Op-Ed: On Modern Russian Culture: Part I

Dear Readers:

Kreakl handprints from the Stone Age: “I did this!”

And thus we continue our journey into the intrepid mind of Russia’s foremost Culture Critic, Lyttenburgh.  Yesterday we learned about Theater Director Konstantin Raikin’s scandalous public rant, which shook the great nation of Russia to its foundations and raised a series of important questions.  For example:  How much money does the government owe to support the Arts and bearers of civilization, namely the elite Creative Class, otherwise known by their fond nickname, kreakles?

And the kreakles, in their turn, what, if anything, do they owe the society which spawned them and the government which signs their paychecks?

But before addressing these vital questions, it is necessary to go back in time and review the history of this issue.  Hence, I turn the mic back to Lyttenburgh:

Part I

A very brief history of art and the creative class.

And now – a very quick history of the phenomenon known as the “artistic intelligentsia”, presented to you by Yours Truly. As a person, who had no antagonism against our own faculty’s department of “Art History” (on the contrary, given that it was made up by 95% of rather fine girls – with some of whom I have more than excellent relationship), and as a bloody gosh-damned humanitariy from a (provincial) intelligentsia’s dynasty, I am more than qualified to present a more or less adequate version of events past. At least, treat it as a version that would spur you to find out the Ultimate Truth.

Homer, the Blind Bard

Culture accompanied human civilization(s) side-by-side wherever humans went – that’s what made one “civilized” among other things. While humanity back then indeed had culture, it lacked the “cultural elite” and the “creative class” in the modern understanding of these terms. We know nothing about all those nameless and unknown aoidos and rhapsodes thanks to whom the oral Homeric tradition survived through the Greek Dark Ages, only to be written down for us to read millennia later.

Their payment at the time was hardly anything better than a chance to spend a night indoors near the fire with a tasty gruel as a bonus. Homer himself is equally unknown and as good as anonymous to us as well. When the “proper” Greek High Civilization kicked in, the culture flourished anew and first proto-kreakls appeared. Who were they? Well, only a certain category of people could afford extensive education and free time to allocate for the creative pursuits, and riches that would make them comfortable enough not to worry about daily bread – an aristocracy.

The greatest dramaturges of the Classical Greek era – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – were all members of the rich and powerful noble clans in the “democratic” Attica. They could write whatever they wanted, not dependant on a salary or patrons – they had estates and slaves to satisfy their daily needs. Although at that time, despite a certain haughtiness, they did not imagine themselves to be a breed apart from their fellow people – they remained the citizens of their own polis:  When duty called they obeyed and did what they were asked for. Great Socrates was called forth to participate in the war when he was 58 years old – and he did, fighting for his country and going barefoot in the winter (and also probably annoying his fellow troopers with talks about Virtue, Truth and True Meaning of Civic Duty) – something unimaginable in the world-vide creative class of today.

During the time of Rome this type of kreakls persisted, but now they had to co-exist with the new and more historically viable type – a cohort of hangers-on in retinues of this or that rich patron, like Gaius Maecenas, whose name itself became a designated term for a rich “hands-off” patron of the arts.

From Left to Right: Virgil, Horace, Varius, and their patron, Maecenas.

While Catullus, Lucan, Ovid, Juvenal came from rich families, Martial, Virgil and Horace had to rely on rich patrons and their own salaries as civil servants or attorneys. And only Plautus was “self-employed”, earning his daily bread by staging rather audacious plays that were popular among the plebeians – modern day thespians consider them too low- brow and unbecoming of any true Artist.  Truly, in many ways Ancient Rome was a portent of the things to come in the so-called European civilization.

The Return of High Art

Leonardo’s painting of John the Forerunner

The barbarian invasions and the fall of the Western Roman Empire put an end to High Art and Culture, which, after several false starts, began to crawl back from oblivion only by the XIV c. The role of the patrons then became paramount.  The most generous (albeit – censorship-prone) “Maecenas” of that time was the Church. Not that the artists were complaining about that, or considered themselves “oppressed by the ignorant masses and clergy”. After all, everyone back then was supposed to be a good Christian – and if not, be very, very quiet about that. Great Leonardo da Vinci was “moonlighting” as a fortifications specialist for Milanese Sforzas so that he could have both the funds and the free time to devote to his more artistic pursuits.

