Category Archives: arts/letters

EDITORIAL: Mickey Mouse, Banned in Russia


Mickey Mouse, Banned in Russia

In 1995 the Russian artist Alexander Savko painted a series of images interposing the face of Mickey Mouse onto famous historical scenes, like the one above.

Last week, a Russian court determined that Savko’s image of the Sermon on the Mount with Mickey Mouse (shown after the jump) was “extremist” and illegal and banned it from public display.

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Мы сегодня в цирк поедем!

Мы сегодня в цирк поедем!
На арене нынче снова
С дрессированным Медведем
Укротитель дядя Вова.
От восторга цирк немеет!
Хохочу, держась за папу,
А Медведь рычать не смеет,
Лишь сосет потешно лапу,
Сам себя берет за шкирки,
Важно кланяется детям.
До чего забавно в цирке
С дядей Вовой и Медведем!

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Under Putin, Russia Culture Perishes

The Associated Press reports:

A squirrel tail. Wolf teeth. Sheets of gold. Flax oil.

These are the things Vladimir Buldakov uses to work a feat of modern-day alchemy: transforming an ordinary papier-mache box into a gilded miniature masterpiece that will tell the story of saints or heroes, fairies or dragons.

Buldakov comes from Palekh, a 700-year-old Russian village where a church’s lavender onion-domes overlook snow-clad houses, a frozen river and a distant birch forest. The town is famous for its beauty, but the rare outsiders who visit come for the varnished boxes that bear its name.

Now, the unique art form, which emerged in the 1920s after the atheist Bolsheviks approved a new medium in which masters of religious icon paintings could use their talents, is struggling to find a reason to exist in capitalist society.

If it disappears entirely, its stunted lifespan will bear vivid testament to the twists of Russia’s turbulent recent history. And Russia will lose one if its hallmark trinkets, the product of an astonishingly high-skilled process.

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EDITORIAL: Russia is so Cute


Russia is so Cute

Film director Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch” and “Day Watch“) was thrilled last week to learn that his latest movie “Yolki” had become the  the most successful Russian movie over the last three years. The movie’s box office take “surpassed everyone’s expectations, including ours,” Ruslan Tatarintsev, the film’s marketing and distribution director, told The Hollywood Reporter. He added: “The main reason for the success was that we had a quality product that people wanted to watch.”

It was all lies.

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Nazis and Russians, Birds of a Sordid Feather

A movie review in The New Yorker shows the horrifying similarity of behavior between Russians and Nazis during World War II. In fact, it’s easily arguable that the Nazis were not as a bad as the Russians when it came to murdering innocent people in Eastern Europe:

Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” the shattering nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which was first shown in New York in 1985, has, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, reopened here and will soon appear in museums, universities, and select theatres across the country. Back in 1985, the film left me bruised and sore, moved by its clarifying passions and its electrifying rhetoric, and amazed by its revolutionary form. Lanzmann, a French filmmaker and intellectual journalist, omitted photographs, newsreels, and documents (all the usual historical materials), and, instead, reconstructed the past from what remained of it in the present.

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Annals of the Neo-Soviet Art Crackdown

Yana Plucer-Sarno of the Voina art collective

A scathing item on ArtInfo by Yana Plucer-Sarno, editor of the Voina art collective, condemns the outrageous neo-Soviet crackdown on art:

Voina is a well-known group of Russian artists that engages in radical street protest actions. These artists have protested against the total elimination of freedom of speech, against the violation of human rights, and against the utter liquidation of democracy that have taken place in Russia in recent years.

In their manifesto, the group proclaims that its main goal is to create a new contemporary art language for the sake of pure art — and not for money. Within Russia, they want to create a real left-wing art movement in the best traditions of the Russian Futurism of the 1920s. They aim to trigger a revival of political protest art around the world. Voina struggles against the climate of socio-political obscurantism and right-wing reaction that has overtaken Russia.

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EDITORIAL: Russia is Snob Nation


Russia is Snob Nation

A recent item in the New Yorker magazine reveals Russia descending to yet another new low.  It discusses the latest venture of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who has chosen to invest vast sums in American, rather than Russian, professional basketball.  It is a magazine called Snob that the New Yorker describes as  looking “like a cross between Tatler and The New York Review of Books, printed on the kind of paper stock usually reserved for royal invitations” with “an alarming cover price of eight dollars.”  The New Yorker attended its opening night in New York City, and described it as follows:

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Pigs, Dogs and Sheep in Putin’s Russia

Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times:

George Orwell’s anti-utopian novel “1984” enjoyed a revival during the presidency of George W. Bush. Even though Orwell’s totalitarian future is now more than a quarter-century out of date, the book read like a collection of newspaper headlines. The current government in Washington also pays homage to “1984.” The recent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq can be described in Orwellian newspeak, “peace is war.”

