Op-Ed: On Modern Russian Culture: Part II

Dear Readers:

“Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here!”

Continuing our journey into the Bowels of Cultural Hell, guided by Lyttenburgh, our modern-day Virgil.  Yesterday we traced the history of European culture, from the ancient bards all the way up to Vladimir Vysotsky.

Along our route, Lyttenburgh made some trenchant points about the relationship between Art and Money.  Knowing that it is demeaning and philistine to discuss such crass matters in the presence of the Divine Muses.  Nonetheless, mere mortals must eat and drink and have a bed to sleep in.  All the more so those creative minds who do not toil, nor do they spin.  Well, they toil in their own way; and they spin stories for us to enjoy.  But bottom line:  Somebody has to pay their salaries.  In this vein, let us continue our journey:

Part II

On The Russian Ministry of Culture and state funding.

Various representatives of the creative class like to wax poetically how it was they who brought an end to the USSR and the “oppressive Regime”. Ordinary people no longer argue with that, but drew their own conclusions. Perestroika and 1991 brought joy to the kreaklian masses and ruin to their country. Virtually overnight, they lost a stable source of funds for all their projects. It was one thing to publish all sorts of anti-Stalinist, and then just plain anti-Soviet articles in the legendary (and state funded) Ogonyok magazine or Noviy Mir literary almanac, stoking higher the fires of Perestroika and disintegration – and a different thing entirely, when the same intilligents found themselves needed by no one in a country slowly disintegrating, with a population more interested in day to day survival — a prospect guaranteed by nothing at all during the heady days of the “democratic” 90’s.

Russians just trying to survive the early 90’s

The proverbial Rough 90’s proved that in all those years that passed since 1917, members of the artistic intelligentsia had turned into pampered nightingales, who spent their entire lives in gilded cages and who, now free in the wild world of Capitalism (c’mon, you wanted it!), proved to be incapable of living by its laws. Paradoxically, Russian culture before 1991 (with various levels of “Dictat” and Censorship) produced world-class masterpieces that enriched all of humanity. New Free Russian Culture post 1991 has failed to do that.

The Ministry of Culture

The Russian Ministry of Culture back then, with its very limited financial resources, tried to preserve at least something. For many cultural institutions – especially in the provinces, away from the world-famous ones in Moscow and St. Petersburg – even these little handouts meant the difference between life and death. As Russia was getting back on track the resources of the Ministry of Culture likewise increased, allowing for more generous funding.

What is the Ministry of Culture? It would not be an exaggeration to say, that most countries lack such a governmental agency, hence it begs some exposition. In short, the Ministry of Culture of Russia is just another federal ministry of the Government of the Russian Federation, with its own Minister, officials and a slice of the federal budget to be allocated among the needy (and never fully satisfied) mouths of various state-funded cultural institutions: theatres, operas, museums, concert halls, cinema studios, libraries, circuses, higher education institutions with a cultural bent, etc, etc. One important note – the absolute majority of the cultural institutions in Russia are still state owned and funded.  Private capital prefers to invest in posh villas, new battleship-sized yachts and expensive jewelry, not the art and culture of their own country.

Beethoven’s “Fidelio” brought to you by — BMW!

As stated previously – the Russian Ministry of Culture is somewhat unique in the world, a surviving legacy of the Soviet Union. In most of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, now safely in the EU and NATO and embracing the all-mighty Invisible Hand of the Market ™, local ministries of culture were among the first to be slashed. The Democratic Republic of Germany had one – but after its reunion/annexation by the FRG it has been closed. All objects of the cultural legacy (and Germany has a lot of them!) are funded by private sponsor associations and the big business. E.g. Berlin’s Opera is sponsored by the BMW Company. In Hungary, despite relentless attempts of the ruling elites to expunge the vile legacy of the bloody socialism there are still 10-12 state sponsored theatres. In France there are 35 of them, 2 of which are in Paris – Comedie Francaise and Garnier Opera.

