Russia’s Cultural War Amid Ukraine Conflict

In his efforts to create a new vision for his country, Putin is destroying its vibrant arts scene

Russia’s Cultural War Amid Ukraine Conflict
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Editor’s note: This article was produced in Moscow under reporting restrictions imposed by the Russian government.

On a cold, late September morning outside an imposing pair of wrought iron gates, a family waited, out of place in one of Moscow’s most upmarket neighborhoods. An elderly woman stood guard over a gym bag and plastic bags set on the sidewalk, while a young man in track pants smoked nervously, talking to his girlfriend, who was dressed up as if for a special date.

The gates opened and the older woman took the man’s face in both her hands, saying a quick prayer before he headed into a sleek, prestigious museum. It was the Russian capital’s most incongruous center for military recruits, one of many mobilization points across the country which has sent Russian men to fight Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The image of armed police patrolling the City of Moscow Museum, its exhibition halls emptied of art and commandeered by the Russian Defence Ministry, was just the latest, rawest incarnation of a fierce culture war within Russia itself, stoked by the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine.

Six months into the war, in July 2022, even as the tide was starting to turn in Kyiv’s favor on the battlefield, a confident-looking Putin set out his vision for a cultural revolution at home. He had long sought to restore a Soviet model, whereby art serves the interests of an authoritarian state. The war in Ukraine gave him the chance to speed the process up. Addressing ranks of loyal bureaucrats in the soaring hall of a sleek new arts center opposite the Kremlin, the Russian president hailed the nation’s “great, glorious past” and attacked the West for trying to “put the brakes on Russian civilization.”

Putin’s vision of a creative monopoly promoting Kremlin policy, national culture and conservative social values is already receiving lavish state funding and soaking up airtime. Russia’s major museums have largely heeded the message from above, putting on exhibits with patriotic and military themes. But while his project receives support from influential members of the Russian art establishment — notably Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of St. Petersburg’s world-famous Hermitage museum — other Russian artists are, increasingly, fighting back. Putin is meeting more resistance than he bargained for, both in Ukraine and, less visibly, at home.

Open street protests have become more sporadic as Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on. Over 16,000 people have been arrested for participating in them, according to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights watchdog that monitors police activity. The crackdown by riot police has often been violent. In the increasingly pervasive climate of fear in Russian society, those who oppose the war risk being exposed at work, university or school by colleagues who inform local authorities and police of their activities. The most memorable anti-war protests in Russia have been staged by young artists. Standing under the Kremlin’s towering brick walls, dressed in black, Tatiana Sukhareva used sign language to convey her message: “I need to shout ‘No War!’ But my voice was taken from me.” She posted a video of the action on Instagram in May and, days later, fled Russia for western Europe, becoming one of many artists to leave the country.

Those who stay risk jail terms under new statutes banning any action seen to “discredit” Russia’s armed forces, according to the law. In July, the performance artist Alexandra Skochilenko received a seven-year prison sentence for replacing price tags in a St. Petersburg supermarket with tiny slogans against the war. Oleg Kulik, a 61-year-old who has long courted controversy in the cause of art, is under investigation for “rehabilitating Nazism,” a criminal offense carrying a three-year jail term. At the annual Moscow art fair in April, Kulik exhibited a cartoonish, grotesquely fat sculpture of a naked woman with an arm raised upward holding a sword, drawing parallels with the near-sacred “Motherland” World War II memorial in Volgograd, provoking the fury of patriotic parliamentarians.

A visitor to an underground art exhibit in Moscow pauses in front of an artwork in July 2022. The embroidered words say “Dangerous zone.” (Photo provided by author)

Other artists are finding more discreet ways of expressing opposition to the war. Since May, regular sales by Russian artists, many of whom have their work in international museums and private collections, have raised thousands of dollars for Ukrainian refugees — people who have been forced out of their homes in eastern Ukraine and find themselves with no means of support once they reach Russia. The sales take place quietly and by personal invitation only; they are held in a well-known Moscow gallery where artists set their works out on trestle tables. There is no alcohol served and the atmosphere is serious, without the buzz and glamor of an art-world opening. For collectors who choose not to attend in person, the works are sold through an online catalog, distributed only to a small circle of people the artists know and trust. Raising money for Ukrainian refugees is not illegal in Russia, but independent initiatives are widely viewed with suspicion. The artists fear that if the sales are not held under the radar, the security services could try and take a cut, or the sales might later be deemed illegal.

