Russian Culture as a Casualty (and Accomplice) of Putin’s War in Ukraine
The relationship between the artist and the state has always been fraught in Putin’s Russia, where government remains the primary funder of cultural institutions and censorship of cultural production has been on the rise for at least a decade. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has posed new existential questions for those members of the artistic community who do not align themselves with the Kremlin’s agenda. In a wide-ranging conversation, Nina Rozhanovskaya and journalist Sophia Kishkovsky discuss the impact of the war and the growing domestic pressure on the Russian arts and culture scene. What changes have been on view in Russian museums? Why does the state target theaters in particular? Which anti-war voices manage to break through the prohibitions? And what does the emerging “Z culture” look like? Since the conversation was recorded on March 17, 2023, a number of individuals mentioned in it have faced new repercussions for their anti-war stance.
Since the conversation was recorded on March 17, Marina Loshak was forced to step down from her position as the director of Moscow's Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; the Russian censor has labelled the anti-war singer Maxim Pokrovsky a “foreign agent”; and the veteran rock star and Putin critic Yury Shevchuk and his legendary band DDT have announced that their concerts are being postponed indefinitely “for reasons beyond the musicians’ control.”
The conversation touched on the following topics and individuals:
The effects of the war in Ukraine on international museum exchanges. For further reading:
- “Cold War Era Returns as Cultural Ties Are Severed Between Russia and US,” by Sophia Kishkovsky, The Art Newspaper, July 8, 2022
The replacement of Zelfira Tregulova and Marina Loshak in Russian museum management and its significance. For further reading:
- “Moscow Museum Director Removed After Complaint Against Institution’s Lack of ‘Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values’” (on the ousting of the State Tretyakov Gallery director Zelfira Tregulova), by Sophia Kishkovsky, The Art Newspaper, February 9, 2023
- “Another Art Museum Chief Quits as Russia Pressures Cultural Institutions” (on Marina Loshak’s resignation from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), by Francesca Ebel, The Washington Post, March 21, 2023
The controversial interview of Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky. For further reading:
- “‘No One Can Interfere with Our Offensive’: Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky Compares Russian Export of Culture to Country’s ‘Operation’ in Ukraine,” by Sophia Kishkovsky, The Art Newspaper, June 24, 2022
The exodus of museum curators from Russia—for instance, Dmitry Ozerkov, head of contemporary art department at the Hermitage. For further reading:
- “Top Hermitage Curator Quits Museum and Russia,”The Moscow Times, October 3, 2022
Reasons that theaters have become a special target of the state and that acclaimed directors, such as Kirill Serebrennikov and Dmitry Krymov, have left the country. For further reading:
- “How Putin’s War Destroyed a Golden Age of Russian Culture,” by Polina Ivanova, Financial Times, March 16, 2023
- “The Rise and Fall of Russia’s Most Acclaimed Theatre Director,” by Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker, December 11, 2017
The reaction of various writers and poets to the war, and the literary hobby of Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee. For further reading:
- «Прокляты и забыты» (on Z poetry), by Roman Shtyl-Bitynsh, In Other Words, December 7, 2022
- “The Head of Russia's Federal Investigative Committee Secretly Writes Poems about Putin's Enemies, and Possibly Edits His Own Wikipedia Page,”Meduza, August 25, 2017
“Putin’s intellectuals” Zakhar Prilepin, Eduard Boyakov, Alexander Dugin, Yegor Kholmogorov, Nikita Mikhalkov, and the specific expressions of Z culture. For further reading:
- “Russian Nationalist Writer Zakhar Prilepin Calls for 'Cultural Purge,'” by Emmanuel Grynszpan, Le Monde, August 20, 2022
New forms of censorship and the latest restrictions on LGBTQ+ literature and books written by anti-war authors such as Boris Akunin, Svetlana Alexievich, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. For further reading:
- “Choices Narrow in Russian Bookstores Amid Anti-LGBT Law, Wartime Restrictions,” by Samantha Berkhead and Oleg Smirnov, The Moscow Times, January 10, 2023
Anti-war musicians Yury Shevchuk, Zemfira, Monetochka, Max Pokrovsky, Noize MC, Oxxxymiron, and whether they manage to reach the public despite prohibitions. For further reading:
- “Anti-War Playlist: Russian Music Against the War,” by Yanina Sorokina, The Moscow Times, July 8, 2022
