After the media, the oligarchs and the opposition, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is turning up the heat on the arts, with a “blasphemous” opera, a raunchy teen dance show and an “insulting” Hollywood film all taking fire.
Claiming a mission to protect the sensibilities of the Russian people, the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church are leaning on artists to imbue their creations with greater morality.
The attacks go over well in a society steeped in the conservative anti-Western values preached by Putin, who has been isolated by the West over the Ukraine crisis.
Since the Russian strongman burst onto the center stage in 1999, several groups have been called to heel, from journalists to business magnates and human rights activists.Now the authorities’ sights are trained on the cultural sector, with the government keen to promote a new approach.
“The time has come to formulate our own vision of ourselves as heirs to Russia’s great, unique civilization,” Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said, explaining the recent banning of the release of the Hollywood thriller Child 44, about a serial killer operating in Joseph Stalin’s Russia.
The minister accused the film, which stars Vincent Cassel and Gary Oldman, of the “distortion of historical facts” and depicting Soviet Army officers as “blood-thirsty ghouls”.
A few weeks before that, the object of popular wrath was the head of the state-funded Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theater.
Boris Mezdrich was fired for sensationally depicting Jesus Christ as a character in an erotic movie in his production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhaeuser, triggering an outcry from spectators and the church.
Other productions or works to cause a furore this year included a mural by a street artist in the eastern city of Perm showing the first man in space, Russia’s Yuri Gagarin, as a “Jesus of science,” being crucified.
The artist faces up to one year in prison. An exhibition by Canadian artist Frank Rodick of pictures of his dead mother also caused scandal, with church authorities in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad calling for “limits on what is tolerable in art”.
In another vein entirely, three teens filmed twerking in front of a World War II memorial were sentenced to up to 15 days imprisonment.The sentencing came after a video of girls in leotards twerking at a dance school in the southwestern city of Orenburg went viral, prompting the Investigative Committee to launch an indecency probe.
‘WE MUST PROTECT OURSELVES’
Artists whose work is deemed “blasphemous” also face having the book thrown at them.
In July 2013, lawmakers adopted legislation making it a crime to insult believers’ feelings, punishable by up to three years in prison. From a dozen cases in 2013 the number of prosecutions under the law rose to around 50 last year.
For film director Sergei Selyanov, producer of animated films inspired by Russian folklore, the “censorship aims to fill the void left by the (loss of an) historic national identity, which was buried together with the USSR”.
The current concept of Russian nationhood, said Konstantin Remchukov, chief editor of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, is based on “two obligatory elements, patriotism and anti-Westernism.” Hostility to the West has flourished among both the elite and ordinary Russians, who have been fed a staple diet of anti-Western fare by the media over the Ukraine crisis and the legalization of gay marriage in several countries.