Russian Artists Today: Victims or Collaborators? (2015)


This piece, as published in Opera News (Jan. 2015; Vol. 79, No. 7), was called “Russian Winter.” It is another piece that came about because an editor reached out to me to cover a specific topic. I reread the article today and I don’t see a whole lot that has changed, although two points are worth noting: 1) the law banning obscenities on stage and screen has never been enforced (although it remains on the books), and 2) Maria Maksakova fled to Ukraine in 2016, where she publicly apologized for voting in favor of Russian annexing Crimea. In any case, we now know that the state is willing to move actively against culture workers that it has a grudge against (theater director Kirill Serebrennikov and several of his former mangers under house arrest and on trial for embezzlement). The photo of Vladimir Putin and Valery Gergiev above is taken from the Deutsche Welle website.

Russian Artists Today: Victims or Collaborators?
By John Freedman

It has been a difficult few years for the arts, culture and public discourse in Russia, although maybe not everyone would agree. Valery Gergiev is presumably still smiling after receiving $700 million from Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2013 to renovate the storied Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, while deftly skipping past protesters in New York, London and Munich in 2014 for his sometimes tacit, sometimes overt support of Putin’s repressive policies.

Those policies have caused people inside and outside Russia increasingly to talk about a return to the worst tactics and attitudes from Russia’s Soviet past. The examples are legion. What follows is a small selection.

  • As Russia’s hostile response to the Maidan protests in Ukraine increase in January 2014, Russian state television channels unleash a war of lies, fear and incrimination against anyone disagreeing with official policy on a level that had not been seen since at least the late 1940s, if not the height of the Purges in the late 1930s.
  • After Russia hastily annexes the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, Putin borrows the phrase “national traitors” from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to describe those who oppose his actions.As a result, the notion of “national enemies,” or “enemies of the people” – the latter phrase used to devastating effect by Stalin during the Purges – is revived in public discourse to refer to anyone not backing Kremlin policies.
  • Political denunciations return with a vengeance – independent writers, artists, directors and performers are vilified by the Kremlin-friendly press of perversion and sedition.
  • For the first time since the Soviet era forced psychiatric treatment – read: incarceration in an asylum – is used as punishment for individuals convicted in political trials.
  • A law bans the use of obscenities on stage or screen.
  • Another law bans the casting of doubt on “official” historical accounts of World War II; i.e., history is no longer something to be studied, debated and understood, but rather something the government defines and dictates.
  • Russian parliament’s so-called “anti-gay” law bans the “propagandizing of gay lifestyle to children.”
  • Peaceful protesters, even individual pickets, are routinely muzzled and arrested, although the tactic of individual pickets is expressly defended in the Russian constitution.

Obviously, neither Valery Gergiev nor any of the other major Russian talents now performing in the West can or should be held accountable for this massive, radical turn in Russian social policy. But the return to hard line politics in Russia brings up the specter of a time, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when top Soviet and Russian performers were unable to leave their positions at the Bolshoi and the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater in Moscow, and the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) in St. Petersburg. For over two decades many have assumed that the old era of repression was a thing of the past. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, assumed as much when he told the Economist in early 2014, “there’s a whole host of Russian singers wanting to follow in Anna Netrebko’s footsteps.” But what price must be paid for a Russian performer to follow in the footsteps of Netrebko or Gergiev? As one of the most famous and internationally successful Russian artists, and as one who has openly cultivated a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin, Gergiev has been a lightning rod for commentary and protest. His fame is such that he cannot avoid the scrutiny that naturally accrues to his words and actions. He is, in other words, a prime example of the way the power of the Russian state affects that nation’s subjects.

I choose the word “subjects” with care. In September 2014 Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Russian constitutional court since 1991, set tongues wagging when he delivered a defense of the value of serfdom in his nation’s history. “Despite all its drawbacks,” Zorkin said, “serfdom was the brace holding together the nation’s internal unity.” But the application of the term “serfdom” in all aspects of Russian society, especially in theater and the performing arts, is not new or unusual. The respected drama critic Pavel Rudnev noted as far back as 2007 that “artists less and less wish to enslave themselves in the serf-like system of repertory theaters.”

