In Russian Cultural Policy, the Customer is Always Wrong

In Fall 2020, our friend and colleague Stephen Cohen passed away. At the time, we honored him with a post containing testimonials from past and current recipients of the Stephen Cohen Fellowship, which funds graduate education for master’s students in the Department of Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU, and the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship, which supports dissertation research in the field of Russian Studies. This semester, we are publishing a series focusing on Cohen and Cohen-Tucker Fellows’ experiences and research in the REEES field. This is the eighth such post. Past installments in the series may be found here.

Rebecca Adeline Johnston is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas-Austin, writing on the Soviet Ministry of Culture.

Olga Lyubimova’s appointment as Russia’s new minister of culture in early 2020 was an immediate scandal. In old LiveJournal posts that surfaced on social media, she boldly declared an aversion to ballet, museums, arthouse cinema, and a dozen other types of culture. “I unexpectedly came to realize,” she wrote at the time, “that I am in no freaking way a cultured person.” One year into her tenure, however, an entirely different picture of Lyubimova has emerged: as the ideal manager for a strategic shift in the rhetoric of Russian cultural policy from aggressive nationalism to the calm objectivity of federal law.

Before the COVID pandemic, Russia’s official cultural policy was on the cusp of major change. Any such change would have a significant impact on Russia’s cultural industries because most projects and institutions rely heavily on state funding. The State Duma had just announced another extension on negotiations over cultural legislation already six years in the works. The new law would institute a much-needed logistical reorganization for cultural funding and management, but legislators were hamstrung over fundamental questions like, among other things, the very definition of “culture.”

Lyubimova took over her post from Vladimir Medinsky, a brazenly nationalist figure famous for academic plagiarism and provoking the disdain of Russian cultural society writ large. Whatever her original agenda, it went out the window with the onset of the pandemic, since her first year was largely spent mitigating the economic catastrophe that COVID wrought on Russian cultural life. In doing so, she projected an image of steady, competent management that contrasted with both her bombastic predecessor and her own inauspicious LiveJournal posts.

In line with her prior work as the head of the Ministry of Culture’s cinematography department, Lyubimova has taken an iron stance on fiscal management. Films that receive state funding must be completed by contract deadline or be subject to hefty, unforgivable fines. She also introduced new trainings for directors on how to pitch a project and organized opportunities to speak with potential investors. She has treated the Ministry of Culture more like a grants management organization and less like a platform to advance particular political or ideological priorities.

This stylistic shift has helped Lyubimova to fly under the radar of the Russian and Western press alike, only making headlines for contracting COVID last May and, notably, refusing to drop charges against film director Kirill Serebrennikov. Even when faced with loaded questions about American support for LGBT rights and the soft power of culture in defending “traditional values,” she deflected with a diplomatic response about successes in international cooperation. Initial concern that Lyubimova would be a religious zealot has not been borne out in the public eye. As film critic Anton Dolin put it, she appears “completely devoid of fanaticism,” something that could not be said about her predecessor.

Instead, Lyubimova is promoting an image of the ministry as an almost purely legal entity. Her job, she says, is “not creative” and she has no right to “say something is good or bad.” The ministry exists simply because cultural production is expensive and someone has to “correctly distribute these funds.” The ministry, she claims, knows the “correct” way to distribute them thanks to its “group of experts.”

Under this formulation, the law itself is both a moral value and a mandatory code. In an interview with architectural restorationists about the dilapidated state of many of Russia’s cultural landmarks, Lyubimova argued that “the biggest threat to cultural heritage is if people forget that the Constitution requires us to protect it.” Citing an increasingly common refrain, she said that banning the screening of a movie or staging of a play is not censorship, because “in our country, we don’t have censorship, but only laws.” However (un)convincing we find this assertion, it signals a desire to project a certain image of cultural management in Russia.

By framing the law and objective expertise as her guide, Lyubimova is lending the ministry an aura of rationality and inviolability for what have been, and will continue to be, entirely subjective policy choices driven by politics and ideology. The law itself codifies a specific set of values that policymakers deem critical to staving off existential threats to the Russian state. An approved project concept for the law warns of the “humanitarian crisis” that could result from a failure to ensure “systematic and consistent investment in people and in qualitative improvements to individuals.” Manifestations of this crisis could include no less than “the deformation of historical memory, a negative valuation of significant periods of national history, the proliferation of the false conception of Russia as historically being backwards” and “the atomization of society — a rupture in social connections (among friends, family, neighbors) and an increase in individualism and disregard for the rights of others.”

Russia’s original cultural legislation, which dates to 1992, technically banned the influence of ideology in cultural matters, and the new law reaffirms this ban. But it also explicitly blames market forces and the loss of state control over cultural production for giving Russians a “false” attitude towards culture. If culture has to abide by the market principle of “the customer is always right,” the document says, then “the results are a general decrease in the cultural level of Russian society, the degradation of particular types of art and cultural activities, the strengthening of biases and superstitions in public consciousness and easier manipulation thereof.” Compared to Medinsky’s appointment, Lyubimova’s tenure makes it much easier for the Ministry of Culture to enforce a cultural policy guided by these principles while avoiding criticism for political or ideological interference or censorship.

For his part, Medinsky is now free in his new position as presidential aide in charge of history and humanities policy to promote his views without the burden of managing a state bureaucracy. He is сurrently editing a new set of history textbooks for use in public schools — a task of the utmost importance, he warns, because “if we don’t define, interpret, or study our history ourselves, then it means that we’ll be using Soros textbooks.”

In the wake of the global pandemic, it’s not clear when the Duma will revive negotiations on the new law, or on culture more generally. Leningrad singer Sergey Shnurov, who sits on the State Duma committee on culture, chided policymakers for thinking they could re-centralize the state’s control over culture: “It won’t work. The vertical fell a long time ago and a horizontal society formed. Now, cultural workers and the cultural sphere — any blogger, any person who has Twitter — can create a narrative, can create culture.”

Whether or not it “works,” this policy will in all likelihood eventually become law. Lyubimova’s efforts to project an image of the Ministry of Culture as an impartial arbiter of that law sets the stage for a quieter, lower-profile, but no less consequential struggle for cultural power than observers of Russia have grown accustomed to seeing in the era preceding her arrival.