Father Girolamo Savoranola

The equally great Michelangelo had as his patron not some rich merchant or prince – he had it in the form of the Roman Catholic Church (in the person of his Holiness the Pope). And he, Michelangelo, was a true believer, who passionately, truly absorbed the sermons of the Furious Savonarola.

Recall that Konstantin Raikin [with whom we began this story in modern Russia] publicly converted to Russian Orthodoxy back in 1980s, when it became “fashionable” (and not punishable by the authorities).  But if his recent speech is any indicator of his faith, he is not (and never was) a True Believer.

Let’s be honest here – the so-called artistic intelligentsia in all lands and times thought too much of itself. Another fact – they were also dependent on the good graces of someone else. There was no such a thing as a “free artist” – only “an artist” and “a starving, soon to be dead artist”. Those who chose to sponsor them did it for one/two reasons – propaganda and/or prestige. In ages past, the artists, going by whatever name was appropriate, understood that. They could not allow themselves to simply embezzle money for their project and/or to produce something not to the liking of their patron – at least, not without consequences. Thus, there was also censorship – in varying degrees.

Politically Correct And Incorrect

In ages past the customer was always right ™, and the artist, understanding this very well, did everything a good businessman does to score profit. Rembrandt’s Night Watch came into being not because of Divine Intervention from the Muses, but because the people painted on it paid for their own depiction.  Apparently, they were satisfied with the end result and the amount of the money they paid was enough for the artist to cover his needs (like the cost of production of the original painting, salary for his assistants, bills, etc) and, maybe, even allow him to pursue his own personal projects.

Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” — the first group selfie?

Will Shakespeare, always a keen businessman, saw an opening for himself and his theatre when in 1594 the Earl of Essex decided to improve his amourous affairs with his belle (aka the Good Queen Bess) using some good old fashioned anti-Semitism. The leib-medic of the Glorianna, “Portuguese” Doctor Lopez (who all those years faithfully proclaimed year after year that the Queen of England is – believe it or not! – still a virgin) died a traitor’s death for “plotting” to poison his monarch…while working for Spain. He died a cruel and unusual death, Jews were pogromed and expelled from England, and Will Shakes got his block-buster – The Merchant of Venice ( which is 100% not a plagiarism from Marlowe’s earlier work, noooope!).

But that’s not all! In 1599 Will Shakespeare behaved himself like a low-brow vatnik and jingoist, by penning and staging Henry V, all the while capitalizing on the general mood and feelings of the people of Ye Goode Olde England, and the fact that Earl of Essex was launching a glorious campaign to pacify the Irish (his lordship screwed up… badly). As a clever businessman, Shakespeare didn’t place all of his eggs in one basket, he was constantly searching for new venues of income, i.e. for patronage. It was primarily thanks to such patronage of the sinister-sounding (and only less sinister in reality) “School of the Night” that he could write, produce and stage some of his “politically incorrect” works. It was unthinkable to stage Richard II during the later part of queen Elisabeth’s I reign due to some very clear and unfortunate implications – but Will nevertheless did exactly that for a chosen (and very important) people – his patrons. Something tells me, that Shakespeare understood the rules of the game very well and didn’t consider himself a victim of “censorship” and the “oppressive regime”.

The Rise And Fall Of the Soviet Intelligentsia

The March of Time, the formation of mass-culture and the Great October Socialist Revolution totally changed the established order of the things. Despite their reputation (primarily – among the anti-Sovietists) for being ruthless and savage destroyers of the ancien regime and everything that symbolized it, the Bolsheviks were not idiots – they more than anyone else understood the power of culture and propaganda. From now on, the State bankrolled every single writer, artist, actor, sculptor and cinematographer. These Intelligents received a constant, uninterrupted stream of funds, privileges and preferential treatment (way high above average Soviet citizen). In exchange, they had to deal with the new management and submit to its “dictat”.

