Art and Politics in Russia in a Time of Crisis

On our trip to Moscow in June 2015, we met with Ilya Budraitskis, who spoke to us about the crisis facing Russia today and its effects on art and culture. Budraitskis’ argument is presented here alongside drawings by Sveta Shuvaeva, whom we also met while in Moscow. These works were made over the last two years in reaction to the mediation of current events in Russia by the Internet and television. [This article originally appeared in post].

No one can deny that Russia is in crisis. Of course, the vast majority of Russians view the problem as primarily an economic one, reflected in their decreasing personal incomes and the rapid growth in unemployment. They are accustomed to confronting economic downturns in the same way that they would face a natural disaster—by being patient and preparing to suffer heavy losses. The government insists disingenuously that the current situation is comparable to that of 2009, when the country experienced the effects of the global financial collapse. Trust in the “invisible hand” of the market, which can destroy as well as restore, is like a religion for Russia’s cynical elites and their supporters. Against the backdrop of a large-scale economic slump, local media portray Russia as an island of order, stability, and high moral values in the global sea of chaos and decline. According to pro-Kremlin media, the crisis may be worrisome, but its causes are external; the current tense situation is attributed to the whims of the market and a worldwide conspiracy against Russia. This idea has been adopted by the Kremlin as the new state ideology.

Sveta Shuvaeva. Life News. 2014. Acrylic markers on paper. 8.2 x 5.5 inches (21 x 14 cm). Courtesy the artist.

The increasing atomization of society and the spread of fear and suspicion go hand in hand with the promotion of national unity in the face of external threats. The conspiracy theory focuses not on a particular external force, variously identified as Ukrainian fascists, Barack Obama, and the international gay mafia, but on the object of the attack: Russia. Under attack, the country pulls together: the people and the government, the rich and the poor, heroic images of past and future. The Kremlin’s insistence on externalizing the cause of the crisis has a direct, dire impact on domestic policy and is just one more clear indication of the depth of the crisis, which encompasses all spheres—the economy, social relations, politics, and the ruling elite itself.

Antonio Gramsci wrote: “A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves . . . and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making efforts to cure them within certain limits, and to overcome them.”1 This statement relates to Russia’s current crisis, which has lasted for several years, has its own history, and is far from over. Each element in the history of the crisis represents structural contradictions on various levels, from foreign and economic policy to culture and ideology. The connection between these domains is complicated and often manifests itself initially in the reaction of one of them to another. This essay examines Russia’s current crisis through the lens of art, which, through rapid politicization, has lost all freedom.

While the instability of the post-Soviet model of capitalism became apparent during the financial crisis of 2008–2010, the political crisis emerged later, in December 2011, with massive street protests against alleged fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections. The demonstrations broke the consensus over “managed democracy,” the form of hegemony that had gained hold of the country during the 2000s.2Rather than reflecting the will of the majority, managed democracy had developed into a powerful and effective instrument for discrediting all forms of public participation in politics. Elections were held only to inspire disgust among the majority. Official media outlets worked cynically to undermine voters’ trust in the democratic process.

The protests upset the balance of social forces by giving a political voice to those outside government and big business. In Russia’s managed democracy, all the elements necessary for representative democracy were present, including separation of powers, parliamentary procedure, core political parties, and independent media. However, far from functioning freely as part of a dynamic mechanism capable of self-regulation, they were quite openly controlled from above.

Sveta Shuvaeva. Panic. 2014. Acrylic markers on paper. 8.2 x 5.5 inches (21 x 14 cm). Courtesy the artist.

