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© Ismene Brown 2017

Blasphemous Tannhäuser wins people's award

Arts fight threat of state censorship

Save Russia from half-trained West, says Tsiskaridze










'What makes people unhealthy and antisocial should not be supported. And we will not support it'

16 APR 14     

As Britain appoints a new Culture Minister, Sajid Javid, and his apparent lack of interest in the cultural world is much criticized, would it rather have a Culture Minister like Russia’s?

Vladimir Medinsky this week gave a voluminous interview to Kommersant, Russia's equivalent of The Financial Times, about his determination to direct a state culture policy enshrining 'traditional Russian values'. This is to be a part of a project by Putin's government to set down a 'Fundamentals of State Policy' as a framework for government spending.

Medinsky, a former journalist and PR man with an active political career supporting Putin, has already surprised Western cultural observers with his prominent interference in Bolshoi Theatre affairs, and his personal promotion of former Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze. But when you read this interview stating his (very likely officially approved) beliefs about state culture, you may wonder if this isn't a remarkable insight into Russian government attitudes today generally towards Europe, and their quite different level of anxiety about what their arts are up to.

The Culture Minister is scornful of any idea that the state has no place in steering arts into a 'proper' course, which he defined with a high degree of prescription of what is 'good' and what is 'bad'. He mounts a defensive, passionate stance against, in effect, a Europe which has let Russian culture down by following its golden past with a new modernity where forces of diversity and tolerance of differences have gone too far, in his view, for Russia to accept.

He addresses Russia's 'two-headed' viewpoint, between Europe to the West and Asia to the East, and extols the best of classical European values of the past. But he insists  that the West has generated all the hatreds and threats to social cohesion that threaten the world - including racism, fascism, atheism, anti-traditional family values, and above all the divisive side of multiculturalism. He even blames Europe for injecting 'class hatred' theory into Communism.

Medinsky maintains that a recent conference of European ministers in Moscow revealed their disquiet at the 'failure' of multiculturalism throughout the continent. He says his own submission for the cultural section of Putin's 'Fundamentals' has taken heed of all Europe's 'mistakes', and will be steering Russia's own way by looking back to its 'traditional values'.

No to tolerance, yes to toleration

He rejects the concept of social 'tolerance', rather than 'toleration', defining the former as an inert acceptance of divisive and negative life choices, and the other as an open-mindedness to other religions and belief-systems which Russia led the world in showing how to do right.

The tenor of his interview is remarkable for its overt rewriting of history to raise Russia's virtues and denigrate 'the West', and its politicizing of culture as a social reforming tool in which the state will correct individual vagaries. He reiterates his support of 'artistic freedom' in provisional, but chilling terms: while people who want to stage outrageous productions will remain free to do so, they won't get state support. And he adds that they should not expect to find it easy to get a performing licence in a rented venue.

In terms of artistic freedoms that are taken for granted in Western European terms, this is a shock to read, a real revelation of the peril in Europe of assuming that Russians are essentially eastern Europeans.

Perhaps most disconcerting is Medinsky's comment that it is Russia now that is the last bastion of protection of Europe's classical culture - that if you want to see 'Shakespeare without paedophilia' and European masterworks free from the decadent effects of European artistic modernism, it is Russia that you should look to for the upholding of true values.

Here's my translation of this provocative interview. It's worth a read, not least because it is impossible to imagine any British Culture Secretary getting so heated about the identification of the nation with what its arts are doing.


‘This is not a criminal code for culture’

Kommersant, 15 April 2014, by Yuri Yarotsky

The Culture Ministry has sent its proposal for a programme of 'Fundamentals of a State Culture Policy' to the President's office. So far it is not known what part the department's proposals will play in the resulting test of the Presidental document, which will soon be presented for general debate. The Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky gave an interview to Kommersant's Yuri Yarotsky about his vision of what should appear in a state culture policy.

KOMMERSANT: Who wrote the document?

MEDINSKY: You want name, address, pack drill? Party affiliation, nationality and what they were doing in August 1991? Let's discuss not who wrote it but what's written in it. People from academic and creative sectors worked on the general headings, and experts, members of the Ministry of Culture's general council. And also paid employees at the Ministry.

What sort of status does the document have? Does the Ministry entirely approve of the word 'Fundamentals' in the title?