Russia’s official refugee policy encourages Ukrainians to apply for Russian citizenship giving them work and residence rights in their new home. If they don’t opt for a new Russian passport, Ukrainians are accommodated in temporary housing for at least six months before getting refugee status allowing them to work. Many have faced financial difficulties after arriving and informal volunteer groups have sprung up across Russia offering aid, including to those refugees who travel further into Europe.

One of the organizers of the underground sales, a prominent artist who has shown work at the Venice Biennale, said she needed to express her disgust at the war while staying in Russia, which she is doing for family reasons. Another artist was selling sketches for her conceptual pieces, exhibited in Russia’s top museums. “We have felt a chill wind since 2014 and knew things could get much worse,” she said. “We’re not leaving, we oppose this war and we will outlast Putin,” she continued. Both asked to withhold their identities for fear of attracting the attention of the security services.

These artists are part of a new generation that has risen to prominence since the Soviet Union’s collapse some 30 years ago. They are confident, independent and internationally connected, having traveled and worked with Western museums. While they forged a new identity, Russian art emerged onto the global stage. They have no intention of going back to socialist realism and communist isolation. Within Russians’ living memory, the Soviet state imposed its narrow definition of culture, forbidding ideas like abstract art, expressionism, conceptualism and more. Many artists defied the strict rules and worked underground, holding unofficial exhibitions within their own circles. But the KGB, the Soviet security services, infiltrated the underground art scene and, up until the 1980s, an uncompromising state quashed any signs of experimentation in culture. Artists such as the Nonconformist painter Oskar Rabin, and Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid — who were part of the Sots-Art movement, which used a pop art style to mock socialist realism — emigrated to the West. Many others, though, including the Moscow Conceptualists, stayed and kept working. Without a free exchange of ideas and information of wider global trends, however, the quality of Soviet unofficial art was often mediocre and lacked a strong identity.

Today, Russia’s contemporary artists present a powerful threat to the compliant, conventional Russian culture preferred by Putin, who never understood or liked their art, with its fluid rules and radical treatment of topics like national identity, history and gender.

An artwork at an underground exhibition in an informal space in Moscow is displayed in this July 2022 photo. (Provided by author)

The venue chosen by Putin for the unveiling of his arts manifesto was the monumental GES-2 House of Culture, a decommissioned 20th century power plant that was redesigned with financing from the gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson. The sophisticated art complex on the other side of the river from the Kremlin opened in 2021 to much fanfare. Originally designed to foster homegrown creativity and act as a window to the world, establishing Moscow as an art capital to rival London and New York, its ambitious opening program showed Russian artists alongside international A-listers. It included a headline performance work by Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson exploring post-Soviet Russia’s fascination with money, power and shoulder pads in the 1980s American soap opera “Santa Barbara.” But when Mikhelson gave the Russian president a televised private view in December 2021, Putin looked distinctly unimpressed. Months later, Moscow invaded Ukraine and Kjartansson withdrew his work, leaving GES-2 stripped of art but a perfect backdrop for Putin’s reset of Russian culture.

Russia’s big national museums have largely heeded Putin’s message, choosing to play it safe rather than experiment, and battle lines have been drawn as major figures coalesced around the Kremlin’s cause. Piotrovsky, who was once feted on the international circuit and whose museum houses some of the world’s greatest art treasures, declared that he, too, was engaged in a cultural offensive, parallel to the one Russia is waging in Ukraine. “We understand the historical mission of our country,” he bluntly told the government-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in June with a patriotic flourish. “This sense that our country is changing world history and we are involved is now the most important thing.” Piotrovsky’s imperialist stance finally pushed the Hermitage’s young, progressive curator of contemporary art, Dmitry Ozerkov, to resign. “Russia has squeezed out all of us who wanted nothing but good for its culture,” said Ozerkov when he fled in October. Heads at the Pushkin and Tretyakov museums have chosen a more neutral stance, neither openly supporting nor opposing the war, but instead sitting tight and trying to save their own staff at risk of being drafted to fight, with plans for exhibitions with foreign galleries shelved.

