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Can Art Save Russia's Face?

Published: April 7, 2014 (Issue # 1804)



  • Artist Ilya Epelbaum on the political situation in Russia: "We've been lucky. We had a good run."
    Photo: John Freedman / SPT

What follows is similar to a column (they were called blogs back then) that I wrote just before the beginning of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The pathos of that one was that times are tough for anyone who loves Russia for its deep, rich, storied culture. That will be the gist of this one, too, although this is a whole new set of thoughts. Things are changing so fast here you might be mistaken for thinking we are in a handbasket headed for hell.

A lot of very smart people have said it in differing ways: the history of this land is the history of oppression being alleviated by occasional thaws. So let's be honest. We have enjoyed one of the longest, most fruitful thaws ever to hit these shores. It began, sputtering and creaking, in the mid-to-late 1980s. It appears to be coming to an end with a fat clang and splat in 2014. That's 29 years if you begin with the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

Compare that to a few similar historical movements. Depending on the starting date you choose, the failed Decembrist Uprising in 1825 ended a period of four to eight years of democratic strivings. Vladimir Lenin's drastically liberalized New Economic Policy (NEP) for the Soviet Union ran about eight years from 1921 to 1929, ending just in time for the country to plunge into the bloody purges of the 1930s. The Thaw following Stalin's death and the murder of secret policeman No. 1 Lavrenty Beria, basically ran for eight years as well. I put the starting point at Khrushchev's secret denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and wind it up in 1964 when Khrushchev was removed from power.

I was talking to the artist and director Ilya Epelbaum on Friday. "We've been lucky," he said with a grim smile. "We had a good run. What I feel bad for is the young people coming along. What are they going to do?"

What are we talking about here? Why do I think we're at the end of an era? Why does Epelbaum fear that he "had" a good run — that is, why is he using the past tense?

The events in Russia over the last few months have been vertiginous and well reported. But here's an overview for those who may have missed the basic stories: Russian president Vladimir Putin mounts repeated attacks on the press and the internet; he uses the Winter Olympics as a political bully pulpit; he fails in a gambit to stop Ukraine from seeking closer ties with Europe; he succeeds in grabbing the Crimean Peninsula; his administration launches a white-noise information war that accompanied, and continues to accompany, the veiled military maneuver in Crimea; he clamps down on protest in general and on individual protesters in specific; his advisers and supporters unleash jingoistic and nationalist rhetoric — often crossing the line into blatant lies — that rains down on anyone daring to voice dissent; Putin borrows the phrase "national traitors" from Adolf Hiter's "Mein Kampf" to describe those who oppose his actions; the president's loyal vassals engage in public humiliation of artists who chose not to support Russia's Ukraine policy; insane asylums are again, as in the Soviet era, used as punitive institutions; the always-flawed legal system is transformed into an openly punitory arm of the state apparatus; the authorities employ propaganda tactics to split opinion and create animosity and conflict among the intelligentsia and creative class; professors who venture to dissent are fired; students who question state policy are publically smeared; rubber-stamp legislative branches of government fall over themselves in the rush to introduce and pass laws, often draconian and repressive, that censure and outlaw anyone or any action that may be perceived as being less than supportive of Putin's policies...

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Thursday, Nov. 27


The Customs and Transportation Committee for AmCham meets this morning at 9 a.m. in their office on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.


Tickets are still available for local KHL team SKA St. Petersburg’s showdown with Siberian club Metallurg Novokuznetsk tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Palace outside the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. Tickets can be purchased on the team’s website, at the arena box office or in their merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.


Celebrate one of Russian literature’s most tragic figures during Blok Days, a two-day celebration of the 134th anniversary of the poet’s birthday. The tragic tenor’s work, which led to writer Maxim Gorky to hail him as Russia’s greatest living poet before his death in 1921, will be recited and meetings and discussions about his contributions to the Silver Age of literature in St. Petersburg will be discussed in the confines of his former residence.



Friday, Nov. 28


Join table game aficionados at the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening. Held every Friday at 5 p.m., aficionados and amateurs alike can come take part in a variety of different games that test one’s intellect and cunning.



Saturday, Nov. 29


Cats, dogs, birds, rodents and reptiles are just some of the things that will walk and crawl at Lenexpo convention center this weekend as part of Zooshow, a two-day exhibition featuring not only man’s best friends but a four-legged fashion show, as well as a food fair that will help pet owners find out more about which kibbles are best for their hungry pets.



Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during today’s reenactment titled “Winter War: How it Was.” More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie “Black Cat, White Cat,” as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of “Takoy Festival,” a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonight’s festival finale is “Fathers and Sons,” a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenev’s classic about familial relations.



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