Surprisingly enough – there is a Ministry of Arts in Australia, operating on a rather small budget to promote mostly Classical and High Art. But even these funds are not enough and the Ministry tries actively to attract sponsors. In the case of Sydney’s Opera the money donated by private sponsors significantly exceeds the amount of state funding. Perhaps this policy and lack of funds is one of the reasons, why many Australian actors choose Hollywood and Broadway, instead of working in their birth country.

Cocktail Party for elite sponsors at the Metropolitan Opera

Speaking of the USA – there is no such thing as the Ministry of Culture there. Business, pure business and nothing else. Surprisingly enough, it works. Rich folks, apparently, are willing to part with huge sums of cash to support all sorts of the High Art via various funds and associations (or their spouses are shacking them down for that purpose). It’s a popular stereotype portraying the American financial elite either attending baseball, basketball or football matches (too plebeian even to think about it for our Russian intelligentsia!) instead of going to opera or theatre. Maybe, it’s all because of some tax reduction incentives, or because of vanity of having a plaque with your name on it… or because it somehow introduces you into a closed caste-like inner society of Masons the long-entrenched moghuls, part of the Tradition and an Initiation Ritual? I don’t know. But it works.

Who Pays For Russian Culture?

The Russian Ministry of Culture could be rightly called a “tight ship” – it has only 300 employees (which is many, many times less than the amount of employees of its predecessor – the Ministry of Culture of the RSFSR) and a budget of 90 billion rubles. A point of pride in the current leadership of the ministry (one of the few, really) is that since 2014 and the financial crisis the budget of the Ministry was not cut but remained the same. Still, given the reduced buying value of the ruble that’s not as good as might sound. And Russian High Culture is deliberately loss incurring.

And the Ministry has to spend money – a lot!  Since 1991 the number of theatres directly funded by the state increased by 70%. There are 173 “proper” repertoire theatres in Moscow alone, 104 of which receive state funding – 88 from the municipal offices of the Ministry of Culture in Moscow, and 16 directly from the federal budget. That’s 3 times more compared to 1991. This is also more than twice as many as the number of theatres in New York City. About 20 of them the general public hears about only rarely (translation: 20 theatres are unpopular, virtually unknown and do nothing to improve that). Yearly, the Russian Ministry of Culture spends 9.4 billion rubles on “municipal” theatres of Moscow, and 15 billion on the “federal” ones, plus additional sums (in hundreds of millions of rubles) on various theatrical events, premiers, renovations, anniversaries, etc, etc. The total budget of the Ministry of Culture for Moscow is about 50 billion rubles – more than half of it. In the provinces local theatres (some of them – even not state owned) are heavily funded by the state, with the amount ranging between 3 to 22 millions per oblast of the direct budget money, plus whatever the local authorities can allocate.

Provincial Theater in Yekaterinburg: They can’t even afford clothes for the dancers!

How is state funding done exactly? The Federal budget via the Ministry of Culture pays for building renovations, salaries of the staff (i.e. of the stage crew, admin and actors) and pays the utility bills. The state covers up the cost of the stage production, paying for the costumes, sets, fancy special effects etc. Newly recreated Federal Touring Center provides funds for tours across the country and abroad. Since 2011 the absolute amount of the salaries paid to the state employed members of the cultural elite increased by 2.5. Basic salary of the new, undistinguished actor is 36,000 rubles per month. Even this could increase manifold due to additional payments for participating in rehearsals, premiers, tours, special bonuses and the like – up to 90,000. Recognized masters of the Art and the art-directors, directors, screenwriters, actors (especially the ones who won various prizes) are paid even more than that. This, needless to say, is not much – i.e. not enough to eat pineapples and grouses and drink the best French vine daily – but still more than most of the people earn.

Who can even afford the Bolshoi any more?

The theatres can still attract private sponsors without losing their right to budget money. All revenues, received from the sponsor’s money, tickets, buffets and various merchandise remain at the theatre – the Ministry of Culture takes nothing. In theory, this is done to keep the price of the tickets reasonably low so that the target auditory – members of the intelligentsia – can afford them. Sadly, this is not always true. While a prestigious provincial theatre could allow itself to sell tickets in the parterre for 400 rubles, in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow the average price of the ticket is about 2000-5000 rubles.

