Lena Jonson and Andrei Erofeev (eds.): Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist

Lena Jonson and Andrei Erofeev (eds.): Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist

London and New York: Routledge, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-138-73301-5, 328 p.

Sylvia Chassaing
Contemporary art; cultural policies; political art; political theater.

In the edited volume Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist, Lena Jonson, a political science researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, in collaboration with the Russian curator Andrei Erofeev, continues the work she started alone in her 2015 monograph, Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia. In that volume, she studied the varied forms cultural protest took in Russia in the 21st century. Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist, on the other hand, builds on the proceedings of the conference she organised with support of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs at Stockholm University and the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquity in Stockholm in November 2015. This new book draws on the conclusions Johnson came to in Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia, but at the same time allows for a more multifaceted investigation of the state and culture relationships in post-Soviet countries, with a persistent focus on Russia. Its richness draws on the fact that it includes not only articles by academics from a broad range of disciplines, but also personal statements written by artists and prominent actors of the cultural sphere, interviews, as well as one artistic manifest by Stanislav Shuripa and Anna Titova, founders of the artist collective Agency of Singular Investigations (ASI).

The book mainly focuses on the dynamics between culture and power in Russia after the 2011-2013 protests on Bolotnaya Square. The restrictive measures initiated by the government afterwards, is what is referred to here as the “conservative-authoritarian Zeitgeist,” as, according to Jonson, the official cultural policies at the time tended to favour a more conservative aesthetic approach in art and culture in general. Considering this “conservative” turn, Lena Jonson’s introduction proposes classifying artistic counterstrategies into three forms. She calls the first one art “of the other gaze,” which “creates uncertainty” about hegemonic discourses by proposing alternative viewpoints (Jonson, Erofeev, 2018: 15). The second is “dissent art”, which is openly critical of hegemonic discourses – cynical art in the philosophical sense - as she notes, Russian language distinguishes between philosophical cynicism, kinizm, as a critical approach to power and certainties, and moral cynicism, tsinizm (ibid.: 6). Finally, the third form is called “engaged art”, art with a “political message” which “directly intervenes in the public sphere” (ibid.: 17).

Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist comprises four parts. The first, “The Conservative Zeitgeist and Russian Cultural Policy”, provides context for all of these artistic strategies and focuses on the governmental cultural policies and state-funded art in Russia, and also compares them to Hungary’s cultural policies, the subject of Eszter Babarczy’s article in the same section. The second part, “The State of Affairs: Voices from the Russian Art Scene”, contains personal accounts by Russian artists and cultural actors. The third part, “Artistic Counterstrategies”, presents case-studies of art movements, artists or works of art, as well as a translation of Petr Pavlenskii’s conversation with the investigator Pavel Yasman, following his arrest for the Svoboda action in 2014. Finally, the fourth part, “Theater: A Parallel Development”, is devoted to the changes in the Russian theatre.

In the first part of the book, articles by Ilya Kalinin, Lena Jonson and Alexander Bikbov discuss the official federal policy on culture and contemporary art, from different standpoints: cultural nationalism and distortion of history (Kalinin), the implementation of this nationalism in state-funded contemporary art (Jonson) and the link between conservative official discourse and neo-liberal policies (Bikbov). In demonstrating how Russian cultural policy makers have tightened their grip on cultural production since 2012’s “conservative turn” in Putin’s regime, these authors effectively identify some of its key mechanisms. Ilya Kalinin’s take on Russian nationalism shows how state policies rely on the static idea of history which is never supposed to change or be questioned. The frame of reference behind the expression “Russian culture” is the idea of the Russian Empire. The government’s rhetoric demanding its protection implies a “territorialisation of history” that also allows Russia to make claims on what it considers “lost territories” which must be returned to the mainland in order to “preserve Russian culture” (ibid.: 40). Jonson shows how this will to defend Russianness translates into cultural policies. Art was not the state’s focus in the 1990s and, just as in the 2000s, it was supported mainly by private capital. Thus, according to Jonson, government involvement in contemporary art is a phenomenon that is specific to the post-2012 period. This involvement took two forms. Firstly, the government initiated massive funding of contemporary art that supported its ideological stance: hence “contemporary art” in government policies referred not to a specific kind of art, but to “any art work produced by a living artist.” It also reined in those institutions that were too independent, by merging them with others or by changing their leadership. Secondly, by commissioning exhibitions it encouraged state museums to change their curatorial policies and to favour forms of contemporary art that weren’t necessarily patriotic, but “emphasised a feeling of belief in the present and the unknown future, contributing to the patriotism that was so eagerly sought by the authorities” (ibid.: 60). On the other hand, Bikbov gives a convincing explanation of the contradictory government policies: he argues that the moral tone of the official policies is, in fact, not a deeply ingrained ideology but a cover for the neo-liberal economic system that would be difficult for post-Soviet Russians to accept unless it took on this conservative façade. In his interpretation, Russian cultural policy relies on the idea that “culture is destined to serve the basic goals of boosting productivity and security by promoting a moral order and national cohesion” (ibid.: 80). This part of the book also provides specific examples of state-endorsed art: Maria Engström, in her article called “Daughterland: Contemporary Russian Messianism and Neo-conservative Visuality”, analyses the aesthetics of several patriotic contemporary artworks. Finally, Eszter Babarczy’s article on conservative cultural policies in Hungary allows for an interesting parallel with other post-Soviet illiberal democracies.

