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Window to Beijing: The eastward turn of Russia's cultural agenda

Earlier this month at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, it was announced that over 230 events will be held as part of the “Russia-China cross-cultural year.” Despite its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the international sanctions stemming from the Kremlin’s subsequent sponsorship of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” it was not until 2022 that Russia found itself largely cut off from the democratic world. Trying to fill the void left after severing soft power ties with “unfriendly countries” in the West, Russia is hastily forging new partnerships in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East — and exploiting its image as an “anti-colonial” power even as its war of aggression in Ukraine continues.

Content
  • China on stage

  • China on the big screen

  • The great cultural rally: from Qatar and Africa to Laos

  • New human resources

  • “Friendly” deportation

  • Old colonizers give way to new ones

RU

Russia's list of “unfriendly countries,” which was significantly expanded in March 2022 and now includes 49 states, has strongly influenced the Kremlin's cultural policy. Large international projects and festivals, many of which enjoyed great success in Russia for decades, are impossible for the country to host in the new reality. European cultural centers such as the Goethe Institute and the Center for Franco-Russian Studies (CEFR), which supported cultural exchange for many years, one by one announced the suspension of their activities in Russia.

In their place, the Kremlin has found new cultural partners — both among arms suppliers like Iran and North Korea, and also among ideologically acceptable states including China, South Africa, and Venezuela. Many projects aimed at strengthening ties with these countries have already received grants from Russia’s Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives. And given how far in advance major cultural events are planned, many more new partnerships are likely to be announced.

The government's attempts to re-orient Russia's cultural agenda towards the East as a result of growing international isolation was mocked recently by a Russian comedian in a sarcastic lullaby: “This world is big and wonderful, all doors are open before you. You can vacation at North Korean resorts, visit haute couture days in Pakistan or an art house festival in Kabul. You can fly off anywhere you please, but only with a layover in Istanbul.”

China on stage

The year 2024 has been declared the China-Russia Year of Culture, but exchanges between the two authoritarian states began much earlier. Six years ago, soloists from the National Center for the Performing Arts of China performed an opera at the New Stage of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg: an adaptation of the WWII classic “The Dawns Here Are Quiet,” with a libretto by Wan Fang set to music by composer Tang Jianping. The original literary source, a novella by Soviet writer Boris Vasilyev, had been adapted into a 19-episode television show in the early 2000s.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet, a Chinese opera
The Dawns Here Are Quiet, a Chinese opera

Russian theaters are not just bringing in Chinese performers — they are increasingly adding Chinese elements to their existing repertoires. Konstantin Bogomolov, the artistic director of the Moscow Drama Theater on Bronnaya Street, suggested to director Andrei Prikotenko that they give a fresh spin to 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s “Turandot” by setting it in futuristic rather than medieval China. In the production, the new China is a global power that has taken over the world, and the characters govern it from a bunker. “Searching for ourselves, searching for each other. Against the backdrop and inside an unfamiliar, new, singular China,” reads the description on the theater's website.

St. Petersburg's LDM Theater, in turn, moved the setting of its stage adaptation of Boris Akunin's novel “The Diamond Chariot” from Japan to China. The changes were motivated by LDM's attempt to cut ties with the author, whom the Kremlin regime has labeled a terrorist and extremist. What is remarkable here is that China is now perceived as a political safe space — that a positive reference to China can secure a green light for a project based on the work of a Russian author whose political positions have led to his exile from Russia.

China is now perceived as a safe space: a Chinese reference can secure a green light for any project

Moscow's Bolshoi Theater did not miss out on the trend. In the fall of 2023, its Chamber Stage presented its opera “The Mandarin's Son. Le Rossignol.” The production includes a scene in which “Russian folk dancers perform for the Chinese emperor.”

“The Mandarin's Son. Le Rossignol” on the Bolshoi Theater Chamber Stage
“The Mandarin's Son. Le Rossignol” on the Bolshoi Theater Chamber Stage
Pavel Rychkov

Instead of tours in the West, where travel restrictions and informal boycotts against them abound, Russian performers and museum workers now frequent Asia. During the year of cultural exchange, Beijing's Metropolitan Museum of Art will host a vast exhibition of works from the Tretyakov Gallery under the clear and simple title “Hello, Russia!” Other major Russian museums, including the State Hermitage, the museums of the Moscow Kremlin, and the State Historical Museum, have also announced exhibitions in China.

Chinese theater-goers will also see two performances from Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theater: “Eugene Onegin” and “War and Peace,” both of which were originally directed by Rimas Tuminas. Residents of the Middle Kingdom, however, are unlikely to learn that Tuminas was “relieved from his post” as head of the theater in May 2022 due to his anti-war stance. The official reason for the director’s dismissal was poor health, but as Tuminas told Novaya Gazeta, this was simply a pretext to take the theater away from him. On Mar. 6, 2024, Tuminas died in Italy after a long illness.

