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15 DEC  16

A day after it emerged that Culture Minister Medinsky is set to discuss a new arts "conflicts" body which some believe is intended to censor artistic freedom, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has urged his colleague to be cautious in his statements.

This story in the business newspaper Vzglyad today implies that the premier is unwilling to see the debate take a turn towards the idea of Russian censorship Soviet-style. Last week the chairman of the Parliamentary Culture Committee Stanislav Govorukhin called for a return to censorship of arts, and the Culture Minister has in the past stated at length his belief that Western modernism is polluting Russian and world culture.

This report also brings some background to the origin of the current row about arts controversies and some stern words from theatre directors about recent demonstrations by conservative culture "activists" physically intervening to stop plays and productions that they don't like.

One instance that hit world headlines came early last year when the Orthodox Church went to court demanding the banning of a production of Wagner's Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk that it considered blasphemous. Although it lost the legal case, the production was instantly junked and the opera house's director, Boris Mezdrich, was sacked. However, the production's director was hired by the Bolshoi this year, showing a clear split between political and artistic forces. There have been equally public quarrels about the artistic importance of the Oscar-nominated film Leviathan.

While the Russian constitution specifically bans any intervention in freedom of arts expression, it appears that there are fears that the draft "conflicts" committee under the extremely conservative Medinsky may evolve into a mechanism whereby establishment and church dogmatics overrule Russia's often boldly innovative arts producers.

Here's my translation of today's interesting development.

Medvedev urges restraint on culture 'censorship' pronouncements

Vzglyad, December 15, 2016

The Minister of Culture should be extremely restrained  in making his opinions known, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has said in an interview with Russian television channels.

"When a comment appears from an official in any field, unfortunately at some point or other it may be taken as a signal. And this really cannot be allowed,” said the Prime Minister.

According to him, “even if the official did not intend to pass censure, or to stop something, a trend is suddenly launched.” “If it’s the stated position of a minister, that means it puts us on the spot,” he said, explaining the public perception of how to evaluate official statements.

Medvedev, as Chairman of the Russian Government, was giving a live interview on December 15 to journalists from several TV channels, as part of his regular programme “Conversation with Dmitri Medvedev” of which this was the ninth. The broadcast of “Conversation with Dmitri Medvedev” will go out on Rossia 24.

Previously, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an announcement to the Federal Assembly, had said that in culture, as in politics, the media and public life, and in the debate on economic issues, no-one can forbid  freedom of thought and the open expression of opinion.

It should be noted that the debate on freedom of speech in Russia was raised again on October 24 after Konstantin Raikin, during the 7th Congress of the Theatrical Union, spoke out sharply against censorship in art and against social organisation attempting to control artists in terms of morality. At the time the head of the Culture Ministry, Vladimir Medinsky, described Russian theatre as the freest of any since the times of ancient Greece.

Leading arts directors

The topic was then discussed at a meeting of the first deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Kirienko with the artistic directors of the leading theatres of Moscow and St Petersburg. According to one of the participants, among the invited names were the artistic directors of the Chekhov (Moscow Arts) Theatre, Oleg Tabakov, the Satirikon theatre’s Konstantin Raikin, the Lenkom theatre’s Mark Zakharov, the Maly’s Yuri Solomin, the State Theatre of Nations’ Evgeni Mironov, Andrei Moguchy from St Petersburg’s Tovstonogov (Great) theatre, Lev Dodin of St Petersburg’s Maly Drama Theatre, the Bolshoi Theatre’s general director Vladimir Urin, and the head of the Musical Theatre, former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi. The present Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky was also present at the meeting.

Mark Zakharov of the Lenkom theatre said that there was no theatre censorship in Russia. However, he said, there were “aggravating moments when public activists who cloak themselves in religious values commit hooligan acts relating to certain shows, productions or films.

“There are some alarming occurrences, and we have tried to take them up into a conversation with Sergei Kirienko,” said Zakharov.

Oleg Tabakov, artistic director of two theatres, the Chekhov Moscow Arts Theatre and his own, acknowledged that “we do have some characters around who've tried to dictate to artists what they should do. And they sometimes dictate in an unpardonably aggressive way.

“I would call these brethren spies - people who, for instance, jump onto the stage at the Arts Theatre to stop a play that they find offensive,” he said.

“With all my considerable Soviet and post-Soviet experience, I want to say to some of these intolerant colleagues: please don’t bring pig’s heads to the Arts Theatre, don’t leap onto the stage during the performance, don’t imagine that you are in some way helping to establish what is proper in art. You have no chance of either producing the show or playing it, take it as read,"  Tabakov said.

He said that “since the late '80s, we have abolished censorship in the country. I agree with Raikin, that really was a great step. I mean, even in the sense that  nowadays anybody can express his talent - or his lack of talent - without interference by someone. We have many ways to understand for ourselves what we do , and how our words resonate in public.  So please let us work without aggressiveness, which is such a very bad label on our society,” Tabakov urged arts colleagues.

Arts conflicts committee takes next step

Russian push for arts censorship committee

Medinsky: Russia must resist decadence


' I  say to these intolerant colleagues: don’t bring pig’s heads to our theatre, don’t think that you are in some way helping to establish a correct kind of art'

Medvedev tells Culture Minister to watch what he says