Issue 1/2023 - Zuhören

Technologies of Interception of Art and Culture in Putin’s Russia

Keti Chukhrov

The reactionary moves and the traditionalist censorship of art and culture which one encounters in the Putinist Russia are usually ascribed to the reluctance to follow contemporary developments in politics, culture and economics and to the inability to bid farewell to the conservative values of the religious past or the imperialist grandeur. It is thought that Putinism sustains due to the fact that the adepts of obscure beliefs took over the progressive developments in culture. This is definitely so; yet the impact of Putinist policy and its influence even among the progressive agents of society in the last fifteen years would not be as tenacious as it is, if it was not for the unconscious reproduction of the manipulative devices that the Putinist political technologies apply. In my attempt to unveil those manipulative devices I will concentrate mainly on cultural politics and art.

I. Manipulations with the concept of the ‘Contemporary’
After 1989, there was an illusion in post-socialist Russia that the worst was over; censorship of experimental artistic production, persecution of underground avant-garde practices, banning of modernist and contemporary aesthetics, canonization of official provisions for culture – all these authoritarian forms of control seemed to be sublated, and even the absence of institutions could not be an obstacle to get integrated into the global institutional context of contemporary art.
In this multilayered process between 1980s and mid 2000s the struggle for the so called democratic, European values and liberated rights seemed to be won by cultural intelligentsia; at least on the territories of contemporary art production, where art stood for all forms of emancipatory liberalization of the former totalitarian, conservative or traditionalist constraints.
This process coincided with the gradual integration of post-authoritarian former socialisms into global post-socialist contemporaneity, where the subject of judgment, knowledge and political emancipation spoke from the West. Such integration was at the same time conditioned by general neoliberal normalization, i.e. it evolved de facto as the cooption of art institutes and their practices with the progressive neoliberal cultural production packaged in anti-neoliberal critical terminology.
This very paradigm of contemporary art – or of art as the institute of global contemporaneity – started to degrade with the first financial crisis in 2008, then the ‘occupy movements’ and their failures in 2011–12; to be followed by crisis of secular autocracies in the middle East in 2013–2015, and supersessions of the neoliberal democracies with the anti-globalist nationalist cultural politics in a number of post-Soviet countries.
In Russia it was mainly after 2012 that the neo-national cultural politics increased censuring the contemporary art practices that had been already evolving for 20 years. This move took place not simply because of the rise of the neo-con ideology or empowerment of clerical institutions, as it is usually thought. Rather the assault on contemporary art on the part of traditional institutions evolved with the aim to take charge in the production of “the contemporary”.
Private capital started to invest into post-socialist contemporary art practices and established institutions much earlier than the state companies and institutions. State capital was meanwhile engaged in dealing with political technologies, cultural legacies and pop culture. The reason for the state capital and the security services to launch control over the contemporary art practices is that ‘national’ contemporary art gained certain global convertibility in the 2010s. It started to represent the ‘national’ cultural product packaged as global symbolic capitalized value. In short, it became a circulated global commodity without being controlled by national state monopolies and they would not leave it unattended.
Yet, the fight for nationalizing ‘the contemporary’ was not simply about dumping the previous figurants in this field, in order to simply occupy their positions and continue this practice after lustration. To get the grip of contemporary practices, the whole paradigm of what contemporaneity means had to be changed.
Consequently, the institutions loyal to the state de facto speak on behalf of traditional values, but try to rebrand these values and design them as ‘contemporary’. Thus, the general strategy was the following: to keep the cultural institutions intact, but get rid of the agents that created them, amplifying the programs of those centers with contents incompatible with the context of those institutes. What happens when there is no knowledge of the episteme of the contemporary and when its true figurants are lustrated and their places are occupied by its new traders? In that case whatever symbolic value is at hand – be it orthodox religion, folk music, 19th century realist painting, fine art, high tech media, ethnic or rock music or even classical art – is packaged as the contemporary art and culture.
The fight then is not for any return of genuine knowledge of traditions, or of religious spirituality, but it is for getting the hegemony in trading ‘contemporaneity’ at least in local national scale. As soon as in autocratic regimes oligarchic capital gets nationalized and governmentalized, it endeavors to insidiously get rid of all superstructures built by private capital previously; especially if that very private capital refuses to coopt with the governmental programs of monopolization and nationalist rebranding. The reason for such disposition is that the private capital in post-socialist countries surpassed primitive accumulation and started building superstructures much earlier than the governmental one.
Consequently, for example, in Russia, contemporary art – as the superstructure created by non-governmental private funding – had to be demolished by governmental institutions simply because the state capital was lagging behind that superstructure cognitively and would not be able to take over its rule.
As a result, what we observe during the last 25 years is the process of interceptions of the practices of contemporary culture and art by ruling structures and pro-governmental businesses, which never had any experience in the production of contemporary art. It is these agents that accomplish the rebranding of what contemporary is in the conditions of, first, the authoritarian turn, and ultimately, dictatorship.