China on the big screen

Another objective set forth by the Russian Ministry of Culture was to promote Russian cinema to Chinese audiences — it has not been a success. On March 15, Beijing saw the premiere of The Challenge (Vyzov), a space-based drama notable for the fact that some of its scenes were shot aboard the International Space Station. Produced by Channel One with support from the Cinema Foundation of Russia and Roscosmos, the film was screened at 8,000 Chinese movie theaters. Press releases proudly reported that the film had earned $310,000 in its opening weekend, meaning that it took in less than $40 per cinema.

Past Chinese-Russian films and television projects have not performed much better. Between 2015 and 2022, University of Georgia associate professor Maria Repnikova counted seven major joint projects with an “important educational and symbolic mission.” These include the historical feature film Ballet in the Flames of War and the documentary series Russia and China: The Heart of Eurasia, produced by state-owned television channel Russia-1. The documentary series highlights “the joint struggle of the Soviet and Chinese peoples against German Nazism and Japanese militarism and features interviews with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Other projects include the documentary series This is China! (2017-2019), and the romantic movie How I Became Russian (2019). Another was the adventure movie Viy 2: Journey to China, filmed in IMAX format (2019). In Repnikova's assessment, these films create “a shared narrative about the war,” reaffirming “the longevity and resilience of China-Russia relations.”

Despite recent efforts, however, China’s share in the foreign distribution of Russian films is on the decline. According to Vedomosti, China did not rank even among the top ten importers of Russian movies in 2023. This is the result of Chinese restrictions designed to protect the domestic production of content. In addition, as Russian filmmakers told The Insider, movies from Russia are usually of little interest to Chinese authorities and moviegoers alike.

Chinese cinematography has yet to find much of an audience in Russia as well. On Feb. 8, 2024, the Russian capital saw the premiere of Mission to Moscow, a Russian-Chinese action film set in 1993. The movie follows a group of Chinese undercover agents trying to catch a gang of international train robbers. Russian media trashed the production, with a Gazeta.ru columnist writing: “Most of the time, Mission to Moscow manages to be completely unbearable. It is hard to believe that it runs for only two hours; this movie seems to be fundamentally unwilling to end and drags on like the Trans-Siberian railway — for an eternity.”

A still from Mission to Moscow
A still from Mission to Moscow

In a report for the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, Repnikova defines the main feature of China-Russia relations as “notable power asymmetries” — in China's favor. This imbalance is also evident “in the symbolic domain,» that is, in culture and education, and it “echoes China’s growing sway over Russia in other sectors, including in economic and geopolitical domains.”

As employees of Russian cultural institutions admit to The Insider, new projects involving “friendly countries” relieve their organizations of the need to tour the so-called “people's republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. After initially coming out against Russia’s war in Ukraine, in May 2022 Theater of Nations artistic director Yevgeny Mironov made a trip to Mariupol and announced “patronage” over the Mariupol Drama Theater, where on Mar. 15, 2022, a Russian airstrike had killed between 300-600 civilians who were sheltering inside. However, Mironov seems to have found a more palatable way to stay in the state’s good graces: the small stage of his Moscow theater will offer productions by foreign directors Ding Yiteng (China), Sinisa Cvetic (Serbia), and Motoi Miura (Japan).

Joint projects with China deliver institutions from the need to tour occupied Donbas

As Dr. Maria Papageorgiou, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Exeter explains, the promotion of cultural and educational ties with Russia serves two key Chinese interests. First, they create a positive image of China among ordinary Russians while serving as a reminder that the two societies share not only historical and cultural ties, but also a present-day struggle against the West. Second, they allow China to project its great power status, especially as it has become the “big brother” in post-Cold War Sino-Russian relations. In her assessment, Beijing needs to find allies in the face of fierce competition with the United States, and China is therefore positioning itself as a more responsible potential international partner — one that does not interfere in other states’ domestic affairs, but focuses instead on mutually beneficial cooperation.

Chinese New Year in Moscow
Chinese New Year in Moscow
Sergei Kuksin

The great cultural rally: from Qatar and Africa to Laos

Russia also plans to develop cultural ties with Middle Eastern and African nations. The Tretyakov Gallery has already signed an agreement with Oman and is considering cooperation with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

After 13 years of running the Russia pavilion at the Cannes Film Market, state audiovisual production company Roskino has had to make do with remote professional screenings in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Under the new program “Promotion of Russian Regions as Film Locations,” Roskino showed off the advantages of Veliky Novgorod, Moscow, and St. Petersburg to filmmakers from 13 countries, including Iran, India, South Africa, and Mozambique. Among the new countries to host the Russian Film Festival, the organization proudly lists Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Tajikistan, South Korea, and Laos.

“New macro-regions await us: primarily MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Asia, and Latin America,” explained Inna Shalyto, head of Roskino since 2022.

Poster of the Russian Film Festival in Cuba
Poster of the Russian Film Festival in Cuba

Some events have retained their old names while completely changing their vector and content. Thus, the Baltic House International Theater Festival, which for over three decades brought projects from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to St. Petersburg, chose as its theme for 2023 “Looking East,” and appropriately focused on performances from India and Iran. Meanwhile, the Obraztsov Puppet Theater hosted the first Istoki (“Origins”) International Festival with performances from Belarus, Lebanon, Mongolia, Iran, and Turkey.

