Daniil Dondurei: “Putin is a remarkable student of culture”
Ahead of the inauguration of Vladimir Putin, DANIIL DONDUREI, a cultural critic and editor of Iskusstvo Kino (The Art of Cinema) magazine, talked with MARIA KRAVTSOVA about new trends in culture, shadow ideology, how Putin is a gifted cultural player, and the main players and patrons in Russian culture.
Photo: Daniil Dondurei. Courtesy of "Isskustvo Kino" magazine
Maria Kravtsova: What do you think the main cultural trends will be over the next six years? The end of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term was notable for a strengthening of censorship and repressive tendencies in culture; take, for example, the Pussy Riot affair. But is this trend the most important?
Daniil Dondurei: Our appraisals are usually connected with the national expectation that the future will be worse and more difficult than today. Artists will be put in leg irons, everyone will be forced to give prints of their cogitative fingers, every artwork will have to be shown to a censor, a demanding government representative will be present at the office of every Internet firm, and so on. In Russia we are always ready for the worst. But I don’t think it will be this crude because modern technologies and the contemporary shadow ideology work in a different way. What is a shadow ideology? There are more and less obvious elements of culture – people’s worldview, their morals, their national mentality, but life is mostly regulated by a multitude of unverifiable rules, and it is these that I call the “shadow ideology” and govern society. We are all able to evaluate our complicated everyday contexts - we know that an employer in Russia is more than an employer, that except for its compensatory functions there is no collective community on the Internet, there are no trade unions, and that finally, except for that mad Udaltsov, no one is willing to selflessly oppose the injustice of the regime. We know how to interact with bureaucrats, with the police (so that they don’t kill us, just rob us), and with a business partner. We habitually and skilfully live by the rules of the shadow ideology. It’s not a new thing – a similar system of practical knowledge existed in parallel with the official system during Soviet times. But the Soviet shadow ideology was life-giving and non-conformist, and this is what distinguishes it from the current one.
I think that this system will persist and grow. In politics, economics and social relations, in all other systems, the code will be, as always, dual – a dual culture, dual language, dual behavioral matrices. And Vladimir Vladimirovich, as a person very well-oriented in this multidimensional system, understands all this perfectly well. He will continue to inculcate paternalism and the concept of a father of the nation, but at the same time macroeconomics under his leadership will continue to develop in a pro-Western and liberal direction. Putin is a remarkable student of culture who has succeeded in marrying the worldview of the Soviet government and European technological thinking. In theory they should hate each other and tear each other apart, but this has not occurred.
The second cultural tendency will be toward camouflage and a constant shifting from one ideological state to another. This is done with flair by Ksenia Sobchak. In one situation she is the daughter of the liberal leader of St. Petersburg, in another she is almost an ally of Udaltsov, in a third she is a glamorous diva on a red carpet and the host of the MTV awards, and in a fourth she is a graduate student in glasses who wants to understand why Chulpan Khamatova declared her love for Putin. Shapeshifting and a knack for transformation will be in demand as the response to the dual culture.
M.K. During Soviet times, when official and unofficial cultures existed in parallel with each other, the latter was represented in private spaces – apartment exhibitions, unofficial concerts and so on. Attempts by this culture to enter public spaces often ended badly, as with the “Bulldozer Exhibition.” How will this “shadow ideology” be represented in culture?
D.D.: I don’t think there will be an unbearable, radical crackdown, and that in the end Mao’s idea will predominate: “Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” This is because it preserves the feudal fragmentation of people and ideology. Communists, leftist artists, liberals, nationalists and monarchists will go to Bolotnaya and Poklonnaya and excoriate Putin or extol him as a savior of stability and person guaranteeing citizens the ability to holiday not only in Turkey but in Spain. Everyone will possess, if he is able to have his own business, his own zone of survival and livelihood. The cultural environment will split into a large number of communities and groups, each of which will have its own economics, space, territory, curators and experts. This will lead everything, including the most vivid cultural elements, to mutual extinguishment. Of course, over time the dominant discourse of Putin’s third term will take shape – it may be fiercely Orthodox or patriotic, but it will also include trends that stand in opposition to the government. This will be dictated by purely rational reasons, because apart from an internal order there needs to be an external visage fit for the international community.
M.K. My “community” is defined by settings on the Internet – my circle of “friends” on Facebook, the filter of the media, and so on. And this is due to my very specific picture of the world, at the center of which is the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Anti-Extremism unit, persecuting artists, harassing their relatives and repressing culture. From this grew my first question, and it turns out you’re trying to convince me that it’s not all bad, that the government is not repressing culture, and even the opposite – it’s giving it the freedom to develop.
D.D.: Over the last year almost everything has been engulfed by a colossal politicization. It is not only social acts and events that we see through the prism of politics, not only cultural actions, but even the everyday environment. Soon people will say “I don’t go to that restaurant because it’s full of Putinists,” or “there they sell steaks from Berlusconi,” or “they serve bourgeois oppressors in the form of stuffed cabbage rolls.” This colossal, all-pervasive politicization protects the elites from the shackles of feudalism. But the majority of the population holds completely different ideas about the world, because after all they continue to live in the era of television. And television remains a powerful weapon for censorship because it offers simple pictures explaining the world, while the Internet merely provides information.
Of course the government hates the Internet, understanding that its authoritarianism will sooner or later end in the virtual space. It knows that for the present TV is a stronger weapon. The government will be patient – it won’t focus on a battle with anti-conservative forces, and won’t even try to ensure that Nikita Sergeyevich [Mikhalkov] continues to feel like the king of culture. But despite this easing of restrictions, for the politicized part of the intelligentsia the government will continue to be associated with violence and censorship, as has always been the case.