“Satyricon Theater”: Is Raikin just shakin’ down the govt for more $$$$ ?

To give you a taste of the amount of state funds spent on theatres just in Moscow – a little bit of number-crunching. The following theatres receive yearly the following amount of the federal budget money (in rubles): Pushkin’s Theatre – 110 millions, Theatre “Modern” – 101 million, Tagansky Theatre – 125 millions, Theatre of A. Gradsky – 103 millions. Konstantin Raikin’s (our newfangled dissident and champion of free speech) “Satyrikon” theatre in 2015 received 191 million of budget money. This year he got 235 millions.  Of which,  86.5 millions of these went into grey schemes (rather dark-grey, I’d say) for renting a new building, while the main one is still renovating. It’s anyone’s guess how much of that money was embezzled. Still, even with remaining stratospheric sum Raikin claims that his own theatre is under the threat of a closure… due to the lack of state funding!  Last year, according to official data, “Satyrikon” made 130 millions in pure income. At the same time, the number of premier stage productions has decreased significantly and the amount of the tickets sold hovers at about 50% of the maximal amount.

Lord Raikin And His Cultural Dynasty

These dirty details became common knowledge only because of Raikin’s self-righteous spiel, denouncing faceless bureaucrats and uncultured bydlo, which he pronounced from the vantage point of his own infallibility and moral superiority. Instead of shutting up, the ungrateful serfs began digging up dirt on the Muse-struck genius and found out this. And after finding this – they continued digging. Not that it required any hard efforts from them – the data was available in open access. Everyone knows about the less than perfect circumstances, under which Konstantin Raikin “inherited” the theatre of his father in 1991. The only catch here – he couldn’t do that under the law. See, the theatre was not a private one – it was state owned, as pretty much everything back then. And while a lot of things are said regularly and with indignation about the unfair and rigged auctions and privatization of the enterprises by the newly emergent oligarchs back in the 90s, nothing is said about the same process which happened by the hands of cultural luminaries.

Arkady Raikin, beloved Soviet comedian

Keeping in mind the catastrophic situation and the constantly empty/stolen budget back then, the Powers That Be decided to basically resurrect some kind of feudalism — which corresponded nicely with the general adoration of the “Russia That We Have Lost” ™ of that period. In some cases entire units of the government (i.e. of people’s) property were simply transferred into the ownership of the headmasters of this or that cultural institution – in violation of all possible laws even back then. Some were assigned as sinecures – formally still a federal property, but with the new management as the real masters and no interference from the Above. Miraculously, back then a lot of now so-called dissidents were the most loyal subjects of whoever was in charge of Russia or the particular city, due to their boundless generosity. Raikin himself was the most outspoken Zaputinets [Putin supporter] since 1999, long before it became the mainstream.

Besides the theatre, Konstantin Raikin owns shopping and entertainment center “Raikin Plaza” built not far away from it. “Raikin Plaza”, as well as several other buildings, were constructed with violations of the existing legislation, and the people of Moscow’s district, where both the “Satyrikon” and “Raikin Plaza” are situated, decided to appeal to the Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin. This more than anything else caused the miraculous transformation of the conformist and half-forgotten thespian-turned-businessman into a fiery Scourge of the Regime, cursing both Censorship and the Grey Masses, who are Suppressing Freedom of Art in This Country*.

[*yalensis footnote:  “This country” is what Russians dissidents call Russia, in order to not have to utter the demeaning words “My country”.]

The Scourge Of Censorship In Modern Russia (?)

If for a moment we abandon the damning topic of money-stealing by the supposedly crystal-clear luminaries of the Art – really, what about censorship in Russia? After all, everyone and their virtual pet have already proclaimed modern “Putin’s Russia” to be an oppressive country where this sort of thing is expected to happen… and thus needing no proof whatsoever. Like a lot of Universal Truths about Russia, peddled by the so-called “Russian Experts” from abroad and the dem-schizoids within, this is not quite true.