- “Max Pokrovskiy: A Fierce and Furious Russian Punkster in New York,” by Katya Soldak, Forbes, December 5, 2022
Pro-war musicians, such as Shaman, and their audiences. For further reading:
- “Changing His Tune for Mother Russia” (on the singer Shaman), by Valerie Hopkins and Georgy Birger, The New York Times, March 9, 2023
Anti-war comedian Maxim Galkin and why many expected that his wife, the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian celebrity Alla Pugacheva, would sway public opinion against the war. For further reading:
- «Алла» (on Alla Pugacheva), by Lev Gankin, In Other Words, January 19, 2023
Whether the relationship between the artist and the state in Russia may get redefined after the war. What books Russians are reading during the war and what this tells us about their views. For further reading:
- “Russians Buy Books on Nazi Germany, WWII Following Mobilization Call,”The Moscow Times, October 11, 2022
The artists persecuted by the Russian state (Elena Osipova, Alexandra Skochilenko, Artyom Kamardin, Yulia Tsvetkova) and why it is important to watch out for contemporary art in unexpected places. For further reading:
- “‘What Can Be Scarier Than What’s Happening Now?’” by Nina Petlyanova, Novaya Gazeta Europe, February 2, 2023
Russian Culture as a Casualty (and Accomplice) of Putin’s War in Ukraine
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nina Rozhanovskaya: Hello, and welcome to The Russia File. I am Nina Rozhanovskaya. Today, Russian culture finds itself at the crossroads. There is increased censorship and dissenting cultural voices are pushed out of the public space, and even out of the country. And at the same time, there are attempts at promoting some sort of Soviet-style official cultural frameworks. We are going to discuss how the Russian arts and culture react to this domestic pressure and to the war in Ukraine and examine how the relationship between the artist and the state is being redefined.
For that conversation, my guest is Sophia Kishkovsky, a journalist who has covered Russian affairs since 1991 and who has been following the Russian arts and culture scene for a very long time. Sophia, welcome to the program.
Sophia Kishkovsky: Nina, thank you very much. And thank you for that introduction. I've long thought that culture is really one of the most important ways to follow what's happening in a country, so I look forward to our discussion.
NR: Before we start, I should make a little disclaimer, because at the time of this recording, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine goes on. And whatever happens within Russia, including political repression and suppression of dissent, pales in comparison to the suffering of Ukraine as a country and Ukrainians as a nation. And the topic of our conversation is arts and culture, but of course, Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian artists face a real physical threat as a result of Russia's aggression. But ever since its creation during the Cold War, the Kennan Institute's mission has been to study Russia and to examine its past and present. So I feel it is important to discuss the Russian domestic cultural climate today, because without it we won't have a comprehensive picture of Russia as a country. So I'm very happy that you agreed to be part of this conversation, Sophia.
SK: Thank you very much. And those words are absolutely true.
NR: Let me start by asking about the overall state of affairs. In your point of view, as an observer of the Russian culture, how is international isolation affecting it?
SK: I think it has been a disaster. And obviously, as you noted, the disaster for Ukraine is infinitely worse. But in the little over a year since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, numerous cultural figures have left, have been declared foreign agents. As it is, museum exchanges with the U.S. were suspended from 2010. But the situation has grown much worse. The isolation with Europe is essentially complete and museum exchanges are impossible. And we've seen also the removal of museum directors, most recently of Zelfira Tregulova, [director of] the Tretyakov Gallery, who was known for bringing blockbuster exhibitions and taking Russian exhibitions to Europe. And right now, we are all waiting to see what is going to happen with the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, because Marina Loshak, the director, constantly is mentioned in the so-called patriotic Telegram channels which discuss, among other things, culture, because both her daughter and her nephew—they are journalists—are among those who have been labeled foreign agents. So the authors of these Telegram channels say that that means that she should not be the director of a major national museum.