Orwell’s other masterpiece, “Animal Farm,” is a wickedly funny look at the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalinism. But since communism has collapsed and its hypocrisies and evils have been condemned by most thinking persons inside and outside Russia, there seems little point in revisiting this work.

Not so. Published in 1945, “Animal Farm” satirizes Soviet history through World War II but also takes it far into the future. With extraordinary prescience, it paints a picture of post-Communist Russia that is extremely accurate even for our own times.

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EDITORIAL: “Salt” in Russia’s Wounds


“Salt” in Russia’s Wounds

The horrifying new Angelina Jolie movie, “Salt,” has our vote for the worst. and most well-deserved, publicity Russia has ever received in its sordid history.

In an amazing bit of timing, “Salt” was released almost at the same moment as the spy scandal involving Anna Chapman, dramatizing for all the world to see the dangers of Russian sleeper cell of spies being turned loose to wreck havoc on the American government, and the world. Had this not been the case, Russophiles would surely have tried to claim that sleep cells like these did not exist.  Now, they are left to mumble and stand utterly exposed.

The image of Russians depicted in the film is truly shocking, bloodthirsty and barbaric.

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Bono and Shevhuk, Defiance in Moscow

The New Zealand Herald reports that the Russians have once again humiliated themselves before the eyes of a slack-jawed world:

Irish super group U2’s first Russia concert was marred Thursday after police detained rights campaigners at the jam-packed venue and tore down tents to prevent them gathering signatures for petitions.

Some 75,000 fans flocked to Wednesday evening’s showpiece in a Moscow stadium which came the day after U2 frontman Bono held talks with rock-loving President Dmitry Medvedev on issues including preventing the spread of polio and HIV.

Bono praised Medvedev as “gracious” in front of the crowd but also as a finale invited Russian rock star Yury Shevchuk – famous for his outbursts against the Kremlin – to the stage for a duet.

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Putin is Destroying Russian Culture for Cash

Paul Goble reports:

Just as he worked to disband Russia’s forest protection service, the consequences of which have now become all too obvious, Vladimir Putin is seeking the liquidation of the federal agency responsible for ensuring that Russian laws protecting historical and cultural monuments are observed, an action that may have equally far-reaching effects.

The proximate cause of this latest action, Kommersant suggested, was the opposition of Rosokhankultura, the agency’s Russian acronym, to the construction of the 403-meter Okhta Center for Gazprom in St. Petersburg, a project Putin supports but that most preservations argue would destroy the integrity of the North Capital’s landscape. But beyond that, Putin’s latest move, just like his destruction of the forest protection service five years ago, reflects his desire to promote business development at any cost and to push out of the way experts and activists who raise questions about the impact of what he and the Russian powers that be want to do.

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Does Russia hate America . . . or Love it?

The Jamestown Foundation reports:

The Galygin television show is perhaps the best popular representation of Russians’ idiosyncratic relationship with the United States.

The show copies Seinfeld, the quintessential American sitcom, with its own standup comedy bits sprinkled between the daily lives of Russian versions of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. While the former is familiar, characters are deep patriots. In one episode, for example, they throw a Western tourist out of a bar while cheering on the Russian team in a televised hockey game (STS TV channel, February, 2010).

Russian mainstream press outlets, mostly controlled by the government, convey a rigid narrative about what the West (Europe and the United States) means to Russia. In the crudest terms, the narrative claims that the West is trying to undermine Russia by luring former Soviet states into its own sphere of influence. Broadcast by the national TV channels, it portrays United States as a competitive power.

However, little is known about what ordinary Russians believe the West has to say about Russia.

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Hollywood on the Evil that Russians Do

The Washington Post reports on yet another wave of Hollywood fare casting Russians as villains.  Nice work, Mr. Putin. Hopefully, Mr. Obama is watching.

It’s 2010, and the Cold War has never been hotter.