II. Four stages of the interception of art and culture in post-socialist Russia
There are four clear-cut politico-economically defined stages in the development of contemporary art after the post-Soviet 1990s. The 1990s can be considered the pre-institutional period for the artistic and publishing practices, which are marked by close collaboration between private collectors (Marat Gelman, Vladimir Ovcharenko, Elena Selina among others), curators and international sponsors (Soros, French cultural center), forming a unified artistic process with transparent horizontal connections.
During those years the primitively accumulated local capital, foreign sponsors and the artistic practice form a unified para-institutional body comprised of its chief agents, such as Moscow Art Magazine (Victor Misiano), Rigina gallery (Vladimir Ovcharenko), XL gallery (Elena Selina), Center for Contemporary Art (Leonid Bazhanov), Ad Marginem publishers (Alexander Ivanov), Gnosis/Logos Publishers (Valery Anashvili), Institute of Problems of Contemporary Art, constituted the first self-organized education initiative in contemporary art (Backstein). In this process the artists, curators, publishers, authors – although they might have used funding from Soros or other foundations – rule their non-commercial strategies themselves and compose intellectual alliances and collaborative groups autonomously.
The first stage of interception after this period takes place with the first Moscow biennial (2005) under the patronage of the chairman of Federal Agency of Culture Mikhail Shvidkoy, and the biennial commissar Joseph Backstein. Their initiative to intervene into the artistic community with the “big event” was not supported by the curator Victor Misiano and the team of the Moscow Art Magazine. The biennial was preceded by the opening of the first private or semi-private institutions such as the Stella art-foundation (2003), the newly founded Moscow Museum of Modern Art headed by Zurab Tsereteli (2000), the Museum of Photography, headed by Olga Sviblova (1997), establishment of the Kandinsky prize (headed by Shalva Breus, 2007), opening of the Rodchenko school (headed by Olga Sviblova, 2006). In this case, the cultural agents – curators, artists, authors – became the employed agents. The management and ruling structures of the creative process were alienated from them, although the new managers – representatives of the private capital in co-operation with the municipal institutions – managed to form a tight collaborative bondage with the artistic milieu. It has to be mentioned that, initially, the artistic community was very embarrassed by the fact that Zurab Tsereteli – an artist very remote from contemporary art practice and closely coopted with the then Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov – would be in charge of the main museum of contemporary art in Russia. It is then that the artist Anatoly Osmolovsky coined the subversively affirmative term “to be for the wealthy”. This period lasts from 2003 to 2008: power in cultural production already belongs to private and semi-private capital and the artists and curators serve it. Yet, to repeat again, the agents of private capital treat the artistic community with respect and trust their creative autonomy.
The second stage of interception of art and culture takes place on behalf of the state officials or the big capital ordained by the state and loyal to it. Its actors were Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the president’s administration, Sergey Kapkov, the head of the Moscow city department of culture, Alexander Mamut, a media tycoon and a founder of Strelka Institute (2009), Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova, founders of the Garage contemporary art museum (2008), Leonid Mikhelson, founder of the V-A-C Art Center (2009, now known as GES2), Viktor Vekselberg and Dmirty Medvedev, the founders of the Skolkovo high-tech-center. At that stage the institutions tried to get integrated into the global art context by means of inviting renowned curators, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jean-Hubert Martin, Kate Fowle. However, such invitations still had the format of cargo participations, in which the ‘local’ context was blurred either by invited ‘stars’, or the commissioned projects from above. The institutional production had to become part of the modernized urban space, art practice was inevitably subsumed by cultural industries, so that the role of an artist or a curator became obscure in the broader project of the so called ‘modernization’ – which was