Russia’s use of art as totalitarian soft power
Photo by Petra Rethmann
By Petra Rethmann
Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine Putin has consistently spoken to domestic audiences in the language of derzhavo, or, empire and stately might. To that end, the Kremlin has shut down independent media and the press, actively imprisoned or exiled Putin’s critics, and shown a cruel callousness towards non-Russian populations. Among other ways, Putin’s elites have been justifying these measures through the visual arts in ways that communicate visions of national eternity and strength. If totalitarianism relies on the creation of a single reality, then how does art support monolithic ideas of unified togetherness?
During the early summer 2013 in Moscow’s Tverskaya Street and Kamergerskii Pereulok – streets not far from the Kremlin – approximately twenty reproductions of late nineteenth century paintings appeared in large format on apartment building walls. Among others, these included reproductions of Ilya Repin’s Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and Barge Haulers on the Volga, Fyodor Vasilyev’s Thaw, Vasily Vereshchagin’s At the Doors of a Mosque, Leon Bakst’s Portrait of Serge Diaghilev, with his Nanny, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkina’s Madonna of Compassion Who Moves Evil Hearts, and Vladimir Borovikovsky’s Pavel.
As noted by my Moscow friends, many of them political artists, these were not the kind of images critical of Russia’s dermokratiia (“shitocracy”) – a play on the Russian word for demokratiia (“democracy”) – but rather of a strong Orthodox belief system, mixing together conservative authoritarianism, messianism, and patriarchy. Although these images did not cohere into a single genre, in harking back to a time that in contemporary Russia is now imagined as one of supposed national unity and historical greatness, their public appearance suggested that Russia’s mission to act as self-appointed katechon should be carried out by many means possible – historical, political, military, and artistic.
"Like so many other signs connected with the Putin elite’s desire for empire today, in contemporary Russian politics the Cossacks have made a comeback."
Of the many images displayed on Moscow house walls, Ilya Repin’s (1844-1930) late nineteenth century painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (1880-1891) is one of the more famous. Born in today’s Ukraine close to Kharkiv, Repin trained at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, where he also began to move in a circle of influential critics and artists. Animated by a deep enthusiasm for folk culture and the historical past, Repin often strove to eliminate what he perceived as an unfortunate distance between himself and his subjects. He even invented a turn of phrase – okunut’sia, to plunge into, to immerse – that would define his desire to eliminate the distance between artist and life. Thousands of people travelled to see his shows. His enduring popularity is marked by the fact that his monumental paintings continue to resonate in Russia today.
Historically, the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks shows a group of seventeenth-century Cossacks in the process of drafting a mocking and insulting letter to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV during the period of the Third Polish-Ottoman war (1683 – 99), a war in which the Cossacks fought to preserve their independence from both the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. When Repin painted the scene more than two-hundred years after it had supposedly occurred, conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Coalition, led by the Russian Empire, still smoldered.
The painting relies heavily on cultural detail. There are the breathing, laughing, smoking, and robust-looking male bodies that populate Repin’s painting. There are sabers, daggers, and rifles glimmering in fragments and jutting out of sashes. There are the intricate details of the fabrics, and the shaved heads with the long forelock or chub. As one of my friends commented, this is an image that could have come straight out of Ukrainian writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s 1845 historical-romanticized novella Taras Bulba, which tells of a bloody revolt led by the Zaporozhian Cossack Taras Bulba and his two sons against Catholic Poland and for Orthodox Christianity, empire, and czar.
Like so many other signs connected with the Putin elite’s desire for empire today, in contemporary Russian politics the Cossacks have made a comeback. Celebrated in tsarist Russia for their independence and might, and suppressed in the Soviet era for their supposed backwardness and traditional orientation, in the tumble of perestroika (restructuring) they emerged again as a cultural and a military force. Especially within the Putin regime, they began to signify a living link to Orthodox Slavdom and Russia’s historical claim to the ancient Rus.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi uniformed Cossack militia members fired teargas at protestors and members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist and art collective known for its provocative musical performances and lyrics. During the 2018 World Cup Cossack groups were incorporated into Russian police forces to suppress anti-Putin protests. Given that Cossack communities live nationally-divided in Ukraine and Russia, they are also politically divided in today’s war. However, significant segments side with Russia for glorifying and promoting the Orthodox imperialist past and even indicating that it might support Cossack claims to territory and organizational-autonomy in southern Ukraine after the war.
