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Russian Winter

JOHN FREEDMAN explores the plight of the many Russian artists who suddenly find themselves victims, collaborators — or both.

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Valery Gergiev, general and artistic director of the Mariinsky, gives Putin a tour of the new Mariinsky II theater in 2013
© Anatoly Maltsev/POOL/epa/Corbis 2015
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Maria Maksakova, a Mariinsky soloist who holds a seat in the Russian parliament
© Stanislav Krasilnikov/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis 2015
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Anti-Putin writer Dmitry Bykov, labeled a traitor in an NTV report in 2014
© Maxim Shemetov/Reuters/Corbis 2015

It has been a difficult few years for the arts, culture and public discourse in Russia, although perhaps not everyone would agree. Valery Gergiev is presumably still smiling after receiving $700 million from Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2013 to renovate the storied Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, later deftly skipping past protesters in New York, London and Munich who objected to his sometimes tacit, sometimes overt support of Putin’s repressive policies. 

Those policies have caused people inside and outside Russia to talk increasingly about a return to the worst tactics and attitudes from Russia’s Soviet past. The examples are legion. What follows is a small selection.


Red Spacer 1213 As Russia’s hostile response to the Maidan protests in Ukraine increases in December 2013, Russian state television unleashes a war of lies, fear and incrimination against anyone who disagrees with official policy — tactics on a level that had not been seen since at least the late 1940s, if not the height of the Purges in the late 1930s.
Red Spacer 1213 After Russia hastily annexes the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, Putin borrows the phrase “national traitors” from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to describe those who oppose his actions. As a result, the notion of “national enemies,” or “enemies of the people” — the latter phrase used to devastating effect by Stalin during the Purges — is revived in public discourse to refer to anyone not backing Kremlin policies.
Red Spacer 1213 Political denunciations return with a vengeance: independent writers, artists, directors and performers are vilified by the Kremlin-friendly press, accused of perversion and sedition. 
Red Spacer 1213 For the first time since the Soviet era, forced psychiatric treatment — read: incarceration in an asylum — is used as punishment for individuals convicted in political trials. 
Red Spacer 1213 A law bans the use of obscenities on stage or screen. 
Red Spacer 1213 Another law bans the casting of doubt on “official” historical accounts of World War II; history is no longer something to be studied, debated and understood but something the government defines. 
Red Spacer 1213 Russian parliament’s so-called “anti-gay” law bans the “propagandizing of gay lifestyle to children.”
Red Spacer 1213 Peaceful protesters, even individual pickets, are routinely muzzled and arrested, although individual pickets are expressly defended in the Russian constitution. 


Obviously, neither Valery Gergiev nor any of the other major Russian talents now performing in the West can or should be held accountable for this massive, radical turn in Russian social policy. But the return to hard-line politics brings up the specter of a time, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when top Soviet and Russian performers were unable to leave their positions at the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) in St. Petersburg or the Bolshoi and the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater in Moscow. For more than two decades, many people assumed that the old era of repression was a thing of the past. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, did as much when he told The Economist in early 2014, “There’s a whole host of Russian singers wanting to follow in Anna Netrebko’s footsteps.” 

But what price must be paid for a Russian performer to follow in the footsteps of Netrebko or Gergiev? As one of the most famous and internationally successful Russian artists, and as one who has openly cultivated a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin, Gergiev has been a lightning rod for commentary and protest. His fame is such that he cannot avoid the scrutiny that naturally accrues to his words and actions. He is a prime example of the way the power of the Russian state affects that nation’s subjects. 

The word “subjects” is chosen with care. In September 2014, Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Russian constitutional court since 1991, set tongues wagging when he delivered a defense of the value of serfdom in his nation’s history. “Despite all its drawbacks,” Zorkin said, “serfdom was the brace holding together the nation’s internal unity.” But the application of the term “serfdom” in all aspects of Russian society, especially in theater and the performing arts, is not new or unusual. The respected drama critic Pavel Rudnev noted as far back as 2007 that “artists less and less wish to enslave themselves in the serf-like system of repertory theaters.”

