In Russia, scared of the arts – then and now

23 October 2017
Freemuse Senior Programme Officer Magnus Ag speaks in Russia about artistic freedom at X-Ray Audio exhibition at Garage Museum in central Moscow.
Photo: Bootleg “bone” music created on discarded x-ray film during Soviet times / courtesy of X-Ray Audio


A wop bop a loo lop a lop bam boom!

Imagine if Little Richard songs were banned. What would you do?

During Soviet times, innovative music lovers in Sankt Petersburg (then Leningrad) found a solution: Bone music. It was created by bootleggers that in response to bans on Western music, such as rock & roll and jazz; Russian émigré music, as well as popular prison and Roma songs, managed to create soft, flexible records out of used x-ray film disposed from nearby hospitals. Many of these records, which were produced one at a time and traded in back alleys and other places out of sight from authorities, would for obvious reasons often include pictures of (broken) bones – hence the name.

Much has changed since the tape recorder put an end to the production and consumption of bone music. I had no problems streaming Tutti Frutti as many times as I wanted via the Spotify app on my phone during a recent trip to Moscow.

Freemuse Senior Programme Officer Magnus Ag speaks in Russia about artistic freedom at X-Ray Audio exhibition at Garage Museum in central Moscow.
Photo: Magnus Ag (far right) on a panel discussion at Garage Museum, Moscow / Garage Museum Facebook

I was invited to speak about artistic freedom by the X-Ray Audio team who have put together an impressive exhibition at the Garage Museum in central Moscow about this intriguing slice of Soviet history, including the technology and people behind it.

Even though bone music went out of fashion as a result of technological developments, the repression of artistic expression continued until Perestroika brought an end to censorship and lifted the Iron Curtain. By then, the Soviet Union’s counter culture movement was replaced by an era of “pop, glamour and gangsters” as the legendary Russian rock critic (and fellow panellist at the Garage Museum) Artemy Troitsky described it.

Skipping forward to 2012, when Vladimir Putin was reinstated as the President of Russia, despite vowing to “respect and protect the rights and freedoms of man and citizen”, the year marked the start of a range of laws and actions by his government that limited artistic and other expressions.

A 2013 amendment to the Russian criminal code made it a crime to offend the “religious feelings of believers”, carrying a punishment ranging from a heavy fine to one year in prison. The law was widely seen as a reaction to the anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral by the feminist protest punk group Pussy Riot, and subsequent conviction of several of the group’s members for criminal “hooliganism”. Along other laws passed after Putin’s return to the presidency was the anti-LGBT “propaganda” law and “foreign agents” law that all have sent a chilling message to artists and others who express alternatives to the government line.

In law and practice, authorities seem to increasingly conflate “criticism of the government with ‘extremism’, especially on certain topics such as the occupation of Crimea, criticism or satire regarding the Russian Orthodox Church, or Russia’s armed intervention in Syria”, as Human Rights Watch concludes in a report on freedom of expression published earlier this year.

Two weeks before I was to leave for Moscow we got alerted that Kirill Serebrennikov, the prominent and award-winning theatre and film director, had been arrested and put under house arrest.

Last week his house arrest was extended to mid-January 2018.

Serebrennikov has not been officially charged with any speech violations, but instead with alleged embezzlement of state funds. However, there seems to be little doubt in Moscow’s arts community that the case is political, with a clear goal of silencing a critical artistic voice and sending a message to the wider artistic community.

In Yekaterinburg, the city where the family of Russia’s last tsar was murdered in 1918, a man, later described as a Christian orthodox activist, drove a car filled with gas canisters into a movie theatre. Luckily no film was showing and no one was injured. However, the alleged motive is as troublesome as one could only fear.

The movie theatre was among theatres across Russia scheduled to show the film “Matilda”, which opens this week. The film tells the true story of a romance between future tsar Nicholas II and a teenage prima ballerina, and has been deemed blasphemous by Russian Orthodox Christians as it portrays the “holy tsar” in love scenes. An incident where Molotov cocktails were thrown into the building that houses film director’s studio, was also reported, and two cars were torched in front of the office of the director’s lawyer where slips of paper were found saying, “Burn for Matilda”.

Freemuse Senior Programme Officer Magnus Ag speaks in Russia about artistic freedom at X-Ray Audio exhibition at Garage Museum in central Moscow.
Photo: X-Ray Audio exhibition / Garage Museum Facebook

Russia seems yet again to be at an arts freedom crossroads. Will the authorities successfully investigate and prosecute the perpetrators behind the latest attacks? Will they provide safety and security for artists and audiences, as they are obliged to under international law? Will they stop jailing artists?

Here are three things to keep an eye on in the coming months for art lovers and others concerned about the future of artistic freedom in Russia:

  • What will happen around the premiere of “Matilda”? Will Russian authorities live up to their responsibility of protecting artists, audiences and artistic expression?
  • Will Krill Serebrennikov be released from house arrest? And will he face a fair and impartial trial that removes any suspicion about political retaliation?
  • Will the shrinking space for artistic expression be further reinforced by the Presidential elections in March next year? And what will happen after?

In X-Ray Audio’s short documentary, bootlegger Rudy Fuchs is asked what he did when he was released from prison after a two-year sentence for making bone music.

His reply carries some of the answer as to why Communist regimes, thin-skinned presidents and Orthodox churches are so afraid of the arts and continue to have such a hard time supressing it:

“Start again! From the beginning. From nothing. No money, no equipment, no friends, no nothing. Start again!”


The following blog was written by Freemuse Senior Programme Officer Magnus Ag

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