Others have been forced to toe the line by Russia’s culture police. In the early weeks of the war, officials from the Ministry of Culture and the Federal Security Service (FSB) visited the New Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s premier destination for 20th-century art, to review an exhibit by the Russian artist Grisha Bruskin. The curator Sergey Fofanov described how the officials made their way around Bruskin’s vast installation of monochrome sculptures, video and sound, entitled “Change of Scene,” originally made for Russia’s Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. They stopped at the image of a smooth, shaman-like figure, with stone shards bearing texts from world philosophy emanating from its head. One of these read “The Russian Idea,” which, they were puzzled to learn from Fofanov, depicted not an exceptional, historic destiny — their preferred, patriotic version — but Russian culture as an integral part of broader, European thought. The show was not approved and never opened.

An artwork at an underground exhibition in an informal space in Moscow is displayed in this July 2022 photo. (Provided by author)

A pale, controlled version of contemporary art will emerge in Russia, said Leonid Bazhanov, who heads the faculty of contemporary art at Moscow’s private university, the Higher School of Economics, and has championed free Russian art since the 1980s. “The government will not return to socialist realism but will create a simulacrum, imitating trends of entertainment and the shopping mall,” he told New Lines. The art will look innovative and stylish, designed to bring its message to the youth of Russia, but it will be fake, he said.

It is a “catastrophe,” said Katya Inozemtseva, Chief Curator at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, a prestigious private gallery financed by the oligarch Roman Abramovich, who reportedly still enjoys close ties to Putin. “Contemporary art cannot be closed off and held hostage to a ban on discussing the war. Artists need to react to the problems they see around them,” argued Inozemtseva, a leading voice in Russia’s new art generation who retains her job title even though she is no longer in the country. Supporting a decision by Garage to suspend all exhibitions as soon as the invasion of Ukraine began, Inozemtseva left Moscow in February and is currently teaching in Italy. She has witnessed the best creative talent fleeing Russia, leaving — in her estimation — only 10-15% of their peers back home. “This is a huge tragedy for Russian art,” she said, “It will be swept under the carpet, out of view.”

Artists who agree to work with the state will inevitably compromise, she said, and this will cheapen the reputation of Russian contemporary art as a whole. Independent expression is being actively crushed by the Kremlin as it establishes state-sanctioned culture. Typografia, a successful, self-organized contemporary art space in Krasnodar in southern Russia, was forced to close in May when the Kremlin labeled it a “foreign agent,” a designation increasingly used by the government to ostracize and shut down independent voices and opposition figures. Just across the Azov Sea from eastern Ukraine, where fierce fighting rages, the Krasnodar region is under martial law.

There is already a new reality in wartime Russia, with military and patriotic themes flooding exhibition plans for 2023 in museums across the country. On central Moscow’s main drag of Tverskaya Street, the Museum of Contemporary History’s focus for 2023 is called “History and Modernity in Donbass,” bringing exhibits from museums in Luhansk and Donetsk, designed to demonstrate historical and cultural ties between Russia and the east Ukrainian territories Putin annexed in September. In another wing, Stalingrad — the highly attritional battle often synonymous with Soviet victory in WWII — will again be pored over in a new exhibition. The “Cossack Guard,” focusing on the traditional defenders of the Tsarist empire’s southern borders, will form the exhibition at the State Historical Museum, glossing over modern Cossack exploits such as beating up members of the Pussy Riot group at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

In St. Petersburg, the Russian Museum will show paintings of military life, drawing a direct line between the 16th and 20th centuries, from Tsarist victories to the battles depicted by Soviet socialist realist artists. “Though never desired or welcomed, war was accepted as part of historic existence,” reads the exhibition website, going on to describe war as a “jousting ground where nations and states fought it out to win themselves a better place under the sun.” The shows will tour Russian regions where local museums have not yet announced their own plans for military and patriotic exhibitions. The federal budget spend will be huge, leaving little space for topics other than a cultural diet of war. “I am stunned,” said Inozemtseva, who has worked for the past decade to preserve a unique archive of modern Russian art at Garage, which now sits ignored and under wraps, though still intact.