Many do, however. The Russian government subsidizes 700 of approximately 1,000 theaters spread across the country’s vast territory. That means in principle that the government can exact obedience from performing artists when it sees fit.

A revealing flap occurred in Yekaterinburg in January 2012, two months before the election that returned Putin to the Kremlin for a third term as president, following a four-year “hiatus” when he marked time as Russian Prime Minister. Playwright and director Nikolai Kolyada, founder of the important Kolyada Theater, a tough, gritty playhouse that explores the underbelly of contemporary and historical Russia in its plays, shocked many by openly backing Putin for president. Just months before Kolyada had been on record as supporting Mikhail Prokhorov’s opposition Civic Platform party.

What could have possibly caused the about face? Well, Kolyada and his theater were given a new building and a five million ruble government grant ($124,000 at the time), with which to renovate it. This is how Kolyada put two and two together for us in his online blog: “You know, we won that tender entirely honestly. But I thought, ‘Kolyada, they’re giving you five million, the government is giving you a building for your theater, they do something else for you, and you’re going to be in the opposition?'”

Kolyada was one of some three dozen prominent Russian artists who made 30-second videos backing Putin’s candidacy. At least one, featuring actress Chulpan Khamatova, involved dark back stories of pressure and payoffs similar to the Kolyada incident. Others, such as those involving Gergiev, violist Yury Bashmet, conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov, and Moscow Art Theater artistic director Oleg Tabakov, were entirely straightforward. These artists owe their livelihood to government support. They know well, as the saying goes, which side their bread is buttered on.

Thus it is, when in April 2014 spectators protested Gergiev’s appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra declaring that he supported “President Putin’s tyranny, the invasion of Ukraine and the persecution of gay Russians,” there was actually a deep cultural divide at work. Western audiences assume an independence on the part of Russian artists – particularly those who work in the West as often as at home – which does not correspond to reality. Gergiev minus Putin in the system of Russian arts funding and organization equals zero, at least within Russia’s borders.

The Moscow Art Theater’s Tabakov addressed this situation in an interview in September 2014. “Once you start working for the government, that’s it,” he told the respected Moscow-based New Times magazine. “That’s another degree of responsibility and another degree of freedom – there’s nothing to be done about that!”

That, in sum, is the view to which many of Russia’s biggest performing artists subscribe. “There is nothing to be done about it.” Or, depending upon the individual and the issue at question, “nothing need be done – everything is fine.”

Putin cracks down on protesters? Simply say, as Tabakov did in the New Times interview, that Putin “had no alternative.”

Putin’s friends in Russian parliament pass restrictive legislation now known as the “anti-gay” law? Slip out of controversy quietly, as did opera diva Anna Netrebko when protests targeted her and Gergiev during the 2013 run of Eugene Onegin at the Met. Her low-key Facebook text declared, “As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.”

Putin openly backs violent pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine? Oscar-winning film director Vladimir Menshov tells Kultura, a Kremlin-friendly newspaper, “Russia’s enemies won’t be allowed to win this war. Ukraine cannot be reborn in the current Russophobic format, and NATO will not dare step in. Eighty percent of this is thanks to the personal efforts of Putin, it’s his crowning hour…”

This, in any case, is the picture that emerges if we focus on Russia’s “elite” artists, those whose status and paychecks are determined largely by their desire or, at least, willingness to be associated with the government and, therefore, anything it stands for. We see gradations in that loyalty, from Menshov’s flag-waving patriotism to Netrebko’s cautious declarations, but the message is clear: these are artists who see their life in art as inextricable with the activities of Putin’s government.

There are other options and opinions, however.

Popular novelist Mikhail Shishkin refused to represent Russia at the U.S. Book Expo in 2013, declaring, in part, “By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.”

