High Culture Meets Trash TV
By Nadezhda Azhgikhina
Russian culture is undergoing a crisis. Throughout 1992, this crisis was the subject of widespread discussion in the Russian press and the center of televised debates and scholarly conferences.
A prime example was the international symposium with which the newly created Russian State Humanities University opened its first school year in September 1992. Moscow’s newest university gathered the cream of the intellectual elite from the capital as well as from abroad to discuss “culture in a time of crisis and current problems in the humanities.” The symposium took on the tone of a many-voiced farewell to the great Atlantis of Russian culture, which had been devoured by the waves of history-a farewell accompanied by a deep sense of confusion in the face of complicated processes occurring in Russian art.
The symposium presented a remarkable contrast to one that took place just four years before, involving many of the same protagonists-the first “perestroika” meeting of Slavicists from East and West in Copenhagen in 1988. For the first time since the Soviet regime came into existence, the Copenhagen meeting united Soviet scholars, Western Slavicists, and Russian emigré writers-and it put an end to the cultural cold war. It was seen as evidence that Soviet art and culture were moving toward freedom and normal development, unburdened by ideology. Many believed then that Russia stood on the threshold of a renaissance destined to amaze the world.
But, to the distress of many critics, no renaissance took place during the perestroika years. Further, freedom and the beginning of free-market relations presented Russian intellectuals with a new series of problems that many of them are unprepared to face.
It turns out that publishers-both the old ones, who have been freed from the party-line yoke, and the new private or joint-stock ones-are not looking for bright and original texts. They are looking for marketable merchandise. About 90 percent of printed matter in the country today consists of pirated translations of foreign science fiction, detective stories, erotic novels, or popular editions, such as A Book on Delicious and Healthy Food, Sex in a Woman’s Life, and horoscopes.
Of course, during perestroika wonderful books formerly forbidden to the Russian reader came out: Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Ivan Bunin’s Damned Days, and complete editions of non-Marxist thinkers such as Arkady Averchenko, Nadezhda Teffi, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Nikolai Berdyaev. Practically all the literary representatives of the three waves of Russian immigration-the post-Revolution refugees, the postWorld War II wave, and the Cold War exiles-as well as the suppressed works of the underground, are now available. All the outstanding documentary works of Russian dissident thought have been published, as well as the works of foreign critics of the Soviet regime and the testimonies of Stalin’s death-camp prisoners.
However, one can hardly say that the nation has become more intellectual as a result of this literary and information boom. On the contrary, sociological research shows that the population of the country is reading less. Never in the history of Russia have there been so many different magazines and newspapers for all conceivable tastes. In 1991 alone, 400 new publications were officially registered-more than one new magazine or newspaper a day! Still, the number of readers has declined. As research shows, Russians now prefer to get their news from television and they spend their free time going to movies or renting them.
Movie theaters and video stores are flooded with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and erotica. Television is full of foreign and domestic soap operas and melodramatic serials, including The Rich Also Cry, a 200-episode made-in-Mexico saga which has been shown on Spanish-language channels in the United States. Wheel of Fortune has its equivalent in a home-grown show called Field of Wonders. Instead of Dating Game, Russia has Love at First Sight. On these shows, expensive prizes such as Sony tape recorders, Phillips vacuum cleaners, and automobiles are dispensed.
Advertisements of goods and services that hardly existed before have entered people’s everyday lives, and not only through publications and television. The streets of Russian cities, once adorned with posters declaring “Glory to the Communist Party,” now glitter with advertisements for Coca-Cola, which is accessible to most people, or for IBM computers, which are not. The ultimate in advertising is the bright billboard in Moscow’s Red Square touting vacations in the Canary Islands.
Russian intellectuals may have viewed the coming of the free market as an absolute guarantee that cultural renewal was just around the corner. But the market has obviously arrived with its own set of laws, and it has brought along its favorite child: pop culture, a phenomenon Russians were only vaguely aware of.
Pop culture is so active and aggressive that it seems to be forcing out high culture. This is especially disturbing to many critics because the prestige of traditional culture and studies in the humanities is steadily declining. This year only one-third as many young people applied to the humanities divisions of universities as applied in the years before perestroika. Students prefer economics. Further, many prefer practice to theory, and they head directly to private enterprises or cooperatives, where they can make more money than their university professors.
