Sounding the Alarm: Threatened Artists Speak Out Against Increasing Censorship in Russia
Over the past few weeks, several high-profile Russian artists have spoken out in condemnation of the increasing censorship of film, visual art, and theater by government and religious authorities. This follows the impassioned speech made by Konstantin Raikin, son of noted Soviet theater personality Arkadiy Raikin and Head of the Moscow Satyricon Theater, on October 24, 2016. While addressing the seventh congress of the Union of Theater Workers of Russia, Raikin denounced the government’s so-called “fight for morality,” pointing to the resulting censorship faced not only by the creative classes but by all Russian people.
The speech sparked much debate, as Raikin accused the state of heading towards a level of censorship reminiscent of the Stalinist era. Acclaimed film director Andrei Zvyaginstev echoed Raikin’s criticisms, asserting in an article published in the influential business newspaper Kommersant that “it’s completely obvious that censorship has fully entered into the cultural life of the country.” Raikin’s stance was also supported by Evgeny Mironov, the artistic director of the Theater of Nations, in a statement published on the theater website, and by Oleg Tabakov, an actor and the artistic director of the Moscow Art Theater. Meanwhile, critics of Raikin included well-known politicians, such as Vitaliy Milonov, the State Duma deputy, and Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya. The controversy also sparked thoughtful commentary from many, including a piece by theater critic Alexey Gusev, who provided an unbiased view of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, noting that the relationship between government and art is “perfectly disputable and rich in all sorts of overtones.”
After all of this, on October 31, Deputy Minister of Culture Alexander Zhuravsky officially confirmed that the dispute was over, and that the Ministry had agreed on financial support to Satyricon in 2017. “We talked honestly, clarified each other’s positions, and gave each other apologies for being emotional,” said Anatoly Polyankin, director of Satyricon, in a statement published by the Ministry of Culture. Polyankin later denied that Raikin had apologized to Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky.
Despite this resolution, interference from religious and conservative activists in arts and culture is still growing, as shown by a number of recent cases that have drawn international attention. Last year, a production of Tannhäuser was canceled after religious authorities complained that the opera “desecrated an object of religious worship.” The director of the production, Timophey Kulyabin, and theater director Boris Mezdrich were later put on trial and acquitted. However, after this incident, Mezdrich lost his job. Last month, in Moscow, a pro-Kremlin activist poured urine over the photographs of American photographer Jock Sturges, forcing the private gallery hosting the exhibition to close. Most recently, a production of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was called off in Omsk after an Orthodox Christian group declared it “blasphemous.”
Criticism of the state has also proved dangerous for artists in Russia, as the case of the drama company Teatr.doc demonstrates. The company, which is known for staging productions that are openly critical of the Russian government, was made homeless in 2014 after the Moscow city government revoked its lease. Authorities justified the decision by claiming that the company had violated planning regulations, after they found out that Teatr.doc had installed an extra emergency exit on the orders of the fire brigade. Remaining on the premises whilst it appealed the eviction, Teatr.doc continued to stage performances such as One Hour and 18 Minutes, a play about the whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who had accused tax officials and police officers of embezzling $230 million USD, and who was later arrested and died in custody. Then, on an evening in December, just as Teatr.doc began its screening of a documentary concerning the political upheaval and bloodshed in Ukraine, police from a special anti-extremism division raided the theater, sending the audience into the -15 degree cold. The theater’s director, Yelena Gremina, was also summoned for questioning by officials, but ultimately they were unable to file a case against the theater.
These incidents echo the conclusions found in the report Discourse in Danger: Attacks on Free Expression in Putin’s Russia, issued by PEN America earlier this year, which examined the Russian government’s attempts to constrain free expression by populating discourse with approved ideas and censoring artworks deemed offensive or immoral, and shows how the government regularly uses anti-extremism and anti-terrorism laws to justify limits on free expression. These actions are coupled with the enforcement of a law passed in 2013 which criminalizes any public act that “offends believers.”
Cultural and intellectual spaces are further affected by their reliance on state funding. Russian officials frequently use quasi-legal means such as limiting funding or increasing direct oversight to bring independent institutions, such as theaters and cultural publications, into line. Indeed, whilst Kremlin press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, declared censorship to be unacceptable in response to Raikin’s criticisms, he maintained that “if the state allocated funds for a production” or “commissions a work of art,” it is entitled to “set this or that theme.” An obvious and worrying result of such conditions is the rapid rise of artistic self-censorship. Speaking to The Guardian in the wake of Raikin’s speech, Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the Gogol Centre, testified to the prevalence of such behavior. “I know many of the heavyweights of the older generation called Raikin privately to offer their support, but didn’t want to say anything publicly. Everyone is scared of offending the officials, who you have to go to and beg for money from.”
The incursion of religious and nationalist activists into the sphere of art and culture is having a deleterious effect on creative expression in Russia at a time when other spaces for free expression, such as traditional media, blogosphere, and publishing industries, have largely been placed under official control. Concurrently, the government’s increased involvement in the arts, through funding and appointments, is in turn promoting the troubling trend of artistic self-censorship. It is imperative that international artists, activists, and advocates stand in solidarity with those individuals who are bravely speaking out about censorship, as well as offer them practical means of support to continue their vital creative work.