Its status is just this: this is a proposal from the Culture Ministry in the 'Fundamentals of State Policy' project which is being carried out by working groups in the Presidential administration. We were set the task not to prepare the final text but to propose key aims and principles of state policy in the culture sphere. The document was laid down specifically in order to develop and amplify these in the process of general discussion.

We knowingly use blatant, colourful and in places tough wording, so as to motivate this sort of discussion. The kind of sweetened, watery porridge of texts that bureaucrats are used to won't snag anyone's interest, no one would talk about it. To me personally the 'streamlined' diplomatic style of civil service documents should be banned as superfluous.

The Ministry is an organ of executive government. It should write what it has in view. But to have an endless repetition of verbal rumination and the decanting of reasoning from the present time all the way back to its genesis, this is the realm of Congress intelligentsia. The result is, for several days we've been having both instant condemnation from the liberals and also a powerful gathering of arguments in support of our proposals from the wider general public.

All the same, and I'll say it again, we are not talking about a prepared document but, in essence, an interdepartmental exchange. Roughly speaking, we're setting out for a taster just a few raw ideas - ingredients for a soup that still needs to be cooked.

Are there any aims besides what distinguishes those arts that deserve state support and those that do not?

The object isn't about what deserves state support or not. As a whole, the chief task for Russia's government is set down in the Constitution: to enable 'the fundamental conditions that favour a worthy life and the free development of the human being'. That means the state doesn't only have the right, it is in fact obliged to conceive a culture policy that enables decisions about these aims. And it is also obliged to conceive the culture policy in such a way as to enable cultural integrity for the country's whole territory and its security. Within this is included the integrity of information, human rights and culture.

The job is to uphold that which strengthens the nation and develops the individual. But whatever divides people, what makes them unhealthy, antisocial, aggressive, unwilling to learn or work or study art - we can't forbid those things but they should not be supported by state funding. And we will not support them.

We won't have court artists - that idea is far from our minds. Our job is the support and guidance of creativity. In order to move away from supporting 'fashonable', 'elite' and unfailingly provocative stuff, and towards supporting talented and socially significant work. Also so that while we preserve the respect of the deserving masters of art, we help those who are not yet known but can become the pride of Russia in future.

'We learned from the rich

experience of Europe's mistakes

in cultural policy'

Did you look at foreign experience as you drew up the document?

Of course. Above all, we learned from the rich experience of mistakes accumulated in past decades in cultural policy by the countries of Europe. A year ago all the culture ministers came to Moscow for the first time in history for a conference - members of the Council of Europe. European ministers, almost with one voice, spoke out about the failure of multiculturalism, of the policy of so-called preservation of diversity and equality of distinct subcultures.

Up to then they thought a coordinated 'macroculture' was unnecessary. But now they're urgently bringing in new policies: that there should be one national culture that unites everyone who lives in that country. The analysts who prepared our proposals pored over the papers from that conference until they fell to bits.

Basically our document is founded on a good part of Western political theory - that's not so strange. For instance, on the idea that culture is an area of production of the basic imagery of social behaviour. We learned from the experiences of both the USA in its period exiting the Great Depression and of France under de Gaulle. Also the experience of Kulturkampf in Germany in the 19th century, and the British principles of 'roots and crowns'. And - it goes without saying - from the work of the classics of the 'civilisational' schools, [Arnold] Toynbee, [Samuel] Huntington and others.

Among new things, the utterances of the authors of the 2013 Review of Culture Policy in Russia, which was compiled by an international group of experts on the Council of Europe. In particular we used their thesis that in Russia culture - to quote the Euro experts - is 'a means of formulating social cohesion amid conditions of cultural diversity'. This idea is on a list of those which we're drawing on when we propose to consider cultural policy as a means of deepening traditional values generally found in all the peoples of Russia.

A state culture policy - this would be what? A criminal code? Constitution, manifesto, instruction manual? Should we consider the 'Fundamentals' statement as a potential declaration of war with the arts that don't conform with the prescribed criteria?

This isn't a criminal code for culture, and it does not lay down a direction that all must conform to. But it is not just empty decoration. I would say that this is an all-Russia set of terms of reference for anyone working in contemporary culture, who want to receive state support for their project. As to 'war', you can maybe wait to see if the whole repressive appratus of the Culture Ministry goes to war with pseudo-art, including spies, secret agents, Zapashniy [circus] tigers, and specially evilly trained circus dogs?