This current regime’s golden age (2000–11), bolstered by economic growth stemming largely from a spike in oil prices, was a time of rapid development for contemporary art institutions in Russia. Art centers such as Vinzavod and Strelka, museums such as the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and the Moscow House of Photography (now the Multimedia Art Museum), and “big projects” such as the Moscow Biennale (inaugurated in 2004), were established in the capital. The government’s motive for supporting contemporary art was quite clear: the new institutions, created on the ruins of Soviet cultural politics, were impressive examples of private-state partnership. Another benefit, of course, was the burnishing of Russia’s image as a dynamic country attractive to investors. To private businesses, the new Russia offered a golden opportunity not only for money laundering and increasing cultural capital but also for legitimizing their enterprises in the eyes of society. “Big projects” helped to establish the hegemony of the oligarchs over the new middle class, which looked to investment in art for the social prestige and self-capitalization in the globalized market.

The “big projects” and curated exhibitions of that period are perfect illustrations of Boris Groys’ notion of art as the “representation of the unrepresented.”3 Groys argues that minority parties and ideas too marginal to be represented in parliament can find a place in exhibitions, which operate as extensions of the system. In Russia’s managed democracy, this was exemplified by the marginalized language of critics, who depoliticized politics by confining themselves to the context of art exhibitions. Meanwhile, in the Russian parliament, various political parties—all of them managed by the Kremlin—devalued the very idea of political debate and popular representation.

Sveta Shuvaeva. The Boss of It All. 2015. Acrylic markers on paper. 8.2 x 5.5 inches (21 x 14 cm). Courtesy the artist.

The social profile of the new political subject who emerged on the streets of Moscow and other large cities across Russia in 2011 was not clear. The protest movement had the potential to attract broad segments of society that until then, although dissatisfied with the political and economic order, had been politically passive or cautious. However, many of the protest’s public figures from the liberal opposition camp advanced the notion that a “civilized minority”—that is, “Russian Europeans,” the country’s “best”—were culturally and socially distinct from the majority, nostalgic for Soviet times.

It was up to the protest movement to create its own identity. It could present itself as the voice of society—of the 99 percent—or as an educated and established social elite with its own special interests. Unfortunately, the liberal political mainstream chose the latter orientation. Because the objective social boundaries between the “best” and the rest were unclear, the cultural lines dividing them were sharpened.

The liberal opposition, with its ambition to represent Russian Europeans, became the ideal adversary for the government, which started to consolidate at this time because of Russia’s changing political circumstances. From the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign in March 2012, Kremlin strategists, supported by the ruling elite, appropriated the American term “silent majority” to categorize hard-working, religious, patriotic Russians resentful of the attack on their values and stability by the smug, self-proclaimed “best.” It is well known that the term was taken up to facilitate the replacement of social contradictions with cultural ones and to create a new type of conservative union binding the governing elite and the masses.

For the government to legitimize itself as the voice of the silent majority, it needed to involve the Orthodox Church on the frontline of the new culture war. This move forced art out of its comfortable role as the “parliament of the unrepresented.” But the rapid politicization of art cost it its sovereignty. The term “provocation,” so widely used by the pro-Putin media to criminalize Pussy Riot’s 2012 performance in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, was in fact apt.4 Not in the sense that the spectacle provoked the so-called silent majority to defend their Christian values, but in that the performance was part of a long chain of reactions. For that reason it cannot be assessed independently of the repressive activities of the state, the position of the church, the dogmatic views of the liberal opposition, the coverage of Russia by Western news media, or the framework of Putin’s presidential campaign. It must be seen in relation to these structures and even as part of them. Pussy Riot’s intrepid feminism and outspoken religious dissent were lost sight of in the fray of the culture war that was launched to discipline society in that moment of crisis.

Sveta Shuvaeva. Love. 2015. Acrylic markers on paper. 8.6 x 11.8 inches (22 x 30 cm). Courtesy the artist.

While the West portrayed Pussy Riot as courageous dissidents fighting for free speech and against tyranny, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine convinced Russians that in a society like theirs, based on harmony between power and the people, blasphemers deserve to be severely punished. Two elite factions faced off in this battle of morals: the Kremlin and the liberal beau monde.

