My great-grandfather did not denounce Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality 56 years ago so we would obediently celebrate Vladimir Putin’s cult today.
One of Nikita Khrushchev’s messages in his 1956 “Secret Speech” was that Stalin betrayed communism by resembling undemocratic royals. Everything about Stalin was superior and superlative: “best friend of Soviet athletes” and “father of all children on earth.”
Putin’s 60th birthday earlier this month consisted of a sweeping parade of tributes that would put royals and Soviets alike to shame in its subservient ingenuity. Reuters’ report of the festivities noted a super-sized inflatable cake floating on the Moscow River, and the president’s portraits painted or posted on bridges, buildings, and, in one case, atop a mountain. Russia’s Christian Orthodox Church (now almost an official branch of the Kremlin propaganda) sent Putin a poetic birthday address, lauding him as the “true Russian patriot.” This praise followed Patriarch Cyril’s earlier statement that Putin is a “present from God.”
Many mocked these accolades, and called for Putin’s retirement after 12 years in power—first as president, then prime minister, and now president again. The polls seem to agree: his approval in the last year has fallen to 49 percent from 68 percent. Yet what is revealing about this pop-escalation of the personality cult is that it came sanctioned—even if unwittingly—by the Russian intelligentsia. Since 2000, writers, musicians, and film and theater directors have been enthusiastic supporters of the former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin.
Of course, Russian leaders have always tried to keep artists on their side, and artists, in turn, have usually bowed to power. Nineteenth-century poet Alexander Pushkin once announced defensively: “I am not a flatterer in singing praises to my Tsar.”
Under Joseph Stalin, even apolitical poet Osip Mandelstam had to shelve his censored masterpiece, “The Stalin Epigram (1933),” which brilliantly described the dictator: “His words are heavy as weights / His cockroach whiskers are laughing.” In 1937 he wrote an “Ode to Stalin.” It was, ultimately, a futile surrender: accused of anti-Soviet rhetoric, the poet died in the Gulag in 1938. Yet he had delivered the right message: if a genius like Mandelstam thinks Stalin is great, Stalin is great. Sergei Prokofiev—an aloof and apolitical music giant—also conceded when he composed “Hail to Stalin.” His life spared, Prokofiev’s 1939 patriotic capitulation made his other works like the 1935 ballet “Romeo and Juliet”tolerable to the Soviets.
History repeats itself—first as tragedy, then as farce. In Putin’s case, it is tragedy and farce all at once. Russia is not the USSR, and the president’s cultural involvement has assumed less intimidating forms than those in the Soviet past. True, public disagreements with the state have led to exile (media oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky), prison (oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky) or death (journalist Anna Politkovskaya). But with artists, authorities prefer flattery, personal favors, and state awards. Indeed, few could resist such blatant adoration as Putin poured on the intellectuals at the start of his reign, telling them that their works were of great sociopolitical importance; that they were not simply loved. but worshipped.
Even those who saw themselves above the political fray, like Grigory Chkhartishvili—former editor of Inostrannaya Literatura (Foreign Literature), now a popular detective novelist writing under the name Boris Akunin—couldn’t resist the state’s embrace.
Akunin’s pre-Putin 2000 novel, The State Counselor, delivered a poignant message: individual morality is more important than state service. Main character detective Erast Fandorin resigns from government, rejecting the security department’s dirty tactics of uncovering terrorists. At the start of Putin’s second presidential term in 2004, Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar winner for his 1994 anti-Stalin feature Burnt by the Sun, decided to turn the novel into a movie—but with a reverse ending. Mikhalkov—who in the past decade has become the president’s cultural mentor—argued that a popular writer such as Akunin should espouse the moral of serving the state. Reluctantly, the writer surrendered. In the 2005 movie, Fandorin remains in the secret service for the common good of the nation.
The late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, beacon of communist exile and author of the anti-Stalin masterpieces One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973), received a medal from Putin. In return, he called the president the “savior” of Russia. Another dissident beacon, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, also praised Putin’s leadership. As a reward in 2007, he was invited to celebrate his 80th, and last, birthday at the Kremlin.
Then there is Valery Gergiev, world-famous conductor of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Opera. When Georgia clamped down on its rebellious South Ossetian territory in August 2008, triggering Russia’s military response, Gergiev lauded the Kremlin with the patriotic performance of Dmitry Shostakovich’s 7th “Leningrad” Symphony. Written in 1941 by order of Stalin, the piece has come to symbolize Russian resolve against all enemies.
In granting cultural figures special status, Putin’s calculations have proven right. Mikhalkov, Gergiev, and even the resentful Akunin were flattered by the attention and chose to abide by the powers of the state. Prevailing wisdom of the last decade said that although Putin was not your typical democrat, neither was he Stalin. In his 1927 book La Trahison des Clercs, Julien Benda describes such intellectual collaboration as “the betrayal of the intellectuals.”
In the old classic The Third Man (1949), shadowy Harry Lime offers the best distinction between despotism and democracy. “For 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Russia is not quite oppressed, but not quite free either—stuck between the Renaissance and the cuckoo clock, in the gray matter of Putinism. It has produced nothing of stunning artistic value as it did in the previous century. There is no Prokofiev or Mandelstam, even if there are successes—Akunin with his wide but not overwhelming Russian popularity; Gergiev, whose universal adoration is as much due to his superb PR skills and his eccentricity as to his talent.
The intelligentsia’s support—tacit or explicit—emboldened Putin to seek a third presidential term in March 2012, despite public protests against KGB-ism, corruption, church domination, and abuses of business rights and free speech.
When Putin’s popularity began to erode around last December’s parliamentary elections (said by election monitors to be “slanted in favor of the ruling party”), a few of the intelligentsia—writer Dmitry Bykov, actor Mikhail Efremov—finally spoke out against the Kremlin. Akunin himself led protests demanding electoral fairness. But on the whole, they’d missed their moment—their decade in fact. The feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot stole the show with their anti-Putin prayer: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away ... The head of the KGB, their chief saint/ Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist ... Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!”
Rejecting stale intellectualism, which expired under Putin, the women, who performed last February in a nouveau riche gaudy and gold Moscow cathedral, have showed creativity so obvious it feels artless. Contrary to the tasteless and musty expressions of Putin’s birthday propaganda, they have captured the world’s imagination by being vivid and symbolic without being too literary or trite.
Their new nontraditional art isn’t against religious faith, despite the claims of the Moscow court that in August sentenced the group to two years in prison for hooliganism. And though one member’s sentence was recently suspended, it’s not for the triumph of justice: Yekaterina Samutsevich was thrown out of the cathedral by the guards before she had the chance to perform. Prison or not, the women forcefully argue that their art opposes the fake grandeur of the Kremlin and the pomposity of the church, whose values they say have long ceased to be spiritual. Indeed, the patriarch is known for his collection of expensive wristwatches and cars, and heads a clergy as corrupt and unaccountable to law as Putin himself.
Ironically, in Russia even Pussy Riot supporters value the band more as rebels than performers. With no culture of pop singles or Lady Gaga–type societal shockers, we have yet to outgrow our traditional art formulas in which intellectuals carry all the weight of wisdom and influence. In this light, the Pussy Rioters are pioneers of democratic transformation.
Similarly, a century ago, stunning avant-garde creations came out of a stagnant and oppressive Russian empire—Marc Chagall with his Cubist Golgotha (1912), and Kazimir Malevich with his Suprematist squares that questioned the human condition. The simplified contours of their figures and bright colors of expression, not depiction, were a sign of the cultural (and political) revolution to come.