Regime’s suppression prevailing in Russian society
The arts and culture community in Russia is facing suppression and division due to the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian forces.
In particular, the theater world receives a vast amount of funds from the national budget, making it an art field that is easy for the regime to control. It can be said that this cultural situation is reflected in the clearest way.
For example, the words and actions of a theater professional may not only lead to the arrest and dismissal of the individual but may also have influence on the performance of the work and the operation of the theater itself.
There are so many people involved in a play that, in a sense, each theater person is holding all the people involved, the play itself, hostage.
In fact, many theater people openly express their support for the regime.
Meanwhile, theater critic Marina Davydova, the editor-in chief of the theater magazine Teatre, is asking theater people to sign a protest statement made on social media on February 24, the day the invasion began. In response, more than 1000 signatures were collected in about one week.
The director of the Meyerhold Theatre Center in Moscow, which actively performs and introduces experimental plays both in Russia and abroad, announced her resignation by posting on her social media that she could not receive a salary from murderer.
In addition, the director of the Golden Mask Awards, Russia’s most prestigious theater festival, posted a statement to social media calling for an immediate end to military action.
The signing of the statement had a huge impact, as it included Vladimir Ulin, the director of the Bolshoi Theater, which is also famous in Japan, and Valery Fokin, the artistic director of the Alexandrinsky Theater.
However, the regime suppressed these anti-war and protests.
For example, an actor revealed on his social media that he received a letter from the theater’s leadership asking him to refrain from commenting on any Ukrainian military action, otherwise the theater would be disappointed, his negative comments being considered as a betrayal of the country.
In addition, Moscow’s Department of Culture has summoned the heads of major theaters under its jurisdiction and advised them not to speak out on military action.
It is also said that some of the leading theater figures who signed the statement against the invasion were summoned and threatened with dismissal if they did not stop speaking out against the war.
In the Russian theater world, obviously, suppression and division have developed.
Furthermore, the suppression became decisive when the so-called “Fake Act” came into force on March 4. Under the Act, a statement that criticizes the regime is deemed fake, leading to a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
As a result, anti-war demonstrations and rallies, which were also popular among the general public, will no longer take place, and theater people will have to choose silence. It can be said that discussion in Russian society has changed drastically since that day.
Cannot simply divide culture and politics as mutually exclusive entities
There are also many citizens, intellectuals, and cultural figures who have fled the country to escape from media control and pressure in Russia.
But, of course, not everyone can leave the country, and especially not theater people. Not all theater people can take the option of fleeing the country, in which theaters are deeply connected to the land, both in terms of theater and the spoken language.
Actors and directors who have been invited to foreign theaters have been canceled just because they are Russian, while they are allowed to continue their work if they officially express negative opinions about the Russian regime.
In other words, today’s Russian cultural figures are being asked by both Russia and the West to take a step forward to clarify their positions, and this is becoming even more clear to theater professionals. This is the background behind the “silence” seen in Russian theater people at present.
On the other hand, in Japan and other Western countries, it is often said that cultural channels must remain open because culture and politics are separate spheres.
This kind of thinking is certainly necessary, but it is an issue on which we must carefully consider whether it is right to say that politics and culture are separate when it comes to the situation in Russia, in which we have to think from a political perspective.
For example, looking at the history of Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to the tsarist regime, but even after that, political control over art and culture did not end. Especially in the Soviet era, strict control was carried out under the totalitarian system.
Some people appreciate the Russian theater culture of that era, but I think it stagnated. Furthermore, they were unable to resolve the situation internally.
Instead, an underground culture that resisted the state suppression and control flourished, including exhibitions in the artist’s apartment, self-publishing, and exile literature.
Although it was impossible to know in detail what was previously hidden behind the Iron Curtain of the Cold War era, such culture certainly survived while there were plays performed in the national grand theaters under the state’s approval.
Some may have thought that this kind of underground culture was separated from politics, but that is not correct. It can be said that the culture was born from the political system of the Soviet Union, as it was born from and to resist suppression and control of the system.
Although there was a period when such suppression and control were relaxed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is impossible to simply divide culture and politics as mutually exclusive entities in today’s Russia, which is moving toward totalitarianism.
Rather, we need to think carefully about what “culture” means here.
Rethinking what culture is
For example, in Japan, which is a democratic country, it would be too naive to think that culture and politics are considered individually in that even expressions of anti-establishment sentiment are not regulated.
It is possible to express anti-establishment sentiment because it is secured under the political system of democracy.
There are also grants that are given to many cultural activities in Japan and cultural activities that are conducted only when they are granted. How different are those from the operating funds of Russian theaters and the plays they perform?
The context of artistic independence does not mean that they unconsciously exalt artists. For example, there is a complex background in which the artistic statements of artists are predicated on a political context, and political statements are also predicated on an artistic context.
It is necessary to take this into account, and I believe that the independence of art can be seen by carefully placing and interpreting artists’ activities in the sketches drawn based on the background.
In that sense, I never think that the recent tests of loyalty pressed by Russia and the West are correct. However, what does it mean to say that you support the state or not? What does culture mean when you say “culture”? There is a high cost, but I think we need to reach a consensus individually.
Again, the implications of the silence of Russian theater people today may be very ambiguous. Is it just waiting for the storm to pass, or is it a reflection on the independence of their theater culture? As a result, as underground culture developed during the Soviet era, is there any activity today to overcome this situation using tools such as the Internet?
In any case, although the aspect of resistance to politics has been innocently asserted in past studies of the avant-garde, I would like to analyze the complicated situation of the past more carefully while looking at the current situation in Russia to reveal the reality of artists’ activities.
I think it is a good opportunity for us Japanese to ask again the meaning of various activities that we think we are doing “independently”.
* The information contained herein is current as of May 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
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