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One of Russia's most radical political performance artists detained in Moscow after setting fire to the entrance of the headquarters of the FSB security Service. Copyright: REUTERS/Nigina Beroeva
Playing with fire: Pyotr Pavlensky set the door to the erstwhile KGB headquarters on fire in protestImage: Reuters/N. Beroeva

Russia: Drowning islands of freedom

Anastassia Boutsko / ss
January 2, 2016

Russia's cultural landscape sees increasing state intervention with little to no leeway to escape a passive sense of censorship. While some dissidents fight for their freedom, many resign to living by this new reality.


A gaunt young man stands in front of a gargantuan door in Moscow. As his silhouette dwarfs in contrast making him look almost vulnerable, he holds a canister in his hands.

Staring at the camera, his back is turned away from the gate, the entrance to a building commonly known as "Lubyanka." But there is one detail in the picture that sets it apart: in one of the most iconic images of 2015, the massive door behind him is on fire.

Famous for its imposing structure and Soviet-era torture chambers, the building in question became synonymous with the secretive organization which for decades ran the Soviet Union - the KGB. Nowadays it houses the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Setting fire to Lubyanka's gates can hardly be regarded as a misguided act of vandalism. Piotr Pavlensky thinks of his actions as a form of art in protest against the government. The 31-year-old artist says he wants to ensure that people don't succumb to "oppression and ignorance" in the world's largest country.

Furthermore, he insists on being tried on terrorism charges, not vandalism or arson. Pavlensky considers it a badge of honor to be brandished a terrorist in the current political context. Following in the footsteps of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sensov, sentenced in August 2015 to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges due to his protests against Russia's annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, Piotr Pavlensky, as a radical performance artist, wants to gain the same recognition for his own actions against the government.

Whether or not it may be in poor taste to vandalize state property, Pavlensky's protest may likely be the only representation of the state of affairs in Russia expressed in such drastic measures by means of art.

Art: public enemy number one

Russia's shrinking liberties can be traced back to the onset of the Great Recession, from which the country has still not recovered. With the middle-class losing its affluence and fading into poverty, Russia has been trying to compensate for its ailments by relishing in patriotism and following the tune of state propaganda driven by delusions of grandeur - a term that can sometimes be taken literally.

Marina Koldobskaya. Copyright: Marina Koldobskaya
Marina Koldobskaya says that any concepts of freedom of expression are being eroded fastImage: DW/M. Tarassyugin

Take a ride on Moscow's metro, and you'll find yourself being welcomed into its grand halls to the sound of military marches. If you prefer to hop on a bus instead, you're likely to see the lyrics of war songs printed on billboards rather than ads. Slogans along the lines of "our tanks are strong and fast" appear to speak to the vast majority of people. One survey indicates that nine out of ten Russians support these military displays, including many artists and intellectuals.

Creating a nationwide atmosphere of fear while while keeping the people complacent with the official line by portraying Russia as being under constant threat by abstract, bellicose powers isn't easy to pull off. It depends on funds being channeled into state propaganda and the image of a concrete enemy looming large. What better target could there be than Western artists?

Russia's "Institute of Strategic Studies" published a report - commissioned by none other than the Office of the President - entitled "The Use of Modern Art as a Means to Subvert Russian Policy," claiming that "modern artists" and their supporters were trying to undermine Russian values. Marina Koldobskaya, an artist and curator from St. Petersburg, says that the number of exhibits highlighting modern art has plummeted by more than half.

"The pace at which we are losing our freedom is unbelievable," she told DW.

Basements, prison and emigration

Publicist Alek Epstein wrote a damning commentary about the state of Russia's art scene, saying that artists only had three choices with regards to expressing themselves: hiding in basements, going to prison or choosing to emigrate.

Until recently, a strong undercurrent of Russian culture expressed views against the establishment. But at the dawn of 2016, you might find yourself hard-pressed to discover any islands of hope daring to go against the grain of Russia's patriotic mindset - if they're not drowning already.

One of the few places still trying to present alternative views is "theater.doc," dubbed "Russia's most daring theater company." But the stage group had to learn at the end of 2014 that having such a reputation is not necessarily a guarantee of success in the country. The city of Moscow simply refused to renew the lease of the basement performance space - and welded its doors shut in December 2014.

