Russia: Cultural freedom under threat

11 May 2015
Demonstration in Novosibirsk on 5 April 2015 in support of cultural freedom, the Tannhauser opera and against censorship. Source: Igor Bolotin,

In this article Lena Jonson, Head of the Russia Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm and author of the book ‘Art and protest in Putin’s Russia’, which was published in March 2015, describes that although censorship was forbidden by the Russian Constitution of 1993, since 2012 an informal ideological censorship has become more and more visible in the form of both self-censorship and administrative censorship. She analyses the new cultural policy since May 2012 and its consequences for cultural life and freedom of expression.

By Lena Jonson  |   INSIGHT 

What is happening on Russia’s cultural scene? On the one hand, there are dynamic and interesting productions of theatre plays, films and art exhibitions. On the other hand, the number of scandals surrounding individual productions has increased of late. The ultra-conservative agenda of patriotism, orthodoxy and authoritarianism that Putin brought with him on his return to the presidency in May 2012 has drastically shifted state cultural policy. Russia’s war in Ukraine has added tension and polarised the political atmosphere in society, as the hunt for “internal enemies” and a domestic “fifth column” becomes a priority on state television.

How is the new political situation influencing cultural life? How serious is the threat to cultural freedom in Putin’s Russia today?

There is no formal censorship in Russia because it is forbidden by the Russian Constitution of 1993. Nonetheless, since 2012 an informal ideological censorship has become more and more visible in the form of both self-censorship and administrative censorship. This article analyses the new cultural policy since May 2012 and its consequences for cultural life and freedom of expression.

A Litmus Test: Wagner’s Tannhauser opera in Novosibirsk
I will illustrate the current atmosphere in the Russian society by looking more closely at the scandal surrounding the production of Wagner’s opera Tannhauser at the Novisibirsk State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet.

This case includes all the remarkable components of the new situation – how the Ministry of Culture now directly intervenes in cultural life and the extent to which reactionary patriotic and religious groups are permitted to determine the destiny of theatre repertoires and cultural policy.

The opera had its premiere in December 2014. In January 2015 the Metropolitan, the bishop of the region, declared that the production “offended the feelings of Orthodox believers” and took the theatre manager, Boris Mezdrich, and the director of the play, Timofei Kulyabin, to court. Two months later he had successfully instigated demonstrations by religious and patriotic fanatics outside the theatre, demanding that the opera be removed from the repertoire.

The best known and most respected names in the world of Russian theatre – among them the leaders of key theatres such as Oleg Tabakov, Mark Zakharov, Lev Dodin, Galina Volchek, Dmitrii Bertman and Kirill Serebrennikov – stood up in support of the director and the manager, and for freedom of cultural expression. The preliminary investigation of the Novosibirsk district court found nothing criminal in the theatre production. However, the bishop did not give up, and persuaded the prosecutor to reopen the case.

At this stage Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskii intervened, criticising as unacceptable the way in which the director and manager had demonstrated a “lack of respect for traditional values” and demanding that they apologise for having offended the feelings of believers. When they refused to apologise, Mezdrich was fired. Medinskii ignored the ongoing judicial process by firing the manager without waiting for the result of the court case.

For the local fanatics, however, this was not enough. On the day Mezdrich was fired, the bishop had called for a mass prayer to take place in the square outside the theatre. This turned into a political meeting, and demands were made for senior names on the cultural committee of the regional government to be fired, people accused of being liberals. As the witch-hunt continued, patriotic-Orthodox activists extended the campaign to Moscow. As a demonstrative act against the head of the Chekhov Theatre, Oleg Tabakov, who had supported the Novosibirsk manager and director, a pig’s head was placed outside the entrance of the theatre.

What does this event tell us? The key phrase here is “offending the feelings of religious believers”. There is a kind of witch-hunt taking place in society, where groups of representatives of the Orthodox Church, extreme patriotic-religious organisations and reactionary Cossacks push Putin’s already conservative agenda further and further in a reactionary direction. These groups have the ear of the Putin regime and of the local representatives of his political party, United Russia, and are therefore able to influence decisions in the courts, the media and the local administration. But there are also voices of resistance to religious and patriotic fanaticism and in support of freedom of expression in cultural life.

