About two weeks ago I had the pleasure of being on This is Hell!, one of my favorite leftwing podcasts to talk about Russia, Navalny, protest, and Putin.
Chuck and his crew were kind enough to let me re-purpose the interview as part of the SRB Podcast.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Here’s something to chew on. Nicolai Petro asks in his column “Why Russian Liberals Lose“:
“Why have Russia’s self-proclaimed “liberals” done so badly at attracting popular support?” A few reasons actually. First, he states that liberals like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov’s initial embrace of figures like Eduard Limonov and Garry Kasparov have caused more harm than good. The fact that most of them, except for Ryzhkov and Nemtsov, have dumped Other Russia, the fact that they were once wedded to them is a hard thing to shake.
Second, the problem isn’t that the liberals can’t get its message to the public. Petro claims that a quarter of Russians have access to the internet, each of the eleven parties on the ballot got “three hours of prime national television time,” and that Yabloko has a 97 percent name recognition rate. In his view, this is enough to circumvent “censorship.” Of course, I can’t help wonder how the three hours of TV time compares to Putin’s airtime and if 97 percent of Russians do recognize Yabloko, how often is it proceeded or followed by grammatically applicable variants of “idiots” or “traitors” I buy this reason less. If anything, our times tell us that media matters.
But no Petro says that the lack of fanfare for Russian liberalism boils down to the political winds. And given how they’re blowing, Yabloko’s and SPS’s sails are either at half-mast or full of holes. Basically, he writes, “the problem is with the messengers, who have managed to alienate their natural constituency – Russia’s growing middle class.”
Then he presents a political choice:
What you would do if faced with the following choice:
One, a political movement that unites a former chess champion whose family resides overseas, a former prime minister popularly nicknamed “Misha 2 percent” because of alleged kickbacks for authorizing government-backed loans to private firms, and an ex-punk rocker released from prison a few years ago who vows to restore the Russian empire by any means necessary.
Two, the party of Vladimir Putin, which has pledged to continue the policies that have increased average salaries from $81 a month to $550 a month, which has dramatically increased social spending and reduced the poverty level from 27 percent to 15 percent.
Um, option #2, please.
By Sean — 10 years ago
The politics of culture is perhaps more contentious in Russia than in other countries. Since the 1930s, there has been a close relationship between the state and artistic creative unions. The best historical example of this was when Socialist Realism became state policy with Stalin’s 1932 decree “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations.”
Despite the ideological control over the arts, creative unions nevertheless presented artists with an avenue to influence state policy, as well as a collective body representative of artists’ mutual intellectual and social and economic interests.
Today, the relationship between the current Russian state and its artists is not so overt, but as Danil Dondurey points out in his article “The ‘vertical of power’ grabs Russian cinema,” this doesn’t mean that it is no less contentious. This was evidenced in the recent congress of the Russian Film Makers Union, where an on going struggle between pro-Kremlin and Putin bud Nikita Mikhalkov and more liberal forces calling for his ouster has apparently come out in the former’s favor. With his victory, Russia’s cinematic elite have abandoned politics altogether. As Dondurey explains,
Cinema does, of course, directly affect us all. The underlying theme of the recent congress was changes to the creative unions. To judge from the published plans, they are all going to have to abandon their intellectual mission and become a mixture of trade union and social services. They will restrict themselves to helping the old, providing money for medicines and arranging funerals. And that’s it! There will be no more thoughts about politics in the cinema, partnerships between government and business, no more talk about the quality of films or educating the audience. And above all no more programmes linking us up with other cultures and countries.
This is momentous. The creative unions go back to 1934. Their task was to mediate between the artist and the state, the artist and society, the artist and business. They looked after the interests of the creative professions. As of today, this mission is over.