Experimental theater director Boris Yukhananov, entrusted with overseeing a complete overhaul of Moscow’s centrally-located Stanislavsky Drama Theater in 2014, purposefully rejected the notion of state financing to transform his venue into what some have called the most modern technological performance space in Europe. According to Sergei Kapkov, director of Moscow’s Culture Department, a private investor put up $25 million to cover the renovation costs.

Anti-war protests organized officially by opposition parties in Moscow routinely attract 30,000 or more participants, and actors, directors and writers are always prominent among those speaking from the dais. There are reliable reports of artists losing jobs because of their outspoken opposition to the war in Ukraine, and the best-known among them find themselves topping lists of “enemies” in hack “investigative” reports broadcast on state-supported television channels. Thus, for example, pop stars Andrei Makarevich and Diana Arbenina, with writers Viktor Shenderovich and Dmitry Bykov were trotted out as “prostitutes” and “traitors” in August 2014 in a special NTV report called Thirteen Friends of the Junta, i.e., the government in Ukraine.

Makarevich, who in the past has doubled as the popular host of television shows on cooking and travel, made the bold move of performing a concert for refugees in the war-torn Ukrainian town of Svyatogorsk in August. Within days he was assailed by attacks from Russian officials, the loyalist Putin elite, and patriotic groups. There were calls to deprive him of his citizenship and for months his concerts in Russia were either banned outright or blocked by patriotic activists. Famed film director Nikita Mikhalkov even appeared to issue a veiled death threat of sorts, blasting Makarevich for aiding and abetting the enemy and adding that he hoped Makarevich would “end his days in his own bed and not in a mine shaft.”

The storm of criticism brought equally harsh responses in Makarevich’s defense.

“The rabid harassment of Andrei Makarevich, who performed for children of refugees in Svyatogorsk, is unfolding according to the template of totalitarian propaganda,” wrote Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the opposition Yabloko Party. “[It is] filled with absurd accusations, lies and illegal demands to deprive [Makarevich] of awards. This all reminds one not only of Stalin’s methods but of Hitler’s, too.”

The schism affecting the Russian artistic community is razor-sharp.

Splits in attitudes occasionally affect a single individual, as in the case of Maria Maksakova, the mezzo-soprano soloist at Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater. Maksakova has occupied a seat in Russian parliament as a member of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party since 2011 (the same year she joined the company at the Mariinsky). She supported the “anti-gay” law when it originally passed in June 2013, but later softened her stance and introduced an amendment in February 2014 that would have removed the phrase “non-traditional relations” from the law’s language. For the record, the amendment was rejected.

In Russia today one is either “for” or “against.” As always, in any society, the indifferent middle lends its weight to the camp that is “for,” thus leading to the astronomical 87% approval rate that Putin enjoyed in early August, 2014. That number came down in subsequent months, but continued to hover in the low to mid 80% level.

Meanwhile, for their loyal support of Putin’s government Russian artists can expect to continue receiving perks at home and the occasional metaphorical kick in the pants abroad.

Bashmet, the master violist who has long lived in Moscow but grew up in Lvov, Ukraine, was summarily stripped of his title of honorary professorship at his alma mater, the Lvov National Musical Academy, when he signed a letter supporting Putin’s annexation of Crimea. For signing the same letter, Gergiev nearly lost his appointment as the music director of the Munich Philharmonic beginning in 2015. Local citizens and politicians protested the move, but Gergiev extended an olive branch, calling for “understanding” among divergent cultural traditions in an open letter addressed to the city in May 2014.

It was enough to turn the tide back in his favor. At least until the next crisis arises.

$700 million:
Gelb in The Economist:
LSO Protest:
Tabakov quote:
Netrebko Facebook:
Menshov quote:
Kapkov names $25 million:
Mikhalkov quote:
Mitrokhin quote
Putin’s approval rating:
Gergiev open letter:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s