NR: It does bring about these very painful memories of Soviet persecutions, when you could be persecuted for being a relative of someone who’s the enemy of the state. But you mentioned the patriotic channels and people complaining about directors. Does that mean that there is actually a popular demand to replace those museum directors and to change the course of museum exhibitions? Or is it just the state using this as a pretext?
SK: As with almost anything in Russia, it’s very hard to tell where the signals are coming from, because when I have discussed with people, usually people who have already left Russia, about these situations at the museums, one of the things that I’ve read (I've also read this in Telegram channels) is that these situations could have a lot to do with money, not that it doesn't have to do with ideology, but that the fact that a particular person is targeted at a particular moment is because there are streams of money going, for example, through that institution. So one clan—and I know when we talk about Russia, we often talk about the various clans—wants to get a hold of that money and then ideology can be used as a pretext, which doesn't mean that ideology is not present as one of the reasons.
NR: But going back to Tregulova, the head of the Tretyakov Gallery, that's one of the key Russian museums, one of the biggest collections, they have the section that deals with everything that goes up to the Russian Revolution, and then they have the huge collection of Russian 20th century art. And I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it is very telling that the person who replaced Tregulova also happens to be the daughter of a highly positioned former FSB official.
SK: Right. He was in charge of the border guards. And I believe he was an official under Putin, going back a long time. So that was, yes, extremely telling, as was the report against Tregulova, because it got out in public that a certain visitor to the museum was not pleased with how some of the art was being shown there and that art that he considered anti-patriotic and against Russian spirituality was being shown there and [he] demanded that something be done. And I'm not even certain that anyone, in the end, actually knows who this person is. This played out over some weeks and then Elena Pronicheva was appointed. Now, she had in fact been previously working at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow at a post there. So she had museum experience, but her family connections are, of course, very interesting in these circumstances.
NR: In this trend, when we see that even very powerful figures from the Russian cultural management, the heads of very big museums, cannot be sure that they will stay in place, I wonder where to place the relatively recent interview of Mikhail Piotrovsky, head of the Hermitage Museum. That's another Godzilla of a cultural institution, a huge collection of international art, in Saint Petersburg. He has been the head of this museum for ages. And he gave an interview where he adhered publicly to the imperial Russian ambitions. So was that an attempt to prove loyalty to be able to retain his position? I know we can only speculate, but what's your take?
SK: I believe you're referring to the interview, last June I think it was, in Rossiyskaya Gazeta. So that's an official newspaper of the Russian government in which he fairly regularly gives interviews. And it was striking. When I read this interview, I recognized it as important, because in the early weeks and months after the invasion, he was somewhat evasive speaking about the war. And here he came out and he used the words that “we are militarists, we are imperials, and we must stand with whatever our government does.”
Now, I think something that people should be aware of when considering his position is that his father had been the director of the museum for decades, and now his son Boris is a vice governor of Saint Petersburg, in charge of culture and also connected to the restoration of Mariupol, the city that Russia destroyed in the early days of the full-scale invasion. So the younger Piotrovsky has traveled to Mariupol. And Mariupol is the sister city of Saint Petersburg, which seems really macabre, right now.
Without a doubt, these things are all connected. And his interview was, I think, a turning point, because it made it clear that for most of these cultural figures, there's no going back. And I think many people in the international museum world were shocked by that interview. I know that Ukraine was shocked. It was tweeted by government officials as proof that Russia was out to destroy Ukraine's culture and identity.
Also, there was the head of contemporary art at the Hermitage, Dmitry Ozerkov, who is well known in Europe and he’s young, he speaks English, other languages, and he just disappeared. But on the day of the invasion, as many on Instagram [did], he posted—I forget the visuals, but he's had some words against the war—then he just went silent. And months later, it turned out that he was on a grant or a fellowship in Europe. And he did, in the end, finally announce that he was leaving the Hermitage, the country, that he is against the war and cannot work in these conditions.
NR: I guess it is important to note that while we are indeed focusing on some key figures who are not only heads of really big institutions but are themselves really famous—either in professional circles, or, like Piotrovsky, very well known to other Russians—there are also curators and artists and museum employees who quit and left because they were against the war.
