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Mainstream, VOL LX No 32, New Delhi, July 30, 2022

End of the Good Times for Artistic and Cultural Space in Putin’s Russia | Lola Kantor-Kazovsky

Friday 29 July 2022


by Lola Kantor-Kazovsky *

Translated from Russian by Bela Nikitina

The closure of “good theatres” in Moscow [1] (I use good here as an analogy with “good Russians” —broad-minded & liberal in spirit) is hopeless barbarism, and I understand the shocked state of those of my Moscow friends who feel that they literally “lost their home”. The ‘Rashisty’ – [a mélange of the Russians and the Fascists], among whom are also former intellectuals, feel that it is finally their time to celebrate. There is nothing more disgusting than this.

However, any historical event must be analysed, setting aside emotions, if we want to realise its meaning. I’ll start right away with the conclusion, then we’ll discuss its legitimacy. So, in a historical perspective, the event in question is the end of the pre-war culture under the Putin regime, a significant sign of which was a rich theatrical life. The Gogol Centre, was at its very centre [2] [3]. To some, this conclusion will seem banal (well, yes, we already know that the war has begun), to some - not everything that happened under Putin deserves to be called Putin’s. "Good" culture, they will say, that is, the one to which the Gogol Centre belonged, was in opposition to the authorities, it was a "territory of freedom" and a "breath of fresh air."

Moscow, Kazakov street, 8. Gogol Center (former Gogol Theatre) | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, I feel that way too. The habit of looking at things in this way was formed back in the Soviet situation when real culture was generally underground, and the very metaphor of a “breath of air” comes from there. And the fact that the “good” culture of the pre-war period grew out of the underground and was fed by its ideas. But it was already functioning under Putin’s oligarchic authoritarian state, which means it was completely different.

Was the theatrical flowering due only to free air? In order to understand the situation of culture and art in the state, and not outside it, somewhere in the underground, we already need the method of "cultural criticism". It was not for nothing that this type of criticism also arose in the pre-war period - just before the Second World War (an analogy that is significant for the moment). Even then, intellectuals (among them Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Clement Greenberg) wrote that culture (especially theatre and cinema) in the state has an ambiguous role: as a producer of important emotions, pleasure and social differences, art is an excellent instrument of manipulation consciousness itself can easily become an object of manipulation by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The meaning of cultural criticism is to point to the cooperation of culture with power - and not necessarily consciously. Cultural production can come from a neutral or even critical intention (in our time, the Gogol Center was key example of this), but the authorities, oddly enough, will be interested in it even under this condition. Culture, for its part, always needs to use power and capital, because its production in the modern world is industrialised and is impossible without the first and the second. Therefore, the cooperation of culture with power (if it is not an openly radical avant-garde culture) is inevitable, and relentless critical work is needed - cultural and institutional criticism, in order not to let it slip into the path of malignant cooperation.

In pre-war Putin’s Russia, this cooperation was not directly malignant, but systematic and uncontrolled by any public criticism. The most prominent "good" theatres, good contemporary art, good festivals, and events were financially supported by big oligarchs (the "pillars" of the Putin regime, who did not face criticism in the least for this), and even the “bad” ones received funding - in some areas. In some way, the regime and its supporters were interested in developing the cultural and artistic field in the capitals, rightly considering it an important component of the lifestyle in which they tirelessly invested. If anything can be judged on social media at all, then in the very last pre-war years, Moscow reached a peak in the variety and quality of artistic impressions. Pride in world-class exhibitions and concerts spilled over to Facebook pages. But also the joys of a high level of comfort, which other cities of the earth cannot be compared with, also found their “singers”. Arriving from New York or Berlin, a Muscovite could not resist a sense of pride in the round-the-clock shops and food delivery, convenient banking services, beautiful urban space. This publicly expressed pride, the high self-esteem of a citizen of Putin’s Russia and the resident of Moscow, was actually the result in which heaps of money were invested (necessary for urban improvement, rebuilding services that were beyond the reach of the mayor’s office of Tel Aviv or Berlin).

But back to the top of this pyramid of satisfaction with life. Why should the authorities be interested in the qualitative development of the cultural and artistic field? The naive answer to this question is that the oligarchs and city authorities, thanks to the cultural institutions they support, developed good taste, and that is why they founded museums, centers of contemporary art (or rather funded them all), went to the performances of disgraced directors and so on. But if we look not naively, that is, if we pay attention to what art gives to the regime and its representatives institutionally, and not personally, then we will stumble upon a paradox marked by cultural criticism of different times. In spite of, and even because of, its critical intent, quality "progressive" art gives stability to the regime. Yes, even art not engaged by a totalitarian state affirmatively, that is, it gives its consumer the feeling that “you can live” under any circumstances. It compensated them for the shortcomings of society, serving a kind of sedative. In other words, if it does not call the elite public (the one that produces reflection) immediately and directly to the barricades, then this means that it calls them to the exact opposite: to sit and spend money in a nice cafe, talk and approve each other as participants in refined cultural consumption. Moreover, the oppositional orientation in the aesthetic sphere is beneficial to the authorities, because while the participants in the interaction, called the “cultural field”, are busy demonstrating their values and tastes to each other, they are not engaged in practical politics, exposing the oligarchic economy, and in no way that can really harm the regime. At most they will participate in performative events - non-violent demonstrations and rallies organized by a more politicised core.

Of course, the danger of radicalisation, the closer to the war, the more often forced the authorities to close resources, throw dirt on one of the cultural figures, or even use serious pressure, but even disgraced producers bless the hand that gives, the sister of the punishing hand (which is evidenced by everything that Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov said in Cannes in defense of Abramovich [4]).

