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Beyond Dirty Words

The isolationist, statist approach to culture in contemporary Russia goes well beyond banning swearing. From openDemocracy.

by Marina Mikhneva 28 August 2014

Artistic freedom in Russia has always been a barometer of politics, and never more so than today: there is the banning of swearing in the theater and the cinema; the introduction of fines for showing a film without a distribution certificate; the tightening of the rules governing the issuing of these certificates for festivals and cinema clubs; the battle between moderate conservatism and excessive isolationism in the higher echelons of government; the return of the Soviet-style ideological model against a background of curtailing cultural modernization. These are all features of current Russian cultural politics as a whole and specifically in the area of the performing arts and cinema, where they are most noticeable and distinct. The more critically minded part of Russian society links these developments with the name of the current minister, Vladimir Medinsky




During the current parliamentary year, the Duma has passed several laws that have been christened “Prohibition” – among them a ban on smoking in public places, the introduction of criminal charges for denying Russia's territorial integrity, and a ban on obscene language in the media and on stage and screen. The most high profile case of the latter was Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan. Zvyagintsev is one of the few internationally recognized Russian film directors; Leviathan received the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but Zvyagintsev had to submit to the film being dubbed, for showing in Russia, to comply with anti-swearing regulations. The law is loosely formulated, so can be interpreted in any way, but it guarantees that the presence of one swearword will result in the distribution certificate being withheld. 


Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan was dubbed in its native Russian to eliminate swear words.


Other films have also had to be put through the “pre-distribution” process, for instance, the film Yes and Yes made by the noteworthy Russian director Valeriya Gai Germanika, which won her an award at the Moscow International Film Festival. Interestingly, in neither of these cases were the officials responsible for monitoring compliance with the law at all impressed by the prizes. Indeed, the very existence of the festivals was considered questionable – the new laws do not allow any official showing of films that have not been granted a distribution certificate. Exception is made for foreign films, although only if they are being shown at festivals with international status. 


Kirill Razlogov, program director of The Moscow International Film Festival, along with his colleague from the main Russian film festival, Kinotavr, Sitora Aliyeva, and indeed everyone connected with the festival movement in Moscow, have described this ban as a mortal blow for festivals. Films often come to festivals straight from the post-production studios so the directors or the festival organizers have naturally had little time to apply for a distribution certificate. In July, the Culture Ministry was made aware of the professional community's reaction to the new law; they realized that they had gone too far and promised to relax the conditions somewhat, but even if Medinsky were to be a lobbying genius, he would still not manage to do anything before the autumn, when the next Duma session opens.


The film industry does not, however, consider him a genius, and indeed has few grounds for so doing. It was, after all, the minister himself who was the author of the new cinema policy, formulated two years ago with his rephrasing of a saying by Chairman Mao – “All the flowers may blossom, but we shall only water those we like.” One way of executing the minister's watering policy was to make the Cinema Fund accountable to the Culture Ministry. Previously independent, the fund gave grants to filmmakers irrespective of their political affiliation or the content of their films. Medinsky, however, identified 12 priority themes for films wishing to receive state support, including, “the history of the victories of the Russian people,” “heroes of labor,” and so on. His subjugation of the Cinema Fund was opposed by its former director, Sergei Tolstikov, who had defended the organization’s previously transparent and ideology-free work: “You have already done away with private investment in the cinema,” he said, “and the state is now the only remaining large player in the film market.” It need hardly be added that Tolstikov was soon dismissed from his post. 




The situation in the theater is not much better. Before the law was passed, important Moscow theaters, such as the Meyerhold Center and the Playwright and Director Center had already purged their repertoire of all plays with obscene language. The private Theater.doc, however, asserted that it would not censor its texts. This is probably connected with the theater's governing creative principle as the vanguard of documentary theater in Russia. Many of its productions are based on in-depth interviews, filming, and observation, and for documentary theater, speech in its original form is as essential an element of character depiction as any other. Anyway, as the directors of Theater.doc point out, editing of this kind infringes the inalienable right of the playwright to his own text.


The most interesting solution to the problem came from Ivan Vyrypayev, whose play The Drunks was put on at the Meyerhold Center. At rehearsals in the Moscow Art Theater, it was initially full of swearwords; after the editing process it was still as full of side-splitting innuendoes, pauses, and gestures, only now they made it perfectly clear which of the banned swearwords had originally been present at that place in the script. The five forbidden words are: блядь [blyad - slut], хуй [khui - cock], пизда [pizda - cunt], ебать [yebat - fuck], and мудак [mudak - dickhead].


Books and other forms of communication have had an easier time, but if they have censored words in them they have to be sold in opaque covers with appropriate markings. 




Another important “cultural” event was the presentation of the Framework for a Cultural Policy. This was a manifesto intended as the basis of a strategy for developing culture both as an industry and as part of the life of society. Its official status meant that it was less discussed than the innovations in cinema policy, but it was no less revealing for all that.