SK: Every such discussion is so complicated right now, because even when someone leaves, there are all kinds of discussions and criticism of “why didn't they leave earlier?” The regime was bad for such a long time. There was 2014, when the invasion began. So, it took some people a long time. And these discussions are very prevalent and very painful.
NR: But generally, when we look at museums, do they all try to continue [with] business as usual? I know that there are exceptions. I know that, for example, Garage, a museum based in Moscow, which exhibits contemporary art and which is a private museum founded by Roman Abramovich and Daria Zhukova, they stopped exhibitions right after invasion started and they continue with their educational programs, but no art is being exhibited. No new exhibitions are being opened, which is a message in itself; they make it clear that for them, there is no business as usual. What about others?
SK: If you take the big ones in Moscow and Petersburg, they've certainly had to focus on their own collections, which are vast. So one could argue that for a museum to function, that's not that difficult. But yes, in talking to people and following what's going on, you have this, on the one hand, sense of disaster among some people, those who've left and those who, for whatever reason, have not been able to leave. There are many reasons why some people have not been able to leave. And yet you can see examples of life going on as usual, even just museum visitors posting once again on social media, on Instagram, on Facebook about their visits to museums.
Museum openings, as I understand, have been scaled back somewhat. But you still do get this sense of a certain cultural life and a certain level of people trying to pretend that life is going on or pretend in the sense that I think some of them have convinced themselves that not very much has changed. I've heard people tell me, well, okay, people who used to fly to Europe all the time to go to museums, they're people from the cultural world. Now they can't get there, but they'll say, “but it's okay, we can go to Dubai, we can go to India, we can go to China.” They're finding these alternatives and convincing themselves that not that much has changed.
NR: So obviously museums, which are mostly public in Russia, and state-funded, with a few exceptions, are in a very complicated position, when their directors feel the need to prove loyalty. But there is another type of cultural institution that is in a very similar space right now, which is theater. We have seen a lot of plays being removed. We have seen that certain directors’ or authors’ names have been removed from playbills, even if the play goes on, because those people are deemed foreign agents or enemies of Russia or are anti-war vocally. A lot of directors are pushed out—even the most celebrated ones like Kirill Serebrennikov, like Dmitry Krymov—and many others, some quit, like even people at the Bolshoi Theater, not to mention smaller theaters across the country.
There is an attempt to make theaters prove loyalty by sending the actors to the occupied territories of Ukraine or to display the letter Z. So what's going on? Why is the state putting so much pressure on the theaters if their audience is hundreds of times smaller than an audience of a popular YouTube channel?
SK: I do think that in general, Russians, and certainly in Moscow and Petersburg, go to the theater much more than Americans. It's just such an embedded part of a certain kind of Russian culture and not even just a very rarefied world of the upper intelligentsia. Everyone prides themselves on going to the theater, including the elites. So, for example, Serebrennikov was, in fact, very popular among the elites. They prided themselves on seeing his plays and productions and the tickets to his Nureyev at the Bolshoi, they were in demand among the Russian elite, the crème de la crème.
And I also think it's because Russian society historically, absolutely going back to czarist times, it is a theater in and of itself. So what happens in the theater just totally strikes at the heart of people in power. There was another example from more than a decade ago, when Vladislav Surkov was in the Kremlin and was very much engaged in cultural policy because he considered himself an intellectual. And I'm not sure if it's been resolved to this day, but I think it's believed that he was the author of a novel that was staged as a play by Serebrennikov. So everything is intertwined and the Kremlin is a theater. And when they see things in the theater that they don't like, I think they want to destroy it.
NR: It's interesting. The artists are flirting with the people in power, but also the people in power are flirting with the idea of being not only powerful but cultural.
SK: There's so many historical parallels in Russia. Stalin was known to be interested in literature and theater. And the Czarist era goes without saying. And right now, I'm often amazed at how many people in power in Russia consider themselves to be poets. I think one of them is Bastrykin, the head of the investigative committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI, which is involved in prosecuting so many people, including cultural figures. Yet I believe he writes poetry. So that's absolutely true, they love to be considered cultural, just as we know in the gulag, there were the gulag theaters. The famous one was where the wife of one of the prison directors, she was very proud of all of the cultural figures that she had at her beck and call.
