Holy Politics, Unholy Economics

With the ruble hitting record-breaking lows, it has been a challenging December in Moscow, but the mood is one of “we have seen this before and know how to live through it.” Holiday shopping has been extreme as Russians are trying to invest their shaky rubles in something tangible – washing machines, furs, and diamonds, fearing that the currency will take another hit like it did last Tuesday, when it plummeted to 80 rubles to the dollar, creating panic both in the markets and in the supermarkets. As the year draws to a close, Russians are dreading the three d’s – denomination, devaluation and default – which have returned to everyday lexicon for the first time since the 1998 crisis.

Pavel Pepperstein, Holy Politics, 2013

In the context of a weakening economy, the government has been actively discussing patriotism, or lack thereof. On January 15th, the Russian court will issue a ruling in the case of Alexey Navalny, one of Kremlin’s most prominent critics, who has been under house arrest since February. Prosecutors have asked for 10 years of jail time for Navalny in the so-called “Yves Rocher” case, which is widely considered to be politically motivated. In anticipation of a positive verdict, supporters of anti-corruption activist are organizing a march in Moscow on the day of the court ruling. The first Facebook page for the “unsanctioned rally” has been blocked by the social network over the weekend when Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media watchdog, requested that it be taken down, but a second one, started on Sunday, has already amassed more than 30,000 followers who promised to join the rally on January 15th. The deletion of the original page, an unfortunate step on behalf of Facebook, was only to be expected from Roskomnadzor. Political opposition is increasingly considered “unpatriotic” in Russia – as the country was reminded during Putin’s annual press conference on December 18.

Other Russian officials seem to also be actively defining what is considered “patriotic”. Recently, Russia’s minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky, an outspoken critic of “heaps of bricks disguising themselves as contemporary art”, had his say on patriotism in contemporary Russian cinema. At a book signing in St. Petersburg, he noted that the Ministry will stop providing funding for “Russia-smearing” films that criticize the existing government, claiming it to be “state masochism”. Meanwhile, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a drama about corruption and resistance to authorities set in a small Russian town on the Arctic sea, is now in the short-list for an Oscar. Around 40% of the budget for Zvyagintsev’s highly critical masterpiece came from the Russian government. Considering this is the Oscar first nomination of a Russian film in 8 years, it seems that a little “masochism” doesn’t hurt sometimes.

In the context of increasingly limited government funding for contemporary art, private patronage plays an evermore important role. Art patron Shalva Breus’ Kandinsky Prize winners have been announced in the 8th annual ceremony on December 11th. Pavel Pepperstein’s “Holy Politics” became the winner in the “Project of the Year” category, bringing the artist a prize of 40,000 Euro. Albert Soldatov was named “Young artist of the Year” and awarded 10,000 Euro for his “Balthus” video, beating Timofey Radya and Elena Rykova in the category. Given the volatile foreign exchange rates, we’re hoping that the cash prize did actually come in euros.

Moscow’s privately funded Garage has also played an important role in the arts where the government has left an under-funded void. This month, the museum has opened Russia’s first contemporary art library. The library currently holds around 15,000 volumes, including journals, monographs, exhibition catalogues, magazines and more, plus free access to all the articles on JStor. It will also hold the museum’s archive of Russian contemporary art, which consists of documents, texts, audio-, video- and photo- material connected to art in Russia from the 1960s to the present. The library is free of charge and open to the public, while the archive will require advanced notice. Amidst bleak projections for the government budget in 2015, these are the kinds of acts of patriotism we can get behind.

Posted by: Polina Dubik 

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