or they insist on a single view of history and a single history textbook. There is constant talk about bringing in art councils to inspect state theaters and reveal performances that are “wrong”. During the “Tannhäuser” scandal public opinion polls were held. They found that 80% of people feel the authorities should restrict art.
The Ministry of Culture is not alone in this. There are other state authorities interfering in the cultural sphere. The State Duma constantly seeks to ban things, e.g. to force quotas for showing local films, or limiting foreign-language content on radio and TV. There is the Church, which monitors the cultural sphere for any offense. A society forms around suspicion of the new and modern, which is ready to support only art looking backward, speaking a traditional language familiar from school, and which sees culture mainly as a source of danger that must be identified and stopped.
Across the world views differ on the state’s relationship with culture.
In the USA the government mainly keeps out, the USA lacks a Ministry of Culture.
But in France this ministry is powerful, the state ensures cultural protectionism: it supports French authors, advocates for the French language, it preserves and spreads French culture. As 1950s French culture minister Andre Malraux put it, the state should ensure the masses have access to important art.
Between these extremes are incremental approaches, but none suggests the state should control art’s content, i.e. tell authors, directors what to write or film. As Russia’s own history shows, that approach leads to nothing good.
The Russian situation has not yet seen any fatal blow. As the 25 post-Soviet years prove, state cultural policy depends greatly on the specific official, it can change 180° after each new appointee. Maybe the main problem is not the Ministry. It’s that cultural society itself did not make clear rules of the game, what the government can and can’t do. Cultural society itself has not explained to the state, in its own language, why we need culture. That culture is not just a line in the budget, not just a propaganda tool, it’s mainly about new possibilities.
A chance for people to live happier lives, a chance to expand horizons, a chance to be open to new, unexpected things. Ultimately, however much we love our past, we have to live in a future that’s completely unpredictable.