Many do, however. The Russian government subsidizes 700 of approximately 1,000 theaters spread across the country’s vast territory. That means, in principle, that the government can exact obedience from performing artists when it sees fit. 

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Playwright and theater director Nikolai Kolyada, whose support for Putin shocked many observers
© Ahuli Labutin/Shutterstock 2015

A revealing flap occurred in Yekaterinburg in January 2012, two months before the election that returned Putin to the Kremlin for a third term as president, following a four-year “hiatus” when he marked time as Russian Prime Minister. Playwright and director Nikolai Kolyada, founder of the important Kolyada Theater — a tough, gritty playhouse whose works explore the underbelly of contemporary and historical Russia — shocked many by backing Putin for president. Just months earlier, Kolyada had been on record as supporting Mikhail Prokhorov’s opposition Civic Platform party. 

What could have caused the about-face? Kolyada and his theater were given a new building and a five-million-ruble government grant ($124,000 at the time) with which to renovate it. This is how Kolyada put two and two together in his online blog: “You know, we won that tender entirely honestly. But I thought, ‘Kolyada, they’re giving you five million, the government is giving you a building for your theater, they do something else for you, and you’re going to be in the opposition?’”

Kolyada was one of some three dozen prominent Russian artists who made thirty-second videos backing Putin’s candidacy. At least one, featuring actress Chulpan Khamatova, involved dark back-stories of pressure and payoffs similar to the Kolyada incident. Others, such as those involving Gergiev, violist Yuri Bashmet, conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov and Moscow Art Theater artistic director Oleg Tabakov, were entirely straightforward. These are artists who owe their livelihood to government support. 

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Human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, center, joins Ukrainian activists in a London protest
© Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis 2015

Thus in April 2014, when spectators protested Gergiev’s appearance with the London Symphony Orch­estra, declaring that he supported “President Putin’s tyranny, the invasion of Ukraine and the persecution of gay Russians,” there was a deep cultural divide at work. Western audiences assume an independence on the part of Russian artists — particularly those who work in the West as often as at home — that does not correspond to reality. Gergiev minus Putin in the system of Russian arts funding and organization equals zero, at least within Russia’s borders. 

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Oleg Tabakov, Moscow Art Theater’s artistic

© Denis Vyshinsky/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis 2015

The Moscow Art Theater’s Tabakov addressed this situation in an interview in September 2014. “Once you start working for the government, that’s it,” he told the respected Moscow-based New Times magazine. “That’s another degree of responsibility and another degree of freedom — there’s nothing to be done about that!”

That, in sum, is the view to which many of Russia’s biggest performing artists subscribe: “There’s nothing to be done about that.” 

Putin cracks down on protesters? Simply say, as Tabakov did in the New Times interview, that Putin “had no alternative.” Putin’s friends in Russian parliament pass restrictive legislation now known as the “anti-gay” law? Slip out of controversy quietly, as did soprano Anna Netrebko when protests targeted her and Gergiev during the 2013 run of Eugene Onegin at the Met. Her low-key Facebook post declared, “As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.” 

Putin openly backs violent pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine? Oscar-winning film director Vladimir Menshov responds by telling Kultura, a Kremlin-friendly newspaper, “Russia’s enemies won’t be allowed to win this war. Ukraine cannot be reborn in the current Russophobic format, and NATO will not dare step in. Eighty percent of this is thanks to the personal efforts of Putin. It’s his crowning hour.”

This, in any case, is the picture that emerges if we focus on Russia’s “elite” artists, those whose status and paychecks are determined largely by their desire, or at least willingness, to be associated with the government and, by extension, anything it stands for. We see gradations in that loyalty, from Menshov’s flag-waving patriotism to Netrebko’s cautious statement, but the message is clear: these are artists who see their life in art as inextricable from the activities of Putin’s government.

There are other options and opinions, however. Popular novelist Mikhail Shishkin refused to represent Russia at the U.S. Book Expo in 2013, saying, “By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.” 