The standard of living for people working in cultural areas has fallen accordingly, aggravated by a simultaneous recession and inflation. This is not only true for eternal paupers such as librarians, teachers, and scholars, but also for the creative elite, who used to be well off. Today a writer must agonize over finding a publisher; a painter must find a collector; a movie producer must come up with money to shoot the next film. Such problems did not exist before perestroika.
In the old totalitarian system, all artists were potentially state employees. If they were hired and were members of the unions of creative artists, cinematographers, or writers, they were paid rather well. On the other hand, if they were not members of the unions they were forced to work in other professions, rather than remaining unemployed or working entirely on their own, because the law on general employment-that everyone must have a job-was strictly enforced.
Members of the creative unions were assured a good life. Their books were published by government publishers whether they sold or not; sculptures and paintings were purchased by state museums; funds were regularly allocated for shooting films. Artists who were closer to the party elite and higher in the hierarchy of the creative ministries published more books, sold more paintings, and produced more movies. The demands of art were irrelevant. Artists who wanted to express their own vision had to continuously compromise their art, or reject the rules of the game and go underground.
The creative unions also exercised strict ideological control over the work of their members, periodically condemning and excommunicating the unwanted ones. Obviously, the first thing on the agenda of the artistic elite during perestroika was to destroy the old unions-and they did. Amazingly, however, the new organizations quickly began to recreate old structures, even though progressive democrats had taken the place of the old party apparatchiks. The most striking example is the big scandal in the renewed Writers Union. The newborn democrat Timur Pulatov, elected in September 1991 to lead the union, quickly turned into a typical dictator and began arbitrarily disposing of the considerable union funds while manipulating the fate of its members. He has maintained stubborn control over funds that might have supported new projects, interesting books, and young authors.
New ways to support culture have not yet been developed. The government has distanced itself from this function, and social organizations have not yet gained strength. The victims are the authors and artists, especially the young ones whose names are not yet known. Private publishing houses have closed their doors to them-nobody wants to take a risk. Meanwhile, journals have been coming out less and less frequently and they have decreased the number of pages for economic reasons.
The position of those who are well known is not much better. “Before, I had to deceive the censor; then I could shoot my film,” admitted one well-known Russian producer. “Now I am forced to look for all the money and materials myself.” This is what a Western producer has to do, of course. But there is one difference: in Russia, far fewer people are willing to invest in artistic ventures. Consequently, the production of Russian movies has decreased as never before, and practically all films that come out have foreign backing.
All of this is radically changing the position of the artist in society-and the Russian artistic elite finds this change much more painful than all the economic hardships. Instead of being a revered and dominant influence in society, the writer or artist has become a mere creator of cultural values. And the most successful sellers of their own merchandise are not necessarily the most talented artists.
This situation is familiar to artists all over the world. However, its effects are especially harsh in Russia, because of the special position that high culture has always occupied there. In the absence of a democratic tradition, and under excessive pressure from the state, culture became a repository of political opposition and, to some extent, of religious faith. High culture remained the only island of freedom. Writers, especially, became the high priests of freedom. In Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous line from the 1960s, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.”
With the beginning of democracy in contemporary Russia, high culture is gradually losing its non-artistic roles to other social institutions-and in doing so, it is beginning to discover what its own territory really is. Instead of leading the Russian intelligentsia in perpetual opposition to the state power, artists simply form an intellectual elite, as they do in other countries. Russian artists can now identify their work with that of their counterparts abroad-yet another new trait in a society that lived so long behind the Iron Curtain.
Many view the situation much too dramatically, and dissatisfied voices are heard. On the right are those who are filled with sadness about the loss of the false exclusivity and the majestic past. Stanislav Govorukhin’s 1992 film The Russia that We Lost, for example, depicts the tsar’s empire as an ideal. And strange as it may seem, on the left are those who recently opposed the regime but who now miss the stability of the years of stagnation, when all the roles were assigned: the role of the official artist, the role of the liberal critic of the system, and the role of the dissident martyr.