Soviet Intelligentsia – Left to Right: David Oistrakh, Elizabeta Gilels, Sergei Prokofiev

Over the years, the intelligentsia became more and more insular, entrenched, and started to take for granted these unprecedented liberties and the high level of life which they all enjoyed. Oh, and it began to be dissatisfied with the Management also, which asked them to produce both High Art (but within particular boundaries) and also Mass Culture (but totally unlike the one in the West). Because they, for the most part, were not brave enough to rebel against that, they “suffered” in silence… and relative opulence.

If Vysotsky Was A Victim, Then I Wanna Be a Victim!

There is hardly any other personal tale that would highlight how the Soviet state was both “oppressive” and all permissive, and how an Artist was both “repressed” and showered with various perks and bonuses than the life story of the great and still beloved by many Vladimir Vysotsky. It’s very fashionable among the kreaklian masses of Russia to mention how Vysotsky was “suppressed” by faceless and not understanding Soviet bureaucracy. As if the repetition of the same old myths could somehow rub even a particle of his talent and recognition into the ones, who imagine themselves as new “dissident voices”.

Vyskotsky was a musician and actor.

As usual, the reality is rather far away from what is accepted as the “handshakable” truth among Russian (and world-wide) kreakleriat. Vladimir Vysotsky was so suppressed and banned by the Regime, that vinyl discs and cassettes with his songs could be found in virtually any musical records store across the USSR. State owned Melodia record studio produced them in enormous quantity, and because it was a state owned enterprise in the socialist country the price for such records was rather mild and affordable to the people of the Soviet Union – because it was not done for the profit. I have nothing except stories from the generation of my parents – stories of their friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances, which are also corroborated by the factual data.   The first vinyl disk of Vysotsky’s songs found its way into my family in the mid 1970s – 4 songs, 2 at each side (including the still popular and well known Gimnastika). The price? 5 kopeks. The cheapest Soviet ice cream at that time was 7-10 kopeks. All in all, Vysotsky was so repressed by the mainstream culture of the USSR, that had 30 of his songs released on 8 personal disks, plus 5 audio records of his stage works and songs in the movies. 31 of Vystosky’s songs made it to the Soviet movies – i.e. several orders of magnitude more than any other “authors” songs by other performers.


Ah, yes – the theatrical stage and movies! It was his film career that made Vysotsky the performer and songwriter known to the general public. Not only was he an actor of the cinema and theatre (Tagansky theatre, I must add, which regularly had tours abroad), where he got mostly the main cast roles – his performance of the titular character in Hamlet is still considered to be something of a milestone among the thespian public in Russia and the former SU.

And while speaking about recognition and popularity – how can we avoid the ugly, but really necessary question of the money? In the USSR the salaries of the artists were fixed. The “people’s artist” (rus. “народный артист”), the top tier rank of the performers and other cultural luminaries, like, say, Zykina or Magomayev, had a salary of 200 rubles per concert. There was also a yearly plan of concertos that said people could perform. If they decided to perform in excess of the plan, it was fine – no, no one would ship them to “gulag” in Siberia – they simply won’t be paid, doing a pro bono publico work.

Crooner Muslim Magamaev was known as Russia’s Frank Sinatra.

Vysotsky despite his status of a “dissident” and “repressed by the authorities” was paid 300 rubles per concert, and also had as many unofficial concerts as he wanted, paid for by selling the tickets to the pubic. I.e. in the time of official socialism, V. Vysotsky was engaged in entrepreneurship just like in one of the capitalist countries – and no one ever arrested or detained him for such crass violation of the existing legislation.  Average salary of the typical Soviet engineer at that time was about 180 rubles per month. Vysotsky could earn as much as 1000 per month – without paying any taxes. Exactly this kind of constant income allowed him to lead a rather upper-tier bohemian lifestyle and buy lots of expensive stuff – including foreign cars – while touring or just visiting the capitalist countries.

