A guide to creative Russia


July 29, 2014

Pussy Riot takes Russian government to human rights court

Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are suing the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for human rights violations during their trial and imprisonment following their punk performance at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2012.

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Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who were sentenced to two years for their “punk prayer”, are demanding compensation of €120,000 ($161,277) each for moral damages, with an extra €10,000 ($13,437) for legal fees each, news website Vedomosti reported on Monday.

Both women claim that the investigation and trial violated their rights to freedom of expression, liberty and security, a fair trial and the prohibition of torture, all of which are guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a signatory.  

Pavel Chikov, president of the law firm representing Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, has said that as neither received a fair trial in Russia “they finally want to get it in the ECHR”. He added: “Plus they want this case to set a precedent to show that Russians can speak publicly on sensitive political issues, even if such speech is not supported by majority. This is a case about freedom of expression and fair trial first of all.”

Moscow has refuted accusations of having breached human rights laws, claiming that prosecuting Pussy Riot for their performance allowed the Russian government to protect the right to freedom of religion for Orthodox Christians in Russia.

After being released from prison in December 2013 as part of an amnesty prior to the start of the Sochi winter Olympics, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina co-founded an NGO dedicated to the protection of prisoners’ rights called Zona Prava (Law Zone). 

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 28, 2014

State duma debates bill to ban ‘biased’ journalism

State Duma in Moscow

Russia’s State Duma is debating a bill tabled by the Communist Party to introduce fines for journalists who present “non-objective” views of events. The authors of the bill are calling for increased accountability in the media, with journalists who present one-sided accounts of current affairs to be subject to hefty fines. If the bill is passed, law-breakers would face fines of 30,000 roubles ($845) for local publications, 50,000 roubles ($1,407) for regional media and 100,000 roubles ($2,818) for media outlets with national reach.

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A Communist Party spokesman told newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “When something is presented in a biased way and contains facts which are completely taken out of context, it can be regarded as false coverage of events.”

According to Vadim Solovyоv, the head of the Communist Party's legal service, the bill would have the greatest impact on regional media. He said: “Unlike national publications, which are monitored by the daily law-enforcements agencies, reports from local and regional media are neglected, but they are the most popular among the population.”

Experts have said that the new law would give the government greater scope to strengthen its control over information transmitted by the media. Ilya Shablinsky, a member of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, has expressed concern over the bill, noting that Russia's current media laws, which ban the spread of rumours and the incitement of hatred, already prohibit journalists from abusing their status. 

Shablinky told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “The Communist Party’s proposal contradicts the current laws, inasmuch as today there isn’t a criteria which would allow us to differentiate between lies and the truth. In my opinion, it is an attempt to introduce political unanimity — a measure to create a single ideology — because only then can you have clear criteria of what is true and what is false information."  

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 28, 2014

UK ministers withdraw support for UK-Russia Year of Culture

UK ministers have withdrawn support for this year’s UK-Russia Year of Culture, announcing plans to boycott the programme’s events because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March this year, The Herald Scotland has reported. The article added that the worsening diplomatic tensions between Russia and the UK, which deepened this month after a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was shot down in eastern Ukraine, are also thought to play a role.

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A spokesperson for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office said: “In light of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, Her Majesty’s Government has withdrawn all ministerial and senior official involvement in the Year of Culture. We review all engagement with Russia on an event by event basis.”

Separately, Scottish ministers have also distanced themselves from Russia, an attempt, according to The Herald, to make up for comments by Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond in support of President Vladimir Putin. In April, Salmond was lambasted after claiming that Putin’s patriotism was “entirely reasonable”. He added that he admired “certain aspects” of Putin’s politics and his restoration “of a substantial part of Russian pride”.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government is no longer actively supporting the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014 and Ms Hyslop [Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs] is not attending any planned Russian events taking place in Scotland under this initiative.”

By contrast, the British Council, which organises the events programme in the UK, has reaffirmed its commitment to the Year of Culture despite the controversy linked to supporting events connected to Russia. 

In an official statement, a spokesman from the British Council said: "We completely understand and respect the decision of anyone who chooses not to participate. However, as the British Council is a non-political organisation committed to people-to-people engagement, we hope that, wherever possible, exhibitions, shows and performances in Russia will go ahead as planned."

The statement added: “We’re naturally concerned about the situation in Ukraine and the current political tensions. When political or diplomatic relations become difficult we believe that cultural exchange helps to maintain open dialogue between people and institutions.”