M.K. We’ve previously spoken about “cultures” during Vladimir Vladimirovich’s second presidential term. Back then you defined the culture that emerged under Putin and dominated five or six years ago as a culture of glamour. Now you’re talking about a “shadow ideology.” Does that mean that the culture of glamour has lost its influence? When and how did this happen?
D.D.: Glamour is still here, but I would say that it has quietened, found its techniques and experts, and is no longer an aggressive newcomer. As such it has ceased to be perceived as a separate major discourse. It is part of the overall context. A large number of people have emerged with the means to spend a lot of money on high-quality goods in the areas of fashion, everyday pleasures, shopping, vacations and real estate. Of course for all this we have to play several times more than they do in West because our society is incredibly greedy. Here a manufacturer can’t sell something to a consumer without paying off 11 middlemen. This is the structure of Russian culture and, hence, the Russian economy.
M.K. You’re saying that the government is striving to be liked by the West. But the ways it chooses to represent Russian culture abroad are incredibly clichéd and cheap – for example with giant, painted matryoshkas at the Russian National Exhibition at the Grand Palais in France in 2010.
D.D.: State support, not only financial but related to the country’s image, is often allocated to national and ethnic clichés, probably to demonstrate our dissimilarity with the West. We tell them that we differ from them, but at the same time we thirst to receive applause at the end of our story. Government experts think these strategies are justified. It’s an awful trend, and is connected with the fact that we don’t have a well-developed cultural sense. We sort of understand that one person represents one culture, another represents another culture, and so on, but we don’t have an political party with a good sense of aesthetics.
M.K. Do you think an aesthetic party might emerge in the next six years?
D.D. Only in the guise of political opponents who state that they reject the government’s style and its untalented adherents.
M.K. At the same time any representations of Russia abroad are in one way or another connected with the government, so such parties would join the ranks of marginalized critics and would be unlikely to have any influence on real processes.
D.D. In Russia the government is a key player in the cultural arena precisely because it has deep pockets. In essence it is the country’s main patron. We don’t have 25,000 cultural foundations like in the U.S., and this is why it is the government and commercially minded producers who commission music. The producers, it must be said, are very frightened. Russia is today a country of terrified big businesses. By putting Khodorkovsky in jail the government has a put a psychological stranglehold on the entire business community, robbing billion-dollar businesses of their right to dignity, freedom of speech, creativity, relevance and a proactive stance.
Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment enervates all kinds of businesses, as though they were wearing shackles. It is precisely on this that a cultural expert like Putin is counting. It makes the Fridmans, Potanins, Usmanovs and Prokhorovs of this world into serfs. I recently saw a novel example of this on Pozner, before whom, with trembling eyes, sat the multi-billionaire Vagit Alekperov, head of the global oil firm Lukoil. He answered every question like a first-grader terrified of being exposed for stealing his neighbor’s gum. How can this be? Alekperov, like every Russian businessperson, is restrained by weighty internal shackles. Business unconsciously fears losing state support. This is not even about money, it’s about observing certain “rules of the game.” If something comes up, a producer asks permission from a junior bureaucrat at the Ministry of Culture, and finds out what he should do and whether he should do it at all. Moreover in contemporary culture there are no powerful people independent of the government who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a social goal, as Sakharov was. Every potential talent, Gergiev for example, prefers to immediately submit to the government, to become a trusted name, because he needs to build two theaters, three stages, get an enormous number of sponsors, hold a festival. But to achieve all this is to forbid oneself freedom of speech on any topic. In our feudal country, with its ultramodern facades, it’s impossible to get a new project off the ground without the government’s help.
M.K.: In the Russian art world there’s a rather strange trend. On one hand everyone proclaims their opposition to the government, and on the other the same people call on the government in various ways to fulfil its social responsibilities to those in the arts. Essentially it’s a return to government domination in the artistic realm and a distributive system – to state orders, state allocation of artists’ workshops and so on. Many have forgotten that the Soviet system of distribution was very harsh and rejected numerous cultural figures. We need only recall the humiliating stories of artists who were not members of the union being refused the right to buy even brushes and paints. Even contemporary gallery owners who have private businesses are in a very difficult financial situation as a result of the crisis, and state in one voice that they put their hopes mostly on the government. How did this double logic come about?
D.D.: This is the main life-ordering principle in Russia, with its enormous, centuries-old paternalistic traditions. It’s precisely why the majority of people think the government is responsible not only for removing rubbish from the streets but for everything else on the planet: safety, work, marriage... The government answers for the fact that you don’t have any customers, consumers, collectors and visitors. It answers for the entire culture, as well as for the sun’s appearance from behind the clouds in May. Every self-respecting Guelman, Boyakov, Salakhova or Selina understands that life here has a dual structure, that the main player is the state and it has its sacred responsibilities. All I have to do is learn how to make the state serve my needs. Then I’ll see what’s more advantageous – serving the state or not.
M.K. Aren’t you describing a utopia or the entreaty of genie?
D.D. The fact remains that many are fed from the master’s table. Of course in this “distributive” system there are specific rules. Oligarchs don’t take everything that is allotted to the cultural sphere from the state pie. Even those hated by the state get something. The whole system is built on the belief that things must be shared. And what does this mean? That behind everything that takes place in culture there is a firm and detailed system of knowledge. Not only of my circumstances but of how I am regarded. There is a constant redistribution, a selection, of Self and Other, of contemporary and not very. As such nothing is immutable. And art is on the fringes. Finally: We’ll know a great deal from the name of the new minister of culture.