These facts of Vysotsky’s biography do not diminish his talent and popularity, still evident and connecting the people of the former Soviet Union throughout borders, generations and social strata. Still, it’s no use to turn him into some sort of saint and icon of the so-called “dissident movement”, having nothing in common with a real man. Flawed, imperfect man, with his own issues with the Powers That Be, but who was still a Soviet patriot, and who was so “despised” by the apparatchiks, that he has been buried in the most prestigious and “popular” of Moscow’s (and entire USSR) graveyards.

But soon this whole system of feeding and caring for intelligentsia while allowing them to play a Fronde of sorts and deliberate ignorance of some of their shenanigans on the part of the authorities will soon come to an end – together with the Soviet Union.

[to be continued]

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14 Responses to Op-Ed: On Modern Russian Culture: Part I

  1. Moscow Exile says:

    Forgive me, but when is People’s Artist of Russia Liya Akhedzhakova going to get a mention?

    Surely she deserves one!


  2. Cortes says:

    Interesting article.

    Nevertheless, some bards and songsters were of high status:


    Moreover, in bardic societies rulers dreaded negative comments about their conduct by the supposedly inferior bards.


    • Lyttenburgh says:

      “Moreover, in bardic societies rulers dreaded negative comments about their conduct by the supposedly inferior bards.”

      You are incredibly to the point here, cortes. Besides them bards, there were more powerful and dread individuals – fili. They had tremendous power at the courts, and ended up as bards, lorekeeprs, laws interpreters, judges, magicians and chief advisers. Their interactions with the royalty basically boiled down to this:

      File: My king! We must totally attack our neighbour and steal as much cattle as possible before the new moon!
      King: For sure, I won’t! He’s a nice guy and my realtive, to whom I promised my eternal friendship and support.
      File: Then I will sing my “Song of scorn” and three pimples of Shame will appear on your face!
      King: Woah-woah! Let’s not be hasty here, I’m always open to suggestions and no one can accuse me of ignoring the needs of my artistic intelligentsia.
      File: Good! And don’t forget to donate 1/4 of the stolen cattle to the needs of our bardic community

      And there was a reason why bards and fili held so much sway – the society they were operating in was illiterate. Christianisation process only partially changed that. The artistic types still possessed some sort of “mystique” and moral/cultural authority and superiority compared to the unwashed masses and the nobility.


      • yalensis says:

        This comment is not for Lyttenburgh, who already knows all this, but for the others:

        Pre-Christian Rus was a bardic society as well. The Russian national poem, Slovo O Pluke Igoreve “The Tale of Igor’s Regiment”, here is the English wiki entry, and here is Nabokov’s translation — mentions the pagan bard Bayan. Bayan apparently earned his chops at the courts of various Russian Princes, both praising and criticizing them as he saw fit.

        The later unnamed Bard who composed the “Slovo” sees himself as following in the footsteps of Bayan. He sees as his patriotic duty to call upon the existing Russian princes to unite against a common foe — the Cumans.
        And nowhere in the poem does he even schnorr for $$$$ at least not for himself, nor for the creative bardic intelligentsia as a whole.
        Although, in one politically incorrect passage, he does celebrate a bit of looting:
        Igor’s troops win their first battle out, and the Bard lists out the goodies which they loot from the Cumans, including

        Съ заранія въ пяткъ потопташа поганыя плъкы половецкыя, и рассушясь стрѣлами по полю, помчаша красныя дѣвкы половецкыя, а съ ними злато, и паволокы, и драгыя оксамиты.
        Орьтъмами, и япончицами, и кожухы начашя мосты мостити по болотомъ и грязивымъ мѣстомъ, и всякыми узорочьи половѣцкыми.
        Чрьленъ стягъ, бѣла хорюговь, чрьлена чолка, сребрено стружіе – храброму Святьславличу!

        Nabokov translates these various looted objects in the catalogue as:

        Fair Kuman maidens [whatever could they want with them?]
        Precious Samites
        Caparisons (?)
        Furred Cloaks of leather
        Kuman weaves to make pontoon bridges
        A vermilion standard
        A white gonfalon (?)
        A vermilion pennant of dyed horsehair
        A silver hilt which Igor took for himself

        [All went to the army and the Prince, and none of which apparently went into the coffers of the Bardic Intelligentsia!]