'Sirs, your creative freedom

is enshrined in the Constitution.

But not at state expense'

Once again, no one will be in the slightest censored or suppressed. I can repeat this a third time, so you will finally hear me. Sirs, your creative freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, but if you'd like to propagandize using your theatre's resources, or, for instance, some sort of animations of perversity and strangements, or marginal subculture of Breivik's followers of opium-smokers, directly opposed to the traditional values of our nation - please, do it at your own expense. Not with taxpayers' money. Your problems with organisations, if there are any, are outside the remit of the Culture Ministry. We are generally in favour of creative freedom. Not watering something isn't at all the same as trampling it down. But in these cases they must be watered by other sources.

If we use the cynical language of economists, the state will invest and be interested solely in projects that return a profit to national culture and human capital. But if your cultural project results in Russians being diminished, their physical and psychological health being worsened, and them becoming anti-social or aggressive, they become addicted to narcotics, they don't want to learn and grow professionally, and they turn away from family values. Sorry. That kind of project you will have to realize without the hand of the state. There you have the full freedom to work, in the remit of the Culture Ministry. It's just that we won't even look in your direction.

So you see, the mission of the state policy is not to make war with anyone. The mission is to support what is humanly uplifting in the arts, supporting talented, socially important work that helps the country's development and unity. But it goes without saying that ts is also to defend her from those waves of information aggression that destroy Russia's sense of identity, threaten her cultural sovereignty, and disturb personal development. They destroy her heritage, holding it up to ridicule and distorting it. The necessity for very careful treatment of the cultural heritage in that regard is also set down in the Constitution.

'Tolerance should be a

personal choice - it is a

negative principle'

What would explain the document's specific approach to terminology, ie the treatment of certain terms, such as tolerance, multiculturalism, and so on?

It was necessary to do painstaking and scientific work on this particular issure precisely because it arouses so much interest. The concept of tolerance has been criticized for a long time befor enow, in the West. Under it religious toleration, the freedom to live and work alongside your neighbouring tribe, is an absolutely inescapable part of our civilized code. But 'tolerance' is something else.

Tolerance is a dead, abstract principle, requiring the submission to any foreign activity, whether that includes excess, ugliness or vulgarity. Of course there is the right to tolerance, but it must be the personal choice of the individual. To be tolerant or not is a private matter, just like choosing to smoke or not. But to make tolerance a principle within state culture policy is logically impossible. That would lead to tolerating not only unethical, unlawful and ugly taste, but we would have to resign ourselves to accepting the most basic unprofessionalism too.

We are not in favour of 'tolerance'; we are in favour of toleration of religion and general values. The more there is toleration shown towards the representatives of other religions, the quicker the traditional traits of Russian culture will show in our nationality.

Tolerance is always a negative feeling - it is toleration without love, which cuts through strength, cuts across the guts. And we can see what this 'tolerance', when foisted from above, has brought about in Europe: the fast growth of nationalist movements in Austria and France.

In Russia from the start we've always espoused not tolerance but rather love and respect. Not to 'tolerate' the Caucasian lezginka but to be delighted by it, and to tap into it, as the Cossacks tap into it. We Russians listen to the Vainakh ensembles and Georgian choirs not with our teeth clenched in 'tolerance', but with genuine delight, because it's a miracle when dance and song so manage to capture the spirit of a people, and plunge into its history.

'Already Europe is rejecting

multiculturalism; in Russia

we have something better'

And now, 'multiculturalism'. Already in Europe they're rejecting it, while our liberal intelligentsia still can't get this decrepit idea out of their heads. Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy have all repeatedly spoken about the failure of multiculturalism. In our tradition there's something better: a centuries-long co-existence and collaboration of distinct cultures and traditions, constructed in the unification of their communities, and not by an irritably sustained toleration of each other. That, by the way, is the invaluable experience of having a peaceful history - it was not available to the colonisers in America or India or Africa.

Multiculturalism means an isolated neighbourhood of different cultures without any mutual warmth, without mutual enrichment or synergy. You see the bits of a jigsaw but the picture that is supposed to emerge is not named. It's because there are no shared values, no shared languages, no shared goals.