Experimental theater director Boris Yukhananov, entrusted with overseeing a complete overhaul in 2014 of Moscow’s centrally located Stanislavsky Drama Theater, rejected the notion of state financing to transform his venue into what some have called the most modern technological performance space in Europe. According to Sergei Kapkov, director of Moscow’s Culture Department, a private investor put up $25 million to cover the renovation costs. 

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Pop star Diana Arbenina
© Anton Novoderezhkin/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis 2015

Antiwar protests organized officially by opposition parties in Moscow routinely attract 30,000 or more participants, and actors, directors and writers are always prominent among those speaking from the dais. There are reliable reports of artists losing jobs because of their outspoken opposition to the war in Ukraine, and the best-known find themselves topping lists of “enemies” in hack “investigative” reports broadcast on state-supported television channels. Pop stars Andrei Makarevich and Diana Arbenina, with writers Viktor Shenderovich and Dmitry Bykov, were trotted out as “prostitutes” and “traitors” in August 2014 in a special NTV report called Thirteen Friends of the Junta  — i.e., the government in Ukraine. 

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Musician and TV personality Andrei Makarevich
© Dmitri Burlakov/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis 2015

Makarevich, who in the past has doubled as the popular host of television shows on cooking and travel, made the bold move of performing a concert for refugees in the war-torn Ukrainian town of Svyatogorsk in August. Within days, he was assailed by Russian officials, the Putin-loyalist elite and patriotic groups. There were calls to deprive him of his citizenship, and for months his concerts in Russia were either banned outright or blocked by patriotic activists. Famed film director Nikita Mikhalkov even appeared to issue a veiled death threat of sorts, blasting Makarevich for aiding and abetting the enemy and adding that he hoped Makarevich would “end his days in his own bed and not in a mine shaft.”

The storm of criticism brought equally harsh responses in Makarevich’s defense. “The rabid harassment of Andrei Makarevich, who performed for children of refugees in Svyatogorsk, is unfolding according to the template of totalitarian propaganda,” wrote Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the opposition Yabloko Party. “[It is] filled with absurd accusations, lies and illegal demands to deprive [Makarevich] of awards. This all reminds one not only of Stalin’s methods but of Hitler’s, too.”

The schism affecting the Russian artistic community is murderously sharp. Splits in attitudes occasionally affect a single individual, as in the case of Maria Maksakova, a mezzo-soprano soloist at Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater. Maksakova has occupied a seat in Russian parliament as a member of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party since 2011 (the same year she joined the company at the Mariinsky). She supported the “anti-gay” law when it originally passed in June 2013 but later softened her stance and introduced an amendment in February 2014 that would have removed the phrase “non-traditional relations” from the law’s language. (The amendment was rejected.) 

In Russia today one is either “for” or “against.” As always, in any society, the indifferent middle lends its weight to the camp that is “for,” thus leading to the astronomical eighty-seven-percent approval rate that Putin enjoyed in early August 2014. 

Meanwhile, for their loyal support of Putin’s government, Russian artists can expect to continue receiving perks at home and the occasional metaphorical kick in the pants abroad.

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Musician Yuri Bashmet, who signed a letter supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with Putin
© Mikhail Metzel/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis 2015

Bashmet, the master violist who has long lived in Moscow but grew up in Lvov, Ukraine, was summarily stripped of his title of honorary professorship at his alma mater, the Lvov National Musical Academy, when he signed a letter supporting Putin’s annexation of Crimea. For signing the same letter, Gergiev almost lost his appointment as the music director of the Munich Philharmonic, beginning in 2015. Local citizens and politicians protested the move, but Gergiev extended an olive branch, calling for understanding among divergent cultural traditions in an open letter addressed to the city in May 2014. 

It was enough to turn the tide back in his favor — at least until the next crisis arises. spacer 

JOHN FREEDMAN has lived for twenty-six years in Moscow, where he has written or edited ten books about Russian theater. He is the theater critic for The Moscow Times. 

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