The list of Russian artists supporting Vladimir Putin is extremely long. By last weekend, 420 had signed a letter that reads:
“In the days when the fate of Crimea and our compatriots is being decided, Russian cultural figures cannot be indifferent observers with cold hearts. Our common history and common roots, our culture and its spiritual sources, our fundamental values and language brought us together forever. We want the community of our peoples and our cultures to have a lasting future. That is why we firmly declare our support of the position of the president of the Russian Federation on Ukraine and Crimea.”
The list of signatories reads like a Who’s Who of the Russian arts scene. Among them are the president of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the director of the State Literary Museum, film directors like Fedor Bondarchuk, Pavel Lungin and Alexey Uchitel, the artistic director of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre, the general director of Mosfilm Studios, and the president of the Russian Academy of Arts.
“I support Putin’s policy because I don’t want Ukraine and Crimea to become the next US state,” says Yurij Rozum, who is an internationally known concert pianist, honoured by Putin with a medal of the Supreme Soviet and the title of People’s Honoured Artist of Russia. The Russian Ministry of Culture supports and sponsors his charity Rozum International Charitable Foundation, which funds scholarships for gifted children. The well-known Russian film director Fiodor Bondarchuk supports Putin too. His Oscar nominated movie Stalingrad was sponsored by the state bank VTB.
“I worry about people there because it looks like they will be in trouble. Could I be wrong? Yes, I could, but this is my opinion now,” says another film director, Wladimir Chotimienko. He directs a big production based on Dostoyewsky’s Demons for Russian national television, Rossiya 1.
Another actor and film director whose first directorial debut will be shown on Russian state TV says: “I don’t agree with Putin’s internal policy but I support his external policy 154%, especially his stance on Ukraine and Crimea. That’s why I signed the list.”
Why is the beautiful language of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov associated with war rhetoric and a policy of aggression? Why do Russian artists support Putin? Many are working on their artistic projects — films, theatre, concerts — and their main source of funding is the state, which sponsors culture through the media with the help of state banks and other state-run companies like Gazprom. This year’s state budget for national TV is around 17.5 milliard Russian rubles (€40 million).
The cultural war is taking place. Some performances have been cancelled, some concerts postponed; both sides try to make a stand. “We would like to communicate our support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” declared the Georgian Ministry of Culture, cancelling theatre performances of one of the Putin supporters.
Culture is not only our way to interact with the world, our heritage and tradition, but it is also an important instrument of state policy. Putin needs artists because in a society without democratic institutions they are the conscience of the nation and in return these poets, writers and artists enjoy the nation’s respect. This was the case in the 19th century when Nikolay Niekrasov said: “You don’t have to be a poet, but you have to be a citizen.”
In today’s Russia, some take part in the protest in Moscow against Putin’s policy in Crimea; others join Putin’s party Yedina Rossiya. But is it only money and sponsorship they are looking for?
Do we see again the typical homo sovieticus with its moral dichotomy?
Is there still a belief in imperial Russia, with Moscow the “third Rome” as a guardian of ideological values in the East? Is Putin’s policy seen as an inevitable process of the consolidation of divided Russian territories?
“Crimea is our historical and cultural cradle,” Putin said in his speech in the Kremlin. Or is it the everlasting belief in the ability to transform the reality through artistic and philosophical activities in the absence of political means?
The Russian media still speak the language of the 20th century, with its division between East and West. After the military interventions in Libya and Kosovo, not only Russians, but also the Russian-speaking people of Central Asia, Ukraine and the Baltic states, believe that the military action in Ukraine is fully justifiable.