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OPINION

One Man’s Show: Putin's regime is struggling to fill the vacuum its repression has left in music, theater, and cinema

In today's Russia, creators and performers who dare to speak up against Vladimir Putin's catastrophic policies are almost routinely shunned and persecuted. Russian diplomats work to have dissident Russian rock musicians deported back home from a foreign country. Books by banned authors are withdrawn from libraries. Outspoken filmmakers are called “CIA agents,” and their names are removed from opening credits. However, despite the outward similarities between the cultural policies of Putin and those of the Kremlin’s longest-serving leader — Joseph Stalin — there is one major difference. Cultural studies scholar Andrei Arkhangelsky argues that the current regime does not even pretend to offer any alternative, whether artistic or ideological. Rather than even the false hope of a better future, Putin’s regime promises nothing but endless gloom.

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Russia’s cultural scene has seen multiple milestone events in recent weeks. The Alexandrinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg “appropriated” the creative work of anti-Putin author-in-exile Boris Akunin, in this case, the play “1881.” The theater penned a letter to the “extremist” author, whose works are banned in Russia, with a suave justification: since the play is based on historical events, it was ostensibly authored by “the people” and the production team.

In another instance, pro-war patriots have demanded that criminal investigations be opened against the creative minds behind the most recent screen adaptation of “The Master and Margarita”, Stalin-era author Mikhail Bulgakov’s magnum opus. These “patriotic” proponents of censorship cite the filmmakers’ “anti-Soviet” stance and criticism of Stalin as crimes deserving punishment — a paradoxical accusation given the anti-Stalinist sentiment of the novel itself. However, no one is in a rush to ban the movie from the big screen because, after all, it was made with taxpayer money thanks to a Ministry of Culture grant that was awarded in 2018.

Finally, Russian authorities attempted to arrange the deportation of the rock band Bi-2 from Thailand, where the musicians had been arrested on allegations of performing without a work permit. Half of the band hold passports of countries other than Russia, but their songs are in Russian, and they had made their anti-war position very clear — hence the ploy to bring as many of them as possible into the hands of the Putin regime’s punitive justice system. Thanks to the intervention of Israeli diplomats, Russia’s nefarious plan did not come to fruition (at least not this time).

But once the dissident rock band was already on the plane to Israel, another development came to light: Russian libraries started to clear their shelves of Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novels, and the Dmitry Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology in Moscow revoked Ulitskaya’s professor emeritus title. Ulitskaya, an internationally acclaimed novelist who strongly condemned the war in Ukraine in the first days of the full-scale invasion was being censored now for the offense of admitting to a pair of notorious pro-Kremlin prank callers that a portion of her book’s proceeds were being donated “towards Ukraine.”

If you put the pieces together and try to figure out the genre of the real-world play unfolding before your eyes, all references and allusions point in one direction: Soviet theater. Repression against cultural figures is gaining pace, quickly becoming Stalinist in scale, as evidenced by the late-2023 crackdown on five household names in Russian modern literature: Vladimir Sorokin, Viktor Yerofeyev, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Dmitry Bykov, and Boris Akunin. When we say that the regime has reverted to its Soviet-era habits, the first characteristic that springs to mind is the mass, ruthless nature of violence. What we forget is that all things Soviet are first and foremost based on a specific attitude to property, which is the key concept in Marxism and Leninism. Privacy as a concept does not exist: all property belongs to the people (or rather, to the state, as we all understand the concept to work in practice). This economic tenet automatically applies to individuality: the totalitarian state owns not only factories, plants, and steamboats, but also its citizens’ bodies, minds, and ideas. Everything belongs to everyone. The state treats creators like inanimate objects, doing what it will with them (and of course, an inanimate object can make no claim to copyright).

Putin's regime is successfully mimicking Stalin’s governance model, which was a benchmark for Soviet regimes in all of their various forms. The Brezhnev era and Khrushchev's Thaw may have stood out for the “vegetarian” modes of repression the authorities utilized, but these periods were nothing but aberrations, a temporary compromise. In today's setting, Stalin's model is easily recognizable by the distinctive presence of invisible tentacles capable of reaching anyone — in any corner of the world. These tentacles can strip you of your name, individuality, titles, and artistic works. It can take the meaning of your life away and reduce your existence to naught.

Or at least, that's the intention. Unlike its subsequent lighter versions, Stalin’s regime was just as obsessed as Putin’s with exacting revenge on its arch-enemies — even on foreign soil, as the Stalin regime demonstrated through its abductions and murders of former White Guard generals. It also held out hopes of luring high-profile emigrants back to their homeland, placating them with promises of a good life (and succeeding in the cases of Aleksey Tolstoy, Viktor Shklovsky, Aleksandr Kuprin, and a few others). However, unlike its modern counterpart, the Soviet government had little regard for the physical bodies of counter-revolutionary writers or performers — or for their works. The attempt to force home Bi-2, modern-day “White-Guard sympathizers,” for a figurative public flogging on Red Square fits in reasonably well with the logic of Stalin’s showmanship.

But appropriating works created by an enemy of the state, as was the case with Boris Akunin, would certainly have been viewed even by Stalin as a bridge too far. Under the Stalinist standard, banning a “harmful” movie from theaters would be perfectly acceptable. Even in the vegetarian Brezhnev era, it is impossible to imagine a state-funded anti-Soviet film being allowed to see the light of day (and the recent film adaptation of “The Master and Margarita,” like the novel itself, is very much an anti-Soviet and anti-Stalinist statement – that's one thing propagandists got right). But castigating an anti-Soviet blockbuster in the press even) as it continues to gather full theaters all over the country — as is happening now under Putin — is something entirely new in the annals of Kremlin censorship and repression of the arts. So what exactly is happening?