NR: This is horrible. And speaking of poetry, when it comes to how Russian literature reacts to the war, we see that it doesn't react all that much. And I guess it is understandable, because for you to write a novel, to react to current affairs, it takes time to process. While poetry does prove very flexible. We can see a lot of anti-war poems, very tragic ones. Russian and Soviet poetry always reacted to things in a visceral way. But today we also have this new form of dissemination; the poets write on Facebook, and then immediately those poems become viral. At the same time, we do see the so-called Z poets, they claim to be wartime poets, while they stay away from all the dangers, while writing, from what I read, pretty bad poems with a lot of ambition. What do you think of them?
SK: I’m very much aware of the phenomenon. I have not read the poetry closely, so I won't comment specifically on that. But on that Z culture phenomenon and how poetry fits into it, I think one of the important things to recognize is that this began earlier. Certainly there might be some who are riding on the coattails of this. But this culture of the glorification of the Russian fighters in Donbass, of the field commanders, that absolutely goes back to 2014 and, at some point, if someone does a full study of this, it's clear that there's always been this Russian nationalist aspect, clan or whatever the right term is, for that [ideology] among the Russian elites and the Russian special services, [who are] also very interested in culture and promoting this kind of culture.
I saw this really clearly in fall of 2019 and winter of 2020, so right before COVID and just as COVID was changing our lives then. There was a theater in Moscow, the other MKhAT; it was named after Gorky. That's a product of a Soviet-era split between the two theaters. But at that time, the theater was run by a man named Eduard—I always get his last name wrong—BoyakOv, BoyAkov. I'm not sure of the stress on his name, but in short, he was a well-known figure in the Moscow theater world. He ran this theater and he tried to turn it into what now you would [call the] center of Z culture. Because all the elements were there.
The literary director of the theater was Zakhar Prilepin, famous writer who, if I remember his biography correctly, had fought in Chechnya. Then he was in Donbass after 2014, but he was a prize-winning novelist, and many people, I think, would still say that some of his books were very good and prescient, but some of those people right now would just not want to be in the same room with him because they would consider him part of that culture that's responsible for all of this.
So in this theater they had lectures by Alexander Dugin, the philosopher who basically since Putin has been in power has been regarded as somehow close to him. I find Dugin's cultural role very interesting, because his lectures drew packed halls. Now, the theater is across the street from one of the theater schools, GITIS. And I think that Boyakov was teaching there then, so maybe he told the students they had to come. But I would go to these lectures and watch the students and some of them would be laughing about things, but they listened to Dugin because his presentation was very modern. I would call them fascist TED talks. He's an actor. So coming back to the question of theater, the whole setup there was fascinating, very disturbing, and this packed theater, this packed hall of young people really worried me. But they also had other lectures, they had a historian lecturing there as well, Yegor Kholmogorov. After the invasion, after Putin announced it on TV, in that speech and all of his assertions about Ukraine not existing as a nation and as an independent culture, they were all spelled out in these lectures that Kholmogorov gave.
NR: This whole theatrical aspect is quite interesting. And speaking of literature, it seems that censorship today looks quite different from what it looked in Soviet times. We have certain topics entirely banned again, like LGBTQ+ topics, and then we have certain authors not necessarily banned, but they have to be wrapped up and sold with a special sign, [denoting the work of] a foreign agent. Quite often they're not even foreign agents. Books by Boris Akunin, the bestselling Russian author. By Svetlana Alexievich, who is not even Russian—she's from Belarus and she's a Nobel Prize laureate—but she's on that list again, as well. And then Lyudmila Ulitskaya and some others, plus the actual foreign agents. They all have to be wrapped up in special paper to make the books look less attractive. And when we look at the Z literature, everyone except for Zakhar Prilepin struggles to become acknowledged by the public. They barely sell any books, apparently. While the authors that are being pushed out from the public domain are the bestselling authors of today's Russia. So we see the market mechanism clashing with the state pressure, something that could not have happened in Soviet times. What do you think about this strange dynamic?
