As Russia gears up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, the recent censoring of Hollywood movie “Child 44” and the debates over “Leviathan” indicate that cultural conservatism in Russia is on the upswing.
The face of Russian conservatism. Pictured: People dressed as Cossacks attend a rally just outside Moscow's Kremlin. Photo: AP
Russia’s cultural life has recently witnessed a series of events indicating that conservative forces are in the ascendency, resurrecting in the minds of many the times of censorship and assault on freedom of thought that prevailed in the Soviet Union.
On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism, which is marked on a grand scale across Russia, the Hollywood movie “Child 44,” based on the best-selling novel by Britain’s Tom Rob Smith, has suddenly been pulled from cinema schedules. And it happened in a very unusual way: The distributor itself recalled the picture from movie theaters the day before the premiere.
The withdrawal of the movie was widely discussed on the RuNet (the Russian-language Internet). The decision was explained by Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky as follows: "The film presents a distortion of historical facts, an original interpretation of the events before, during and after the Great Patriotic War, and a ridiculous and unauthentic depiction of the character of Soviet citizens of that era.”
“The screening of this kind of film on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day is unacceptable,” was the verdict of the Russian Ministry of Culture, with which most Russian critics disagree.
“The film portrays hardly any events ‘before’ and ‘after’ the war,” writes Yuri Gladilschikov in The New Times. “It does not desecrate the 70th anniversary of Victory Day. The action takes place in 1953, the last year of Stalin’s life, and tells the story of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. A major theme is the machinations inside the Ministry of State Security (MGB), set to be renamed the KGB.”
In the opinion of this renowned Russian film critic, “Child 44” is a conceptual picture — not about Stalin’s Soviet Union, but about contemporary Russia, where state security agencies have also begun to play a dominant role. Quite possibly, the film was banned because it touches a raw nerve.
The rise of conservatism in Russia
The pulling of “Child 44” would probably not have drawn such a wide response were it not part of a chain of events in Russia over the past six months or so, including the hounding of Andrei Zvyagintsev and his movie “Leviathan,” which won a Golden Globe and half a dozen other prestigious international awards.
The film was ostracized for depicting the less salubrious side of Russian bureaucracy, and its hand-in-glove relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, which in recent years has become the leading spiritual guide for Russian society, acting in unison with the Kremlin.
Shortly thereafter, a production of “Tannhauser” was pulled from the stage of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater and its director Boris Mezdrich sacked — also by decree of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky. Mezdrich was punished for refusing to scrap the production, which offended religious sensibilities, and for not trying to resolve the conflict.
“Tannhauser” receives an ambiguous reception wherever it goes. In Israel, for instance, any music by its creator Richard Wagner is banned. An interpretation of “Tannhauser” with “raunchy” dancing was staged by London’s Royal Opera House in 2010, which likewise provoked criticism from British operagoers. And a German production set in a concentration camp ruffled a few feathers in Dusseldorf.
However, unlike in those countries, not only was the Russian version banned, but the theater director fired — and not for the production itself, but for offending Orthodox Christians with "ungodliness." As rightly observed by liberal-minded deacon Andrei Kuraev, if one traces that logic to its conclusion, the Bible could be banned for promoting atheism.
Renowned journalist and writer Dmitry Bykov aptly notes, “Many believers probably would be offended by some sayings from the Bible; the trouble is that they never open the Bible.”
Lastly, a production of a different kind also found itself under the censor’s microscope. The Russian Investigative Committee initiated criminal proceedings in connection with a video performance by the dance school Credo in Orenburg. In the video, posted on social networks, 15-17 year-old-girls perform a relatively risqué version of today’s “twerking” dance trend.
As the investigation explained, the actions of those responsible — the management of the school and the administration of the House of Culture, where the performance took place — showed “unacceptable negligence,” as well as the actions of officials for allowing such routines to take place on the stage. The school itself was closed down.
