Saturday, December 1, 2007

"Times" Article -- Russian Culture as Putin's Final Frontier

Russian culture made the front page of today’s New York Times with Michael Kimmelman’s detailed and thoughtful analysis of the precarious position of freedom of expression.

Kimmelman includes quotes from two Russian writers, Viktor Erofeev and Vladimir Sorokin. Both writers have been accused of writing “pornography” in works that included content – sex, swearing, and the like – that would have been censored under the Soviet regime. Shrill labels, of course, politicize and polarize literary criticism and draw debate away from literary merit. Both writers speak out regularly against the constraints of the Putin era.

It appears that Russian writers may still write and publish what they want. As literary critic Andrei Nemzer commented in a roundtable discussion published in Искусство кино (The Art of Cinema), “собака лает, ветер уносит” – basically, “the dog barks, the wind carries,” a line from Denis Fonvizin’s play Недоросль (The Minor). Most literary barking dissipates quickly because of small print runs for books read only by the intelligentsia.

One can only hope that book publishers will not be pressured to stop supporting controversial authors who, like Sorokin, dare to write what they wish and speak out against Putin. I’m not sure that would be politically expedient for Putin, anyway, because the Sorokins and Erofeevs are so easy for a pseudo-moralistic regime and its apologists to demonize. This English-language piece on Sorokin's Web site mentions that and other ironies of the campaign against them.

Putin’s regime has shrewdly focused on creating new patriotic motifs for the masses through television, often using miniseries as a platform. Many series build on old pride in the military victory of World War 2.

A 2007 40-episode (!) series on Stalin, though, responds to demand from a segment of society for a portrait of Stalin as a wise, just, and moral leader, writes critic Semyon Ekshtut in The Art of Cinema. Ekshtut refuses to debate the filmmakers’ concept in the article, writing that polemics are useless. Unfortunately, I’m afraid he’s correct.

Also... Russian speakers/readers wishing to learn more about Russian debate on government control and the arts might want to listen to or read the December 1, 2007, edition of the "Культурный шок" ("Culture Shock") radio show on Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow). The guests are Andrei Erofeev of the Tretiakov Gallery and literary critic Andrei Nemzer.

For images and more background, watch “A Photographer’s Journal: Putin’s Russia,” a multimedia presentation in today’s Times. Photographer James Hill’s narration to this three-minute feature provides cultural and historical context for his black and white images.


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