After searching for most of the year, the theater company found a new home outside the city center. But no one knows how long that may last. With its latest production in November 2015 entitled "A Short History of Dissent in Russia," the group hopes to pick up where it left off - for as long as it can.

Theater.Doc in Moscow, Copyright: DW/N. Mironowa
Onstage and off, members of theater.doc fight hard to keep their independenceImage: DW/N. Mironowa

Russia is historically no stranger to alternative views. Even during times of oppression, the country's past was filled with voices of dissent: 18th-century journalist Nikolay Novikov dared to take on Catherine the Great, and later Nikolai Bukharin rebelled against Joseph Stalin.

Elena Gremina, artistic director at "theater.doc" says that the current government is trying to rewrite Russia's history, omitting any reference to such rebel minds.

"Nowadays they are trying to make us believe that the most important virtue to ever have graced this land is obedience. What we are trying to achieve it to show the world that the love of freedom is a much bigger part of the Russian identity," she told DW.

Russia's Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. Copyright: Anatoly Medved/RIA Novosti
Russia's Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky is at the Forefront of creating a 'patriotic culture' in RussiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Gremina's struggle, however, is bound to fall on the deaf ears of Vladimir Medinsky, Minister of Culture. Having come up with "Russia is Not Europe" as the slogan for his master plan to homogenize Russia's cultural landscape, Medinsky continues his crusade against voices of dissent.

Replacing people in leading positions at Russia's cultural institutions with those who are happy to sing by the government's hymn sheet, or eliminating funding from theaters and movie productions deemed to pull Russia's name through the mud, Medinsky's order leaves no room for critical thought - even if Russian cultural imports achieve international success.

Andrej Zvjagintsev's 2015 Academy-Award nominated drama "Leviathan," though partly financed by government funds, received criticism from Medinsky, who said he didn't like because it portrayed Russians as "swearing, vodka-swinging people."

When Belarusian author Svetlana Alexiewich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, Medinsky ignored the news altogether, despite the fact that her novels were mandatory reading in Soviet schools in the 1980s.

Competing against cow dung

Yet amid an increasingly repressive mindset in the population, glimpses of hope remain, says Russian composer Vladimir Tarnopolsky. Head of the Studio for New Music at the Moscow Conservatory, Tarnopolsky explains that Russian music has influenced Western minds for centuries:

"You cannot claim that Russia is not a part of Western civilization if you have ever attended a concert with Bach or Mahler. Or with music by Lachenmann or Rihm, for that matter.

Conductor Teodor Currentzis
Many regard conductor Teodor Currentzis as a rare glimpse of hope in Russia's cultural landscapeImage: Anton Zavjyalov

Conductor Teodor Currentzis shares the vision of Russian culture playing a leading role in the world. The Greek-born 43-year-old is one of Russia's rising superstars in the cultural scene, having managed to turn the city of Perm 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) east of Moscow into a cultural magnet of note.

Working as the head of the Perm Opera and Ballet House, one of the best in the country, Currentzis keeps pushing the envelope and fighting for freedom of art. Many people from around the world flock to experience his annual Diaghilev Festival and to witness cutting-edge performances.

Despite having taken greater liberties than most others, Currentzis even managed to adopt Russian citizenship. But he may have gone one step too far, as the city of Perm decided to withdraw its funding from the annual event. The local government invested its resources instead into promoting a peculiar local tradition known as "Veselij Korovjak" - which roughly translates to "happy dung."

The city of Perm created an entire folk festival dedicated to the art of throwing dried cow dung and then measuring the distance travelled.

"How can I compete against cow dung?" says Currentzis, adding that he won't throw in the towel any time soon.

In order to compete or even to just get to express creativity, artists need to show resolve in Russia's climate of intimidation and fear. No one knows this better than Diana Arbenina, a popular rock musician, who had many of her concerts cancelled in 2014 after protesting against the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. A public apology would likely turn the tide, but Diana says that she will stick to her guns:

"If all you ever amount to is being a lapdog without ever learning what it means to be free, you will never be free."

Writer Anastassia Boutsko is a cultural expert on Russia as well as Germany. She works as a freelance journalist in Bonn, reporting on cultural events in Russia for Deutsche Welle. Boutsko's article is part of a collaboration with the magazine "Politik & Kultur" and DW's multimedia series "Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art."

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