SK: I think, as in the case of museums, where I was once again very recently told: look and see what the budget of each museum is when it comes under attack, when the director comes under attack, what their construction plans are, because then you'll know that someone is after that money. So the publishing houses that are making money, I think you'd have to look at each particular case of who owns the publishing house and who they're tied to. One hand could be tied to a clan and might want to show that it's banning something. But the other hand is making money from it. So I think there's a very unusual tension there.
And if I may add, about books: this is not about the book market, but about how books are treated. One of the things that happened early on, some years back, in relation to Ukrainian culture in Russia was the attack on the Ukrainian library in Moscow. The director was persecuted and prosecuted and I remember at the time thinking, why is this great effort being made to do this? And now 10 years later—I think it's roughly 10 years later—we see why this happened.
NR: Exactly. I do have another question about the Z culture. When it comes to Russian cultural figures who are vocally pro-war, is it possible to distinguish between those who are driven by opportunism and those who sincerely share the revanchist ideas that are part of this ideology? Can we even distinguish between those two groups of people?
SK: I think someone who is a prime example of how it can be absolutely both and 100 percent, both at the same time, is Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning film director. I'm not necessarily sure you can call him Z culture because he considers himself from a Tsarist family, and he still glorifies that culture. But the way he goes on the attack against people on his show, which I think maybe it's only a YouTube show now, the one that's called Besogon, which was certainly on TV before. He absolutely believes in this, is my sense, but on the other hand, he's obviously making money from all of this.
And in terms of visualizing the culture: when Prilepin was affiliated with this theater, but before the full-scale invasion had begun, he had created a political party called Za Pravdu, For the Truth. And they had a founding congress. I think it might have been held at the theater, but I, on that day, was only able to go to their after-party. I got accredited because I wanted to see what this culture looked like. It was in the Moscow Telegraph building. There was this loft space that people could rent. There were cocktails and jamón, and then they had a concert with video screens all around the room that would show scenes of Donbass, of the field commander Motorola who was killed early on, and they had the field commanders speak, from the Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic.
And they had both rock and bard-style singers on stage there. There was this whole aesthetic to it. They would have the scenes of Donbass, but they would also have the requisite scenes of Russian nature. They really do always have to show birch trees and church cupolas, I guess to show what they're fighting for. And it was a very striking event. And I keep thinking back to that. This political party was being formed; it was clear that a lot of money was spent on this. So even then, were some of these people in it just for the money or [did] it fit with their views? One of the singers who was there was Chicherina. She had been a rock star. Was it in the ‘90s she first became known? And then she totally threw herself into all the military stuff after 2014. She appeared with Putin, with many other performers in the concert on September 30, the official illegal annexation of the four territories of Ukraine last year.
NR: I do have a question about the Russian antiwar voices, because we've mentioned that when it comes to pro-war people, some of them have been vocally revanchist and militarist for a while, at least since 2014 and before. But the same goes for anti-war Russians. A lot of people who are anti-war now vocally did speak up against the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and did speak up against various Russian injustices before that. Even in 2011–2012, a lot of television celebrities were completely erased from Russian television, because they supported Russian political protests. People like Mikhail Shats, Tatiana Lazareva, Leonid Parfenov, Andrey Makarevich. Then in 2014, this list grew further.
And when it comes to musicians, there are at least three generations, from old rockers like Yuri Shevchuk to people like Zemfira to young idols: Monetochka, Noize MC, Oxxxymoron. They tour around Europe and the world. They do fundraising concerts to help Ukraine and they write anti-war songs. In the times of YouTube, when you can have access to your favorite music even when it's banned, aren't they a powerful anti-war voice? Do you see a potential in those people being able to influence the public and maybe sway public opinion?
SK: I think they have their built-in circle of followers. But one of the things this morning I was curious to compare [was] just the number of views. So Shaman—who has already been profiled in The New York Times, for example—he tried to become famous for years, appearing on the show The Voice, Golos, and he became famous after the war with, on the one hand, a very Western image with dreadlocks and everything and real rocker music. One of his most famous songs [is] «Я русский», “I'm Russian,” which is very disturbing music. It's like watching a car accident, it so draws you in. It has tens of millions of views, I believe 29, maybe more.
