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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."

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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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