An anti-Soviet movie gathering full theaters across the country was unimaginable in Brezhnev's times

Putin’s totalitarianism is more backgammon than chess. The more moves you make, the fewer options you have left. His new policy of total war makes subsequent steps very clear: dissidents must be squashed, jailed, and stopped at any cost (or at least squeezed out). It is an established pattern. But Putin's regime has fallen into a so-called zugzwang, a situation in chess or backgammon in which any move will worsen a player’s position. The current “guardians of the truth” remember their youth and remember how everything that was prohibited (the forbidden fruit of jeans, chewing gum, and the nightly BBC radio broadcast) drew the minds of “homo Sovieticus” in a Westward direction.

It was by taking stock of the lessons learned in the Soviet collapse that Putin has maintained power: outright bans only make the hidden object appear more appealing, thus allowing limited access to anti-regime artistic agitation actually renders the potentially destabilizing creative work less threatening than obscuring it entirely. After 24 in power, however, the only remaining move available to Putin in the new paradigm of total war is to squeeze shut any peepholes that are left. In this game of backgammon, passing is not an option, and neither is moving backwards. In this stage of the game, moves can come swiftly: shutting down the Internet, amping up state propaganda, and of course, creating one’s very own “patriotic culture.”

This last “move” will be difficult to pull off. Unlike its Soviet predecessor, the current regime lacks any ideology whatsoever. But ideology did not make much of a difference anyway. Whenever Comrade Stalin needed something, he was more than willing to walk over any dogmas. What Stalinism did have, however — and what Putinism lacks — was a sprawling network of pro-Soviet writers, performers, and other cultural figures, extolling the party and the people in their songs, novels, sculptures, and whatever other product creative people compelled to work for the state might churn out. In contrast, today we live in a world of symbolic capital and values, a world where someone’s selfie can make a bigger splash than Goethe's “Faust.” Mass hysteria, passion, obsession – the essence of pop culture – can only be fueled by cult figures, objects of irrational popular adoration. It is impossible to instill this kind of adoration artificially, and certainly not on command.

Could this be the reason why works by relentlessly castigated, “traitorous” authors end up being expropriated for the benefit of the state? Not a single “patriotic action movie” has grossed more than the new screen adaptation of “The Master and Margarita.” The attempt to create a “patriotic theater” (by Eduard Boyakov, who headed Gorky Moscow Art Theater from 2018 to 2021) failed along with all other “patriotic art” projects aimed at replacing genuinely creative artists who had been forced out of the country, or who chose to leave. To put it bluntly, there is not enough talent left. Even the pop idols who stay in Russia are in no rush to join the ranks of true patriots, as evidenced by the infamous “almost naked party” in December 2023, which triggered a wave of repression and clumsy apologies from many of the formerly-acceptable (to the regime) guests. Meanwhile, such pillars of culture as rock musician Yury Shevchuk and filmmaker Alexander Sokurov are open in their criticism of the regime.

Not a single “patriotic action movie” has grossed more than the new screen adaptation of “The Master and Margarita”

For every “no” there must be a “yes.” But Putin's regime has nothing of the “yes” variety to offer. Its pitfall is the inability to create positive values. There is no such thing as a “new patriotic pop culture” – or any culture at all, for that matter. (The one possible example of the regime successfully creating a cultural icon involves the case of the Aryan-aesthic pop singer Shaman, and even in this case, whispered accusations of “using eyeliner” have been made against the new star.) In a private conversation, a colleague of mine aptly characterized the current wave of repression against culture as whimsical, self-contradictory ideological mess that can only lead to ever more absurdities (yes, a tragedy can still be absurd). The regime is frozen in place as it poises itself to make the last, decisive leap forwards into USSR 2.0 – which will, of course, suffer the same fate as the first edition.

Putin's apparatus presumes that the Soviet Union collapsed due to economic underdevelopment and prides itself on successfully exploiting capitalistic tools to insure itself against life-or-death shortages of consumer goods. However, there certainly is a deficit the current leaders fail to account for: the spiritual deficit, which was just as relevant in the mid-1980s, even if the understanding of its import has faded since.

Too often, appeals to the spiritual need are viewed as a whim of the intelligentsia, an ideal incomprehensibly alien to the common people, whose only real concern is to keep their fridge stocked. However, there is always a different perspective: once your basic needs are satisfied, you start looking further. The years of perestroika were far from prosperous, but the change was driven by the weird, insatiable desire of millions of Soviet people to read, watch, listen to, write, and say whatever they pleased – and this desire eventually wrung the Soviet regime’s neck. While trying to avoid this scenario, the current regime is nevertheless following the same trajectory of development, hurtling towards the same destination at a breakneck speed. It features a striking combination of grim cruelty and an absence of any positive image of the future, anything even remotely similar to the Communist dream envisaged by the Soviet leaders.

Putin's system does not want a future; it cannot dream a dream of its own (a séduction, in the tongue of the French philosophers). Amazingly, it is the symbolic that always causes Russia's cruel regime to take the road with a dead end. The Russian yearning for change must be appreciated as a geopolitical factor – a domestic threat to the ruling regime, especially under the current circumstances. With every new surge of repression, this yearning will intensify. We have already seen multiple adaptations of the Russian classic tragedy, “This Is How the Empire Ends.”

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