This is not the first time the UK-Russia Year of Culture has suffered. In June, two major events — a show by Russian art group AES+F at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and a retrospective of Young British Artists in Moscow — were cancelled due to funding issues. A third exhibition, a retrospective of graffiti artist Banksy in Moscow, was cancelled with a vaguely-worded statement from organisers blaming British art collectors for “abandoning their participation in the project, making it impossible to continue working”.

Polish ministers have also shown their frustration with Russia's involvement in Ukraine and Crimea, with the government cancelling the Polish-Russian Year of Culture scheduled for next year.

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 25, 2014

Former Izvestia editor in chief to head new Moscow information agency

Alexander Malyutin

The former editor-in-chief of newspaper Izvestia, Alexander Malyutin, is set to head a new current affairs and listings agency called Moscow, focusing on social, political, economic and cultural affairs in the capital. The organisation is intended to plug the gap many consider to have emerged following the closure of news agency RIA Novosti, which included a section called In Moscow that covered the city. 

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The agency's official launch date will be announced next week, according to Vladimir Chernikov, the head of the Moscow City department of media and advertising. “Moscow, which will be a fully-fledged information agency prioritising city events, is already in its testing phase,” he said.

Yuri Zagrebnoy, head of information agency Mossovet, said: “There is still so much rubbish and PR on topics such as society, politics and culture. There is no objective metropolitan news that could actually help Muscovites orient themselves to what is going on in their city.”

Malyutin will also be appointed deputy editor-in-chief of the media holding Moscow Media, whose portfolio includes the new website as well as TV channels Moscow 24 and Moscow Trust, radio stations Moskva FM, Radio Moscow and Moscow FM, and news portal m24.ru.

Malyutin was appointed editor-in-chief of Izvestia in April 2011 and again in August 2013, after he stepped down in between allegedly due to disagreements with the founder of the newspaper’s publisher, media mogul Aram Gabrelyanov, who is known for his close friendship to President Vladimir Putin and his ownership of a number of sensationalist publications. 

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 24, 2014

Pavel Durov launches new version of disputed Telegram app

Photograph: Desiree Catani under a CC licence

Pavel Durov, the founder of leading Russian social networking site VK, has launched a clone of the mobile messaging app Telegram called Telegram HD with additional features such as iPad support, faster videos and animated gifs. The release marks a new stage in the ongoing battle over the legal ownership of the original Telegram app.

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Durov has registered Telegram HD to the firm Telegram Messenger LLP, a different company to the original app, which was registered to US firm Telegram LLC by its legal owner, investment fund United Capital Partners (UCP). 

The original Telegram was developed by Durov and his brother Nikolai in 2013, who are now locked in a legal battle with UCP, the majority shareholders of VK, over the ownership of the app.

While Durov has accused UCP of illegally gaining ownership of the Telegram in the US, the investment fund has claimed VK is the rightful owner of the app as it was created using company resources.   

According to a statement from UCP, the company launched separate legal proceedings against Durov in April, accusing him of allegedly embezzling corporate funds and diverting corporate opportunities for his own benefit.

Durov’s ongoing conflict with VK’s Kremlin-friendly shareholders — UCP and Mail.ru are headed by metal magnate and government supporter Alisher Usmanov — has been well documented by the media. Durov’s position as a free speech advocate sparked tensions with shareholders following his refusal to shut down groups on VK that opposed the ruling United Russia party during the 2011 anti-government protests.

Durov fled Russian in April claiming persecution and has received citizenship from the Caribbean island St Kitts and Nevis, although he is reportedly based in the US. 

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 24, 2014

Andrei Konchalovsky film in Venice Film Festival line-up

Still from The Postman’s White Nights (2014)

Russian-American director Andrei Konchalovsky's latest film, The Postman's White Nights, has made it into the main competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film tells the story of a postman who has become the only link between an far-flung village and the outside world. Although fictional, the script is based on the real-life stories of people who have lived in Russia's outlying regions. Konchalovsky involved a number of local residents in the film. 

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The Postman's White Nights follows on from a series of films by the director which explore life in Russian villages, including Asya's Luck (1967), which was banned in Russia for 20 years after it was released. Konchalovsky's 2002 feature House of Fools, which is set in a Chechen psychiatric asylum during the First Chechen War, was awarded a Silver Lion at Venice in 2002. 

The Russian classic I Walk Around Moscow (1963), starring Konchalovsky's brother, actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov, will also be screened at the festival as part of the Classic Venice programme, which is dedicated to the celebration of restored old films. 