In other words, Putin’s pre-war culture and art, like the entire pre-war life style, which flourished on numerous and beautifully built sites, as Mikhail Yampolsky exhaustively described in the wonderful book "Park of Culture [5], was an arena of a kind of alliance, rather than confrontation between society and power. Of course, this alliance was a fragile game and was built on mutual manipulation. [6] With the transition to the war period, it became unnecessary - that audience, which was a field of intellectual ferment, and which should have been depoliticized, that is, diverted from direct political action, has significantly decreased - some were repressed, some emigrated or were squeezed out of the country. At the stage corresponding to wartime, the authorities seem to believe that society can already be presented with a different culture and art, of a direct propaganda nature. Some creators of this future content were recruited ahead of time from the pre-war "good" cultural field, some "bad" ones read books even before the war and welded on cool and crazy cultural and ideological constructions. These constructs will form the basis of the upcoming indoctrination through well-funded plays and films.

How does it matter now? Let us take stock of lessons from the past. There was no need in the past and no need in the future to idealise culture and ascribe to it an existential significance or even less a messianic significance. It needs to be criticised. It is not, by default, a territory of freedom, and does not itself bring it, as it was in the Soviet underground. It creates illusions and endows everyone who consumes it with high self-esteem, including a sense of moral superiority. But this is an illusory superiority. By organizing a celebration of life at a premiere or an art vernissage, or by participating in it, we do not bring a bright future closer one iota. We get creative satisfaction, impressions, and pleasure, a reason to reason and think, to exchange our impressions in paid and unpaid texts - these are great things. But at the same time, art today - albeit with the best of intentions - is often mistaken about its power to change the world.

Anyone who really wanted to change something had to be involved in social and political activities professionally. Russia was stirred up, at least to some extent, not by Serebrennikov’s performances, but by Navalny’s.

Secondly, cultural criticism has never been popular in Russia; culture was more worshiped than criticized. But now we are finally in a historical situation analogous to that in which this criticism arose.

Re-read with new eyes Walter Benjamin, Marcuse, Adorno, Bourdieu and others - but read as not “about them”, but “about us”. Their message seems to lead to the conclusion that "good" art as a place of refined experiences and entertainment is no longer possible. (In fact, today’s audience is even more hungry for painkillers, but the liberal philanthropist and responsible artist, each for their own reasons, are deserting the site). Art of a different kind, which these authors wrote about - as a political anti-war statement - will undoubtedly be banned. I don’t know what mechanism the new underground will choose, and this is actually the key question.

o o

I will not hide that the courage to write this text was given to me by thinking about a question that I could not resolve, for some time now: Would a voluntary closure of the theatre by its artistic director have been a noble gesture of solidarity with Ukraine? All pro e contra - in the comments to the post of "troublemaker and sower of discord" Gasan Huseynov —showed signs of war over cultural belonging. [7] [8]. Since I have no answer, in the absence of an acceptable solution, I propose to consider that this would be a meaningful critical gesture of culture in relation to itself. I would let Daniil Kharms the poet express for me [9] the sadness at the theatres going silent.

(Author: Dr Lola Kantor-Kazovsky is a faculty member of Art History Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem)

[This original article in Russian was written on July 4, 2022. We are grateful to the author for sending us the original Russian version from which this translation was made. Footnotes have been added for an non-russianist lay reader - Editor Mainstream]

[1Under the pretext of "optimization", several Moscow theaters were forced to "merge" with other theaters. De facto, most have ceased to exist.

[2The Gogol centre in Moscow attained international acclaim under the direction of Kirill Serebrennikov a very progressive film maker and theatre director who got into major trouble with the Putin regime In 2017 he was arrested and held in house arrest for two years on fabricated charges. He was sentenced again in June 2020 for three-year probation term and finally the sentence was canceled in March 2022

[3The Gogol center theatre had become one of the most exciting and innovative places for theatre performances in Moscow. It was closed finally in mid-2022 ended a chapter in Post Soviet Moscow’s theatrical life. The final performance took place on 30 June 2020 — “I do not participate in the war,” based on poetry by Yuri Levitansky to a packed audience and a standing ovation

[4Russian Cannes contender defends Roman Abramovich as a ‘patron of the arts’

[5Mikhail Yampolsky "(2018) Park of Culture. Culture and Violence in Moscow Today

[6Note by the author: An opus of cultural criticism written in Russian is, in my opinion, as mentioned above, Yampolsky’s Park of Culture. It was created by one of those “who have left long ago,” whom public opinion today denies the right to speak about what is happening in Russia. I think that this denial of the right to “noise from behind a hillock” is methodologically incorrect, because criticism requires being outside. Or at least there is definitely a need for such criticism.

[7Gasan Huseynov, a Philologist and Professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics sparked controversy in October 2019 with his Facebook post “In Moscow, with its hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Chinese and Germans, it is utterly impossible to find anything in other languages, except for the miserable, cesspool-like Russian that this country now speaks and writes,” He was mostly talking of the social poverty of massified popular Russian which is being weaponised by the media, politicians, and law enforcement officials in a foul and degrading form for aggressive expression to target sections of society. He had to face a lot of opposition from chauvinists and nationalists and also the ethics commission at the Higher School of Economics recommended an apology.

[9Daniil Ivanovich Kharms was an acerbic and avant-garde Russian Poet and dramatist active in the ’Theatre of the Absurd’, who came to be on the wrong side of the Soviet authorities that were pushing Socialist Realism and made Kharms face interdiction, imprisonment. Kharms died of starvation in 1942 in a prison hospital during the siege of Leningrad. He got there because he feigned insanity in order to avoid imprisonment as a traitor, for which he was falsely accused

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