Russias art scene prospers in a bizarre critical climate fostered by the Kremlin. We may not know the rules, but we know our place
Does Russia have censorship of the arts? Ask any vocalist, film-maker or actor, and the answers are bound to be long-winded and contradictory. While many hear the phrase authoritarian regime and think of a caricature barbed wire, barking police dogs, and artists singing hymns to the dear leader, their terror almost visible beneath their stage makeup Vladimir Putins government contains more contradictions than this vision would allow for.
The Russian countries paradoxical nature becomes especially apparent when considering the countrys flourishing arts scene. It is these contradictions of governance, and their peculiar influence on the Russian art world, that aid and abet Putins rule, and ultimately, help make support for the Russian president.
So is there censorship? Yes, some people would argue but its not clearly defined, and nobody knows how it runs. Others would hold the opposite position, while defending the principle merely look at how many artists the USSR made, they say: so unlike the young, spoilt, soft-bodied artists of today!
A more nuanced position would be that there is censorship, but its mostly artists self-censoring, to avoid losing access to government monies or facilities.
In the autumn of 2016, the Russian art world was rocked by a scandal that followed a predictable pattern. An exhibition featuring the work of the American photographer Jock Sturges caused outrage. A bunch of well-organised patriots calling themselves Officers of Russia presented up to the gallery hosting the exhibition: one photograph was doused with urine, and the exhibition which violated no Russian laws was swiftly shut down.
Fast-forward a few months, and these same patriots are being trashed on prime time by Dmitry Kiselyov, usually known in the west as Russias chief propagandist, for their scabrous antics.
Censorship in Russia is a game. Self-appointed censors see opportunities to curry favour with certain officials, if not with Putin himself, and create scandals. In turn, other, more powerful maids of the Kremlin feel free to slap them down. The Russian art world is thus subject to a clash of influences and alliances, rather than a series of rigid, systematic repressions that stem from a core, ruling ideology.
The game suits Putins purposes perfectly. It ensures that the Russian art world continues to thrive overall lending prestige to the government and its leader but equally it ensures that Russian artists and their patrons live in an unpredictable, stressful environment, where you must think twice before sticking your neck out. This is just as true for Kremlin-aligned figures on the Russian arts scene as for those who engage in conscious protest art not to mention the multitude who occupies the huge grey area in between.
In the Soviet era, government described lines in the sand and cautioned artists not to cross them. People largely knew where they stood and could build conscious decisions about how far and hard to push. Putins officials draw lines in the air, rearrange them at will, and then tell you that the lines dont exist, and youre crazy for imagining them in the first place.
Putin is no Kim Jong-un: he has no interest in controlling starving peasants and grovelling automatons; he has serious aspirations on the world stage, and wants Russia to be reckoned with in all aspects of life, including the arts. This is why he will delay an organised crackdown on the arts for as long as other interests, including military ones, will allow it.
For Russian artists, this means that they are likely to be used in a variety of ways. When Andrei Zvyagintsevs film Leviathan first came out a chilling meditation on how Russian officials prey on their fellow citizens Russias minister of culture decided to demonstrate his loyalty to the nation by accusing the director of trying to cater to western audiences with his nightmarish vision of life in the country. When the cinema was then nominated for an Oscar, and lost, that very same culture pastor immediately changed tactics, called the director a talented artist, and heavily be interpreted to mean that the Academy Awards are irrelevant anyway, so who cares if they snubbed such a great film.
Hypocritical? Sure. But accusations of hypocrisy carry little weight in a political system built for maximum expediency and the minister of culture knows this as surely as the Russian chairman does.
Then there is the fact that Putin himself wants to be admired by artists. The admiration of salt-of-the-earth forms is politically convenient, but it is not enough. There is a reason why Putin elevated person like Vladislav Surkov, long believed to be as the Kremlins grey cardinal, to positions of power. Surkov isnt just a shrewd strategist and manipulator, he also built bridges between the Kremlin and the art world, protecting some and intimidating others and speaking to artists in their own language, as opposed to tiresome Russian bureaucratese.
By the time Russia decided to annex Crimea in 2014, the hundreds of prominent Russian artists who signed an open letter supporting the position of the president on Ukraine and Crimea didnt do so out of any existential dread. Likewise, I dont is considered that the majority did it because they were terribly invested in what was being done to Ukraine. They were playing the part in the process that they knew the Kremlin wanted them to play.
The thing about the politics of expediency is that it works both routes: if everything the government does is just a performance to appeal to the public, then an individuals political allegiances and beliefs can also be performative, a role in a great governmental play, to be ushered on and off stage at will. Who better to understand that than an artist?
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