Putin’s new conservative agenda and cultural policy
An authoritarian-conservative agenda had been coming for several years before it became official policy in May 2012. The appointment of Vladimir Medinskii as Minister of Culture was an excellent fit for the new agenda. By the time Putin gave his speech at the Valdai Club in September 2013, strongly emphasising the importance of identity in the spiritual, cultural and national senses and calling for a restoration of the Russian cultural code, a new state cultural policy was already in the making. Putin formulated the guidelines for this policy as: “Who are we?” and “Who do we want to become?”

Medinskii was well-known as a conservative nationalist. His views were characterised by one critic as “Russian Weimar resentment”, meaning feelings of national indignation over the lost position of a once great power. He immediately tried to make an imprint on policy. In contrast to his predecessors, who had left the cultural sphere to fend for itself, Medinskii wanted to actively intervene in cultural life. He embarked on a reorganisation of cultural institutions. Citing economic efficiency and improved management, he started to merge, reorganise or close institutions and replaced respected directors with young, loyal managers.

Sometimes, the entire staff of an institution resigned in protest, as was the case at the Museum of Cinema under Naum Kleiman. Medinskii deliberately used the allocation of resources as a carrot or stick to persuade institutions to follow state policy. Critics saw this as a clear effort to redesign cultural life according to the new conservative paradigm.

Medinskii demonstrated early on an interest in hands-on decision-making, and the film sector became the first field in which he intervened directly. A combination of appointing loyal directors to cultural institutions, guiding the flow of monetary support and using expert councils to verify content was perceived as the model for how he would gain control over other cultural sectors too. He took control of the Fund for State Support to Film Production by subordinating it to the ministry in early 2013, and made patriotic films a priority.

The first conflict took place over Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr (Dear Hans, Dear Peter), a film by Aleksander Mindadze about the friendship and competition between a Russian and a German engineer during the now sensitive period of Soviet-Russian cooperation in the immediate pre-war period. The ministry sent the film to a military-historical council, which recommended rejecting it.

Experts on the council argued that such cooperation could not have taken place just before the outbreak of war. Critics of the ministry’s decision concluded: “This case … shows that portraying historical events can be done only in the way the state remembers them. Otherwise, in the name of the ministry, the state will create as many expert councils as necessary in order to have its way”. Mindadze gave in to the ministry, changing the time in which the film was set in order to secure the financing.

Contemporary art was also targeted by the ministry. The ministry tried to marginalise it by giving priority to academic and traditional folk art. Even though the ministry financed the large part of the Moscow biennale of contemporary art, and Medinskii even opened it in 2013, it was his words about its major project that were given most media attention: “I kept thinking: Why doesn’t anyone shout ‘the emperor is naked!’?”. “Why, under the label of contemporary art, do we have to see something abstract—cubist, clumsy, in the form of a pile of bricks? And what is more, it is paid for with public money! Not to mention that this is incomprehensible to the vast majority of the inhabitants of Russia”. There was strong reaction when in December 2014 Medinskii’s deputy, Vladimir Aristarkhov, announced that the ministry planned to sponsor art with a “positive impact on people”. That same month, the ministry’s fine art section, which had focused on contemporary art, was merged with the folk art section. Although the ministry provided no explanation for the reorganisation, the art world regarded it as a sign of the ministry’s negative attitude towards contemporary art and of a change in state cultural policy.

Proposed guidelines for a new state cultural policy were published in the spring of 2014. The final document was signed by Putin in December 2014. Drafted by a group in the presidential administration in May, it was a cleaned up and modified version of a first draft published in April by the Ministry of Culture, which had met with a strong reaction. In spite of the more neutral wording and formulations compared to the original document, however, the major pillars remained. In order to understand its basic ideas, it is useful to discuss also the more outspoken, earlier versions of the document.

