Putin's Kulturkampf. Art in the service of Russian imperialism

Valery Gergiev, a longtime friend of Putin, was appointed the Director of the Bolshoi Theater. He will lead a new cultural initiative with other artists – a “culture war” as part of a special operation.

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The longtime Head of the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater, conductor Valery Gergiev, became the Director of the Bolshoi Theater. He has been supporting Vladimir Putin’s policies for years. Photo t.me/mariinsky

There have been rumors in the Russian acting and theater industry for several months that the Director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg will be relocating to Moscow. The Mariinsky Theater is a renowned institution and a legendary establishment within the Russian stage. Similarly, its Director, Valery Gergiev, has been in charge of the most famous theater in St. Petersburg for 35 years. He has now been promoted to manage the Bolshoi Theater, Russia’s most well-known opera and ballet house. The Bolshoi Theater is a globally recognized institution and a significant representation of Russian culture. The previous Director, Vladimir Urin, was asked to leave due to gossip that he was privately criticizing Russia’s war against Ukraine and expressing concerns about the negative impact of Russia’s international isolation on the country’s cultural heritage.

Gergiev considers the Bolshoi Theater a reward for his years of dedicated service. Although he is a renowned conductor respected worldwide, his importance to the Kremlin goes beyond his involvement with the theater. Gergiev is known as one of the “Generals” in the Russian cultural war, and he has repeatedly expressed his unwavering loyalty to the Kremlin’s policy. His long-standing friendship with Vladimir Putin since the early 1990s and his commitment has made him a valuable asset to the Kremlin. He is even referred to as the informal Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In August 2008, the Mariinsky Theater orchestra, led by conductor Valery Gergiev, performed a concert at the square in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, during the Russian aggression against Georgia. Gergiev himself is from Ossetia. The concert conveyed support for Ossetian separatism and solidarity with the goals of Russian aggression against Georgia. Later, in 2014, Gergiev also supported the annexation of Crimea. Two years later, he performed a concert in the Syrian city of Palmyra, which had been recaptured by Bashar al-Assad’s troops and the Russian forces.

Gergiev is now supporting Russia’s attack on Ukraine. He recently gave a concert at Moscow’s Luzhniki, where he campaigned for war and the annexation of Ukrainian territories. In addition, he has been an active member of support committees for Putin for years before the elections. However, Gergiev is also an associate of the social committee of the Investigative Committee, one of the special services that deals with the persecution of the opposition.

Putin’s Kulturkampf

For many years, Russia, under Putin’s leadership, has been using cultural events as a tool to shape its foreign policy. To showcase Russia’s greatness and humanitarianism, renowned conductor Gergiev played a concert in Palmyra, Syria, at the ancient Roman amphitheater. The concert featured the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Sergei Prokofiev and was preceded by a video speech from Putin himself. During the concert, Gergiev reassured the audience that Russia is committed to pursuing the best international policy and fighting terrorism. The event was broadcast by many television stations, including Western ones, to demonstrate Russia’s cultural significance on a global stage.

The Palmyra concert was seen as a representation of Russian high culture before the country’s aggression against Ukraine. The concert’s purpose was to legitimize the Putin regime with the help of famous Russian authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, as well as the ballet of the Bolshoi Theater. The concert aimed to reinforce the belief among Western elites that Russia is European while highlighting its uniqueness and special rights. Putin has been using his “Agents” from the world of culture to spread a message for years, which he has recently been using openly to justify his aggressive policy. Putin’s conductor from the Bolshoi Theater, Gergiev, would be willing to conduct a concert in the ruins of Bakhmut if ordered to complete this task.

During the first decade of Putin’s rule, many well-known actors and directors in the Russian cultural world openly supported him, including Nikita Mikhalkov and Fyodor Bondarchuk. However, despite this apparent support for the government, there was still some diversity of opinion. Some works critical of the government or the Soviet era were created, such as Alexei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200,” which strongly criticized the war in Afghanistan.

After Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, everything changed. Vladimir Medinsky became the Minister of Culture and clarified that culture should serve state ideology and propaganda policy. It led to the regular production of films that glorified the Stalinist period and showed the canonical version of the history of World War II. Medinsky also began a fierce confrontation with Poland, accusing it of slandering the memory of Soviet soldiers. Medinsky’s importance was evident when he was chosen to be the Kremlin’s envoy for armistice negotiations with Kyiv after the Russian aggression against Ukraine in March 2022. However, as we know, the mission was not successful.

– We are all militarists and imperialists. War builds a nation, said Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, in an interview with “Russian Gazette” in June last year.

Mikhail Piotrovsky is a prominent figure in Russian culture. He has been the Director of the State Hermitage Museum, Russia’s most famous museum and gallery, since 1992. Recently, his term as Director was extended until 2025. When discussing cultural matters, Piotrovsky often uses military terms. For instance, he referred to the Hermitage’s most recent foreign exhibitions before the aggression against Ukraine as a powerful cultural offensive.

– This is our special operation. Many people don’t like it, but we carry on attacks anyway – says Piotrovsky.

This rhetoric is not surprising but honest and consistent with the Kremlin’s ideology.

Is Russia a part of Europe?

Recently, Putin attended the International Cultural Forum in St. Petersburg after a gap of four years. Despite its name, it was the least international forum, with only a few artists and cultural activists from Asia, Africa, and Russia’s allied countries like Belarus. The only foreign star was Emir Kusturica, a reliable friend of the Kremlin. During the forum, Putin criticized the West for trying to impose globalization and a unipolar order on the world.

– They are attempting to cancel Russian culture, which cannot be canceled. Despite everything, they try to revoke a culture based on freedom, mercy, love for people, and spirituality. The policy of expelling Russia from world culture is itself anti-cultural, neo-colonial, and racist, Putin said.

When Russia went to war, the Western world began to boycott its culture from various stages, competitions, and shows. The Royal Opera in London ceased its collaboration with the ballet of the Bolshoi Theater, and performances featuring Russian artists were removed from billboards in European capitals. La Scala in Milan caused uproar when it opened the season with “Boris Godunov.” Russia was deprived of its much-loved Eurovision Song Contest. Valery Gergiev lost his financially beneficial side job at the Munich Philharmonic and his contracted performances at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Sanctions and isolation shocked artists accustomed to traveling and performing worldwide. Suddenly unwanted, they lost access to Western theaters and Hollywood recording studios.

– We have been in touch with colleagues from the West on an interpersonal level. However, we know they are being pressured to cut ties with us. For instance, I have been informed by some colleagues from France that their government prohibits them from communicating with us – complained the former Director of the Bolshoi Theater, Vladimir Urin, just after the start of the war.

This message aims to promote the belief that war and politics are beyond the scope of cultural individuals. However, in Europe, some voices advocate for not punishing Anton Chekhov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, or Sergei Rachmaninoff because of Putin’s actions. French intellectuals share Putin’s culture war perspective.

– We are an inseparable part of European culture. We are Europe! A special military operation in Ukraine does not change anything here because there have been many wars and conflicts in Europe – said Mikhail Piotrovsky and argued – We will never be isolated!

Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, and the ballet of the Bolshoi Theater were all part of the Russian culture imposed on Ukraine. However, after a long time, the Ukrainians understood that this culture was being used as a tool of Russian aggression against them. They realized it was time to liberate themselves from this cultural influence. After the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, a “Lenin’s downfall” movement swept through Ukraine. It was a movement to topple the monuments of Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet activists to reject the oppressive Soviet past.

Russia’s war of 2022 began with the “Pushkin’s downfall,” the toppling of monuments of Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and other former Russian artists in Ukrainian cities. Eliminating Russia from Ukraine’s cultural sphere represents a rejection of imperialism.

Russian culture holds a distinct significance when compared to Western culture. Putin has acknowledged this fact for a long time and has utilized it to create a positive image of Russia in the minds of Europeans and the Americans. He enrolled artists and cultural experts to participate in his special operation, much like sports or business representatives’ involvement in this military project.

Michał Kacewicz/belsat.eu

Translated by PEV

The opinions and thoughts expressed in the text reflect only the author's views.