Apparently, people claiming such things have never bothered looking up the definition of the word “censorship”. In short – censorship is the process of review and subsequent approval (or rejection) of an artistic piece before its publication/presentation before the general public. According to existing legislation, censorship in Russia is banned on the state level. If, OTOH, the most liberal editorial board of the most liberal radio-station and news site in Russia, “Ekho Moskvy” decides to delete from their website an article, exposing Raikin’s grey financial schemes – this is not censorship!  No!  This is “editorial policy”, and, given the fact that they are in the habit of deleting any such faux pas by their staff and freelancers, who, Bonner forbid, sometimes target totally handshakable individuals in their exposes and journalistic investigations, we can only say that it is a “consistent editorial policy”.

A typical “Artistic Director” of modern Russia

No artistic piece in the state owned and state funded institution undergoes censorship – period. Besides – it simply would not be possible, given the small number of the Ministry of Culture employees and the great number of their “charges”. Purely in theory, the Ministry reserves for itself the right to appoint the artistic director (rus. “художественный руководитель” aka “худрук”) of a given theatre, cinema studio, gallery etc. In reality, the art-director is elected by the thespians themselves in whatever way they want and the MinCult just rubberstamps the appointment. But if we are to “go even deeper” and try to see for ourselves the ugly reality of any such elections, then we’ll find that there are none – most of the artistic directors in any significant theatre, museum etc. were “elected” back in Perestroika or the 90s and since then dutifully re-elected by the totally loyal (and still wanting to keep their job) fellow members of the creative class. Add to this fact, that a lot of said art-directors grabbed in a less than legal way lots of property back in the heady days of the Rough 90’s, and you’ll have a class of the landed nobility – true self-styled Aristocrats of the Spirit (a lot of them actually believe this to be true), with zero responsibility to the state and the public, but with the constant and uninterrupted source of governmental (i.e. people’s) money, their own fiefs and enormous ego to match.

This, I remind you, is the reality – but it’s not meant to be like that. The art-director is fully responsible (so far, in theory) for all that transpires within the walls of his or her “temple to the Muses”. This means the responsibility for the allocation of all received funds and the responsibility for all persons subordinate to obey the existing Russian legislation. On its part, the Ministry asks only for regular reports about: amount of tickets sold, new premiers, the amount of private sponsors money, etc. Only numbers – nothing else. No direct way to order the art-director what to do. Even no centrally appointed special auditors working day and night to manage the money flow and prevent the inevitable corruption and redistribution of the budget money into private endeavors by the artistic head honcho. The only thing the Ministry can do with the received data is to analyze it correctly and thoroughly, and find out which theatre, opera house or the museum earned more. Such a cultural institution receives by the end of the year a so-called “thirteenth salary” – a monetary bonus, to be spent on infrastructure, like new costumes, material and the like. One thing that the Ministry of Culture will never do though is to cut the funding to *any*, no matter how unprofitable or obscure, cultural institution under its care.

Raikin was criticized for staging a “gay coming-out” play.

But there is one little catch. It’s called “Fundamentals of the State Cultural Policy”, released in late 2014. This document is a collection of guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not in State cultural policy. Once again – it is not censorship. It’s just a reminder to all art-directors to keep in mind, that they, as the locally appointed representatives of the Ministry of Culture, should respect. Only they, the art-directors, can decide to cancel the production of any piece or not allow it in the first place.

It was exactly this rather late attempt of the State to assert some semblance of control over the money, generously applied to the sphere of culture, which raised the ire of the artistic intelligentsia and made them proclaim (once again) the return of the “New 1937” and the Big Terror. In fact the state in the form of the Ministry of Culture didn’t go farther than proclaim its desire to assume the role of the producer, and… stopped at that. No actions were taken to drive the point about the new State Cultural Policy. E.g., already mentioned paragon of “living-not-by-a-lie” Konstantin Raikin, finally, gave a premier production for the regulars of his “Satryrikon” to watch in awe – a piece by the name of “All Shades of Blue” (in the Russian slang meaning of the “blue”).