The 'universal receptivity' of our culture, in Dostoevsky's thought, is the opposite of multiculturalism - it works towards a common cultural space, one language of cultural dialogue. Pushkin was open to both Byron and Shakespeare and to the songs of the southern Slavs and to Heine and Schiller, the Caucasus and Persia. We have always absorbed the best of different cultures, lovingly, expressing it in our Russian artistic language. Konstantin Leontiev rightly remarked that 'Russia has always been evolving as "a complex blossom", as a state civilization of a large number of nations, enriching the Russian people, the Russian language and Russian culture.'

Your phrase 'traditional values' - do you mean this as a contradiction to 'non-traditional values'?

The phrase 'the defence of traditional values is primarily used to oppose the other - the 'destruction of traditional values'. You ask me to decode it. Someone did rather spitefully suggest that the Ministry of Culture should start compiling a list: 'Medinsky's 100 best traditional values in Russia'. Don't bother to wait for the list, you only need the heading.

Our culture has displayed these values for centuries and has enshrined them in works of art. It is in the language of poetry, painting, music, theatre, cinema that these values are properly expressed. You want to make a list?

Start with the school curriculum in literature, and write down: the image of Yaroslavna in [the medieval manuscript]  The Song of Igor's Campaign.Got that? Here's your Russian traditional value. And if you do a production of the [Borodin] opera Prince Igor in which Yaroslavna dances around the cross masturbating and begging the Polovtsian Khan for cocaine, that would be a violation of traditional values.

And write this down: the values of honest service to the fatherland, the oath of loyalty, the faith in love that humbles the heart of the bitterest man, even in a time of 'Russian revolt'. This is [Pushkin's] The Captain's Daughter. And if you'd like to stick your 'vision' into it, about how Pyotr Grinyov had an intimate liaison with Pugachev, etc, don't rely on state support for it. I'll add to that - you might find problems with a rental licence as well.

For the resilience of the simple human soul who remains an individual in conditions of harshest degradation and injustice, take Slozhenitsyn's Ivan Denisovich. And they theymight say: and Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gogol's The Inspector, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov - these are positive values? Embezzlement and vulgarity, hatred, patricide? Well, actually the underlining of values 'from the contrary' is an even more effective method.

And it's the same in movies and music, in architecture, folk art. To sum up, culture is the nation's values expressed as the language of art and transmitted as a heritage.

The artist, regardless of nationality, has become part of Russian culture the moment he adopts a common system of values enshrined in our culture and in our heritage. This is how people of vastly different nationalities became Russian geniuses. You see the innermost secret of the Russian nature especially fully revealed by the Jew, Isaac Levitan. Europe passes by, not noticing the charms of an ordinary morning in a Russian village, while Levitan miraculously captures this music and transmits it, made understandable for the whole world. The Little Russian [IB Ukrainian] writer Nikolai Gogol-Yanovsky is recognized as one of the founders of great Russian prose. And all our writers since then 'emerged from Gogol's Overcoat'.

In the history of Russia's 'code of civilization' you don't just find whatever does not fall in step with traditional Russian values. For instance, the Sharia law - though in the imperial years there was a reasonable toleration of it, paying respect to local tradition - in parts of the Caucasus there was sa parallel operation of secular and Sharia courts, and the accused could himself choose which to be tried in. However, they weren't accustomed to the yashmak and slavery. That was the decision of Russia's Muslim ancestors, and this is our own common cultural code.

And so the values of the Muslim peoples of Russia have been extremely beneficially written into this code of civilization, such as honouring parents, hospitality. All that is most beautiful in the national spirit easily fits into our common code. The Orthodox Cossacks, I say again, have taken up the lezginka with pleasure.

'Russian culture is a culture

not of pioneers and initiators,

but of great refiners'

Alexandre Dumas is probably more respected in Russia today than he is in France; the TV serial about Holmes and Watson in England was acknowledged as the best screen version of Conan Doyle in the world. In Russia we read Balzac more than he's read in his homeland. Walter Scott is more read here than in England, Thomas Mayne Reid more than in the US.

Russia supports an integrative, cross-fertilizing cultural tradition. As it was with the Russian novel so it is with Russian painting, theatre, ballet. But you can't argue about that, can you? It seems to me that Russian culture in the world is a culture not of pioneers and initiators, but a culture of great refiners.

So you're saying Russia is not Europe. But then what? Is the idea of this theory to reject European cultural traditions, or is it a wider view of art?