As its title suggests, the second part, “The State of Affairs: Voices from the Russian Art Scene”, contains accounts of the condition of the cultural scene in Russia by some of its participants: editor Andrei Erofeev’s text about government pressure on cultural institutions and a compilation of interviews with Russian artists conducted by Andrei Erofeev and Irina Kochergina. The participants range from major representatives of the actionist movement, Anatolii Osmolovskii and Oleg Kulik, to artists of the younger generation, such as Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and the graphic artist Viktoria Lomasko. The tone is mainly one of disenchantment and resignation: former 1990s art-scene representatives like Pavel Peppershtein, for example, see the relationship between art and power as a masochistic one: the artist, according to him, needs to suffer state repression in order to be recognised as an artist. Oleg Kulik and Anatolii Osmolovskii claim to have abandoned any form of political art. The younger generation, Pussy Riot and Darya Serenko, for example, try and use their art to form counter-societies – places where decent relationships between citizens are possible, as opposed to the ones between the police and the demonstrators characterised by extreme brutality. Referring to the government’s brash response to criticism, the representatives for Pussy Riot, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Petr Verzilov, say: “When the state behaves like a punk, the artist must behave in the opposite way as much as possible. (...) I realised that we have to change our strategies and to start building up institutions” (ibid.: 151). Ultimately, blatant abuse of power by the state pushes these artists into activism and self-organisation. Finally, Andrei Erofeev, the co-editor and longtime curator of the contemporary art department at the Tretyakov Gallery, contributes a text that is as much an account of the relationship between the state and the cultural institutions as it is an indictment of the government intervention in the cultural sphere (a “war” against culture, as he calls it (ibid.: 132). He offers, among other things, his own assessment of what cultural policies might become in the following years: prosecution of “Russophobic art”, marginalisation of documentary and analytical art, promotion of Soviet realist art.

Part II of Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist, therefore, offered an overview of the Russian public policies and artists’ positions in regard to government action. Part III, “Artistic Counterstrategies”, delves into more detailed descriptions of individual artistic undertakings. Three articles are thus devoted to specific trends in Russian contemporary art. Daniil Leiderman reflects on how “shimmering” – Moscow conceptualist Dmitri Prigov’s strategy of quickly shifting between made-up identities during performances and in his texts – has been perpetuated by contemporary Russian artists as a way to express disagreement with federal policies. Helena Goscilo shows how humour in performances and cartoons succeeds as an analytical strategy by protecting their authors from state persecution. Both Leiderman and Goscilo draw from Rancière’s concept of “dissensus”, that is, the contestation of the official monopoly on how the “sensible” is represented. According to Rancière, the key difference between hegemonic discourses and “dissensus” is that the latter does not provide a stable interpretation of reality, as does “dissent” (straightforward opposition to power). Instead, it challenges every attempt to stabilise and ossify this interpretation: these are, one could say, postmodern forms of opposition. By contrast, in the first part of the book, Maria Engström’s study of the daughter figures in contemporary state-sponsored art showed how artists with traditional views tend to combine visual elements associated with the avant-garde movement and socialist realist imagery in order to produce a sexualised image of the Nation. Here, the use of contrasting references doesn’t result in a polysemic image: on the contrary, it reinforces a (male) chauvinistic point of view that is already dominant in Russia.