First, Russia was described as a unique civilisation beyond the categories of “West” and “East”. This was an indirect way of declaring Russia different from Europe. The controversial formulation of the April document that “Russia is not Europe” had been abandoned, but the idea remained that Russia is based on a specific system of spiritual values, referred to as a “cultural-civilisational code”. Rejecting the “liberal-Western postulate”, this code embraces traditional Russian, national, patriotic and religious values. These values are characterised as “conservative” and rooted in Orthodox Christianity. While restating the key role of Orthodoxy, the final version of the document mentions the contributory role of other religions and non-Russian ethnic groups on Russian territory.

Although the major task of state cultural policy was said to be to preserve the identity of Russian civilisation and its specific values, an interesting about-face took place in the presentation of Russia’s relationship with the European tradition. Putin’s notion that many Western countries had abandoned their roots in the Christian values of Western civilisation opened the way for Russia to be portrayed as the true defender of traditional European values. Consequently, in an interview in September 2014 Medinskii called Putin a “Russian European” defending traditional European values: “Many of our emperors were authentic Europeans”, he noted, “and nowadays, after an interruption of a century, a Russian European again stands as the head of Russia”. The Putin regime had obviously discovered the potential for partnerships with the “new right” authoritarian nationalists on the European political scene.

Second, there is the belief in an instrumentalist view of culture—an educational function is attributed to it. The purpose of state cultural policy is “to steadily form a national mentality”, since strengthening the Russian value system and forming the moral orientation of the individual is considered the way to unify the nation. Third, there is a belief in an active role for the state in culture. The ministry is, in the name of the state, no longer “just a patron” of cultural activities but an investor, and in this capacity also the regulator of the system and of cultural institutions. The April document openly declared that “not everything that presents itself as ‘contemporary art’ can expect to receive state support”, and that no references to the freedom of creativity can legitimise “behaviour that is unacceptable from the perspective of the traditional Russian system of values”.

Calls for tolerance needed to be cautiously scrutinised in order “not to accept the capitulation of Russian values to values alien to Russia”. Since this formulation bluntly indicated a censorship function, however, it was omitted in the final version. Fourth, there was a managerial approach to culture. Culture was not assigned a value in itself but regarded as an investment in the development of the country in a similar way as other state investments. The state therefore demanded to oversee the efficient investment of its capital.

On 24 December 2014 President Putin signed the decree The Foundations of State Cultural Policy.This final version with modified formulations had the character of a compromise document, but the major thinking from the previous drafts was maintained.

Screendump of the home page of Ministry of Culture:


The document thus strengthened the conservative policy introduced after 2012. Culture had become a particular concern of the regime. In the tense political atmosphere of 2014 and 2015, this policy turned into an offensive against cultural productions that did not fall in line with official policy. This approach was illustrated by Valentina Matvienko, Chairman of the Federal Council, who in 2013 argued:

“Russia has long been in need of new cultural standards, since we have witnessed in the past ten years an intervention of ideas that are alien to our culture”.

Thus, the conservatives launched their offensive.


The offensive on culture
Existing informal censorship has an ideological character, where the official buzzwords are “offending the feelings of religious believers“ and “violating traditional Russian values”, interpreted as patriotism, orthodoxy, anti-liberalism, traditional family values and strong support for Putin as leader. These buzzwords have been used in all the conflicts and scandals in recent years. They have a legal aspect in those cases where violations of the Criminal or Administrative Code can be identified.

“Offending the feelings of believers” can be interpreted as the criminal act of instigating splits between groups of people on the basis of their religious, ethnic or social belonging, according to article 282 of the Criminal Code which is part of the legislation against extremism. The organisers of the art exhibitions “Beware! Religion” in 2003 and “Forbidden Art” in 2007 were convicted under article 282 in 2005 and 2010. The verdict against Pussy Riot in 2012 was based on article 213 of the Criminal Code, on organised hooliganism.

New legislation since the summer of 2012 has extended the scope for offences against religious feelings and traditional values in the Criminal and Administrative codes.

“Violating traditional Russian values” is often code for accusations that cultural productions are “homosexual propaganda”, “immoral” by showing nakedness and “vulgar” by using street language or swearwords. Being unpatriotic can follow from accusations of “painting too black a picture of Russian social life” (chernukha), or criticising historical figures and “distorting” historical facts by discussing the dark sides of Russian history.