The takeover is already well underway in popular culture. The Kremlin TV news propagandist Evgeny Kiselev has lauded new patriotic art, featuring poetry delivered in a hectoring tone: “Ukrainians, when will you come out from underneath the rotten apples to join the Russian World?” Meanwhile, at a “Creativity Fair” held in Gorky Park during the summer, young women in metallic two-tone lycra sat listlessly on stands advertising homegrown superheroes. Their muscled, cartoon figures echoed the military “HeroZ” — Russian soldiers in combat gear bearing the “Z” sign signifying Moscow’s forces in Ukraine — who stare out from billboards along the highways of the capital. In December, the Ministry of Culture issued Russian filmmakers and TV producers with their priority list for the 2023 state funding round. Successful projects will need to support the Kremlin’s narrative on Ukraine, demonstrating “opposition to modern manifestations of the ideology of Nazism and fascism” with stories focused on “the heroism and selflessness of Russian soldiers during the Special Military Operation,” Moscow’s euphemism for the war.

In a domestic market where private finance is scarce and international sanctions stunt outside investment, Russia’s film community is under orders: either churn out patriotic themes for the Kremlin’s military-cultural complex or see their budgets slashed to zero. The Kremlin also strongly urged regional television stations to only host “patriotic” acts for the widely watched New Year’s shows.

But not all is going well for the Ministry of Culture. In November, it was forced to cancel the Moscow Biennale only three days before its opening. Once a must-see fixture for global art aficionados, its standing was already marred by political infighting. 2023 was to be an all-Russian affair at the New Tretyakov, featuring only artists who toed the Kremlin line. The ministry offered an explanation for the ban in an opaque statement, citing “responsibility for the artistic and ethical context of the exhibition,” which required “respect for the unique museum collection of the Tretyakov and its numerous devotees.” The list of participating artists was unimpressive and to go ahead with the opening would only further discredit the Biennale and damage the museum’s reputation, suggested Inozemtseva.

Today’s atmosphere of fear and censorship is a long way from the vibrant art scene that grew over the last 30 years in creative communities across Russia’s vast land mass, surviving with minimal state support. Self-reliance helps these artists survive repression and make “art which is stronger than barricades,” said the veteran curator Bazhanov. “These are the green shoots of a new Russian art,” he added, saying their survival is critical to counter the Kremlin’s cultural model.

The artists who stay in Russia face the tough choice of either accepting the new reality or going underground. Some have chosen to work with state museums, while other bankable artists are now exhibiting in informal spaces. A whitewashed, industrial workshop in Moscow, reached by crossing a yard piled with construction debris, is the venue for an exhibition of work by some of Russia’s brightest and best young artists, whose work already features in international collections. Advertised only by word of mouth, it feels like stepping back in time to the Soviet underground.

“We have to keep working, what alternative is there?” said one artist, who asked not to be named to avoid attracting the attention of Russian security services. “If we don’t work, we might as well go and hang ourselves in a corner,” she added, allowing for a spark of dark humor.

Her works combine fragments of strip-mall home furnishings with somber ceramic vases or urns, in a melancholy take on the times. Directly or obliquely, artists are producing works which engage with the sense of fear, guilt and violence prevailing in Russia, and for the time being can still do so outside official culture. The Soviet art underground exists within living memory and can save the new generation, said Rostan Tavasiev, whose cartoonish installations treat existential themes with a dark, ironic humor. At age 46, Tavasiev could be drafted for the military, but he remains determined that free art will survive under the Putin regime.

“We know how to keep working, we just go underground,” he said. “We learned it from our parents, it’s in our genes.”

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