And I checked another song; I did not check Shevchuk, but Max Pokrovsky. He has a very powerful song that appeared about two months before «Я русский». And it's called «Украина», about the war from the perspective of a Ukrainian father. It's a really powerful rock anthem. The video that I found this morning—I'm not 100 percent sure it's the official video—was 175,000 views. And he's not shown on Channel One. Obviously, many people and young people are using their VPNs, finding ways to watch this. YouTube is not yet banned in Russia, but it's very hard to gauge the impact.
There was talk after Maxim Galkin, the famous comedian….He's younger, but he's still more in the genre of the older era of comedians. And he has an audience that's older, actually. He's married to Alla Pugacheva, the legendary singer, legendary from Soviet times. And she has responded on Instagram after he was declared a foreign agent, after officials attacked him. And there was talk that if anything happens to her, this could cause some people to think: they're attacking our symbol. She's obviously not going to be appearing in these televised holiday concerts anymore. But in the end, has it had an impact that she's been wiped out in Russia? I don't know. I don't think so.
NR: It is a really complicated question. I don't think we know of any war that has been stopped by just one celebrity speaking against it. But I would invite our listeners to check out an article that we published on Kennan Institute's new Russian language blog, which is called In other words, «Иными словами». It's a very short but interesting piece by Lev Gankin, a music critic from Russia, on the phenomenon of Alla Pugacheva and why indeed there were such huge expectations that if she speaks out against the war, that people will listen.
I would say that the current situation shows that certain creative industries and artists are more free than others. Let's say music and literature have more autonomy, while museums and theaters are much less free; practically none of them, very few of them, are private in Russia. They are public institutions funded by government money with directors appointed by the state, and essentially their autonomy is extremely limited. Do you think that this current crisis, when the war ends, and when eventually something changes in the Russian political regime, will resume the discussion about whether there should be more private actors in the Russian cultural domain as a way to give more autonomy?
SK: I think one of the problems, and why we are where we are today, including culture, is because so many of the old problems haven't been resolved. So if you take private museums and private collections…Russia in the past years started getting some of these private museums. But the question of what happened before, with the nationalization of collections after 1917 and Russia's decision not to have restitution, that was never resolved.
Russian private museums of the Putin era have existed so briefly, and as it is, already faced problems, even before he launched the invasion. There was an excellent museum in Moscow called the Institute of Russian Realist Art, which was behind the Paveletsky train station. And it was a businessman Ananyev; there were two brothers and one of them was a collector, and they had various businesses, including banks, and I think one of their big bank collapses led to everything being seized. And this amazing museum is closed.
So they have to solve all those problems, and everything they've stolen from Ukraine because, as we know, so much has been stolen in Kherson. With the annexation of Crimea, but in Kherson, and Mariupol, in other places in the illegally annexed regions of eastern Ukraine, these museums were simply looted and I'm not sure there can be any discussion until all of these issues are addressed.
NR: That is very true. I personally don't necessarily worry about the fate of Russian culture as a whole, but I'm just wondering whether we can learn any lessons from where we are now in terms of how creative independence is ensured and whether to make a deal with the devil, and what the relationship between the state and the artist should look like.
SK: About the lessons to be learned: yes, I guess with the Medvedev era from 2008 to 2012, when it seemed that Russia was in this liberal period, there seemed to be no questioning of these close ties between the arts and the government. There was so much money floating around. Okay, yes, that was 2008, after the international financial crisis. But still, there was so much of this money floating around in Russia and oligarch money going to culture. And pretty much everyone that you knew who was connected to all the various forms of culture was involved in some kind of projects with this money.
So I'm not even sure how to answer that, because it's always hard for people in culture to find money. So what are they going to do? What does Navalny call it? “The wonderful Russia of the future.” We have no idea how it's going to be set up. And are we just going to start seeing another circle play out, where somehow it seems like the old system is destroyed, but then it's rebuilt again in new form? So there are huge lessons to be learned, but I'm still not sure how they're going to be learned and how they are going to play out. But without a doubt, the closeness to the state that I could see there—I think for anything to change, [that] is going to have to be reconsidered. There's no question about that.