The film festival will run from 27 August to 6 September.

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 24, 2014

Uma Thurman stars in Russian short film

Uma Thurman is starring in an upcoming short film, The Gift, directed by Russian filmmaker Ivan Petukhov, Hollywood Reporter Russia reportedIn the film, Thurman plays the role of Miss Anderson, a gift wrapper working in a shopping centre whose life is radically altered following a chance meeting with a magician.

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Petukhov was given the opportunity to invite Thurman to join his new cast after winning the Jameson First Short film competition, set up by Kevin Spacey to support young film directors from Russia, South Africa and the USA. Thurman features in all three of this year's winning films. Actor Willem Dafoe and Spacey himself have acted in previous editions of competition. 

The Gift will have its premiere on 26 July in Los Angeles. Watch the film from last year's Russian winner here

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 23, 2014

Good manners and kittens may exempt bloggers from mass media law

Posting pictures of kittens and using polite tone of voice may exempt Russian bloggers from the new mass media law, which makes the posting of false information, expletives and extremist materials a criminal offence.

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Under the law, which comes into effect on 1 August, blogs with more than 3,000 unique visitors a day are counted as mass media and must register with media watchdog Roskomnadzor. 

In an announcement today, Roskomnadzor Deputy Director Maxim Ksenzov said: “If you post kitten pics, speak in a civilised manner and publish no classified information, you may never be required [to register], even if you have a daily audience of one million visitors.”

The law, passed as part of a ‘counter-terrorism’ legal package, was drafted in April following the bombings in Volgograd in 2013 and will subject law-breakers to fines of up to 500,000 roubles ($14,300). 

Source: The Moscow Times

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 23, 2014

Exhibition exploring decline of print media opens in St Petersburg

  • Exhibition exploring decline of print media opens in St Petersburg

    How Much Is Enough, Edgor Kraft (2014)

  • Exhibition exploring decline of print media opens in St Petersburg

    99, Anna & Aleksey Gan (2014)

  • Exhibition exploring decline of print media opens in St Petersburg

    Italics, Peter Thörneby (2011)

  • Exhibition exploring decline of print media opens in St Petersburg

    One Day, All This Will Be Yours, Peter Thörneby (2013)

An exhibition dedicated to exploring the decline of print and the growing dominance of online media will open in St Petersburg on 31 July, with artists presenting their take on how these changes can influence culture, creativity and identity. Printed Matter features Russian, American and European artists, whose mix of literal and abstract artworks includes explorations of anything from how history is remembered to the analysis of different media formats. 

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Housed in the Museum of Printing, the exhibition juxtaposes old and new, with most of the featured artists privileging the use of paper, cardboard and wood over more sophisticated materials in their exploration of online publishing and broadcasting.

Artist Serge Ogurtsov, whose work in the exhibition investigates the dominance of the image over text, told The Calvert Journal: “I don’t think it’s paper that’s in decline, but linear alphabetical writing that is being forgotten, with visual images taking its place. I’m more interested in language itself, its connection to text, its relation to visuality, its role in subjectivity.”

The work of German artist Alexandra Leykauf takes inspiration from Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, which uses mirrors and autobiography titles to explore the schism between individuals and how they choose to portray themselves.

She told The Calvert Journal: “The title of an autobiography can be seen as an ultimate statement about a person’s life, but at the same time it is a persona rather than an actual person. It’s important to realise that there is no direct view, no direct experience when we are dealing with text or images. The medium always plays a crucial role between what is being represented and our perceptions.”

Printed Matter is part of the parallel programme of Manifesta 10 and will run until 24 August.

  • Text: Nadia Beard
July 22, 2014

Putin bans adverts on pay TV

President Vladimir Putin has amended Russia's advertising law to impose a ban on the broadcast of adverts on paid television channels from 1 January 2015. According to the revised law, which was published today, national public television channels, as well as those broadcast on terrestrial TV for free, will not be affected.

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The architect of the new law, Fair Russia party politician Igor Zotov, proposed the bill last month claiming that television channels that are broadcast to viewers for free "are at a disadvantage compared to TV channels whose distribution is based on payments and who show adverts paid for by the consumers’ monthly fee”.

According to a list collated by Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor, around 1,400 subscription channels currently broadcasting commercials will be prohibited from screening adverts from next year.

Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council has spoken out against the law, claiming that the amendment will monopolise the television advertising market and inevitably lead to an increase in subscription fees and the closure of numerous channels.

  • Text: Nadia Beard