The following three articles from part III focus more specifically on individual artists, whose productions are considered to be representative of Russian cultural protest. Per-Arne Bodin contextualises and describes Petr Pavlenskii’s work. After Pavlenskii’s 2014 action Svoboda / Freedom in honour of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, he was detained and interrogated by the investigator Pavel Yasman. Bodin provides useful context for the transcript of this discussion which, in order to establish Pavlenskii’s culpability or innocence, turned into a discussion of the conflict between politics and art. The dialogue is an eloquent example of how powerful actionist art can be: at the end of the conversation Yasman states his intention to change his career path. Finally, Mark Lipovetsky studies the poetry and performances of StPetersburg-based poet Roman Osminkin. He shows how Osminkin draws on Prigov’s “shimmering”, but also – in contradiction to this postmodernist irony – on the less ironic and more politically pragmatic LEF (Left Front of the Arts), which intended to revolutionise life through art in the 1920s. According to Lipovetsky, Osminkin’s contrasting tendencies, both his postmodern “shimmering” and his revolutionary stance, “mirror power’s cynicism” and expose it, without giving an explicit answer as to how one should position oneself in regard to it.

Finally, Jon Platt’s article presents interesting field research. It contains a detailed account of his own experience at the Chto Delat’ school for engaged art, an institution he describes as wary of any form of heroism, patriotic or anti-government. In the intimate environment of a school that favours participatory art, Platt proposed the figure of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya as a subject for an assignment. Kosmodemyanskaya was an 18-year-old woman tortured and executed by the German army during the Second World War, after refusing to disclose any information. She became one of the most famous heroes of World War II in the Soviet Union. The article is a careful exploration of the contradictions and tensions that the engagement with this heroic figure in a creative way brought out in the students’ works, and specifically – in their relation to power and political activism.

Part IV is devoted exclusively to contemporary Russian theatre. Kristina Matvienko, the former curator of the Zolotaja Maska / Golden Mask theatre festival, offers her views on independent theatre inside and outside Moscow and St Petersburg and discusses the difficulties she encountered when dealing with the federal administration. Pavel Rudnev, as a theatre critic, discusses the impact of state policies on the content of theatre productions and notices that repression from the government and religious activist groups has successfully made the topic of faith in theatrical productions taboo.

To conclude, this volume provides useful perspective to Lena Jonson’s first book on the subject and is valuable insofar as it makes room for different viewpoints, from both participants and researchers in the cultural scene. It offers an interesting take on the most recent years of post-Soviet Russia, and especially on the post-Bolotnaya era, and it does so by contextualising artistic practices and paying particular attention to the official discourse on culture and to government policies, which are much more rarely studied. It shows that, most of the time, Russian government policies use both ideological discourses and artistic forms in a way that draws less from ideology than from cynicism. It is striking that, in Jonson’s typology of political art and in the specific artworks and artforms studied in the volume, there is no place for an artistic counterproposal to the official discourse and policies: they are all, first and foremost, interrogative at least, critical of power at most. Therefore, it seems that given the power of the state, the omnipresence of the ideology it enforces and the energy needed to criticise it, there is little room left for the artists to build something of their own. Although the panorama of Russian contemporary art proposed by Jonson is an enthusiastic one, this lack of solutions in post-Soviet art is maybe what is most distinctive about the “conservative zeitgeist”.

Sylvia Chassaing
Sorbonne Université (Collège Universitaire Français de Moscou)


Sylvia Chassaint is a Comparative Literature PhD student in her final year at the Paris-8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis University. Her dissertation focuses on the writings of contemporary artists in France, the United States and Russia from 1991 until today: the argument she makes is that in the beginning of 1990s switching to writing was, for some artists, a way to preserve their independence and criticise a growingly financialised art market. Her articles and collaborations were published in Littérature and in Khudozhestvennyj Zhurnal.

Suggested Citation

Chassaing, Sylvia. 2020. Review: “Lena Jonson and Andrei Erofeev (eds.): Russia – Art Resistance and the Conservative-Authoritarian Zeitgeist”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00010.229

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.


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Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758