Vladimir Putin giving a speech at the St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum. Photo: Kremlin.

Russian Culture Forum Supported by Putin Rekindles Talk over Artistic Freedoms

The St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum in Russia, which ran from November 16 to November 18 and was supported by President Vladimir Putin, has reignited debates about the country’s problematic relationship to artistic freedom, writes Sophia Kishkovsky of the Art Newspaper. Many are concerned about the spirit of the country’s cultural sphere, especially in light of Gogol Theater director Kirill Serebrennikov’s arrest after he was accused of embezzling government funds. Numerous factions wanted to boycott the event, while others said attending it in order to speak out in support of artistic freedom was the only “morally defensible” reason for taking part.

The forum opened with a speech by Putin at the Mariinsky Theater, where he spoke about “culture, art, and education” as a “response to the challenges of barbarity, intolerance, and aggressive radicalism.” He also met with a number of institutions and schools that worked with young people interested in the arts. Semyon Mikhailovsky, the rector of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, who also happens to be the commissioner of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, told Putin that his school guides hundreds of students from China—and some from the United States—in the ecclesiastical arts. Putin then asked if Mikhailovsky was “teaching them the right things,” imploring the rector to instruct his pupils in lessons that were “good and proper.”

Even people loyal to Putin are worried about the state of culture in Russia. The director of the State Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, told the BBC Russian Service that “one should not show a theater director in a cage.” Serebrennikov is behind bars in court, like any of the accused in Russia during a criminal trial. Serebrennikov has also spoken out publicly in favor of a Hermitage employee in charge of construction who is under arrest on corruption charges. The director said he completed projects efficiently, which is nearly impossible due to Russian bureaucracy. Putin had mentioned Serebrennikov and the Hermitage worker in an October Kremlin meeting, saying their arrests meant that the justice system is functioning well.

Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, said in a television interview that Russia is a global arts leader, supporting Putin’s views of the country. “Maybe Yale and MIT teach something that we don’t, but in terms of musical, artistic and dance education, we are without a doubt the best in the world, and people come to study here, from China, from Asia, from Europe, from the US, in spite of all difficulties [in relations],” said Medinsky. “A person who studies here will never become an enemy of Russia.” He also spoke against liberals attacking the Russian government, and denied that there’s a culture ministry blacklist with the names of some of Russia’s most illustrious theater directors, accusing them of trying to make “radical art.”