Raikin interprets Pushkin “Little Tragedies”

Despite the fact that the piece clearly violates existing legislation forbidding all forms of homosexual propaganda among minors by including in the plot the coital act between two underage boys, no attempts were taken by the Ministry of Culture (or the Interior) to rein in Raikin and to remind him of the contents of the “Fundamentals of the State Cultural Policy”. There were no lawsuits concerning this. More so – the theatrical season of 2014-15 also saw a lot of premiers and very… “post-modern”… adaptations in a number of the state theatres that were bound to raise at least some eyebrows (and a lot of questions as well). We had “Evgeny Onegin” which begins with a red-hot sex action; a stage adaptation of Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies” turned into non-stop porn, and even a radically “fresh” interpretation of  the “Khovanschina” opera, which, according to the “brilliant” director and screenwriter became about sexual minorities. No one banned these works, despite the fact that they were staged in state-owned theatres on the state (read – ordinary Russians) money.

That’s how the Russian Ministry of Culture “strangles freedom of expression” (c).

[to be continued]

This entry was posted in Art Criticism, Popular Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Op-Ed: On Modern Russian Culture: Part II

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    Ouch! I noticed a type in my own text!

    “The Federal budget via the Ministry of Culture pays for building renovations, salaries of the stuff…”

    It shoud be “staff”!


  2. J.T. says:

    A random question which sprang up as I was reading this (and related pieces, as it were):
    Hey Lyttenburgh, why don’t you have your own blog? You have an awful lot to say… Do you just prefer writing as a guest on other blogs?


    • yalensis says:

      Lyt is too undisciplined — he needs the iron rod of an editor!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lyttenburgh says:

        “Lyt is too undisciplined — he needs the iron rod of an editor!”

        100% true! Blogging supposed to be a (semi)regular affair, done day after day, with people (readers) expecting updates and new content. I can’t deliver on that. From time to time there arises some question, or issue, or the stars are right and the moon is full, and I have, I absolutely have to climb up an armoured car (remember -soapboxes are for loosers!) and deliver upon an unexpected world my Heaven’s reaching spiel

        Besides – blogging is supposed to be a much more “brief” affair. And all of you know that I’m inclined to wall-of-text type of the rant. Just how many people in these days of Twitter and “Gee, LOL!” comments are willing to read another example of mine thought “spreading like a squirell across the tree” ((c), “Slovo o polku Igorevom”)?

        Finally – I’m virtually nonexistant as a net-person. I never had an account in the social media. Also – by now I’m banned on all forums I’ve ever registered. I never felt that I was in need of some non-RL committment which a blog is bound to change.

        And so it goes – I post my longish comments, not expecting them to grow into something bigger. From time to time good people who still tolerate me on their blogging platforms see some potential in them and encourage me to “go deepr”, to make it into a full blown article. Which I do – increasing my original not so brief comment at least by two in length, and trying even more harder, because I’m doing it not for myself (where I can and do cut some slack) but for the people who count on me.

        Still, I’m better than usg, who truly needs a cattle prod to write another article (Do you hear me, usg?! Write something!).

        P.S. Thanks for reading and commenting, J.T.! And thank you for your contributions to the wider Russia-watching blogging community.


        • yalensis says:

          О Бояне, соловію стараго времени! Абы ты сіа плъкы ущекоталъ, скача, славію, по мыслену древу, летая умомъ подъ облакы, свивая славы оба полы сего времени, рища въ тропу Трояню чресъ поля на горы!

          O Boyan! You Old Nightingale, you! If only you were to flatter these regiments, hopping, O Nightingale [not squirrel], along the tree of thoughts, sailing in your mind under the clouds, weaving panegyrics in our day and age, and racing along the Troyan Trail across the fields and into the mountains!


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