The year 2014 was rich in events that gave a new direction to Russia’s foreign policy and strengthened its resolve to pursue this policy in its stand-off with the western world. However, for Russia, last year was not only notable for the annexation of Crimea, for western sanctions and the retaliatory goods embargo, and for the steady devaluation of the rouble: as far back as April 2013, 2014 was named a Year of Culture by presidential decree. The decree stated that this Year of Culture should be organised “to bring society’s attention to issues of developing culture, preserving cultural and historical heritage, and the role of Russian culture worldwide”.

I’m not convinced that Russians preserved their cultural and historical heritage with any particular enthusiasm last year. Crimea and the war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine attracted immeasurably more attention than “issues of developing culture”. But that isn’t to say that culture in Russia isn’t beginning to mean more; just that it is happening in a freakish and perverted way. The turning of culture into yet another state-owned natural resource has become another effect of Russia’s move towards "traditional values". Extracting ideas like "the Russian world" and "historical Russia" from the resource base of cultural traditions has become a tool for adopting policies towards other governments in the post-Soviet space.

Last year conclusively defined culture as another state-controlled industry, and another possible casus belli. The war in Donbass has been justified as “protecting our brothers” in south-east Ukraine, whose culture is close to Russia’s. It has been spun as a defence of the Russian language and the Moscow Orthodox Church (which, in the language of the presidential decree, could be interpreted as “preserving cultural and historical heritage”).

Viktor Vasnetsov, <i>Knight at the Crossroads</i> (1878)

This state of external insulation, magnified by the gravitation towards isolation — typical of a significant proportion of Russia’s elite — is bound to turn culture (considered as tradition, heritage, memory, history) into an even more important strategic resource for the government to exploit. For as long as it remains estranged from global capital markets and technologies, Russia will have to focus on its own resources: oil and gas… and cultural heritage. This is also where the need comes from for a more active cultural policy, which is keenly felt by Russia’s political elite and the cultural institutes affiliated to the government.

In autumn 2013, consultations began on a new government programme for cultural policy. On 16 May 2014 a draft framework for this policy was published, having been prepared by a working group headed by Sergey Ivanov, Chief of the Presidential Administration. On 25 December it was approved by President Putin, who in doing so contrasted the eternal values of Russian culture with the devaluation of the rouble. How it is put into practice will need to be addressed separately, but for now it would be good to remodel the genealogy of the specific part that culture has played in public life and government policy. This may help us to understand why culture matters. 

Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky, <i>Morning in a Pine Forest</i> (1889)

“The literocentrism of Russian culture”; “Russian literature as a school of free social thinking and as a societal battleground”; “Russian literature as the principle source of Enlightenment in Russia”; “The poet as a substitute for the holy figure in the secular age”. There are many more of these common topoi in public and academic discourse on Russian culture, and they all lead to the same idea: that in an autocratic or authoritarian country, literature — and culture as a whole — is the only domain in which a person is relatively free of the government. As a result, in Russia culture has become a sphere with an alternative relationship with the government (even at those times when it has seemed that the government has controlled this sphere). Culture has turned into a virtual civil society, with the power to present social, ethical and even political values (in the words of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet”).

It is these increased socio-political investments into culture that have provoked the government into taking a special interest in it. Only now, in continuing to simulate the traditional intellectual narrative about the essential value of culture for all parts of Russian life, the government is trying to become the keeper of culture, grabbing the initiative, trying to marginalise those who try to keep criticism and autonomy alive in the cultural space. In the aforementioned draft framework for government policy on culture, the state is directly spoken of as culture’s main subject — although any conversation about culture that uses phrases like “cultural policy” automatically infers that such a culture-keeper exists.

Ivan Shishkin, <i>A Rye Field</i> (1878)

Culture’s new status as a subject for government policy is ironic, given that this has been a dream of the Russian intelligentsia for centuries. At last culture matters. It matters for the government. It has gained the status now commonly known as “falling within the government’s interests”. What has brought about this sharpened focus on culture — cultural values, language, religion, customs, history? We already have one answer: when we are isolated, our cultural traditions fill a gap. Another answer could be that when a political war and economic competition are discredited by society as a clash of the elite — and the private interests of those who work for them — then reframing the issue as a debate on culture is a factor in effective mass mobilisation.

The language of culture talks about things that everybody has (for example, identity). In times of social stratification, and ever-growing economic inequality, and greater differences in lifestyles and personal values, culture begins to manifest itself as a bastion of mass democratic participation — as a showcase for values and heritage which belong to everyone, and which therefore should be nurtured and protected by everyone. National culture presents itself as something that unites bureaucrats and baristas, office workers and farmers, oligarchs and oncologists, pop stars and school teachers.

Vasily Surikov, <i>The Taking of the Snow Fortress</i> (1891)

Cultural riches can make up for the lack of material wealth; they take the sting out of interactions between people on different rungs of the social ladder. In other words, when you have nothing — no political say, no business to pay your pension — you still have a role to play in protecting your cultural heritage; the shared cultural wealth. This is the logic I apply to the Russian government’s awakening interest in an intensive cultural policy (although I should also say that this is true of many other governments; I think this is always, to a greater or lesser extent, an attempt to deflect real social, economic and political problems onto a cultural debate that is safer for the elite to participate in. Culture has always been a place for people to be heard when their opinion about everything else is ignored.)

Cultural politics is politics for the poor, and the socially and politically marginalised. There are advantages to this. Firstly, it is relatively cheap. Secondly, it plays on values that are free for everyone: you don’t live in spacious apartment, but you do have traditional family values; you don’t have a prestigious car, but you do have the great Russian language; you can’t get rid of Putin, but you will never lose Pushkin; you work for a tiny salary, but you are a direct heir of a great culture (and even if you don’t have any job at all, you have a normative sexuality and pride in your country). And thirdly, appealing to some of these “shared national values”, cultural policy is not only the politics of identity, which allows power to reproduce an ideological hegemony. Cultural policy is also the politics of imitation, the politics of imitating politics: as real politics disappears or becomes inaccessible, culture acts as its surrogate and substitute; as a place where social tension is redirected.

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