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film, Leviathan’, was criticised for chernukha: there was too much drunkenness, corruption, legal arbitrariness and dirt. The Minister of Culture criticised the negative picture it painted of the Orthodox bishop and the Orthodox Church. Zvyagintsev’s film has not been banned in Russia but it reaches its Russian viewers mainly through the Internet and not the film distribution network.

The conservative offensive works mainly by creating scandals in order to intimidate and threaten theatre managers, film directors, art curators and the organisers of various cultural events. It acts to a large extent through proxies of “offended citizens” or patriotic and religious citizens, which create loud demonstrations, disrupt or halt theatre performances and, of course, go to court. The mere fact that a play, film or art exhibition might end up in court or cause a scandal is often enough for managers, directors and curators who do not want to risk costly consequences for their future career and lives.

In the past three years theatre has become a special target of the conservative offensive. In this regard it has replaced contemporary art, which had been singled out for attack in the first 12 years of the century. New plays in the style of New Russian Drama have been attacked, but more recently productions of the “classics” by Pushkin and Dostoevskii, among others, and Wagner’s opera have also fallen foul of the conservative offensive.

Among the new plays criticised is Getting Frostbite (Otmorozki) by Zakhar Prilepin, at the Gogol Centre, which was accused of containing “extremist content with a demoralising (tletvornyi) influence, homosexual propaganda and paedophilia”. The Gogol Centre has been a particular target. Led by the dynamic theatre producer, Kirill Serebrennikov, a star of the New Russian Drama since the turn of the century, this Moscow theatre has long been a thorn in the flesh of the conservatives.

The same can be said of the small theatre, Teatr.Doc, famous for its documentary verbatim plays. Its plays about the night the lawyer Magnitskij was left to die in prison, One 18-2012, the trial of the Forbidden Art exhibition, Offended Feelings, the Pussy Riot trial , as well as a production based on a Dario Fo play, BerlusPutin (2012), have all provoked patriotic Orthodox activists. As a result, the theatre lost its venue when the local authorities suddenly ended the lease and the theatre was forced to move.

On occasion, the authorities have directly intervened to prevent theatre performances or the reading of plays. At the Open Book Festival in 2014, Aristarkhov warned in a letter to those responsible for the venue (The Central House of Artists) that there would be no financial support in future if readings of three particular plays took place. These plays had been branded “dangerous to the psychological health” and “homosexual propaganda” by a leading Russian newspaper. The readings were suspended.

Even more remarkable, however, is the new trend of targeting innovative theatre productions of classical plays. The argument is that these productions are not loyal to the original intentions of the writer, and that the traditional way in which these plays are usually produced has not been followed. Among the targeted productions are several by Konstantin Bogomolov, such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, The Brothers Karamazov after Dostoevskii and An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. These were all praised by audiences and professional art critics but attacked by Orthodox and conservative groups.

A performance of Wilde’s play was interrupted by two religious fanatics who climbed on the stage to accuse the producer of blasphemy. Also among the targeted performances was Lev Dodin’s The Queen of Spades by Pushkin.

Screendump of an excerpt of

The new state cultural policy encourages criticism of innovative theatre and opera productions for deviating from traditional themes or forms and reinterpreting classic texts. The state and the church are in alliance in this regard. The theatre critic, Marina Davydova, discussing this new trend quoted a representative of the Orthodox Church and his criticism of Tannhauser: “the production [at the Novosibirsk theatre] is offending Wagner. Everything is distorted and has no relation to this classical work… The church is sometimes accused of fighting the arts. But the church is not against the arts but trying to defend them. Today we are in a situation where it is necessary to defend the classics, including Wagner”.

In line with this defence of “tradition”, the state Likhachev Institute (Heritage Institute) presented a study of whether a selection of films and theatre productions were distorting the texts and ideas of Pushkin. Productions by some of Russia’s most innovative theatre directors of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Ruslan and Ludmila, as well as Boris Godunov were assessed. The experts concluded that the productions could be characterised as “self-denial of the nation” and recommended that the Ministry of Culture should only finance productions that “do not destroy tradition but instead lead to the education of generations”.


