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Modern Russian does not know the concept of »diversity« as a programmatic, political term. This is not surprising in a country, where the ruling party’s name is »United Russia«, i.e. »United« – not »diverse«. Unity is, of course, not an exact antonym of diversity, and yet these two terms certainly belong to mutually exclusive semantic categories. On the other hand even if the party was called »Diverse Russia«, it would remain awkward and difficult to understand why a political association would choose a name that identifies not with an idea, or social and economic concept, but rather with the state. United Russia represents both the party and the state. To be precise – the party is the State.
The most obvious conclusion that can be drawn from this linguistic analysis is that there can be no room for political diversity. This conclusion appears a trivial insight for the majority of Russians today, contrary to what the situation was even two years ago. Russian society had to learn the hard way, by actual, firsthand, physical experience.
The ruling cliques set the machinery of repression in full motion when popular discontent rose after the cynical farce staged first instead of the Duma elections, then in lieu of presidential elections. Waves of protests were squashed, political activists faced criminal prosecution. The »occupy« movement was banished from the streets and squares of Moscow, using police truncheons and the law. Till now 16 people were arrested for their participation in demonstrations. These 16, called »the prisoners of 6 May«, represent a cross-section of all social circles. In other words, a trial against them is a show-trial against the entire society for being openly politically disloyal. This comes in addition to the recent law on non-governmental organizations, practically precluding them from receiving foreign grants. Activities of the civil society, including assistance for people with special needs, disadvantaged families, migrants, human rights and educational work have thus been rendered nearly impossible. And the list could continue. All of this is now common knowledge for the majority of Russian citizens, as shown above. However, many of them still do not grasp the direct link between the political situation and the economy, culture and national politics, naively assuming that the situation could be improved by simply replacing certain persons in the country’s leadership. This lack of awareness has taken on very concrete forms. For example, there was no public outcry when the city of St. Petersburg enacted a law banning the »propaganda of homosexuality« and pedophilia, which equated homosexuality with pedophilia, thus criminalizing not only all homosexual relations but also sex education.
Another example: The general public took also scant notice of the infamous statements issued by the sanitation authorities, claiming that migrants pose a risk of infections. The reason is a strikingly negative attitude towards migrants which is typical of all segments of society – from the working classes to the intelligentsia. The words »solidarity, equality, internationalism« cause either skeptic laughter or aggression. Racism, the ubiquitous violation of labour and civil rights and economic inequality are definitely not the topics widely debated among the general public.
Nationalism and religious obscurantism culminated in the trial against the members of the Feminist punk group »Pussy Riot«. The prosecution operates with quasireligious terms and is based on expert findings that quote religious laws from the 11th –13th centuries.
Nationalism and xenophobia are routinely used like bulldozers (although the majority of the population is not quite aware of it) to demolish state structures and curb civil liberties for the purposes of further commercialization. Thus, culture and education were the first areas to suffer severe blows dealt by the European right-wing governments – funding cuts for the arts have been harsh, tuition fees for higher education have been introduced, foreigners who wish to study at European universities are subject to quotas and financial discrimination.
In this context, Russia can serve as a negative role model that has been emulated by Europe. The culture and education policies adopted since the beginning of the 1990s can be defined as »policy of neglect«. After many years of neglect (at first under the pressure of circumstances, then for even more cynical reasons), culture and education are now of mere ideological interest to the state. Museums, theaters, universities, schools and other state-funded institutions are victims of blackmail tactics either by individual state officials or the ruling party in general. Censorship and ideological pressure have become ubiquitous. A deplorable case in point is that of secondary school teachers who have been involved in massive fraud during the recent elections. At the same time, the inferior standards in secondary education have been even further lowered, because science classes have been cut and more sports and religion classes have been introduced in their place. As a consequence, school has become an instrument of dumbing down and indoctrination. Higher education has suffered from the same tendencies. Not only have tuition fees been introduced and funding cut; corruption has seeped into the entire system of higher education. Everything is for sale – from university entry exams to exam grades and graduation diplomas. Even »honestly« acquired knowledge frequently does not meet international standards. The low quality of education is comparable only to the humiliatingly low salaries of university teachers, secondary school teachers and museum employees. The situation further deteriorated when prices for cultural amenities like museums, theater tickets and books were subject to continuous increases.
Due to lack of adequate state funding, many art institutions and individual artists are forced to turn to private business for assistance. However, when culture is produced on the basis of private investments, art turns into an entertainment industry. This does not mean more freedom from ideological pressure – instead, new limits are imposed. Many critical artists, subsisting on sponsor money, develop their critical discourse against an abstract capitalism and state power either consciously or in response to pressure, with only vague terms, rather than tackling the truly sensitive issues of society and politics. This abstract form of criticism has recently become a fashionable trend and is easily absorbed by a culture of consumerism. Artists and art institutions thus serve to legitimize the existing political system, and, given the specific Russian circumstances where the state nomenclature and big business have become inseparable, are now double hostages – of the state as well as of the market. And yet – despite the difficult working conditions, the ideological constraints, the humiliating poverty, the practical ban of NGO activities etc. – a multitude of cultural and educational initiatives continues to spring up in the country. Our common problems can only be solved by common efforts. Several years ago the May-Day Congress of Creative Workers was established to unite various creative and activist groups and to formulate an independent cultural policy for the country. In Moscow, artists and creative workers founded the Union of Creative Workers, so as to better pursue labour rights and political liberties. Artists are active participants of the protest movement, the anti-fascist movement, the fight for the rights of national, religious and sexual minorities. Artists and NGOs have frequently been joining forces. However, it is unfortunate that this diversity in activism has not had any direct effect on art itself so far. With rare exceptions, artistic expressions of political art in Russia are limited to so-called »artivism«. Art and politics are linked too closely and literally, and they limit themselves to the present. We are too busy in struggling »against«. Neither the future nor the past are of great interest to contemporary Russian art. And yet, not only art, but the entire society could benefit from the process of accounting for the past, the search for future horizons and a new political language in order to find solutions for contemporary problems. But there is a time for everything. Now, apparently, is the time to scatter stones.
Haim Sokol is a graduate of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem and the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. Since 2008, he has had solo exhibitions and has participated in exhibitions in Russia and internationally. He works with installations and sculptural objects, addressing the dramatic social histories of Russia and Europe. www.haimsokol.com