Together, the Pussy Riot controversy and Putin’s triumphal election for a third term as president in early 2012 marked the start of a reactionary period in Russia. The situation was fueled by fear of non-parliamentary opposition from the street and the ruling elite’s preoccupation with the specter of regime change. In autumn 2012, a repressive campaign against political opposition began with an investigation of the events of May 6, when a massive protest against Putin’s inauguration escalated into clashes with the police. Hundreds of arrests were followed by aggressive media coverage exposing links between the opposition and foreign agents. The protest movement was criminalized and discredited, and the Kremlin reinforced its campaign against possible sources of regime change. Anti-revolutionary sentiment became a key element in the new patriotic ideology.

The mass protests and riots in Kiev’s Maidan Square in February 2014 were seen by the regime as a challenge not only in the international arena but also to stability at home. International confrontation, the overreach of the Orthodox Church into cultural life 5, and aggressive anti-gay propaganda all contributed to the construction of the myth of the silent majority as a massive base of the regime. Government-controlled media were the sole voice of this majority. In the absence of other mechanisms of representation, society became the pure invention of those in power. As the late Yuri Andropov once said, “We don’t really know the society we live in.”6

Sveta Shuvaeva. Fear. 2014. Acrylic markers on paper. 8.2 x 5.5 inches (21 x 14 cm). Courtesy the artist.

Today’s deepening crisis poses new challenges for art. From the beginning of Putin’s conservative turn, most of the institutions established in the 2000s have tried to find stabilized positions. “Big projects” now pretend to normalize art by bringing it back from the broad public space into isolated cultural space. This strategy for re-establishing art’s autonomy was employed in the 5th Moscow Biennale, held in the autumn of 2013. The biennale’s international exhibition More Light presented a large number of sophisticated, high-quality artistic references to “hot” social and political topics such as religion, gender, migration, and protest movements. But the volume was turned down low: at times these statements seemed like open lessons in how art can function peacefully as a parliament of the non-represented in a country with no general political representation. The other big project, Manifesta 10, held in St. Petersburg in 2014, followed more or less the same line but managed to include more critical voices in the framework of its Public Program.

What constitutes effective artistic strategy in Russia today is an open question. One option is to continue the “culture war.” After 2012, with the Pussy Riot controversy, art became enmeshed in politics not just by choice, but through a combination of interests, which include the state, Church, big media, and the liberal opposition. Now practically all types of “political art” are automatically perceived as aggressive acts carried out by the “cultural minority.” However, in times of crisis, political circumstances can change rapidly and in unexpected ways. Direct artistic intervention in the political sphere, a strategy that unintentionally fueled Russia’s fake social division, can shift its focus to question the very essence of this division and play a significant role in the transformation of society. However, the risks of political manipulation and repression remain significant.

Another option can be called “institutional.” Reclaiming the autonomy of the territory of art will necessitate its depoliticization and a search for its place in the current situation. But such autonomy will be unstable and vulnerable to attack, and even “normalized” spaces such as museums could be targeted in the “minority versus majority” conflict, as was the case for 5th Moscow Biennale and Manifesta 10. A more recent example of this was the attack by Orthodox fundamentalists on an exhibition of Vadim Sidur’s work in Moscow’s Manezh in August 2015. The sculptures on view, produced in 1960s and ’70s, “offended the religious feelings” of a small group of activists.

Finally, a third strategy would politicize the territory of art. It would break with the rules of the “culture war” game and reflect on its own place in a changing society. Those who employ it would learn to recognize the multiple contradictions of the moment (including their own controversial position), understand society, and find the hopes, conflicts, and feelings that lie deeply hidden in Russia’s frozen situation.

By Ilya Budraitskis

Ilya Budraitskis(1981) is a historian, cultural and political activist. Since 2009
he is Ph.D. student at the Institute for World History, Russian Academy of
Science, Moscow. In 2001-2004 he organized Russian activists in
mobilizations against the G8, in European and World Social Forums. Since
2011 he has been an activist and spokesperson for Russian Socialist
Member of Editorial board of "Moscow Art Magazine". Regular contributor to
the number of political and cultural websites.