Don't take it out of context. Russia is not simply Europe. Russia is actually only half Europe. But this goes much wider than only Europe. The roots of our civilization are from Byzantium, which for a thousand years preserved and developed Roman culture to a tremendous height. It was an astonishing synergy of different peoples - at the very top of power you had Goths, Armenians, Slavs... What united all this mass of differences? Common values, common faith.

The fact is that Russia is a world of its own special, independent civilization, on a par with Western Europe, the Chinese, the Indian, etc. For a long time past our greatest minds have come together with Europe's philosophers. There's no point in repeating it. Russia is complex and multi-faceted. The great squares of Europe's cities resemble each other, but Red Square is something else. To state simplistically that Russia must strive mindlessly to become England or Holland, it's as if to say, as some Western critics do [IB: Vladimir Nabokov among them], that Pushkin was a follower of Byron. No, he was not Byron, he was something else.

They're frightened that if we are not Europe, then we must inevitably be Asia. It's a false opposition. Pushkin is not Byron, but nor is he Hafez [the Persian medieval poet]. Our national emblem has two heads. It's impossible to make a government culture policy that ignores and suppresses its soul, its memories and legacies.

'Perhaps we can see Russia as

the last guardian of Europe's

values and civilization'

And by the way, it was from 'enlightened Europe' that we were given such ideological movements as racism, fascism, vulgar atheism - and moreover Communism with the theory of 'class hatred' attached to it is absolutely Western in the theory's origin and spirit. And I'm saying nothing about the 'latest' acquisitions from the West, the culture of profit, anti-patriotism, non-traditional families and morals.

At first we cling to the trendy 'culture product' of the West, but as the years go by it turns out we don't need it, it won't take root. And it remains forever the classical European taste and classical European values. It's in Russia that they are now preserved to a greater extent than in the countries of Western Europe. Perhaps we can see Russia in the role of the last guardian of European culture, Christian values and a truly European civilization.

I would hazard a guess that even today Russia's tourists arriving in Greece, France or Spain are probably better informed than the locals about the labours of Hercules, or [Homer's] Odyssey, [Rabelais's] Gargantua and [Cervantes'] Don Quixote. Incidentally, for those foreign natives, and for the rest of the world, The Nutcracker is first and foremost a Russian ballet with Russian music, and only then is it remembered as E T A Hoffmann's.

So where did the idea that we're unreceptive to European culture come from? It's more like this - the West is currently turning away from its own values, into its opposite, while Russia is being forced to defend itself culturally from 'Anti-Europe', to at least keep Shakespeare without paedophilia, and The Little Prince without a homosexual slant.

The document was sent to the Presidential administration. Has there been any response to its contents?

As of today, exactly half of our proposals have been to some extent taken into account in the current working draft of the 'Fundamentals of State Cultural Policy'. The work goes on. We think that with time our other ideas will also be included in the final text, taking care, of course, with the wording. The main thing is to read the whole text carefully and between us find the truth in a dispute - and not just wave flags and quotes plucked out of Facebook.


Medinsky's CV

Vladimir Rostislavovich Medinsky was born on 18 July 1970 in Smela, Ukraine. He graduated from the faculty of international journalism at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 1992, PhD 1994. During his student years he worked in the media, was vice-president of the Association of Journalists at MGIMO, and he worked in the press office of the consulate in the US.

In 1992 he set up and directed a PR agency, Korporatsia Ya. From 1998 he was adviser to the head of the Russian Federation tax police service, then was head of the information policy department of the Ministry for Taxes and Duties.

In 1999-2000 he worked in the election headquarters for the Otechestvo-Vsya Rossiya [All-Russia Fatherland] party. In 2000-2 he was adviser to the deputy speaker of the state Duma [Parliament]. From 2002 he led the executive committee of the Moscow political organisation Edinaya Rossiya [One Russia], and the party's election HQ in Moscow.

In 2003 and 2007 he was elected to the State Duma. In 2006-8 he was president of the Russian Association for Public Communications. In 2010-2 he was a member of the Presidential Commission for the Opposition of Attempts to Falsify History.

In 2011 he headed the Duma Culture Committee. Since 21 May 2012 he has been Minister for Culture.

He is a member of the upper council of the One Russia party. He is a professor at MGIMO, a Doctor of politics and historical science. He is a member of the Writers' Union, and author of a series of books including the series Myths of Russia.

Medinsky: Only Russia saves Shakespeare from paedophilia

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (photo Alexander Shcherbak/Kommersant