The ‘vertical of power’ grabs Russian cinema

Danil Dondurey
3 April 2009

 From the editors of openDemocracy Russia:

There can hardly be another country in the world where an event like a congress of the Film-makers Union could attract so much attention as in the old Soviet Union, or now in  Putin's Russia. At the legendary Film Congress in 1986, the example of dissenting film-makers and reformers in Gorbachev's Politburo condemning censorship and demanding more artistic freedom inspired the Soviet intelligentsia to follow their example.

At the most recent Congress of the Russian Film-makers Union two competing factions joined battle for the post of the Union's president. In December 2008, the dissidents had already tried to overthrow its powerful chief Nikita Mikhalkov and replace him with the widely-respected director Marlen Khutsiev. Now Nikita Mikhalkov has struck back.

Oscar-winning Mikhalkov is one of Russia's best known film directors and director of the Moscow Film Festival. He is also Vladimir Putin's personal friend and a strong supporter of the Kremlin. He has made no secret of his desire to control Russia's film industry, to have the final word on which films should be produced and which should not. For Mikhalkov the interests of the state and Russia's imperial aspirations have been always more important than respect for human rights or freedom of speech. For Russia's intelligentsia, Mikhalkov's come-back is emblematic of their country's authoritarian rule.

Earlier this year Nikita Mikhalkov and his camp mobilised all resources to reclaim the presidency for him. In his speech at the congress Mikhalkov accused his opponents, including the author of this article, Danil Dondurey, editor-in-chief of the magazine Iskusstvo Kino, and the well-known scriptwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov of embezzelling  the Union's funds.  He accused his opponents for upholding  values that endangered the integrity and power of the Russian state and culture. Thus, paradoxically, did Mikhalkov recognise the democratic appeal of his opponents.  The drama at the Congress of the Film-makers Union sums up the dilemmas and moral conflicts of present day Russia.

For sophisticated liberal intellectuals like Danil Dondurey this kind of dirty attack must have come as a shock. After the Congress Dondurey wrote an article for the official Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazyeta . Though the article had been commissioned earlier, the editors understood that in light of Mikhalkov's victory publishing Dondurey's piece could only lead to a trouble. With Russia's internet carrying on the tradition of the Soviet samizdat, Dondurey's article can be read now on a number of Russian websites. We believe it should be made available to a wider readership.

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 The whole country has become involved in a historic conflict taking place in the Film-makers' Union, one which raises significant cultural issues. People are riveted by this conflict, which is essentially about the intellectual framework of Russian life. Whether consciously or not, they feel that the issue at stake is not so much Russian film, as the kind of country we live in.

Cinema does, of course, directly affect us all. The underlying theme of the recent congress was changes to the creative unions. To judge from the published plans, they are all going to have to abandon their intellectual mission and become a mixture of trade union and social services. They will restrict themselves to helping the old, providing money for medicines and arranging funerals. And that's it!  There will be no more thoughts about politics in the cinema, partnerships between government and business, no more talk about the quality of films or educating the audience.  And above all no more programmes linking us up with other cultures and countries.

This is momentous.  The creative unions go back to 1934.  Their task was to mediate  between the artist and the state, the artist and society, the artist and business.  They looked after the interests of the creative professions.  As of today, this mission is over.

In fact, this is a process which has been going on ever since the fall of communism. They have not been engaged with cultural politics and economics, or been in real partnership with the Ministry of Culture for a long time.  They have mainly been concerned with anniversary celebrations, recommendations for honours and finding a use for the property granted them by Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

It was the cultural politician extraordinaire Nikita Mikhalkov who first announced that the creative unions were no longer going to be communities of like-minded people charged with managing partnerships between artists and the state.  All these functions were to be transferred to the specially created Academies, which have been springing up like mushrooms. 

It is significant that during the 10 hours the congress was in session not a word (!) was actually said about Russian cinema.  Nothing about its crisis, or about how to come through it, nothing about any achievements or failures.  No one talked about what we should do next, although these congresses only happen once every five years. There was no analysis, only pompous declarations of love for the way it used to be. No one was looking for co-operation or reconciliation.

It was presented as a conflict between a small group who supported the incumbent president Khutsiev and the overwhelming majority of film-makers.  It was not by accident that there was no government representative at the Congress - neither the Minister of Culture nor anyone else.

So what direction will Russian cinema take now?  In all European countries the government acts on the arms' length principle:   they subsidise the arts, but decisions are taken by the artists themselves.  This is how it is in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway...  In Russia strategic questions about the organisation and development of the film industry have not been discussed for 10 years. Perhaps things really would improve if decisions were all taken behind the scenes?

You should have seen this ‘Congress of Victors'.  Everyone, even people who knew nothing about the politics of cinema, knew what was going on. What we were watching was not just one famous person attacking another (who is important, talented, moneyed and very well connected, a kind of cultural oligarch).

There has been a lot of discussion recently, even beyond the industry, about the ‘vertical of power' which is being set up within Russian cinema. After the Congress many people will winder whether anyone in the country is going to able to take decisions about culture on behalf of the wider public. Will it be possible to sack cultural bureaucrats without an imperial decree?  Do we need cultural tsars who can't really be asked where the money is coming from.

One of the basic principles of the Russian Constitution was put to the test at the Congress. This is the absence of one dominant ideology - ie freedom.  Yes, the Union's finances were dodgy, but that's not the point. The real agenda was resisting the ‘liberal-atlantic dictatorship', and all that that entails.  This phrase of Nikita Mikhalkov's was clearly an attempt to avoid using the word ‘European' pejoratively.  However, when our President was interviewed on British television the other day, he said he would like to see Russia become a flourishing European country.

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