Russia Clamps Down on Contemporary Art (and History)

Russia’s Ministry of Culture has shut down a major “contemporary art and culture hubs project” and repurposed it with a new agenda: spreading “patriotic education” and “promoting moral values” for the “development of the Russian national spirit” in line with the Orthodox Church.

The entire team of curators involved in the original “cultural innovation initiative” (CII) has been fired, some say without notice. Their replacements have suggested that contemporary art is “American” or “Western” and “alien to our own country [Russia]”.

Nikolay Burlyaev, the new head of the cultural center project and an ardent Slavophile, says he “doesn’t believe ‘contemporary art’ really exists in nature.”

Indeed, Burlyaev is a very conservative man. In 1996, he became became the founder and chairman of the International Association of Cinematographers of Slavic and Orthodox Peoples. More recently, he signed a letter stating his support for Putin and intervention in Ukraine. Here he is in Serbia in 2008 (English subtitles):

This adoption of a straightforward form of nationalism in the field of culture is noteworthy given the pro-Soviet nature of the abandoned contemporary art project, which launched in March 2013.

The author and champion of the original concept was none other than former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, “the hidden author of Putinism“. Surkov’s idea was to create “houses of new culture” in small- and medium-sized cities across Russia. The initiative was modeled on the mass construction of “houses of culture” and recreation clubs in the Soviet Union during the 1920s.

The Rusakov Workers' Club by architect Konstantin Melnikov, Moscow (1927-28). (Photo credit: The Charnel-House).
The Rusakov Workers’ Club by architect Konstantin Melnikov, Moscow (1927-28). (Photo credit: The Charnel-House).

Ross Wolfe, a researcher of Russian history at the University of Chicago, describes the purpose of such buildings on his website The Charnel-House:

“A center for creative activity and the diffusion of culture, the club was also some compensation for the discomfort and overcrowding that the workers suffered at home. Unable to provide apartments for all, the state tried to make up at the collective level for its deficiencies on the individual plane. But this was not all. Essentially, the club embodied a conception of culture that was no longer that of an elite but of the mass, no longer acquired in the silence of the study or in halls of learning, but in a group bound by common interests and an awareness of their need.”

The new “patriotic education” project is representative of a shift towards a more conservative, church-influenced conception of Russian national identity. It also demonstrates the malleability of official narratives about history, especially in times of conflict. Two years ago, the Russian state was prepared to pay to spread “the most advanced technologies in art” to people throughout the country. Now such art is said to have never existed in Russia (or in nature) at all.


Cover photo credit: Boris Bernasconi’s visualization of one proposed contemporary art and culture hub in Pervouralsk,

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