NR: I sometimes wonder whether we should have learned the Soviet lessons better because some of the same mistakes have been repeated and then we see some of the same things happening, basically going back to the times of tamizdat. Because some books cannot be published in Russia, so they’re now published in Israel. Or you cannot play your music in a stadium, so you do it in a private flat. Those are things I've read about in the books. I didn't think that I would live in times when this will again be part of reality.
SK: Yes, one has to be aware of these lessons as applied to every culture going through turbulent times. These undercurrents that might seem like a fringe at the time, they could become the mainstream. I had been watching at some point videos—you can find them on YouTube, just plug in “Berlin in 1940” or “Berlin in 1941” and you'll see these scenes of happy people playing tennis. I'd seen quite a few of those over the years. And just by chance, looking for something the other day, I stumbled upon a video of Gorky Park in summer of 2022, up to half a year after the invasion. And it reminded me very much of those videos of Berlin. Just the scenes, the dancing in Gorky Park, the happy scenes. And I had this very disturbing sense of before and after and what might still lie ahead. So the story is in no way over.
NR: Speaking of Berlin, we don't have [many] reliable statistics when it comes to Russian public opinion. That's why there are so many disputes about whether Russians are anti-war, pro-war. But we have the numbers of what books people have been reading over this year. Many of them were memoirs from the 1930s and ‘40s, the memoirs of people who either went through the Holocaust or the war and survived. And they can share the story of how to deal with the trauma of being the witness or the victim of a huge historical tragedy. And some of those books are memoirs and books about the experiences of Germans who, for example, were anti-war, or ordinary Europeans caught up in this whole turbulent mess. Their stories became the bestsellers, not the Z poetry, not the books that tell [us] about how wonderful and strong Russia is, but the books that help deal with the trauma. And that's very telling.
SK: That's fascinating. There's an amazing example this morning. I don't know if you had a chance to look at Meduza, but an elderly artist who's been in the news a lot… And we hear a lot about some of the young artists who are against the war, who are being prosecuted. The famous case of Alexandra Skochilenko, who replaced the price tags in supermarkets with statistics about people dying in Ukraine. And the young poet who read poetry near the [Vladimir] Mayakovsky statue in Moscow, who was tortured by the police and now faces years in prison. But there is a 77-year-old artist in Petersburg, Elena Osipova. She has been consistently—through the times when it was not quite illegal and now—protesting against the Putin regime, against the war. And she, the 77-year-old Yelena Osipova, is now facing charges of, I believe, defaming the military because of an anti-war piece exhibition of her artwork that was shown in Petersburg and raided by the police. So this is all unfolding right now.
NR: And it also shows us the range, this whole range of different genres and different ages, from someone as young as Artyom Kamardin, that poet you've mentioned, all the way to this 77-year-old artist who keeps protesting, using her art. In a country like Russia, where there is no proper politics left, when politicians are abroad or in jail and there is no discussion in the parliament, political art [is] the only politics Russia probably has right now. I would encourage our listeners to look deeper into that. But let's not disregard the variety of anti-war voices; there are many of them, they're very diverse, and they may be the future. And I think not all of those voices are as well heard outside.
SK: And these voices are often in places….There's a case, of course, of Yulia Tsvetkova, the artist who is in Komsomolsk-on-Amour in the Russian Far East, and all the difficulties she went through in recent years [because of] prosecution for her feminist art. And now she's in Lithuania. But there are people in extremely obscure places, where you would not think that there's any contemporary art happening at all.
NR: Politics, art, and dissent in Russia today are extremely intertwined. I guess as a journalist covering Russian art and culture, you will be one of the people who will keep monitoring the trends and informing the public about them. So thank you for the work that you have been doing on that account and thank you for sharing your insights and your thoughts with us.
SK: Thank you very much. And [we] will definitely be able to speak with some hope when the invasion ends. I hope that time will come soon.
NR: I hope so, too. From the Kennan Institute, this is Nina Rozhanovskaya. Thank you for listening and we look forward to having you with us on the next episode of The Russia File.
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more