Africa holds a special place in the hearts of Russian cultural officials. The second Russia-Africa Summit, held last summer in St. Petersburg, featured a diverse cultural program. Lenfilm Studios hosted African Cinema Days, and the Rhythms of Africa music festival took place in Moskovskaya Square. The Hermitage launched an exhibition of African ritual sculpture, and the Manege displayed contemporary African art at the exhibition “Reversed Safari.”

The “Reversed Safari” exhibition at the Manege
The “Reversed Safari” exhibition at the Manege
St. Petersburg

Of course, increased cultural ties between Russia and the countries of the “Global South” are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing. A new Museum of African Culture has been in the works in Moscow since 2019. But the trend that took off in Feb. 2022, if nothing else, highlights the shrinking slate of geographical options accessible to Russian audiences and artists — and the paucity of convincing arguments available to apologists of their country’s increasing isolation.

In July 2023, Mikhail Piotrovsky, the longtime director of the Hermitage, published a manifesto in St. Petersburg Vedomosti titled “Africa as a New Reality.” The text recalls Alexander Pushkin's remote African roots and mentions Soviet geneticist Vavilov, who collected biological samples in Ethiopia. As Piotrovsky argues, the African continent is in the global spotlight not only thanks to its “rich mineral resources,” but also “because it is a reservoir of new energy for the development of humanity.”

New human resources

Piotrovsky went further in a Feb. 2024 interview, openly admitting that Russia has politicized entire areas of research: “Eastern studies scholars are leveraging political circumstances to stimulate and develop research. We have entered a period that favors the creation of a special program for the development of Eastern and African studies.” As Piotrovsky reminded his interviewer, the Faculty of Eastern Studies at St. Petersburg State University was founded by special decree of Emperor Nicholas I after the Crimean War, “when the importance of studying the East became evident.”

Today, museums and universities are launching new programs and signing bilateral agreements. Last year, professors of the GITIS Russian Institute of Theater Arts visited Algeria, Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, China, India, Japan, the UAE, and Bahrain. At the Russia-Africa Forum, Rector of GITIS Grigory Zaslavsky officially announced plans to offer two-week intensive courses by GITIS professors in several African countries and encouraged GITIS alumni to stage plays in African theaters. He spoke of the need to revive student exchanges and the cultural influence on a Soviet-era scale.

The State Tretyakov Gallery plans to launch joint educational programs with Peking University and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2024. The vast majority of agreements that are already concluded or in the pipeline suggest long-term cooperation.

“Friendly” deportation

The eastward turn is not only ideologically appropriate for the Russian government — it also expands the reach of Kremlin censorship. The Russian Foreign Ministry has made it clear that performers who are banned in Russia will find it problematic to tour in countries over which the Kremlin holds sway. Not coincidentally, in Jan. 2024 it was reported that authorities in the UAE had levied a fine of approximately $27,000 against Russian comedian Maxim Galkin, who criticized the Russian state and its war in Ukraine as part of a performance in Dubai in 2023. Russian rapper Oxxxymiron faces not only a fine for making political remarks at a separate concert in Dubai, but also a complete ban on performing in the UAE.

The Russian Foreign Ministry made it clear: performers who are banned in Russia will find it problematic to tour in countries over which the Kremlin holds sway

The Kremlin’s influence over its new cultural partners has also affected non-Russian artists. In February it was reported that the UAE had banned Ukrainian performer Andriy Danylko — better known by his drag queen stage name “Verka Serduchka” — from entering the country. At a 2022 concert in Dubai, Danylko had allegedly engaged in “inciting ethnic hatred” by speaking out in support of his country’s efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression. Before

And the UAE is not the only Kremlin partner cracking down on anti-Putin artists. In January, Galkin and Ruslan Bely, another comedian who has condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine, had their concerts canceled in Thailand and Indonesia. That same month, the dissident rock band Bi-2 found itself under arrest and facing imminent deportation to Russia from Thailand. They were saved only by the combined efforts of diplomats from Israel and Australia, among other countries. The situation is all the more disturbing considering that the UAE and Thailand, as popular destinations for Russian emigrants, are lucrative markets for artists who cannot continue to work in Russia.

Old colonizers give way to new ones

In its attempt to strengthen relations with several African countries, Russia is actively exploiting the motif of liberation from Western colonialism — a narrative equally appealing to local authorities and leftists in Europe and Latin America. As The Insider's interviewee at a Russian university notes, “Funnily, this is also decolonization in the European sense, meaning the abandonment of the European discourse directed towards Eastern countries.”

The irony is not lost on Edyta Bojanowska, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, who remarks that, “While denying the reality of Russia’s own imperialism, Putin now exploits the colonial wounds of Asia, Africa, and the Americas to cast Russia as the global champion of anti-colonialism.” In her view, this form of Soviet-style “anti-colonialism” has become “a tool in the Kremlin’s well-funded repertoire of soft power” — in the cultural sphere as well as at a political level.

Bojanowska is convinced that some countries of the Global South “are, understandably, grateful for past Soviet military, economic, and educational aid in their anti-colonial struggles” and that they are therefore willing to “turn a blind eye to the suffering of Russia’s own colonial victims, a group that today includes Ukrainians.”

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