In fact, this is a process which has been going on ever since the fall of communism. They have not been engaged with cultural politics and economics, or been in real partnership with the Ministry of Culture for a long time. They have mainly been concerned with anniversary celebrations, recommendations for honours and finding a use for the property granted them by Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
It was the cultural politician extraordinaire Nikita Mikhalkov who first announced that the creative unions were no longer going to be communities of like-minded people charged with managing partnerships between artists and the state. All these functions were to be transferred to the specially created Academies, which have been springing up like mushrooms.
It is significant that during the 10 hours the congress was in session not a word (!) was actually said about Russian cinema. Nothing about its crisis, or about how to come through it, nothing about any achievements or failures. No one talked about what we should do next, although these congresses only happen once every five years. There was no analysis, only pompous declarations of love for the way it used to be. No one was looking for co-operation or reconciliation.
It was presented as a conflict between a small group who supported the incumbent president Khutsiev and the overwhelming majority of film-makers. It was not by accident that there was no government representative at the Congress – neither the Minister of Culture nor anyone else.
So what direction will Russian cinema take now? In all European countries the government acts on the arms’ length principle: they subsidise the arts, but decisions are taken by the artists themselves. This is how it is in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway… In Russia strategic questions about the organisation and development of the film industry have not been discussed for 10 years. Perhaps things really would improve if decisions were all taken behind the scenes?
You should have seen this ‘Congress of Victors’. Everyone, even people who knew nothing about the politics of cinema, knew what was going on. What we were watching was not just one famous person attacking another (who is important, talented, moneyed and very well connected, a kind of cultural oligarch).
There has been a lot of discussion recently, even beyond the industry, about the ‘vertical of power’ which is being set up within Russian cinema. After the Congress many people will winder whether anyone in the country is going to able to take decisions about culture on behalf of the wider public. Will it be possible to sack cultural bureaucrats without an imperial decree? Do we need cultural tsars who can’t really be asked where the money is coming from.
By Sean — 10 years ago
The people want to know is the eXile‘s demise the result of a government inspection or money? Well, you see, the two can’t be untangled. Already in dire financial straights, the impromptu inspection scared the paper’s investors away, leaving it in debt and flat broke. Searching for whether it was the chicken or the egg doesn’t say much here. I think for the eXile, government attention simply nudged it off the financial cliff. As Yasha Levine explained on the eXile blog, “News of the [polite chinovniks’] visit had our investors fleeing instantly.” Now broke, the eXile is now begging for money to keep its website’s server up.
Why the eXile has finally attracted the government eye is easy to explain. Limonov, it’s offensive articles, and its love of pissing in the face of anything and everyone. The big question everyone is asking is why now? After all, wasn’t Medvedev supposed to bring a thaw to Putin’s free speech freeze out? There is no easy answer to why the eXile got inspected at this moment. Was it the recent articles on the clan war? Was it Ames writing of the new President, “Don’t you just want to pick Medvedev up and hug him and squeeze him? Or zip him up in a squirrel costume and put him in a habittrail, then just watch him run around, gnawing on a salt lick or rolling around in wood chips? We do. And we’re not afraid to say it either.” I doubt it. They’ve said a lot worse in the last 11 years.
I don’t think asking why now is as important as asking from where. The answer from the latter is sure to shed light on the former. I doubt the order to inspect the eXile came directly from the Kremlin mount. Russia’s chinovniki are so obsequious to those above that I wouldn’t doubt one of them is make a little campaign to with hopes please the new boss. That or Russia’s middle management haven’t got the message to back off the media. Are they not getting Medvedev’s hints that he plans to “protect the media” and even going so far as to shoot down the proposed amendment to the media law?
Or did the order come one of Russia’s board of directors embroiled in a clan war. Ames has published a few articles on the matter. Did they finally prick the ears of the wrong silovik? Then of course there are the alleged complaints by some Russian citizens that they were offended by the eXile. At least this is what the chinovniki told Ames in their meeting. Could it be that the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage works like America’s FCC, which goes after “indecency” on radio and TV based on consumer complaints? Is the eXile Recession Penis merely the Russian equivalent to Janet Jackson’s nipple? Perhaps but unlikely.
