MOSCOW — The climate of hostility toward critical voices that has already changed the face of Russian journalism and politics is focusing on a new target: the arts.
In Moscow, a city that prides itself on a rich cultural heritage, there are no official policies restricting artistic freedom. But from the theater to the rock concert stage to the contemporary art exhibition hall, artists who question the status quo are increasingly finding themselves targets for political censure — or even shutdown.
Last week, the well-known independent experimental theater company Teatr.doc learned that the Moscow city government had quietly terminated its lease for the space it has occupied since its inception in 2002. Reaction from the city’s arts community was swift and sharp, as directors and actors from other theaters took to social media to express outrage, draft petitions of protest, and offer their own stages as temporary havens for Teatr.doc when it is evicted in mid-December.
The decision to terminate the lease — made in May for unsanctioned renovations, according to the city’s property department, but not revealed until last week, theater directors said — left many questioning the source of the order. Moscow’s culture minister denied any involvement, leaving the theater community to speculate about whether it has a new enemy in the administration or is the victim of loyalists making a show of support for the state.
“I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist,” Elena Gremina, artistic director of Teatr.doc, said in an interview. “But somebody wants us to be removed completely, to destroy us. Somebody decided that we should not exist anymore.”
The plays presented at Teatr.doc, a 50-seat black box theater in the converted basement of a residential building in downtown Moscow, often deal with political themes. Last weekend, for example, Teatr.doc staged “Akyn Opera 2,” about Central Asian immigrants marginalized in Russia’s increasingly nationalistic society, and “150 Reasons Not to Support the Motherland” — a play about the fall of Constantinople that, Gremina notes, has themes that apply to modern-day conflicts, including the one in Ukraine. Posters on the walls remind audiences of even edgier past productions, such as 2012’s “BerlusPutin,” a Frankenstein-like fusion of the Russian president and the former Italian prime minister, complete with jokes about Botox injections.
Teatr.doc has received numerous accolades for its work and even government grants for its outreach with children. But in its experimentation, the company remains an exception on the Moscow arts scene.
“The system works through the old genetics of fear: People understand that if they don’t behave, they will be closed, so they don’t do things that might upset somebody,” said Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the Gogol Center, the vanguard of contemporary theater in Moscow. Staging political plays invites criticism, but a classic like Chekov, not so much, he said. “But strange as it might seem, the only place where we still talk about important issues is the theater.”
The Gogol Center is familiar with political pressure. In December, authorities banned a screening of a documentary on the punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot. Then in February, influential state television propagandist Dmitry Kiselev aired a piece questioning whether the government should continue to fund Serebrennikov’s productions, which he likened to “vulgar amusements of the Middle Ages.” Since then, Serebrennikov said, his company has lost sponsors and had problems booking tours in Russia because regional theaters don’t want to host them.
“We’re getting back to the Soviet times,” he said. “My friend has a joke: ‘You must know a good KGB guy so he can protect you from a bad KGB guy.’ What happened to Teatr.doc is not the state — it’s just one person in the administration who decided, ‘They said something bad about Putin, so they must be closed.’ ”
If the Moscow arts community sees a “good KGB guy” in the establishment, it’s city culture minister Sergei Kapkov, who has said his main goal is promoting “tolerance” in the arts and who views the moves against Teatr.doc with disdain.
“It’s just a game. It’s an ongoing game,” he said in an interview, adding that although Teatr.doc would be kicked out of its space, the production company would survive. “It’s just an attempt to influence something that someone feels they have the power to influence.”
But at the national level, machinations against artistic dissidence are having an impact.
This past spring, the Russian government changed the membership of national expert councils advising funding decisions on the arts, replacing established practitioners such as the director of Teatr.doc with lesser-known critics and writers. Russian art newspaper Kultura summed up the moves as a message that “modern art can be dangerous for the health of Russians.”
The political climate is so chilly that last month, organizers pulled the plug on Russia’s longest-running international contemporary art fair, Art Moscow. That followed the 2013 firing of Russia’s most famous contemporary art curator, Marat Guelman, after he refused to censor an art exhibit poking fun at the then-upcoming Winter Olympic Games.
Recently, one of Russia’s most popular musicians was targeted.
Rock legend Andrei Makarevich — the Russian Paul McCartney — has never recorded overtly political music, but after joining the antiwar effort this year, he started to feel political heat. In August, after a concert for Ukrainian refugees, a state television broadcast labeled him a“friend of the junta.” Suddenly, his concerts started getting canceled.
“They’re making him a lesson to other famous people and public figures. If they participate in the anti-government or anti-Putin activities, they will regret it,” said Artemy Troitsky, Russia’s most famous rock music critic.
Troitsky said he hasn’t seen such bold attempts at censorship since before perestroika in the 1980s. But unlike the theater and art worlds, where many are dependent on government patronage, Troitsky said the effort to silence dissent among musicians appears to be backfiring.
“Even some very mainstream bands who were never before involved in such activities have suddenly recorded songs with a very clear antiwar message,” Troitsky said, citing as examples songstress Zemfira and rapper Noize MC.
If the trend continues, Troitsky said, he expects the government will have to back off.
“The impulse to target pop culture most probably came directly from Putin, and then like a domino effect, people tried to follow this party line to show how loyal and how patriotic they are,” Troitsky said. “But after this first impulse has been given, I don’t think Putin really cares that much. He’s got more important things on his agenda.”