the governmental commission to cultural workers from Dmitry Medvedev, then a president. Although during this period, 2007–11, no full-fledged control of the contemporary art institutions can be observed, the grass-root artistic procedures had already been subsumed by the managing ideology from the cultural investors – Mamut, Zhukova, Mikhelson, etc. Meanwhile, it has to be mentioned, that despite such subsumption, the Strelka Institute and the Garage Contemporary Art Center managed to acquire relative professional autonomy with time. They gradually got rid of the cargo curating and shifted to more conceptually organized and research based cultural projects. This was the period when the belief was still strong in that culture and city planning could be modernized and become public, and that intellectual production would excel over show business and cheap patriotic propaganda, which, as it then seemed, were losing their audiences.
The third stage is marked by the conservative and patriotic turn and its emblem is the trial of Pussy Riot in 2012, initiated by the new team of the Ministry of Culture headed by Vladimir Medinsky. If previously the terrain of contemporary art and culture was intercepted by pro-governmental big business and oligarchs, who still insisted on intellectual production, tried to function in the frame of globally oriented semio-capital and acted in the name of globally acknowledged forms of urban and creative production, starting with 2012 it is the nation state as corporation that defines what is contemporary – which is not taking into consideration any context of contemporary art internationally. One of the notorious results of such shift is the case with the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019, curated by opera director Dmitry Chernyakov.
Quite like the tandem of modernizers (Surkov-Kapkov-Mamut) once dumped the previous bohemian and self-organized art institutes, now this tandem itself was swept away by the nation state “kulturtragers”. Important in this interception was not so much any explicitly nationalist narrative, but the appropriation of the institutes of recognition, judgment and of production of criteria. Deplorable in this sequence of supersessions of cultural textures by the newcomers is the annihilation of the previously developed textures, cultural codes and achievements. As the result, by February 24th, Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Ekaterinburg were teeming with cultural institutions and their production. Yet their ‘product’ represented the habitus of neophyte museum guides, who hastily stuff themselves with superficial information about global history of art to pretend being the cultural curators instead of the much more knowledgeable but the dumped ones. With the desertion of cultural space by curators and artists after February 24th, this process will expand further. Interestingly, in the 2010s the tendency among the progressive institutions worldwide was to form confederations in counter to the mega art-museums in order to detach themselves from the hegemonic cultural policies. One such initiative was the alliance L’Internationale initiated by the curator Zdenka Badovinac. It integrated MG+MSUM (Ljubljana), M HKA (Antverp), Reina Sofia (Madrid), Van Abbe (Eindhoven), SALT (Istanbul) MACBA (Barcelona). In Moscow the tendency was the contrary: the alliance between the Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin museum, the Garage Art Center and the GES 2, announced in 2019, demonstrates the aspiration of the smaller and relatively independent institutions to side with the hegemonic state museums.
The fourth stage of interception is marked by the re-emergence of the show business. Pop culture and show business is summoned by the state to censure and erase the remnants of critical culture and grass-root intellectual networks. In the latest programs of the School of Art and Design (Higher School of Economics) art is dissolved in the creative industries – fashion, commercials, pop-music, TV, internet, design – and is swept by show business, which – as it seemed some time ago – had lost its impact in the Surkov-Kapkov epoch in favor of cognitively oriented procedures. Yet, now, when show business is imbued with patriotic branding, it restored its hegemony in public space and culture. As the result, creative industry and show business have become more refined aesthetically and conceptually, whereas contemporary art got deprived of its lexicons to downgrade in the direction of fine-art, advertising, fashion and sentimental journalist storytelling.