Unlikely first and foremost because nothing in Russia seems to ever happen by chance or according to the rules. Conspiracy is always in the air and be sure there is always a Russian boyar plotting and pulling the strings. Given the long list of harassment and threats the eXile have gotten over the years, it’s hard to think that they recent salvo against has anything to do with chance.
Plus it’s not like the eXile is alone here. Over the last month, a number of media outlets have come under fire in what appears to be a larger campaign. In late May, the Novosibirsk nationalist newspaper Otchezna was closed by local authorities for extremism. Also in Novoskibirsk a TV show set in WWII called “Jeeps against Tanks” has been suspected of extremism. The fear is that the show’s popularity might inspire youth to wear swastikas. A little over a week ago, the largest Russian radio company, Russian Media Group, was raided by tax police. A week before that, the Moscow liberal paper Nezavisimaya gazeta got an eviction notice from the Moscow city government. Konstantin Remchukov, NG’s editor/owner, said the notice was retaliation for running articles critical of Moscow boss Yuri Luzhkov. Ingushetia authorities also moved to close down the opposition site Ingushetiya.ru for extremism. The site is still alive but only because its server is outside Russia. The Bashkir government adopted the “On the Working Against Extremist Activities” law. Finally, the Kursk Provincial Duma is seeking to “sharply strengthen” the extremist law.
It appears that alongside Medvedev’s anti-corruption campaign there is an anti-extremism campaign in the making. Just yesterday, Medvedev gave a speech calling for the media to help curtail extremism. “We will fight with these problems with all available means,” he said. These means include the security organs, the justice system, and the Russian press. I would assume that the 53 hate crime arrests the Russian authorities have made so far this year is part of this campaign. True enough Russia has a big problem with skinheads, nationalism, and racial violence. There are real extremists out there. But the extremism law is so elastic that anyone can be labeled as such if some lowly chinovnik desired it.
The crackdown on Russia media is a well worn story. The NY Times revisited the issue of media (self-)censorship again this weekend. Surprisingly the English language press which is always ready to point out the next tiptoe to Russian autocracy, authoritarianism, fascism, Stalinism or whatever is the political flavor the week, have been virtually silent about the eXile‘s travails. No outcry from the NY Times. No snarky editorials from WaPo. The London Independent, which two years called the eXile “a breath of fresh air” amid “tightly controlled and increasingly cowed Moscow media,” hasn’t made a peep.
Besides the Moscow Times, the Daily Georgian Times, and something called the Foreign Policy Passport, the English Language media either doesn’t know about the story (unlikely), doesn’t care (likely), and is in fact happy (most likely). In fact, the whole incident seems to have thrown people’s political conscious into contradiction with their emotions. As the Moscow Times reported, one American victim of eXile pranks would only speak to them “on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be quoted saying negative things about the newspaper as it was being shut down.” The anon-moron said, “[The eXile] never really called anyone to ask questions, and they made 90 percent of it up.” Translated: “I’m glad those fucks finally got what they deserve, but it’s not politically correct to say so.” I guess eleven years of farting in everyone’s face doesn’t exactly ingratiate you to the establishment. So there are no crocodile tears for the poor eXile. Oh well, I doubt Ames and the gang are expecting any.
Given the context, perhaps there is an answer, or should a say a theory, of why the eXile now. It is part of the overarching campaignism of Medvedev so he could establish his footing as boss. This is not to say that the eXile is more significant than any other Russian press organ. Their appearance on the radar is far more modest. The eXile as the sole English language forum for Limonov coupled with its own brand of uncompromising bile made it an easy target for the chinovnik looking to fulfill signals from above. Since the usual outcry from the English speaking Mandarins is unlikely to come (perhaps if they were some thieving oligarch they would get more sympathy), an irascible English language bi-weekly already teetering on financial collapse is an easy gnat to crush.