        • Lyttenburgh says:

          Amazing thing! Just finished watching a TV program on Kultura TV where dignified philologists, poets and literaturaveds were discussing… “Slovo o Polku Igoreve”! There were no historians among them – d’uh!

          After spending not inconsiderable time debating engaged in “measuring” their favorite translations (there are about 200 of them) gathered high minds finally talked a little bit about the subject. There was one (1) interesting moment in the entire program. One of the guests, a poetess and a professor of literature recalled how her student “poured a cold shower” over her (well, she didn’t use this phrase, but…) by asking – “Why is Yaroslavna crying about Igor, but not about her son who is captured as well?”. After a brainstorming session, madam poet found out the answer – Yaroslavna is Igor’s second, “young” wife, so she naturally doesn’t give a flying… idol of Yarilo’s… about the fate of her stepson. Honestly, I read “Slovo” long time ago and didn’t pay attention to this little factoid.

          They ended up by voicing their concern, that the final verses of the epic poem sound like a censorship… or a self-censorship.



          • yalensis says:

            Yep, they got it.
            Yaroslavna is Igor’s second wife. She is significantly younger than Prince Igor, like about 20 years. Igor’s grown son Volodimir is her step-son, about whom, like you say, she didn’t give a flying rat’s patootie…

            In fact, when Igor escapes and returns home, laving left dear Volodimir behind to marry Konchakovna — the beautiful Cuman maiden who is the Khan’s daughter — Yaroslavna comes rushing up to greet hubby, and she’s all, like, “Igor, honey, I am SO happy to see you again! You can’t even imagine how many hours I spent wailing on that wall; and how aggravated I was by my brother’s corruption and his incestuous advances!”

            And nowhere does she even bother to say, “Er, dear hubby, WHERE THE FUCK IS OUR SON?!”
            To be sure, if she was his real mom, that would have been the first “slovo” out of her mouth.

            I also have to mention that English-wiki sort of gets it wrong, when they say that “Slovo” is Russia’s epic equivalent of the German “Nibelungenlied”.

            Even my Russian soul does not permit me to make such a comparison.
            “Slovo” is a beautiful and brilliant poem. It is a longish poem. It is not an epic.
            And it is certainly not in the same league as “Nibelungenlied” which is light-years ahead, in terms of political sophistication, emotional complexity and sheer skill of story-telling.
            Okay, sue me everybody, I have already hired a laywer.


            • yalensis says:

              P.S. – not sure what they mean by “self-censorship” in the final verses, maybe just that the Bard puts aside his critical attitude about the horrendous Russian military defeat, and goes, all, “Slava! Slava!” Namely:

              Солнце свѣтится на небесѣ – Игорь князь въ Руской земли.
              Дѣвици поютъ на Дунаи, вьются голоси чрезъ море до Кіева.
              Игорь ѣдетъ по Боричеву къ святѣй Богородици Пирогощей.
              Страны ради, гради весели.
              Пѣвше пѣснь старымъ княземъ, а потомъ молодымъ пѣти!
              Слава Игорю Святъславличю, буй туру Всеволоду, Владиміру Игоревичу!
              Здрави, князи и дружина, побарая за христьяны на поганыя плъки!
              Княземъ слава а дружинѣ! Аминь.

              MY TRANSLATION
              The sun is shining in the heavens.
              Prince Igor is (back) on Russian soil.
              The maidens sing on the Danube, their voices carry across the sea to Kiev.
              Igor is riding near Borichev (?), towards the Holy Mother Of God of Pirogosch (?)
              The nations are joyous, the cities are merry.
              Having sung this song to the old Princes, and then to the younger Princes!
              Glory to Igor Sviatoslavich,
              Glory to [Igor’s brother] the Raging Bull Vsevolod,
              Glory to ([Igor’s son] Vladimir Igorevich!
              Glory to the Princes and Knights, who fight for the Christians against pagan armies!
              All praise to the Princes and the [Russian] army!


