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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

Wednesday, Oct. 1


The St. Petersburg International Innovation Forum 2014 kicks off today at Lenexpo, where it will be presenting the latest and greatest ideas until Oct. 3. Focusing on economic development and the decisions and measures necessary to encourage development in Russias most important industries, the event is a possibility to discuss the innovations currently available in a variety of fields.


Representatives of the Russian and international media industries arrive in St. Petersburg for the first ever International Media Forum being hosted by the city until Oct. 10. With a variety of events on tap, including workshops, lectures and film screenings, the event plans to reemphasize the citys reputation as the countrys culture capital and as an emerging market and location for the visual arts.



Thursday, Oct. 2


The celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Mikhail Lermontov continues with todays free exhibition in the citys Lermontov Library at 19 Liteiny Prospekt. Titled Under the Rustling Wings, the temporary exhibition will feature the costumes and scenery used in the 1917 production of Lermontovs play The Masquerade, which he wrote in 1835 when he was only 21 years old.



Friday, Oct. 3


Learn more about how to manage and evaluate employee performance during SPIBAs Human Resources Committee meeting this morning on Employee Assessment: Global and Local Trends. Starting at 9:30 a.m., the discussion will touch on such topics as the partnership between HR and business, reliable assessment strategies and more, with Tatiana Andrianova, the head of the SHL Russia and CIS branch in St. Petersburg, as the featured guest. Confirm your participation by Oct. 2 by emailing office@spiba.ru or calling 325 9091.


AmChams Procurement Committee Meeting is at 9 a.m. this morning in their office in the New St. Isaac Office Center on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.



Saturday, Oct. 4


Wine and cheese lovers will get their chance to revel during Scandinavia Country Club and Spas Wine Market Weekend. Going on today and tomorrow, wining diners can listen to live music, take part in culinary classes and, of course, sample a variety of fine wines from around the world. The cost of admission is 400 rubles ($10.30) for adults and 200 rubles ($5.15) for children.



Sunday, Oct. 5


Look for the latest fall fashions at the Autumn Market today in Freedom Anticafe at 7 Kazanskaya Ulitsa. The minimarket plans to offer clothes more flattering than the puffy jackets that are a staple of the citys cold-weather fashion, while offering the same amount of protection from the biting winds blowing off of the Baltic.



Monday, Oct. 6


SKA St. Petersburg, the citys KHL affiliate, welcomes Slovakian club HC Slovan in a match-up tonight at the Ice Palace near the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased on the clubs website or in person at either the arenas box office or the clubs merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, Oct. 7


Learn more about Russias energy industry at the St. Petersburg Energy Forum that begins today and runs through Oct. 10. Attracting industry experts and political and business representatives, the forum plans to welcome more than 350 plus companies and their representatives to discuss the future of Russias largest economic sector.



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