III. Semantic manipulations in Putinist political technologies
As mentioned in the beginning, the impact of Putinism is not confined to mere propaganda, but its power spreads broadly due to the unconscious reproduction of the semantic distortions with which Kremlin political technologists operate.
Linguistic and semantic manipulations – replacement of the former meanings with the newer ones in the use of the same words, or simply imposing new meanings on words which they never had – were broadly applied by the Third Reich.
Victor Klemperer, in his Language of the Third Reich (1957), speaks of the cases when Nazism was exerted even unconsciously by those who would never subscribe with its standpoints or beliefs. This happened precisely due to the unconscious application of the language. In other words, compliance with the regime can reveal itself unconsciously even when its agents refuse to associate with it politically. For example, as Klemperer writes “If someone replaces the words ‘heroic’ and ‘virtuous’ with ‘fanatical’ for long enough, he will come to believe that a fanatic really is a virtuous hero, and that no one can be a hero without fanaticism”.1 Or, he describes how words during Nazi regime started to be devoid of cognitive component in favor of affective response. As Klemperer argues:
“… the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be, and it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it”.2
If the Nazi technology resided more in transforming the modality of the semantic application of the word without its cancellation, in Putinist conditions the polit-technological method was in conflating the disparate meanings and concepts, or using one instead of the other. The fourth stage of interception of culture mentioned above, which subsists in the ultimate subsumption of critical thinking and grass-root intellectual activities by show business, reveals this device quite explicitly. This semantic manipulation is evident in numerous cases of cultural production after 2011. It is applied when, as mentioned above, a theatre director (Dmitry Chernyakov) counts as the curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice biennial (2019); or when an art department teaches film, but sneaks it in as contemporary art, since the latter is something inexplicable, politically incorrect or even unknown; or when the Pushkin Museum tries to get acclaim as the institution working with contemporary culture, and it sneaks the exhibition of Bill Viola in as the embodiment of the most actual artistic practice. The same logic of sneaking in the forged meaning instead of the proper one functions when, for example, a young curator makes an exhibition about Moscow Conceptualism, but instead of studying the method of its reductionist negative critique, s/he instead emphasizes how conceptualism opened up to popular culture, free market and capitalist freedom. There is nothing literally Putinist in such distortion of Moscow conceptualism; yet it unconsciously reproduces ethics, which allows to cheat with history, legacy, context and establish the forged facts as the real ones.
Or, let’s take yet another example in the realm of art education: a cultural administrator, who writes a PhD thesis in art curatorship (and allegedly will work as a curator further) criticizes in her work the art production from the point of view of urban leisure; as art with its challenging and critical poetics is not as friendly to audiences as theatre, cinema, or other forms of recreation. Thus, insisting on homogenizing the audience under the umbrella of the civilized cultural consumption, the above-mentioned PhD student involuntarily contributes to the Putinist cultural politics.
This is the reason why Putinism is so strong, it went deep into the realms of desire and the modes of production, but also made possible to cheat in order to appropriate the skills and achievements that one never had, but pretends to have. As the result, the syndrome of unconscious Putinism enables to ‘sell’ one’s zero degree knowledge as the existing qualification. Quite similarly, it enables to define the disastrous war as the special operation, as was the case after February 24th. Ultimately, such method facilitates reconfiguring the absence into presence and vice versa.
What is crucial in this manipulation is that the distorted meanings invade one’s views, manners, aesthetic and ethical programs. And, to repeat again, this happens not only through the conservative political propaganda, but also by means of depoliticized ‘happy’ glamorous industries of fashion, show business and monetized networks that reproduce consumerist lifestyles and thus dismiss or overtake any critical reasoning in culture and politics. Likewise, it is to be remembered, that in the process of raiding and destruction of the cultural institutions and the NGOs – such as the Memorial, the Sakharov Center, or the National Center for Contemporary Art – the leading role was ascribed rather to show business figures, influencers of glamorous consumption, than the agents of traditional values.
Therefore, no surprise, that now while the Russian army destroys Ukraine, many who remain in Russia and might even be against the war, still continue with their complacent lifestyles, involuntarily reproducing Putinist regime.

1 Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich. Bloomsbury 2013, p. 16.
2 Ibid., p. 31.