Times of war in Russian arts and culture


In times of war, what can Russian arts and culture do to withstand interventions by the Russian state? An exhibition at Garage in Moscow could provide an answer.

Sonja Katharina Schiffers
17 April 2015

The Russian state has tightened its grip on contemporary arts and culture in recent years – most notably via the June 2013 law that criminalises acts which ‘offend’ Orthodox believers. The hooliganism charges and subsequent court case brought against Pussy Riot in August 2013 exposed the extent of state intervention even further. 

Last month, a state-run theatre in Novosibirsk ran into trouble when Orthodox activists instigated a court case against the theatre's director (who later lost his job).  What was the crime? Displaying a crucifix between a woman's legs on a poster during the play. In this increasingly conservative cultural climate, there is, however, one major arts institution that seems to resist – Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Times of war

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection. The exhibition highlights Eastern European artists' 'common struggle for artistic and individual liberties', stressing 'art's potential in making individual voices heard and in confronting or overcoming ideology, conflicts, and not least, wars'.

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection.

Snejana Krasteva, the curator of the exhibition, states that the concept emerged in the search for a common thread to unite East European postwar avant-garde art. Artists from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and today’s Central and Eastern Europe all face(d) similar problems in their life and work, which variously motivated them to engage with their environments artistically, impeded their artistic production, or induced them to develop strategies to deal with these problems. No matter how the curating process of the Grammar of Freedom exhibition started – with the concept behind the exhibition or with the artworks, which were supposed to be shown – given the increasingly conservative political situation in Russia, the exhibition arguably comes at a very sensitive point in time. 

Indeed, it was only in March that Nikolai Starikov, a patriotic 'AntiMaidan' activist, accused the National Centre for Contemporary Arts Nizhny Novgorod (NCCANN) branch of organising an exhibition in Krasnodar that allegedly promoted a 'Russian Maidan'. Moreover, Starikov claimed that the NCCANN not only receives state funding for its 'Western-style' exhibitions, but also impedes the 'patriotic education of citizens' – it occupies part of the old kremlin [fortress] of the city. Whether Starikov's subsequent call to relocate NCCANN, whose staff worked hard to renovate the recently opened kremlin, will be answered, remains to be seen.

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Marchers in a February 'AntiMaidan' march, led by activist Nikolai Starikov. (c) RIA Novosti/Aleksei Filippov

Ilya Budraitskis, a socialist activist and curator, who gave a presentation on 'The Power of the Powerless: Artistic Strategies in Times of War' at the conference that was organised as part of the educational programme of the Garage exhibition, states that specific initiatives against ‘liberal’ cultural productions are often launched by ultra-Orthodox or self-proclaimed ‘patriotic’ individuals, while the framework for action is provided by the government’s legislation and discourse. As Rachel Donadio, arts correspondent for the New York Times, reports, cultural figures say the government is sending a clear message: 'Fall in line with the emphasis on family and religious values, or lose funding, or worse.'

And as Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva argue, the Kremlin increasingly uses symbolic politics, stressing 'a series of masculine, historical, and religious touchstones that defined a core constituency of true Russians pitted against a radical, Westernised, and very limited opposition' in order to secure its power.

Freedom is for beginners

As stated on its website, Garage presents itself as a 'place for people, art, and ideas to create history'. And the museum’s extensive educational programme puts this participatory approach into practice.

At the exhibition opening, curators, artists, and experts reflected on the notion of ‘freedom’: it cannot exist in a vacuum, only be experienced when one is aware of its boundaries; fighting for freedom implies taking risks; and lastly, 'as a word, freedom is for beginners, as a practice, it’s more advanced'. 

But what is the grammar of freedom? The exhibition is organised around five lessons: (1) the body as a tool for liberation, (2) the transformation of systems (understood as revealing any system’s inherent structures in order to change inequities in the distribution of art and ideas), (3) the power of collaboration, (4) the practice of self-organisation and resistance and (5) uniting through adversity against a common enemy.

While some of these might not be lessons in the narrow sense of the word, they all illustrate strategies of artists in the struggle for professional and individual liberties. For example, in Blood Ties (1995), the artist Katarzyna Kozyra uses her body as a tool to express (particularly female) vulnerability in wartime Bosnia and Kosovo. In her photographs, the artist poses naked in front of a red crescent and a red cross, symbols of the humanitarian organisations that provided aid, but even more so of the religious groups that had come to fight each other in the so-called ‘fratricidal wars’ on the Balkans. 

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'Blood Ties' (1995) by Katarzyna Kostyra at Garage. Image courtesy of the author.

In Triangle, a provocative 1979 performance, Sanja Iveković exposes the lunatic accuracy with which totalitarian regimes try to control even the most private aspects of their citizens’ lives. On the day of a presidential visit to the city, Iveković sits on her balcony and pretends to masturbate, expecting the security guard on the roof of the building across from her balcony, who is the only person who can see her, to notify the policeman on the street in front of the house through his walkie-talkie. Things turn out as anticipated: soon the policeman rings her doorbell and orders that 'persons and objects should be removed from the balcony'.

