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Putin's Culture Minister, A Chilling Power Through Art

Loathed and feared in the art world, Vladimir Medinsky has shown a clear willingness to quash what he believes casts Russia in a poor light.

At 44, Medinsky has wide-reaching powers.
At 44, Medinsky has wide-reaching powers.
Emmanuel Grynszpan

MOSCOW — In many ways a symbol of today’s Russia, Vladimir Medinsky was one of the most widely anticipated guests at Geneva’s recent Book and Press Fair.

The 44-year-old's appointment three years ago as Minister of Culture came as a surprise to everybody in Moscow. An historian, popular essay writer and, most importantly, an apparatchik of the ruling United Russia party, he nonetheless appeared to be an underdog in an elitist and closed world.

Of course, he wasn't exactly a nobody, having written a collection of essays entitled Myths About Russia, in which he deconstructs negative stereotypes about Russia that he says have been fabricated abroad. In one of these essays, "On Drunkenness, Laziness and Cruelty," he strives to prove that Russians are the exact opposite.

In his most controversial book — In War. Myths of the USSR. 1939-45 — he explains that the Nazi–Soviet Pact deserves a monument, and that the Baltic countries were never occupied by the Red Army but rather "incorporated" into the USSR. The book met with enormous success in Russia, apparently addressing a popular demand for a dose of history that's unabashed and cleansed of its tragic aspects.

Riding the wave of patriotism that's overwhelming Vladimir Putin's Russia, Medinsky has mastered the art of staying in sync with public opinion. But it's a different story when it comes to the world of arts. From the moment he stepped into the Culture Ministry in Moscow, his priorities have surprised and angered a certain Russian art establishment.

Presiding over a reduced budget of $2 billion (0.6% of Russia's total budget), he defines his mission as an effort to decentralize culture from Moscow and Saint Petersburg and spread it to other provinces of the vast country. He is directing the largest cultural institutions, such as the Hermitage Museum, the Russian Museum and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, to open dozens of branches in the provinces with transfers of collections also part of the move. His angle of attack is fervent positivism.

"Art must give people hope," he repeats whenever the occasion arises. His interventionist approach is in contradiction with the tragic vein of a large part of Russian creation, both classical and contemporary.

Compartmentalizing art

Medinsky makes no mystery of his pet peeves. Contemporary art, in its Western definition, infuriates him. "Painting in an impressionist style is about as contemporary as these daubings nobody understands," he once told Le Temps.

The current bleakness of cinema and theater productions, in which Russia is portrayed as a miserable place, irk him just as much. He recently shocked people by characterizing this trend as "shitty Russia."

His frankness goes over well with the working class but offends both liberals and conservatives. His third bête noire is what he calls "anti-historical cinema," movies that, in other words, "paint a gloomier picture of our ancestors." On Dec. 16, 2014, he vowed that "not a dime from the state's coffers will finance such films."

Inside the Hermitage. Photo: Jsolomon

This strong bias has led to a split, illustrated by a recent incident during an award ceremony at the country's main theater festival, the Golden Mask Festival. While Medinsky was delivering an official speech, a shout from the crowd broke the silence: "Bring back Tannhäuser!" A torrent of applause and whistling filled the room, and it seemed it would never stop. The controversial production of Richard Wagner's masterpiece opera sparked a scandal this year at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Siberia, when Orthodox activists demanded its representation be banned and its authors brought to justice.

Although a Novosibirsk court ruled in favor of the defendants, Medinsky had the show canceled and fired the opera house's managing director.

At the Golden Mask Festival, Medinsky wriggled out of the heckling. "I've always hoped that the appearance of the culture minister would evoke an ovation in a hall," he said. The public showed little reaction. An online petition demanding his resignation gathered 15,000 signatures, but once again, Medinsky told news agency RIA Novosti that he was "too busy with work to pay attention to that sort of thing."

Walking on eggshells

In Russia, managing directors of theaters and museums that belong to the state are now very careful not to offend Medinsky and not to attract the ire of Orthodox conservatives. "The Tannhäuser affair was a signal for us that we're back to a system of self-censorship," says a managing director who wished not to be named.

Clearly embarrassed when he's encouraged to express his opinion about the culture minister, Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art director Joseph Bakstein says, carefully choosing his words, "I'm grateful to Medinsky for authorizing us to go ahead with the Biennale," which is financed mostly by the government. But the minister didn't conceal his very negative opinion regarding the pieces shown during the last event.

"Medinsky is in line with Soviet culture ministers," says conservator and art critic Andrei Erofeiev. "They are strangers to the world of art, administrators whose job is to neutralize art as much as possible. For Medinsky, art is like a fire, and his role is to play fireman."

Olga Svibola, director of Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, says she's never been confronted with censorship, even though she's organized contemporary art expositions. "I think one needs to be careful not to provoke him," she says of Medinsky. "In our field, we need to know how to explain things. Medinsky is an open-minded man, but he needs to see the expositions and shows with his own eyes, and then conflicts can be resolved."

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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