As the Ukraine war grinds on, Russia is becoming a cultural wasteland

William Fear

As much as Russia is the country of Tolstoy and Rachmaninov, it is also the country of Stalin and the Lubyanka prison – a nation built as much on beauty as it is on the blood of its people. Russians cherish their cultural history just as strongly as people cherish ours in Britain. And yet historically, to be creative in Russia is to incur a significant risk, for an act of creation is also an act of freedom.
In the years of the Soviet Union, speaking one’s mind might mean being taken to a windowless room and then to Siberia. Today, Russians can – and do – face the same kind of danger for speaking out against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. In the words of Pyotr Stolypin: “In Russia, every 10 years everything changes, and nothing changes in 200 years.” In the west, we might think of Russian writers always facing the same kind of censorship they faced under the Soviet Union. We imagine poets being shot in basements or worked to death in the snows of Siberia for a few lines of transgressive verse. But this has broadly not been the case in my lifetime – or at least, until the invasion of Ukraine. Initially, under Putin, Russian authors were granted a great degree of freedom, even to oppose the state. When he came to power in 1999, he learned from the mistakes of the Soviet Union and had a different relationship with Russia’s literary culture. Far from seeking to exert control over the nation’s writers, Putin’s Kremlin understood their value in political terms. That is, they had a certain utility in the new Russia that Putin wanted to construct for the outside world.
The reason for this softening under Putin was twofold. The first point is that literature was no longer the primary medium consumed in Russia. What was written and published inside the Soviet Union had genuine political power, as did Russian music and film. Stalin was an avid reader and very interested in literature, and the Soviets were deeply involved in the censorship of every kind of Russian culture. The intention of this was to make the population believe the state was reality, and reality was the state. Putin and the thugs running the Kremlin weren’t nearly so closely attuned to contemporary Russian literary culture as the Soviets. This is for the simple reason that Putin’s Kremlin didn’t care because it didn’t need to. Today, most Russians are primarily influenced by TV and the internet. Putin didn’t care about the novels written in Russia, because literature was no longer where people got their news and ideas. The second reason for Putin’s historically tolerant stance towards Russia’s writing community was that, when he came to power, he was trying to create a different kind of dictatorship. Rather than controlling every aspect of people’s lives as the Soviets did, Putin wanted to deceive the world – and indeed the Russian people themselves – into thinking that the country was a European democracy.
When questions were asked about the legitimacy of Russia’s democracy, the Kremlin could point to regular, free elections, a free press and a thriving literary culture. It was in fact in Putin’s interest to allow writers – even, and especially, political dissidents – to write freely. I recently spoke to Mikhail Shishkin, a renowned Russian novelist and dissident now living in Switzerland. During the late 90s and early 2000s, the Russian Federation worked to support and export its writers, Shishkin said. This was an official project of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media (????????? or Rospechat), and an organisation called Institut Perevoda gave financial support to publishers so Russian books could be translated and read outside the country. The purpose was to create a dignified facade; a human face for what was then a crypto-authoritarian regime. “You have to understand that the new hybrid dictatorship pretended to be a free country, and worked with writers in a different way [to the Soviets],” said Shishkin. But by 2013, Shishkin had had it. He refused to represent Russia at an international book fair in New York, and wrote an open letter to Rospechat lambasting the political class of his country. He stated that the Russian government had “created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture”, that he was “ashamed” to be a citizen of Russia.
Of course, everything changed last February. When the tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border, the era of pragmatic tolerance under Putin ended. Rospechat was dissolved in 2021 and its role was absorbed into a different agency: the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor). This is a truly sinister organisation that is responsible for monitoring and policing internet traffic in Russia. A data leak from Roskomnadzor obtained by the Belarusian hacker group known as Cyber Partisans revealed that Roskomnadzor is working to censor undesirable content online in both Russia and in Belarus, as well as compiling a list of individuals who may be designated “foreign agents”. Arguably, the danger involved in speaking out against Putin is greater now than it has been in the recent past, but so is the need for people to do so. Writers, of all people in society, have a duty to speak the truth, and to choose silence is to commit creative suicide. This is why so many of Russia’s greatest cultural figures live in Europe and the United States: exile provides a level of safety and freedom not possible in Russia. This situation is deeply paradoxical. Part of Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine was to save the Russian culture and language from a supposed neo-Nazi persecution in Ukraine, but all the war has done is accelerate the flight of the brightest and best from Russian soil. Evgeny Kissin plays the piano in Prague, Vladimir Ashkenazy in Switzerland. Boris Akunin now writes from London, Lyudmila Ulitskaya from Berlin. The more artists leave, the more homogenous Russia will become culturally, leaving only the pro-Putin types behind. A few notable artists and writers still work under Putin on the Presidential Council for Culture and Art. By being on this council, all these figures are overtly expressing support for the Putin regime and, by extension, the war in Ukraine. Taken to its extreme, Russia risks becoming a cultural Potemkin: immaculate plasterwork on the outside, crumbling masonry within. Many in the west have suggested a boycott of Russian culture in response to the war. But this tactic plays precisely into Putin’s rhetoric: that the west hates Russia and always has. On the contrary, it is vital that thinking people everywhere support Russian dissidents: by buying their books, going to their concerts and attending their exhibitions. But this said, people must also remember to make the distinction between Russian dissidents and Kremlin royalists. In a sense, the war has split Russia cleanly in two: between those with moral conviction and those without. A war is not just being fought on the steppes of Ukraine, but in the psyche of one of the world’s greatest cultures.