Where is it all heading?
Russian art and theatre critics argue that the “sacralisation” of the classics by clinging to traditional forms and interpretations of classic works is the result of an ongoing “total conservative revolution” that is taking place simultaneously in various sectors of society. They explain this sacralisation as fear of change, of loss of control and of portraying genuine situations and conditions. This fear is shared by the authorities and by large parts of the population.

The defence against “distorted interpretations” of the classics, Russian history and traditional values, and the struggle against blasphemers and the offenders of believers’ feelings, turn out to be an ideological package that propagates loyalty to the state and the regime. Interesting in this regard are the words of Stanislav Govorukhin, head of the State Duma’s Committee on Culture, who on 25 March stated that offending the sacred objects of religion is equal to undermining the foundations of the state. This was the case before the 1917 February revolution, he argued, when the priest, the representative of the Church, and the police, the guardians of law and order, had become negative figures in Russian literature. The Russian commentator, Andrei Melnikov, concluded that, “with his words [Govorukhin] … definitively demonstrates how the concepts of the religiously sacral and the political foundations of the state have been confused in the minds of officials.

There are worrying signs that formal censorship might be on its way back. The day after Mezdrich was fired the deputy head of the presidential administration, Magomedsalam Magomedov, said that it would be better to arrange preliminary screenings of plays in order to avoid scandals since the “repertoire of a theatre must not include productions which produce splits in society”.

This was repeated by Medinskii’s deputy, Aristarkhov. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitrii Peskov, said that “the state has the right to expect from creative collectives that they make correct productions”. In mid-January, the Ministry of Culture said it was preparing a bill that would ban public distribution of films considered to be “defiling national culture, creating a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order.”

The argument that productions that might cause splits in society must be avoided, however, is always interpreted in support of people who have had their patriotic and Orthodox feelings offended. It does not support those affected by Stalin’s prison camps, for example, who feel offended by the new official Stalin rehabilitation.

Noize – screendump of

An even more worrying sign is that the authorities are prepared to allow a mob of extreme right patriots and Orthodox fanatics to decide the future of cultural life by threatening scandal and violence. In Krasnodar in southern Russia the local authorities cancelled at the last minute a concert by the popular hip-hop artist, Noize, which was due to take place in early April, after threats from extreme groups and Cossacks. These Cossack groups caused a scandal in 2012 around the art exhibition, “Icons”, curated by Marat Gelman. They later managed to halt plans to create a museum of contemporary art in the region.

Now, the local administration represented by the deputy governor together with the police, security forces and procurator, met with activists and took the decision to cancel the concert. It is remarkable that the authorities give in to threats and take a stand in favour of one side in conflicts like this instead of upholding the authority of the state by defending the right of concert-goers to see a concert of their own choosing. There is still some way to go before Russia gets back to its past, which involved articles 70 and 190 of the Soviet Criminal Code on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Unfortunately, however, there seem to be strong political forces pushing in that direction.

That said, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The cultural community reacted strongly to the scandal around the Tannhauser opera in Novosibirsk. Not only did leading names from the world of Russian theatre and film stand up for their principles, but the head of the Bolshoi Theatre immediately invited Kulyabin to produce operas at the Bolshoi. The Russian film Union (Kino soyuz) circulated a petition demanding that Boris Mezdrich be reinstated and Medinskii resign. A demonstration took place in Novosibirsk on 5 April of more than 3,000 people demanding the same. And the artists nominated for the prestigious ‘Innovatsiya’ premium of contemporary art in a public letter stood up in support of Tannhauser, cultural freedom and against the “clerical and reactionary policy of the Ministry of Culture”.

These demands will hardly be met by the authorities but they are signs of resistance to Putin’s authoritarian-conservative regime and to the threats to freedom of cultural expression — and as such they give hope of a possible future for Russian culture and society.

Lena Jonson is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Russia Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. She was the Cultural Counsellor of the Swedish Embassy in Moscow 2005-2009. Author of several books and publications. Her latest book is ‘Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia’ (London and New York: Routledge) 2015.

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe.
It was published in May 2015.



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