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Will Russia’s latest culture minister herald a new era of creative freedom?

Will Russia's latest culture minister herald a new era of creative freedom?
Image: Olga Lyubimova/Facebook

The appointment of Russia's last culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, brought a new era of Kremlin policy that emphasised “traditional Russian values”. Does the entrance of his successor, Olga Lyubimova, mean the tables have finally turned?

23 January 2020

When President Vladimir Putin announced his radical government reshuffle on Wednesday 15 January 2020, the Kremlin’s major players were asked to resign en masse. Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev had no choice but to pack his bags, as technocrat Mikhail Mishustin stepped lithely into the number two spot. And a new prime minister means a new cabinet vying for power.

Enter fresh faced new culture minister, Olga Lyubimova, to shape a new Russian arts scene at the start of a new decade. Despite a background in both theatre and journalism, Lyubimova is still somewhat of an unknown quantity. Aged just 39 — almost a millennial — she previously headed the culture ministry’s cinematography department, but only held the position for two years before being picked for the cabinet. Her early career instead focused on television, specialising in religious programming focused on the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2016, she started to lead social and journalism programming on state media powerhouse, Channel One.

But many are cautiously backing the move, if only to see the end of previous culture minister Vladimir Medinsky. For the past eight years, the 49-year-old has towered above Russia’s artistic scene. In a country where state funding is often the pivotal make-or-break to a project making its way in front of audiences, Medinsky’s support — or that of his junior ministers and officials — has not only been vital to directors, artists and designers, it has literally shaped Russia’s cultural mainstream. Many cheering Medinsky’s departure from the frontlines hope that it will herald not just a new patron in the top spot, but a wider shift in the Kremlin’s cultural outlook.

Many cheering Medinsky’s departure from the frontlines hope that it will herald not just a new patron in the top spot, but a wider shift in the Kremlin’s cultural outlook.

New ministers have previously signalled new priorities for the Russian government. When Medinsky himself was appointed back in May 2012, it foreshadowed a sharp turn to cultural conservatism across the board. President Putin had recently endured several waves of protests on the streets of Moscow and was keen to build new impetus into his continued leadership. It would lead to the state placing renewed importance on “traditional values” and the place of the Orthodox Church, transforming the image of Russia into a supposed stalwart of conservative common-sense against the lax and permissive free-for-all of Western Europe.

Medinsky’s pushed these same ideals into the cultural sphere. The minister made speeches pressing the importance of family values and traditional art forms, while the likes of the avant-garde were shunned. “Why should contemporary art mean something incomprehensibly cubic, clumsy to the extent of an installation that looks like a pile of bricks, all financed from the state budget?”, Medinsky said in one speech.

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The years that Medinsky spent as culture minister spawned one story after another of the Russian government’s tightening iron fist. In 2014, Medinsky refused funding to the likes of Russia’s Artdocfest — the country’s largest international documentary film festival — as a direct result of festival director Vitaly Mansky’s political opinions. He warned the Russian public that Netflix was being used by the US government to control their minds. He stood by as theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested in what many decried as a politically-motivated case. Ultimately, some public figures even left their posts, decrying a crackdown on artistic freedom against those critical of the Kremlin.

The legacy of the Medinsky years were summed up by gallerist Sergey Popov in one gallant Facebook post: “[Medinsky] created a convincing system that only imitated a real cultural scene. It was a system where genuine initiatives were persecuted, sources of funding were closed off to them, and the artists that supported them were pushed out of institutions or even the country itself. … Let’s call a spade a spade: these kinds of policies aim for the complete destruction of modern culture.”

On the surface, Lyubimova appears as if she could signal a welcome shift from the strict straitjacket of Medinsky’s cultural conservatism.

Within hours of her appointment, Russian internet users had dutifully dragged up Lyubimova’s old social media posts, including one — helpfully retweeted by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny — which showed her in a t-shirt emblazoned with a foul-mouthed Russian meme. (Medinsky, meanwhile, oversaw the complete ban of certain swear words across Russian theatres, films, and the media as a whole.)

Other old posts apparently written by Lyubimova appear to show the now-minister in a fit of 00s-era internet angst against high-brow culture. “I can’t stand going to exhibitions, the opera, the ballet, classical music,” the post says. It appears to date back to 2008. “I’ve been to the British Museum, the National Gallery, and tens of other European and Russian museums, and I feel as if I’ve just wasted my time there.” While some have taken the post as a youthful and anti-elite, others have questioned if these attitudes already prove Lyubimova’s unsuitability for the role.

Nevertheless, the news of Lyubimova’s appointment has already been applauded across many parts of Russia’s cultural sphere. “What can I say? I have no words!”, wrote Yuliana Slascheva, general director of Russia’s Gorky Film Studios, on Facebook after Lyubimova’s appointment. “Olga is a real fighter! She loves culture and those who create it in all of its forms. She works 20 hours a day, reads scripts herself, answers all letters and emails within a few hours. She is absolutely just the kind of person who you’d want to see in government. And I’ve not even got onto her unreal sense of humour…”

Russian film critic Anton Dolin agreed. “I’ve known Olga Lyubimova for quite some time… Today I’m sincerely happy that Russia has as culture minister a young, intelligent, educated, pragmatic woman devoid of fanaticism or cynicism,” he wrote online.

But despite a wave of optimism from many cultural figures, it also seems premature to dub Lyubimova as a would-be cultural rebel. Many are quick to point out that it was Lyubimova’s department that presided over the ban of Hollywood satire The Death of Stalin.

“Honestly, I — like everyone else — don’t really know what to make of her,” one employee at a state-funded Russian art gallery told The Calvert Journal. They asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardise their position in the workplace. “I’m more interested in the reaction of ‘liberal’ Russia, where everyone is already predicting that she’ll be “one of us” and that she’s “alright”.

“When people first reacted to Lyubimova’s appointment, they looked at her lifestyle. Decisions she made in her previous roles are being ignored”

They fear that associating just one new appointment as a harbinger of government policy — rather than looking at those who remain firmly in power — is simply too far reaching,

“When people first reacted to Lyubimova’s appointment, they mostly looked at her lifestyle, those kind of markers to show that she’s ‘one of us’ or not — the fact that she apparently wore a t-shirt with the word ‘dick’ on it, that she says she doesn’t like opera. Some of the decisions she made in her previous roles are then being downplayed or completely ignored, so she’s suddenly ‘one of ours,’ says the same museum employee. They argue that the pendulum of state patronage and art world approval doesn’t swing from ‘conservative’ to ‘liberal’ — but rather between different groups of ‘friends’ and ‘foes’.”

“The madness that we’re currently in wasn’t just created by Medinsky,” they say. “There are these ideas that the minister’s personal tastes somehow influence cultural policy, or that policy is even defined by a democratic process — it’s just an illusion.”

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