Aside from the moral overtones, the narrative acquired political resonance. Some media discerned the colors of the Ribbon of St George in the girls’ costumes, which, at a stretch of the imagination, could be regarded as mocking the symbol of the victory over fascism.
Culture under censorship
This chain of censorship and prohibited cultural works in Russia has prompted heated debates in which the conclusion drawn is that the country is again under the watchful gaze of the censor.
Are the times of Soviet censorship, when the state’s unblinking eye kept vigil over the cultural scene, on their way back? What are the new boundaries of expression in the social, political and cultural space? And where are the boundaries of outrage and experiment that the public is willing to tolerate?
Those are the questions being asked by journalists, political scientists and cultural figures in Russia.
But the conservative wave sweeping over Russia poses a threat not only to the public, but also the authorities. Their actions are giving rise to protests among the liberal-minded section of society, especially in the larger cities. Novosibirsk, where “Tannhauser” was pulled, saw numerous rallies demanding the resignation of Culture Minister Medinsky for his sacking of Mezdrich.
But the complexity of the situation is not limited to protests. The regional elections in the fall of this year to the Legislative Assembly of Novosibirsk Oblast and the City Council of Novosibirsk could be among the most difficult campaigns this year for the ruling party, United Russia. According to forecasts, the party will find it hard to remain in control, primarily in the municipal parliament.
Of course, there is no direct connection between the “Tannhauser” scandal and the elections, but the open intervention of the federal authorities in the affairs of the region and the city has irked residents of Novosibirsk, who at the best of times have never been the country’s most active supporters of United Russia, to put it mildly.
The double-edged sword of rising conservatism
But the widespread conservative ideology harbors another, perhaps even more serious threat to the Russian authorities.
“Before 2012 conservatism was a kind of political vehicle for the active pro-Putin minority, which went mainstream in 2012 as a reaction to the threat from the liberals (this threat was felt acutely during the presidential term of Dmitry Medvedev, who at times even took the liberty of criticizing Putin). The protests at the end of 2011 came as a shock. The return of Crimea proved a powerful impetus,” says political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya, head of analytics at the Center for Political Technologies.
She points out that although in Russia there is no official state ideology, there is a reality in which professors are fired for taking an unpatriotic stance, arrested for contacts with foreigners and victimized for “wrong” interpretations of historical events; theater directors are dismissed for blasphemy; artistic productions of classical works are proscribed, and a politically incorrect tweet or blog post can result in search and seizure.
The institution of moral condemnation has appeared and taken on the force of law, substituting the legal regulation of social and economic relations. This institution is based on the fear of authority, whereupon state enforcement through law is replaced by voluntary submission, making loyalty virtually unlimited.
However, such evolvement of state ideology, according to Stanovaya, imperceptibly limits political leaders’ scope for maneuvering and delineates the boundaries of rhetoric, which were once theirs to determine freely. Ideology becomes a self-sufficient, ungovernable, elemental factor.
This development trend can cause the personality factor to dissolve, and ultimately it will not matter to the system who sits at the top. The notional “Putin” will exist as a function. Who implements this function will be replaceable and vulnerable. Hence, Putin himself poses the gravest threat to his own political future and the future of the country, warns Stanovaya.
This danger is picked up on by other experts, too. According to political analyst Svetlana Samoilova, the Kremlin would like to see the conservative wave regulate itself in targeting the liberals without touching the loyalists.
“The appearance of a semi-official conservative ideology creates fertile soil for numerous uncontrollable offshoots that are often far more radical than the government itself. Such a grass-roots reaction from ultra-conservative activists violates the Kremlin’s monopoly on decision-making, which in itself poses an administrative and political risk,” she writes in the online publication Politcom.ru.
During this year’s regional elections and the 2016 State Duma campaign, the Russian authorities may well come face to face with the genie they themselves have let out of the bottle. In the struggle against “discontented citizens,” the federal authorities bared their teeth at the mass rallies in Moscow and other cities in the fall of 2011, yet they may not have the bite to counter the new danger on the horizon.