The artist Ilya Kabakov and the philosopher Iosif Bakshteyn analyzed this paradoxical phenomenon in a recent work on Russian unofficial art titled Life in Paradise. The life of the artist before perestroika, they concluded, resembled life in Eden, not only because official propaganda contrasted the “socialist paradise” with the “capitalist hell” or announced the fulfillment of the communist ideal in about 1980, but because all blessings for official authors- and all adversities for unofficial ones-were sent from above. Artists had to make only one decision, to play by the rules or not. Sometimes circumstances made the decision for them.
Now, having tasted the forbidden fruit of freedom, artists have to make continuous choices, whether they are psychologically prepared to do so or not. They have to choose whether to follow the demands of the market or to try to make the market follow them. They have to choose what country to live in and which creative principles to follow.
Clearly the phase in the development of Russian culture marked by a tense opposition between official and unofficial art-art hired by the government and “opposition” art-is over. The thaw began during the Khrushchev years with the 1962 exhibition of young artists in the Manege exhibition hall in Moscow and with the first publications of exiled dissidents Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, and of the poets and prose writers of the post-Stalinist “fourth generation.” It has ended in total victory for free art. Furthermore, the main principles of unofficial art-freedom of form, irony, innovation, lack of ideology-have come to dominate contemporary Russian art. Expatriate artists have become recognized authorities, almost classics: Sinyavsky, Joseph Brodsky, Vasily Aksionov, Sasha Sokolov. Their works are published, their exhibitions are triumphant, they are invited and interviewed. Their persecutors are jeered and mocked everywhere.
We have here what is called a “change of canon.” The old canon was Socialist Realism, and the new canon is the avant-garde and post-modernist. (This does not mean that every political dissident of the past was avant-garde. The esthetic of at least one major anti-Soviet writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was rather close to Socialist Realism in form, but with opposite ideological content.)
The fact that the period of conflict between the state and artistic interests has ended was clear to see at the epoch-making spring 1992 exhibition at the House of Artists on the Krymsky Val in Moscow, “Soviet Art around 1990: Düsseldorf, Jerusalem, Moscow.” The works exhibited sounded the last chord of the movement devoted to ideology. The long-awaited two-volume edition of Sinyavsky and the collection of “flash-card” poetry by one of the leaders of the capital’s underground, Lev Rubinshteyn, sounded the same chord.
Not long ago the state of current writing was discussed at a roundtable in the literary department of the weekly Ogonyok. The journal staff tossed around theories and opinions about the latest stories and tales of the most interesting writers of the day: women like Svetlana Vasilenko, whose provincial protagonists find love amid the mud and slush of everyday life; Valeria Narbikova and her baroque eroticism; Tatyana Tolstaya, now writing her short stories from Princeton; Oleg Yermakov, who writes movingly about an innocent soldier trapped in the cruel Afghan war. And while we were discussing all this, we were bemoaning the current cultural crisis.
Then somebody remembered that at the end of the last century, the critic Vissarion Belinsky wrote about a crisis in culture-and simultaneously praised the first works of Feodor Dostoevsky and Mikhail Lermontov and wrote about Aleksandr Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Writers of the Silver Age, the early twentieth century, also spoke about “crisis” and called their own period a time of “decadence.” Crisis was a common theme of the 1920s. Hence all this talk in the lobbies of journal offices and within the walls of a university-a newly created one at that!-are testimonials to the eternal and tireless work of culture, which continues to develop despite political cataclysms and economic recessions.
Perhaps the best illustration of what the so-called crisis is all about was an installation put together by one of the most interesting Moscow artists, Igor Makarevich, at a recent exhibition. In the exhibition hall hung a magnificent copy of Isak Levitan’s painting “Over Eternal Rest,” a textbook cliché of permitted art. Below the painting were three coffins, evoking the bloody past of culture and the recent Afghan war. These were connected by transparent plastic pipes, through which was pumped pulsating green liquid. The assembly affirmed the power of art as a magical elixir, its immutable quality of conquering death and being reborn like the Phoenix.
One Moscow critic said, evaluating the exhibit, that as long as Makarevich was working, there was no reason to fear a decline in art. There are quite a few artists working in Russia-those I have mentioned in this short review and those I did not have a chance to mention; the ones who have not completed their books or paintings, and the ones who will write and paint tomorrow.