The Cultural Policy document originated in the Presidential Administration, where it was developed by a group under the direction of Vladimir Tolstoy, the president's cultural adviser and Medinsky's closest rival in the potential struggle for the ministerial post. The document, when leaked to the media, was seen as being dominated by a spirit of moderate conservatism. The Culture Ministry, into whose remit it fell, was asked to express its opinion on the final version of the document, and its commentary produced a furor in the cultural community, not unlike a bomb exploding. “Russia is not Europe or Asia – it follows its own path,” was a phrase taken from the document hat the Culture Ministry sent out for publication in several of the biggest Russian media outlets – and which was discussed more extensively than the “ban on festivals.” The Framework for a Cultural Policy is alarmist and isolationist in spirit: its prevailing idea posits the belief that the influence of “alien values” on the hermetically sealed world of the Russian national character should be limited. Anyone intending to fly in the face of this idea should be punished. 


Educated, liberal-minded Russians were appalled: it would seem that “their” ministry was harboring not just Putinist officials, but dangerous obscurantists. Social media was full of comments attacking the document, which suited Tolstoy's moderate conservatives very well – their colleagues and opponents from the Culture Ministry could be cast as bogeymen, and their project, which ended up on the presidential desk, thus appeared in a much better light. Interestingly enough, it subsequently emerged that the author of the ministry’s comments had been Medinsky's own first deputy, Vladimir Aristarkhov. 




One of the fiercest critics of the project was Marat Gelman, gallery owner, arts manager, and influential commentator. In an interview for Ukrainian Forbes he pointed out that the state, whether presidential cultural adviser Tolstoy or the Culture Ministry, was engaging in “artistic policy,” rather than cultural policy; it was deciding who should receive money, and who not, rather than improving conditions for projects that are acceptable to the state (and worthy, from its point of view, of receiving additional support), or conflict with the approved trends and heroic style. This is exactly what Gelman did in Perm until 2013. His intensive festival work, the creation of new museums, and targeted support for local artists, actors, and public art installations in urban spaces brought about a cultural revolution in the city. It was this term that the Russian media used to describe his project, which started in 2009 at the suggestion of the former regional governor Oleg Chirkunov and was aimed at updating and upgrading city life in Perm. “By 2013,” boasted Gelman, “migration from the region had been reduced to zero, though when we started 80,000 people left Perm every year.”


Gelman formulated his criticism of the government – the Culture Ministry and the Presidential Administration – as a concept, which he presented on the LiveJournal blogging platform. He arrived at one interesting conclusion: the interests of the “state” and the “city” in cultural policy diverge very considerably. According to Gelman, the city is the artist's natural ally, ready to help him achieve fame in exchange for his help in meeting the city's cultural needs. The federal government, meanwhile, is allotted the function of “assisting” cities in their cultural activities to ensure that there should be variety; it has to promote laws that permit municipal cultural work to continue without interruption.




These precepts – published, interestingly, before the Cultural Policy document appeared – were put into action by Sergei Kapkov, the head of the Moscow city cultural department, sometimes known as the culture minister of the Russian capital. A member of the pro-Putin United Russia party, he began his rapid ascent up the career ladder as the head of Gorky Park, the main Moscow park. His experience in reprogramming that urban public space was successful – from a hellhole of drink, fighting, and banal entertainment it became one of the Moscow creative class's favorite places, where every variety of urban culture could find a place – roller skaters, ballroom dancers, lovers of table-top games, and contemporary artists. Kapkov rose rapidly to be in charge of improvements at city level – he shook up residential buildings and cultural centers that he had inherited from the Soviet Union; he started supporting new ways of managing museums, made targeted appointments in city theaters and, of course, changed the city parks such that they were unrecognizable. One of the most important aspects of his work was the interaction with local communities and initiative groups, as well as a detailed study of European capitals' experience in modernizing their cities with the help of culture.


Kapkov became the most popular politician in the city, even among the opposition-minded representatives of the creative class. As a member of the ruling party, he was yet in effect contrasting the European modern approach with the centralized policies of the Russian government, whose policies were still very Soviet. His effective policies have made Kapkov the object of Kremlin envy. 


The federal Culture Ministry has done nothing similar at its own level, and, judging by the documents described above and the current scope of its cultural policy strategy, is not intending to do anything either. 


But, as they say in Russia, nothing good goes on for too long. Talk about the possibility of sacking Kapkov regularly surfaces in the cultural community and is just as regularly dismissed. Russian politics is not bothered about culture – Vladimir Putin has to talk to people who are more important than Vladimir Tolstoy or Vladimir Medinsky; sanctions and confrontations with the West mean that the Presidential Administration has more important concerns than local officials.


Yet, so engrossed are they in everyday life that neither the government nor the people seem to have noticed that crucial words and expressions from the Cultural Policy manifesto are starting to become reality. Russia is increasingly cutting itself off from Europe and, as a result, is emphasizing (indeed, turning in on) its own identity and heroic past. Events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine make the gimmicks of the Moscow cultural department look increasingly like a model playground for hippies tripping in the wasteland of our unmodernized country, faced with the potential threat of war with our brothers and neighbors. When asked to comment on the Cultural Policy manifesto, representatives of even opposing cultural positions independently made the point that in Russia the state of politics is determined by the state of culture. It makes one want to say a rude word.

Marina Mikhneva is a journalist in Russia. This commentary originally appeared on

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