The Kremlin Keeps Banning Culture: an Opera, a Movie … Twerking

The Putin administration is trying to make culture in Russia conform to its idea of “moral awareness.” But the result could be the death of art.

Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy

MOSCOW — Do you twerk in patriotic colors? Do you like movies telling of dark corners in your country’s history? Well, you’re in trouble in Russia as the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis approaches. The Putin government’s hard-driving censorship machine has moved into high gear as it aims to enforce “moral awareness.”

In just the last few weeks, Russian authorities banned a Wagner opera in Novosibirsk for showing a sinful Jesus; a dance school in Orenburg for teaching unpatriotic twerking; a movie called Child 44 was banned on Wednesday, only one day before it was scheduled for release, because it presented Russia as, well, Mordor. Police destroyed a piece of art and began investigating a local artist in Perm last Sunday for painting a crucified Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, on Orthodox Easter.

And Irkutsk authorities declared a list of harmful and banned children’s books and stories that included Thumbelina, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Alexander Pushkin’s The Tale of the Golden Cockerel.

Authorities also thwarted an opposition March for Truth and Freedom scheduled for Sunday. Over a dozen civil groups and movements—students, scientists, doctors, and artists—asked Moscow city hall for a permit to demonstrate against the Kremlin’s politics in downtown Moscow. The answer was the same: “Nyet!” Why? “Officials told us that the city center would still be occupied by Easter events, but permitted us to march far away from the Kremlin, outside of Shukinskaya metro station in the outskirts,” one of the organizers, Olga Romanova, told The Daily Beast.

Romanova said that unhappy Russians, despite such setbacks, are remarkably resilient. They find each other in social networks and organize interest groups. “When authorities ban our marches, we choose permitted forms of protest and go to single picket lines. And if today they ban Facebook, people will distribute flyers, put stickers with information on the walls—it is useless to ban self-expression. These methods backfire.”

Was it possible to censor Russian theater and cinematography? “People won’t stop creating free art—efforts at ideological bans are just as useless as somebody’s desire to ban Putin,” says Mikhail Ugarov, a director of Theater Doc. “What will change if today we banned Russian authority? Nothing.”

Last December police raided Theater Doc and forced the company out of its building right before the screening of a documentary film about last year’s events on the Maidan square in Kiev. Recently the theater company reopened in a new building with a production by a Ukrainian group. ATO, or Anti-terrorist Operation, is a play about post-traumatic stress disorders among victims in eastern Ukraine. “We feel just as free to stage what we like as before, but in our new building we are going to have much tougher control and kick out provocateurs,” Ugarov said.

Last week authorities began to check all private dance schools teaching twerking in the Russian province of Orenburg. It was decided to ban the scandalously sexy dance by long-limbed and strong-legged teen girls in orange-and-black costumes, as the bicolor pattern was reminiscent of the Ribbon of St. George, the symbol of military valor in Russia. Authorities closed the dance school where the dance staged the performance.

In a long statement published on the official website on Wednesday, Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskiy explained why Child 44, a big-budget Hollywood movie showing “Soviet soldiers with five trophy watches on their wrists, the bloody vampires with officer epaulettes of the victorious army,” had no right to come out on Russian screens, “neither in the year of the 70th anniversary of Victory nor in any other time.” The minister expressed his disappointment with all members of various commissions previously inspecting and approving Child 44 for the release. “It is a principle thing, we should finally put the full stop in the series of endless schizophrenic self-reflections,” Medinsky said.

Medinsky’s statement sounded controversial, as if threatening the core idea of art. “The full stop to self-reflecting would mean the end of our profession, as that’s what we all do, we observe and study ourselves,” Ivan Ivashkin, an actor at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater company, told The Daily Beast. Minister Medinskiy opposed art critical of Russian reality. He previously criticized the Golden Globe winner Leviathan for its “existential hopelessness.” This month Medinskiy banned the Wagner opera Tannhauser for “offending religious believers” at the Novosibirsk theater and fired the artistic director, Boris Mezdrich, in spite of protests by famous cultural figures and thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Novorsibirsk. A petition signed by 15,000 activists was addressed to both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday. It asked the Kremlin leaders to sack the “incompetent” Medinskiy, “whose decisions overheated the atmosphere in Russia’s cultural space.”