[Marxism] Clerical fascism on the loose in Novosibirsk

Thomas Campbell avvakum at gmail.com
Thu Apr 2 11:25:41 MDT 2015


Last week, Boris Mezdrich, the executive director of Novosibirsk State
Academy Opera and Ballet Theatre, the largest opera theatre in Russia, was
fired by the Ministry of Culture “for unwillingness to take social values
into account in his work, for disrespect for citizens’ opinions, and for
failure to fulfill the founder’s recommendations.” Mezdrich’s transgression
was his theatre’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” conceived
and directed by Timofey Kuliabin, which appeared offensive to local
Orthodox Christian activists. The head of the Novosibirsk diocese, who had
not seen the opera, claimed in a letter to the local prosecutor’s office
that the production violated laws against offending the feelings of
religious believers and inciting religious discord, but a justice’s court
in Novosibirsk found nothing wrong with the production. Then the Ministry
of Culture stepped in and organized what they described as public hearings,
in which prominent clergy members, cultural figures, and ministry officials
condemned Kuliabin’s interpretation of the opera. None of the participants
 mentioned the orchestra, the performers, or the sets. The “hearings” were
fully focussed on the “insulting” quality of the production.

The Novosibirsk “Tannhauser” imagines Wagner’s hero, a minstrel who
vacillates between Venus and the Church, as a contemporary film director
who makes a movie about Jesus Christ. The production speaks directly to the
clash between art and the commerce of art festivals; there are clear
parallels to the director Lars von Trier and his controversial conduct. The
production’s opening-night performance, in December, was met by a full
house and a standing ovation. Some of the most prominent opera critics in
Russia praised the production; one predicted that Novosibirsk would become
a “site of pilgrimage” for the world’s opera lovers.

The production’s detractors were most outraged by a prop, a poster for the
hero’s film that showed the crucifixion of Jesus between the legs of a
naked woman. The poster appeared on stage for just a few seconds, and after
objections emerged, in March, it was covered with a gray cloth. This was
not enough for the Ministry of Culture, which demanded that “necessary
changes” be made to the production and that the director “convey public
apologies to all those whose religious feelings were offended.” Mezdrich
refused, and was fired. One of his most zealous persecutors, a fellow
theatre director named Vladimir Kekhman, had called the production
“blasphemous” and “a demonstration of inner ungodliness.” The Ministry of
Culture rewarded Kekhman by appointing him as Mezdrich’s replacement.

During Putin’s first decade in power, he focussed largely on consolidating
control of the legislature, political parties, national TV networks, and
other entities that could conceivably threaten his authority, but since his
return to the Presidency, in 2012, the Kremlin has cracked down on
individual civil liberties. More recently, artistic expression has become a
target of what the Russian theatre critic Marina Davydova has called a
“total conservative revolution.” The Orthodox Church has been an active
participant (and possibly an instigator) of several notable persecutions of
artists, including the Pussy Riot trial and the campaign against the film

The day after Mezdrich’s dismissal, Magomedsalam Magomedov, the deputy head
of the Kremlin Administration, proposed that theatrical productions be
subject to “inspections” before they are presented to the public. Though
Magomedov did not use the word “censorship” (which is explicitly prohibited
by the Russian constitution), this would represent a return to the Soviet
system of preliminary censorship, in which no work of literature, theatre,
or film could appear without the approval of government censors. Writers
who would not adjust to the state’s ideological constraints were forced to
write v stol—“into the desk,” not for publication. Theatre and film
directors had to submit their work to repertkom (repertory commissions) and
khudsovet (artistic councils), and either make the cuts and changes these
censors demanded or see their work barred from distribution (the term for
that was “put on the shelf”).

In fact, the latest government guidelines for controlling the cultural
realm sound somewhat similar to those of the Soviet era. According to
“Foundations of the State Cultural Policy,” a document produced by the
Ministry of Culture and signed last year by Putin, the purpose of these
policies includes the “consolidation of the unity of Russian society,”
“creating conditions for educating citizens,” and “transmission, from one
generation to the next, of the values and norms, traditions, customs, and
models of behavior traditional to Russian civilization.” Ministry officials
and loyalists now cite this document as the ultimate truth. During the
so-called public hearings on the “Tannhauser” production, one of the many
objections was its failure to comply with the “Foundations.”

Unlike their Soviet predecessors, who relied on strictly atheistic
Marxist-Leninist doctrine to identify unwelcome works of art, the current
proponents of cultural propriety emphasize the “special role of Orthodox
Christianity” in the Russian “system of values,” in the words of the
“Foundations.” This makes little practical difference. What the current
authorities share with the Soviet ideological masters is the sense that
intellectual and creative freedom are a threat to the absolute political
power of the government. Today, just as in the nineteen-seventies and
eighties, innovative and provocative art is seen as political disloyalty.
And, just as it was then, an artist who is willing to make public
demonstrations of political allegiance and to defame less coöperative peers
stands to gain in career opportunities.

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