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Filin in court: ‘I can’t forgive’

Arts fight threat of state censorship

Hopeful end to Bolshoi's horror year

'Profanity is not a part of the public freedom of the individual. We don’t think it necessary to have public toilets open to view'

29 MAY 14     

Russia’s plans to make it government policy to outlaw swearing, offence to the religious, and any justification of fascism from all state spheres have today reached the cauldron of direct consultation with the arts world, for whom creative freedom and author copyright appear directly to contradict the new censorship.

The debate on President Putin’s broad series of “Fundamentals of State Policy” laws yesterday reached the Ministry of Culture’s council table, from which an agreed document is supposed to emerge in September, on which Putin will decide how much to base his final statutory policy imperatives for arts and culture.

Yesterday the Culture Ministry’s special culture adviser reacted to the consternation of artists, telling Izvestia that there would be no censorship in arts - this was an “inviolable” maxim. Yet he admitted it would require that lawmakers act with special “expertise and sensitivity” when cases come up involving art. Some are scoffing that this means the state would have to turn a blind eye whenever artists transgressed laws affecting everyone else in Russia.

Considering the boisterous attack on woolly Western cultural liberalism by Culture Minister Medinsky himself last month, and his support for wideranging general constrictions on culture, it’s easy to see anxieties about how this will boil down to specifics.

Earlier this month theatres were reporting the contortions they’ve started using to get controversial material performed, including replacing well-known profanities with euphemisms, or withdrawing productions altogether.

Most inflammatory are the measures concerning offence to religious sensitivities and “justification” of Nazism, which could affect a very broad range of cultural working areas, including World War II and classical Russian literature - not to mention nudes and erotica.

Izvestia’s new report is translated below.

‘A positive direction forward for Russian culture’

Izvestia, May 29, 2014, 15:01 by Yaroslav Timofeev

On Tuesday the public discussion of “the Fundamentals of state culture policy”, which began on May 23, passed on to the State Duma, and Thursday (today) have continued at the meeting of the Ministry of Culture’s public council.

According to the Ministry’s website, the “Fundamentals” will include an item to guarantee creative freedom and prohibit censorship. “The inviolability of these norms will exact from the legislators a particular expertise and sensitivity, where legislation touches the sphere of creative arts,” warned Vladimir Tolstoy, the presidential culture adviser who is executive secretary of the working group preparing the consultative document.

Expertise is particularly demanded concerning how to reconcile the freedom of an artist with a whole range of federal laws enacted in the past year that relate to creativity: concerning the protection of religious feelings, prohibition of mat (or bad language), and accountability for justification of Nazism.

“If the ‘Fundamentals of culture policy’ are adopted, it’ll be necessary to take action to repeal a whole range of state laws,” said [film director] Alexander Sokurov. “The ban on differing interpretations of the events of the Second World War and the ban on insulting the feelings of religious people are both in full-frontal contradiction with Constitutional norms.”

‘I’d like to see doors, windows and gates in this wall’

Film director Yuli Gusman, member of the Committee of Civil Initiatives, thinks that the true significance of the laws is different from what is stated. “We have a law on answerability for justification of fascism, but I do not know a single person in the country - apart from a few dopes and adolescents - who would say fascism’s great. It means that the title is one thing, and the aim is another. I think it’s remarkable that we are surrounding a small group of dissident and unpleasant people with a fence of all sorts of innovations, but I’d like to see doors, windows and gates in this blank wall, through which we can get out into the light. I think Mr Tolstoy, who is a robust and intelligent man, can improve the ‘Fundamentals’ text.”

Writer Zahar Prilepin is not alarmed by the constraints of censorship: he reminds us that "in Russia the severity of laws is compensated by the lack of compulsion to enforce them.”

“Literature provides the answers to the most dreadful issues - that’s its main task. Now they’re knocking the essential base out of the foundation of literature, because you see, an insult to this or that group of people could be found in any text you like, including Crime and Punishment and Resurrection. A mass-scale application of these laws will obliterate all social thought. But I don’t think they’ll work. They’ll start using dots, when it happens that someone wants to spite somebody,” suggested Prilepin.

Copyright conflicts with censorship

The laws on religious feelings and justificaiton of Nazism are considered dangerous to the arts by a majority of culture figures approached by Izvestia. Opinions on the “mat ban” differ.

“We have copyright law - the state protects existing literary works,” says [theatre director] Roman Viktyuk. “So that means both mat and these works are under protection. How can you ban something that the state is protecting? Ban Pushkin, Esenin, Mayakovsky? It’s nonsense.”

“Pushkin and Lermontov did their swearing in diaries and letters - they didn’t expect that these texts would come to stand in the canon of their literary works,” counters Alexander Sokurov. “Profanity is not a part of the public freedom of the individual. We don’t consider it necessary to have public toilets open to view - really someone will say: ‘Just think - physiology, people defecating.’ Mat is the same thing. The original sewage of consciousness.”

Nikolai Burlyayev [actor in Tarkovsky’s early films], who says he is the initiator of the work being done on the notorious document, is convinced that there are no contradictions between freedom and its restrictions. “A ban on censorship is right. No one can stand censor over an artist - his chief censor is God Himself. But if you correlate yourself, a wicked man, to the providence of God, or you become vulgar, dirty, pathological, vile - that’s something else. This would be a second step - when society begins to determine what can be done to safeguard the lives of our children, and what it would be better to avoid.”

Burlyayev promises that there will be no persecution of art that spurns either God or society, but the state will cease to fund any culture that doesn’t stay close to it. “No one is going to ban a picture that upsets the feelings of believers: the artist can hand it in his yard,” says Burlyayev. “But the state will now support only work that helps the soul of the nation to soar, not to fall down into the depths. ‘The Fundmanetals of State Culture Policy’ will define a positive direction forward for Russian culture.”

Discussion of  the “Fundamentals” will go on till 30 September. The content of the resulting document will inform the development of the new federal law on culture.

Arts fight threat of state censorship

Michelangelo's David, Venus de Milo (photo Gleb Garanich)