Russian Cinema’s “Congress of Victors”

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The politics of culture is perhaps more contentious in Russia than in other countries. Since the 1930s, there has been a close relationship between the state and artistic creative unions.  The best historical example of this was when Socialist Realism became state policy with Stalin’s 1932 decree “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations.”

Despite the ideological control over the arts, creative unions nevertheless presented artists with an avenue to influence state policy, as well as a collective body representative of artists’ mutual intellectual and social and economic interests.

Today, the relationship between the current Russian state and its artists is not so overt, but as Danil Dondurey points out in his article “The ‘vertical of power’ grabs Russian cinema,” this doesn’t mean that it is no less contentious. This was evidenced in the recent congress of the Russian Film Makers Union, where an on going struggle between pro-Kremlin and Putin bud Nikita Mikhalkov and more liberal forces calling for his ouster has apparently come out in the former’s favor.  With his victory, Russia’s cinematic elite have abandoned politics altogether.  As Dondurey explains,

Cinema does, of course, directly affect us all. The underlying theme of the recent congress was changes to the creative unions. To judge from the published plans, they are all going to have to abandon their intellectual mission and become a mixture of trade union and social services. They will restrict themselves to helping the old, providing money for medicines and arranging funerals. And that’s it!  There will be no more thoughts about politics in the cinema, partnerships between government and business, no more talk about the quality of films or educating the audience.  And above all no more programmes linking us up with other cultures and countries.

This is momentous.  The creative unions go back to 1934.  Their task was to mediate  between the artist and the state, the artist and society, the artist and business.  They looked after the interests of the creative professions.  As of today, this mission is over.

In fact, this is a process which has been going on ever since the fall of communism. They have not been engaged with cultural politics and economics, or been in real partnership with the Ministry of Culture for a long time.  They have mainly been concerned with anniversary celebrations, recommendations for honours and finding a use for the property granted them by Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

It was the cultural politician extraordinaire Nikita Mikhalkov who first announced that the creative unions were no longer going to be communities of like-minded people charged with managing partnerships between artists and the state.  All these functions were to be transferred to the specially created Academies, which have been springing up like mushrooms.

It is significant that during the 10 hours the congress was in session not a word (!) was actually said about Russian cinema.  Nothing about its crisis, or about how to come through it, nothing about any achievements or failures.  No one talked about what we should do next, although these congresses only happen once every five years. There was no analysis, only pompous declarations of love for the way it used to be. No one was looking for co-operation or reconciliation.

It was presented as a conflict between a small group who supported the incumbent president Khutsiev and the overwhelming majority of film-makers.  It was not by accident that there was no government representative at the Congress – neither the Minister of Culture nor anyone else.

So what direction will Russian cinema take now?  In all European countries the government acts on the arms’ length principle:   they subsidise the arts, but decisions are taken by the artists themselves.  This is how it is in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway…  In Russia strategic questions about the organisation and development of the film industry have not been discussed for 10 years. Perhaps things really would improve if decisions were all taken behind the scenes?

You should have seen this ‘Congress of Victors’.  Everyone, even people who knew nothing about the politics of cinema, knew what was going on. What we were watching was not just one famous person attacking another (who is important, talented, moneyed and very well connected, a kind of cultural oligarch).

There has been a lot of discussion recently, even beyond the industry, about the ‘vertical of power’ which is being set up within Russian cinema. After the Congress many people will winder whether anyone in the country is going to able to take decisions about culture on behalf of the wider public. Will it be possible to sack cultural bureaucrats without an imperial decree?  Do we need cultural tsars who can’t really be asked where the money is coming from.