It’s suddenly gone icy-cold in Russia’s arts relations with us and the US. Last year’s Russia-UK Year of Culture just snicked under the wire before the political chill started building up ice in all sorts of unexpected places. The international acclaim for the epic Russian film Leviathan, up for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, was sneered at by the feverishly nationalistic culture minister Vladimir Medinsky. Recently he denounced the film as ‘perfectly calculated to pander’ to western views of a bleak modern Russia, and he has previously proposed that only movies properly celebrating today’s Russia should be allowed either public funding or a release.
Director Andrei Zvyagintsev has been a victim of the new ban last summer on ‘mat’ (Russian slang) and his great film has had to be dubbed and bleeped in any Russian cinema showing it. The fact that the last Russian Oscar-winner was in 1995 and that it’s seven years since a Russian movie even got Oscar nominated has got under the skin of two absolutely opposed camps. There’s cultural pride over the world’s recognition of a complex, darkly brilliant film (cinema has long been one of the country’s cultural treasures) and derision from nationalists who consider it treachery to cast the smallest shadow on the moral perfection of the state under President Putin.
Evidence of the mounting difficulty in negotiating this new ice age for the Russian arts – which need Western currency tours – has come in two other striking statements. Six weeks ago the Nigel Farage of Russian cultural politics, Nikolai Tsiskaridze – formerly the trouble-making star dancer of the Bolshoi, now revamping his image as rector of the Vaganova Ballet Academy – declared on TV that Russian ballet needed to be ‘isolated’ from the ‘half-trained’ west in order to preserve its purity, that the west had stolen classical ballet and should pay his country to perform it.
Representing the last Soviet-raised generation of reactionaries, Tsiskaridze chimes in unison with his friend Medinsky (who spent two years as a member of Medvedev’s ‘Presidential Commission for Countering Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interest’).
But then came last week’s arresting interview in the business paper Kommersant with the Bolshoi Theatre’s general director, the Medinsky-appointed Vladimir Urin (I’ve translated it here). Urin is an emollient, open-minded man, known for his internationalist stance at his previous job in the Stanislavsky Theatre.
Yet what he said to Kommersant’s dance critic confirmed mounting whispers that his predecessor’s era running an independent artistic organism in Theatre Square is finished, for now. The Bolshoi is now pretty much back in the Kremlin fist again.
Urin confirmed that he has made a series of decisions that have sharply reduced the input in Moscow of western creators, producers and performers. The Bolshoi Opera programme is notably reactionary and nationalistic and in the ballet repertoire recent plans for 21st-century creations (by our own Wayne McGregor, among other non-Russians) have bitten the dust and only Russian natives are making new work. Not even the 20th century’s greatest choreographer, the Georgian-born Balanchine who made his career almost entirely in the US, would be sullying the Bolshoi’s stages – he is only being performed on tours abroad.
Urin was pressed by his interviewer to concede that he had shown progressive instincts in his previous job, so was his policy reflecting his own altered opinions or pressure from without? ‘My convictions have not changed, but to some extent you are right,’ he admitted. All this feels particularly pointed given the marvelling reviews rolling around the British media for the Bolshoi’s former wunderkind ballerina, Natalia Osipova, now on the Royal Ballet’s roll. Two weeks ago she debuted at Covent Garden as Russia’s own iconic heroine, Pushkin’s Tatiana in Onegin. As she says in a Covent Garden video here, it’s a role any Russian ballerina would kill for. Though, actually, it isn’t a Russian ballet – it was a former Royal Ballet choreographer John Cranko who seized this marvellous subject for a tear-jerking ballerina vehicle in 1965, while the Soviet Union was stuck in the creative freezer.
Osipova’s glowing crits are being cited by some Russian balletomanes as proof of Russian superiority (cf. Tsiskaridze). Yet the reason Osipova has proved so hard to get back to the Bolshoi as a guest – as Urin admitted in his interview – is that on the contrary it is only out in the west that she was able to get the chance to perform a large and rewarding new body of ballets such as Cranko’s Onegin, MacMillan’s Manon and Juliet, Ashton’s Month in the Country and Titania in The Dream, as well as the vigorously athletic modern idiom of Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon.
The lesson’s been underscored at Russia’s other great ballet flagship, the Mariinsky, where commentators have been noting a breakdown in the supply of good-enough dance graduates from the Vaganova Academy, and much less brand loyalty to the traditional Moscow and Petersburg schools. Muscovite Tsiskaridze is now in charge of the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg, supposedly charged with rectifying the student situation. Time will show whether his nationalism will produce a new flood of Russian ballet dancers who will be inspired at home and not rush off west to find a happier career, as so many have done before.
All in all, it’s decidedly difficult to read whether Russian ballet is heading back into its nationalist hole or merely playing a bit of propagandist poker until political leaders lose interest and go away. It’s been 30 years since we expected Russian ballet to brandish political messages. The Royal Opera House’s closure this summer for maintenance comes at a sensitive time – there will not be the usual extensive Russian visit, and new obstacles and rocketing visa costs, as well as political instability, have already been making cultural tours much more uneconomic for British promoters planning years ahead. By the time we next see the Bolshoi in London, and we can see what has artistically emerged from the present developments, Mr Urin might finally have got his wish and retired. And Tsiskaridze, with his scorn for the ‘half-trained’ West, is being strongly backed to get his job.