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Russia’s Morality Police Pull up the Drawbridge

Recent attempts to censor the arts have an unmistakably anti-Western tinge.

by Galina Stolyarova 28 March 2013

In recent months nonconformist culture and alternative artists in Russia have come under fire from conservative politicians and radical Orthodox groups alike. In a blast from the Soviet past, critical speeches have been evoking the campaigns against dissidents of the Communist era, as politicians have called for a ban on performances by Lady Gaga, the closure of the Guelman contemporary art gallery, and the prosecution of the management of the State Hermitage Museum for hosting a show that allegedly insulted patriotic audiences.


Although the repressive atmosphere had been building for years, it was the sentencing in August 2012 of members of Pussy Riot to two years in prison – for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred – that marked a new intensification of the process.


With that judgment, conservatives clearly felt they had won the first round. This month, a group of St. Petersburg politicians launched a campaign against a concert featuring gay musician Adam Lambert, who performed at the St. Petersburg Ice Palace on 20 March. The protest is led by Vitaly Milonov, a member of the ruling United Russia party who sits in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and the godfather of the city’s infamous law against gay propaganda.


The tireless Milonov, supported by some Communist politicians, has also thrown his weight behind a protest against a forthcoming St. Petersburg exhibition of British artist Adele Morse, whose work often features animal images.


At the heart of the dispute is a stuffed fox that appears next to prominent politicians of different eras, from Joseph Stalin to Barack Obama. Serving as the backdrop for the fox are collages inspired by the sobering realities of life in the Soviet Union.  


“This artist is travelling around with a work of art that shows Vladimir Lenin next to a very questionable character – the bizarre-looking fox; in other versions the fox sits next to the modern leaders of Russia,” complained Sergei Malinkovich, the leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the Communists of Russia party. “Adele Morse is ridiculing the country; she is mocking our national interests.”


Milonov took the Communists’ bewilderment further, suggesting that the artist is a “callous and mentally unstable person.”


“No sane individual would organize a display like this; normal people could not bear to look at a maimed stuffed animal,” Milonov said. “If we do not stop this, the next step will be a stuffed human being displayed in public as an art object.”


After St. Petersburg, Morse’s exhibition will go to Moscow.


It is not only lawmakers and politicians who are concerned about the moral welfare of the Russian people and about visual material that might give them wrong ideas, real or imagined. Similar moves are coming from the grass roots. 


Take, for instance, the farcical case of Orenburg resident Vladimir Savinkov, who this year asked the Russian Federal Anti-monopoly Service to ban Russian sales of Coca-Cola, Opium perfume, and a make of candy called Poppy Flower on the grounds that these products promote poppy, opium, and coca – ingredients that can be used to make hard drugs.


In January, ultraconservatives attacked the Vladimir Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg over the writer’s “pedophiliac prose.” The assailants broke a museum window and threw in a bottle containing a note threatening the museum with “God’s wrath.” 


Shortly before the Nabokov museum attack, the conservatives struck at the world-renowned Hermitage museum over a controversial exhibition by British art duo Jake and Dinos Chapman called “End of Fun.”


The British artists are internationally renowned for using provocation as a tool to draw attention to social, humanitarian, or political issues. 


The exhibition featured, among other things, a Christian cross with Ronald McDonald nailed to it and a crucified teddy bear. These two images were mentioned often in the dozens of complaints of blasphemy received by the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office.


The prosecutors took the matter seriously and investigated the display.


The Chapman brothers reacted sarcastically to the probe, offering “extreme apologies” for their anti-fascist display, and vowed never to set foot in Russia again.


The Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, branded the complaints “a sign of the cultural degradation of Russian society” and “a parade of snitching.”  


“It is the competence and legitimate right of the museum to decide what qualifies as a work of art and what does not,” Piotrovsky wrote in a statement posted on the Hermitage’s website.


A St. Petersburg court in November dropped charges against Madonna for “allegedly inciting religious hatred and offending cultural traditions” during her concert in St. Petersburg in August.


The Trade Union of Russian Citizens and several other public organizations had sought 333 million rubles ($10.7 million) in moral damages from Madonna and the organizers of the concert. During the performance, Madonna reportedly trampled an Orthodox cross under her feet and encouraged the 25,000-strong crowd to wear pink bracelets and raise their hands to show support for gay rights in Russia.


Following in the footsteps of Madonna, Lady Gaga, who performed in St. Petersburg in December, made statements in support of the gay community in Russia. This infuriated conservative politicians, who vowed to ask prosecutors to investigate the pop star for breaking the anti-gay propaganda law.


These episodes, in which Western artists have faced fierce opposition from authoritarian politicians and pressure groups, particularly over gender issues and human rights, have formed a clear pattern.


But despite the sentencing of the Pussy Riot members, the surge of intolerance against other performers has not really succeeded. Those who wish to censor the arts have so far failed.


The Chapman brothers, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Adam Lambert were all able to complete their Russian tours. Arguably the verbal attacks and attempts at censure simply gave them free publicity.


However, it is significant that all these targets were foreigners. And the vigor, force, and frequency with which the conservatives have begun attacking certain aspects of Western popular culture leave little doubt that they are attempting to erect a new Iron Curtain to prevent Russian morals being polluted by the outside world.  

Galina Stolyarova
Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.

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