For a century, Russian and then Soviet culture electrified the world. From Tolstoy to Tarkovsky, by way of the Ballets Russes, the Constructivists, Eisenstein and Babel, Russia and its successor reworked and destabilized poetry, the realist novel and the short story, post-figurative art, orchestral music, dance, cinema, theatre, science fiction. During the Cold War, writers like Pasternak, Shalamov, Brodsky and Sinyavsky/Tertz reminded foreign readers that Russian literature had not lost its vitality, even as tamizdat—dissident Soviet works published abroad—was wielded as an anti-communist cudgel. What is the position of Russian culture today? In quantitative terms, Russian cinema still produces some two dozen ‘international festival’ films a year; comparable numbers of contemporary Russian novelists and poets appear in translation. Russian musicians, dancers, and choreographers headline the world’s elite concert halls and ballet theatres.
In the 1990s, the old landscape of cultural trade unions and government commissions was subjected to brutal shock therapy. The cultural infrastructure of the Soviet period—universities, orchestras, theatres, museums, film schools, fine-arts academies, research institutes, publishing houses—survived in skeletal form, unevenly supported by private funding, to produce new generations of the artistic, literary and cinematic intelligentsia.footnote1 Russian cultural producers desirous of money and prestige scrambled to reinvent themselves. Now one had to cater to the market, play up to the new private cultural prizes, cultivate an online following, find a patron—or resign oneself to scraping by in what was left of the old system.footnote2 Meanwhile the Russian Ministry of Culture remained a crucial funder for the arts, with the attendant problems of political pressure.
A small subset of writers and artists has spurned the market entirely, living in principled economic precarity. The poet Kirill Medvedev, for instance, has renounced the very idea of copyright. These writers populate radical poetry readings and small left-wing bookshops and have attracted the admiration of academics visiting from abroad, who have brought work published in journals like Translit to the centre of their study of contemporary Russian literature. Such asceticism, unsurprisingly, is rare. Russian liberal cultural production has a somewhat higher profile and an audience large enough to crowd-fund a publication like Colta, a site offering high-quality cultural criticism. Russian liberal writers—for instance, novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya and poet, essayist and novelist Maria Stepanova, founding editor of Colta—often revisit the Soviet past and explore the workings of historical memory in contemporary Russia. Many have sidelines in journalism and are vocal about their opposition to Putin. This segment of the intelligentsia is in high demand at Western European and, especially, American institutions; the tamizdat trail is still well-travelled, though now it is a two way street; writers return to Russia with increased cultural capital, which translates into support from mainstream Russian institutions.
Russian cinema is funded largely by the state, with money coming from two entities: the Ministry of Culture and the Fond Kino, a government production company and distributor founded in 1994. The Cinema Foundation was conceived as an investor that would support projects likely to earn back money spent, while the Ministry of Culture would be a European-style soft-money funder. This is not how things have turned out: both fund expensive blockbusters, as well as auteur cinema. Government-funded blockbusters have obvious political intent. Many are ‘patriotic’, especially since the Bolotnaya protests and the annexation of Crimea, and focus heavily on Russian victory in the Second World War (Stalingrad, T-34) and international sporting competitions (Going Vertical).footnote3 As in Soviet times, the government is willing to spend lavish sums on cultural propaganda; while much of the Soviet-era cultural infrastructure is withering away, state-sponsored Russian cinema gets glitzier every year.
With censorship tightening, the centrality of government funding to Russian cinematic production has led to some high-profile dust-ups—as in the case of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2014 film Leviathan, which received a third of its funding from the Ministry of Culture and became a global success thanks, in part, to what was interpreted as its anti-Putin message. The notoriously reactionary and ill-informed then-Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky attacked the film for its negative portrayal of Russians, and the Ministry proposed new guidelines to safeguard the nation’s honour. It is rare that an oligarch is the primary funder of a film, apart from the occasional vanity project. But last year Roman Abramovich declared his ambition to become a player in Russian and world cinema, with the opening of a $100 million private film foundation called Kinoprime. Rumour has it that Abramovich was going to finance Zvyagintsev’s new film—until it emerged that the film was about an oligarch living abroad who is kidnapped, brought back to Russia and executed.