In another powerful work in the exhibition, the video I am Milica Tomić (1998), Milica Tomić reflects on the relationship between personal and 'state-ordered' collective identity, and the exclusionary impact the latter has on anyone who does not want to or cannot relate to the propagated identity.

As a last example, in the video Barter (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group, Mykola Ridniy takes off to the Ukrainian countryside to trade copies of famous contemporary paintings for produce or livestock.


'Barter' (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group. Image courtesy of the author.

Not all of the villagers are convinced by the paintings. Giggling next to a work by Neo Rauch, one lady wonders out loud which 'fool painted that thing' and 'which idiot would buy the original.'

All in all, the works clearly show that humour and irony can be powerful tools in the struggle against unjust regimes – be they political, economic, or ideational. During the last years, this has become an established finding. In an article for Foreign Policy, Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksic argue that 'laughtivism', a humorous form of activism, helps to break fear, builds confidence, and simply makes a protest movement seem 'cool'.

Most importantly, however, laughtivism 'confront[s] autocrats with a dilemma: the government can either crack down on those who ridicule it (making itself look even more ridiculous in the process) or ignore the acts of satire aimed against it (and risk opening the flood gates of dissent).' Only a few days ago, a Moscow court ruled that it is illegal to add celebrities’ images to internet memes that 'have nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.' Could this be the end to shirtless Putins on birds and bears?

‘Special status’

Curator Snejana Krasteva says there were no major negative reactions to the exhibition. But while other cultural institutions struggle for their right to expression, how come no one seems to mind Grammar of Freedom being shown in the centre of Moscow? 

Though the political relevance and radicalism of some of the works is striking, most of the works shown at Grammar of Freedom comment more on dominating regimes and how they govern the visibility art has than politics per se. The exhibition hardly makes any direct references to current Russian politics and society – conclusions are to be drawn by the visitors themselves, and these certainly vary a great deal. Furthermore, while Grammar of Freedom might appeal to the liberal and the well-educated, it might founder when it comes to the majority of society, even though Garage makes a big effort to reach out to all kinds of visitors. 

Garage’s 'special status' may well have something to do with its ownership structure. A private institution, Garage is protected from direct state interference. Garage was founded by Dasha Zhukova together with her husband Roman Abramovich. In a 2012 London court case, the judge ruled that 'Mr Abramovich enjoyed very good relations with President Putin and others in power at the Kremlin' and that he 'had privileged access to President Putin, in the sense that he could arrange meetings and discuss matters with him.' For this reason, in March 2014, opposition politician Alexei Navalny called for Abramovich’s inclusion on the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals.

Famously, Vladimir Lenin once proclaimed that the best way to control the opposition is for the government to lead it itself. For all we know, Garage, one of the last major places for seemingly truly free debate, might be part of a clever governmental strategy to ‘allow’ an opposition arts and culture movement.

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Aleksei Kosolapov's 'Lenin and Coca-cola'. Image courtesy of the author.

According to Holger Albrecht, who scrutinised the Egyptian opposition before the Tahrir revolution of 2011, a 'controlled opposition' can provide several functions to the state, for instance observing, channeling, and moderating societal dissent; yielding certain democratic legitimacy to the state and thereby appeasing critical individuals; and lastly, playing out several factions of society against each other, in order to keep them busy with each other, and creating an equilibrium in which the government can act as a mediator.

As Budraitskis claims, the latter is exactly what is happening in Russia: 'the regime's policy is not to build a total cultural patriotic hegemony. Its policy is to strengthen the feelings of the conservative majority, to feed these feelings, and to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.' Indeed, one could argue that the existence of a liberal minority helps the regime to balance the two poles of the Russian opposition.  

Whether Garage is part of a government strategy or not, Snejana Krasteva reminds us that 'any system reacts to its own critique. Does that mean that there shouldn’t be an opposition?'

'The regime’s policy is to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.'

'Without art, societies would be boring and uncritical'

In the context of Grammar of Freedom, the question remains how art and artists can contribute to more just and liberal regimes. According to Krasteva, artists have 'no obligation whatsoever to change society', but 'without art, societies would be boring and uncritical.' 

What artists can do is render objectionable political and societal developments visible. They can imagine alternatives that may or may not be taken up by the rest of society.

At the same time, Budraitskis argues that 'if there are no ideas in society, there is no inspiration for artists.' Writing in July 2014, Budraitskis asserted 'if the new war (or prewar) footing into which Russian society is sinking deeper has a point of consensus that unites different social and cultural strata, it is the smothering, eerie awareness of society’s total powerlessness in the face of interstate conflict.’ 

One hopes that irony and dark humour, two aspects which unite so many works at Garage’s Grammar of Freedom, will continue to flourish, and not wither away under difficult present conditions.

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