            • Lyttenburgh says:

              “P.S. – not sure what they mean by “self-censorship” in the final verses”

              At one point of the poem the author was lashing out at the princes for their usobitsi and betraying of Monomakh legacy, which allowed Rus to suffer from the internal strife and nomads raids – and then in the very finale he… ah… “furiously approves” of the vast majority of those same princes.

              Our intelligentsia Elfs can’t comprehend that. For them, this unnamed author was some sort of a poetic prophet called down on the sinful earth to scourge and accuse Powers That Be in the name of the Truth and the Art. That said poet (back in 12 c.) was, somehow, completely independent both as a person and as an artistic person.

              It never crosses their minds that the whole poem could be ordered (“state ordered”) by the Grand Prince of Rus, who at that time also happened to be the prince of Vladimir-Suzdalia (i.e. proto-Moscal), mighty Vsevolod:

              “Великый княже Всеволоде! Не мыслию ти прелетети издалеча, отня злата стола поблюсти? Ты бо можеши Волгу веслы раскропити, а Дон шеломы выльяти. Аже бы ты был, то была бы чага по ногате, а кощей по резане. Ты бо можеши посуху живыми шереширы стреляти – удалыми сыны Глебовы.”

              PediWikia’s translation:

              “Great prince Vsevolod! Don’t you think of flying here from afar to safeguard the paternal golden throne of Kiev? For you can with your oars scatter in drops the Volga, and with your helmets scoop dry the Don…”.

              Emptying the Don-river with helmets is not a small feat (although not as glorious as digging up a Black Sea). And if we go with the Novgorodian theory of the author’s origins, let’s recall that it was Grand Prince Vsevolod and his numerous sons (he was called “The Big Nest” not because he was a budding ornithologist) served most often as the “invited” in the course of honest and independent elections princes of Novgorod the Great. “Coincidence? I don’t think so!” (c)

              Nowhere in his work does the author directly critisizes the de-jure ruler (and de-facto just a first among equals) of Rus. None the less the political message of the work is obvious to anyone – c’mon guys, let’s come together under the wise leadership of your “elder” prince.


            • yalensis says:

              Hee hee! It seems so obvious, now that you pointed it out. I mean, that this glorious poem is a “propaganda piece” in favor of Prince Vsevolod! And I totally buy the theory that Vsevolod paid the bard for this work. Probably paid him with gold, brocades, samites, caparison, mantlets, and everything else that was listed, with the exception of the pontoon bridges.

              As to drinking the Don:
              In the earlier verses, just as Igor is setting out on his campaign and the Solar Eclipse suddenly happens, the Prince has a much more modest goal: Just to dip his helmet in the Don and drink a helmet-ful, not the whole thing:

              A longing consumed the prince’s
              and the omen was screened from
              by the urge to taste
              of the Great Don:
              “For I wish,” he said,
              “to break a lance
              on the limit of the Kuman field;
              with you, sons of Rus, I wish
              either to lay down my head
              or drink a helmetful of the

              To dip his helmet in the Don — means that his regiment reached at least as far as the Don. A modest goal for a modest Russian prince.
              To scoop it out entirely — one would have to be a full-blooded Ukrop.


      • Cortes says:

        Illiterate is an overstatement, I believe. They had a bias against scripture and for possibly good reason: to avoid nonsensical interpretations of the canon.

        Unlearned they most certainly were not. If memory serves, an apprenticeship of 18 years was the norm for druids. Odd, is it not, the Roman focus on extirpation of the druids of Anglesey? And nevertheless, JC himself stole the calendar of the druids as the basis of “his” great reform.

        And the fili were perhaps la creme de la creme, able to daunt the temporal rulers with their age old scholarship, wisdom and…caste.

        Definitely NOT kreakls.

        In my opinion.


        • Lyttenburgh says:

          Illiterate is an overstatement, I believe. They had a bias against scripture and for possibly good reason: to avoid nonsensical interpretations of the canon.

          Unlearned they most certainly were not.

          Actually I was talking about population at large – they were massively illiterate and uneducated, and with no prospects to change that. Sure, a “normal” thing in the Middle Ages, but…


    • yalensis says:

      And, well just to be fair to Muireadhach, nobody really likes tax collectors anyway.
      Except for Jesus, of course.


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