When in 2013 the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and other paintings appeared, my friends did not foresee Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, or its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Yet already then they understood why the painting’s public display might signify Russia’s desire for empire. Sure, it seemingly depicts a strong Cossack longing for freedom, but there is also the image’s unbroken and organic connection between Ukraine and Russia. Yet, beyond national-sovereign borders, it reflects an expansive imagination of the Russian state. It is perhaps for this reason that the image has remained popular with Russian ruling classes. (The painting was so popular in the late nineteenth century that Russian emperor Alexander III purchased it for 35,000 rubles, the highest price paid for a Russian painting at the time.) In 2013 it appeared as another emblem of the Kremlin’s concept of russkii mir (Russian world) to legitimize expansionism and incorporation of Russia’s near abroad (i.e., the countries of the former Soviet Union, but primarily Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus).
When in early summer 2013 nineteenth-century images appeared on central Moscow buildings, a
number of things had been going on. The artistic collective voina (war) had just won Russia’s Ministry of Culture’s 2011 Innovation Prize for the art action Dick Captured by the FSB that that showed the image of a spray-painted 60-meter penis on Saint Petersburg’s Liteinyi Bridge. When the bridge was raised, the penis pointed like the proverbial finger in the architectural face of the FSB (ex-KGB) headquarters, and remained in that position for hours. The progressive jury that had awarded the prize felt that, by then, Dick Captured by the FSB had already gained such a wide audience via the Internet that ignoring it would also be making a statement.
In the same year the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, an internationally significant art event, had showcased Moscow Conceptualism – a movement in the 1970-80s that marked a counterpoint to Socialist Realism by emphasizing the absence of meaning and objects. And, in summer 2012, the trial of Pussy Riot had garnered considerable critical international attention for how the collective was accused of hooliganism and religious hatred after its music performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
While international audiences appreciated these art actions, in Russia this was considered outsider art, designed to provoke, perplex, shock, and revulse. The artists drew ire because they deliberately set themselves in opposition to Putin’s government, which thus considered them disdainful of national unity and contemptuous of traditional emblems and values. Eventually Vladimir Medinskii, who Putin appointed in 2012 as Russia’s Minister of Culture, denounced these projects as the cynical aggrandizement of art and artist at the expense of sacred public sentiments. Instead, art should act as a treasure and guardian of symbols supposedly full of nationalist sentiments, such as the flag or the cross.
"While international audiences appreciated these art actions, in Russia this was considered outsider art, designed to provoke, perplex, shock, and revulse."
As all of this shows that in Russia, as elsewere, public battles over the role of art are complex and run deep. While from my friends’ perspective freedom of expression is at stake – including the freedom and protection of marginal artistic voices – from the Russian governmental perspective their supposedly anti-majoritarian impulse needs to be slapped down. As one of his first acts as Minister of Culture Medinskii also devised a document entitled Foundations for a New State Cultural Policy.
The document discourages the Russian government from sponsoring and supporting art that will ostensibly offend any large numbers of people. Public funds in Putin’s Russia are to be spent for public purposes, not for the satisfaction of individuals’ aesthetic impulses. And if the impulse in question produces a work which is palpably offensive to the sensibilities of a significant proportion of the public, then that work ought also not be shown.
The nineteenth-century images that appeared on Moscow house walls may be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, but historically or politically there is nothing innocent about them. They showcase a historically-revisionist imagination in which art is made to serve the production of a single reality. What makes this reality totalitarian is not only that it reflects empire, hierarchy, and “the people” in nationally self-serving ways, but that it conceals how art reflects tensions and divisions within political collectives. To cement totalitarianism’s singular reality, not only people and ideologies, but also art goes to war.
Gabowitsch, Mischa. 2017. Protest in Putin’s Russia. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gessen, Masha. 2014. Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. New York: Riverhead Books.
Lomasko, Victoria. 2017. Other Russias. London: Penguin.
Click here to read more on Medinskii’s think tank Izborsky Club to create a traditional-conservative ‘cultural front.’
Petra Rethmann is Professor in Department of Anthropology at McMaster University. She is currently working on a book on the possibilities and limitations of liberalism that focuses on Cold War politics, right-wing authoritarianism, and climate change. She is also interested in aesthetics and art, ethnographic forms and literary genres, memory and history, and the lived experience of political imaginations.
Cite this article as: Rethmann, Petra. April 2023. 'Totalitarianism’s Use of Art as Soft Power.' Today's Totalitarianism. https://todaystotalitarianism.com/art-soft-power