Piper Perabo is brushing up on her Russian in the cable series “Covert Affairs.” The movie “Farewell,” a fictionalized version of the career of Vladimir Vetrov, a KGB spy who squirreled state secrets out of Russia in the 1980s, is scheduled to open in Washington next week. The recent sleeper spy story, by turns jaw-dropping and reassuringly benign, wound up providing welcome credibility cover for this week’s summer Cold War throwback: “Salt,” a swift, frenetic action thriller starring Angelina Jolie. In this stylish and absurdly violent kick in the keister, Jolie assumes myriad disguises and punches way above her weight as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian sleeper spy — a notion so alien when Kurt Wimmer first wrote the film that, for years, it languished in studio outboxes.

Even after “Salt” was green-lighted, its producers enlisted no less august a team than former Central Intelligence director R. James Woolsey and former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge to help market the movie and to pre-empt the inevitable criticism that “Salt’s” plot is either hopelessly dated or risibly improbable. (The Washington endorsement suggests another mystery: How does a studio persuade the Justice Department and FBI to prolong a decade-long investigation until a few weeks before your movie comes out?)

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Shevchuk as the Anti-Putin

The New York Times reports:

REVERENCE for Russia’s leaders, be they czars, general secretaries or presidents, has never come easily to Yuri Shevchuk. A bespectacled, slightly graying rock star, Mr. Shevchuk has spent much of the last three decades growling into a microphone in an effort, he says, to awaken in his compatriots a passion to break from their long history of bowing to heavy-handed authority.

These days, at 53, Mr. Shevchuk remains a guttural voice of defiance, just as he was when he began dodging Soviet censors by holding secret concerts in apartments throughout Russia in the early 1980s. But now he rails against Vladimir V. Putin’s government in his packed shows and openly scorns other musicians he accuses of selling out.

Last month, he put his preaching into practice, stunning Russians by making an off-the-cuff speech against official abuses during a meeting with Mr. Putin himself.

“I have questions, honestly speaking,” Mr. Shevchuk told the prime minister at the meeting. “They’ve accumulated for some time, and I will use this opportunity.”

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EDITORIAL: Neo-Soviet Russia Abolishes Art


Neo-Soviet Russia Abolishes Art

Once again, Russia has proven beyond any shadow of doubt that it is a barbaric, uncivilized country.  And that it is utterly bereft of shame.

Last Monday, a Russian court handed down criminal convictions against a pair of artists for doing nothing more than displaying art. The AP reports:  “Art expert Andrei Yerofeyev and former museum director Yury Samodurov were fined respectively 200,000 rubles ($6,483) and 150,000 rubles ($4,862) but escaped jail sentences.”

That’s right: They’re lucky, because while they were fined nearly a year’s average wages they didn’t actually have to go to jail.

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EDITORIAL: Mr. Putin and his “Extremists”

"Chimera, mystery of the Russian Soul" by Lena Hades


Mr. Putin and his “Extremists”

We’re guilty, and we admit it.  If Vladimir Putin has any guts at all, he’ll indict us.  We’ll be happy to pay our own way to Moscow to face his charges of “extremism.”  In fact, in just today’s issue, we’re guilty of at least two different acts of extremism.  Take us away!

Today in this issue we publish our own original translation of an article that appeared in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, the Russian equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, this past April, authored by Maya Kucherskaya.  Two months later, the Putin regime declared it to be “extremism” and forced the paper to remove the article from its website.  One more such designation and Vedemosti is subject to being shut down by the Kremlin.

Kucherskaya is a highly trained scholar and writer and the recipient of two of Russia’s most prestigious awards for writing.  But not in the eyes of the Kremlin, she’s not. Because she dared to analyze the recent spate of terrorist acts against Russia critically, in the Kremlin’s eyes she’s no different than Shamil Basayev and one of Russia’s most respected newspapers is on the verge of closure.

She’s not alone.

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Russia’s Secret Life

The Washington Post reports:

Soviet Russia’s missiles and soldiers snaking through Red Square made chilling images, but one Russian-American filmmaker is casting a new light on this time to show there was life beneath the ice.

Semyon Pinkhasov, an emigre to the United States at the height of the cold war has made documentary films about prominent Soviet-era artisan and sport figures, who not only survived but thrived during communism’s repressive rule.

“When the temperatures sink and snow is on the ground there is still life under the ice. It is the same for society under a dictatorship,” said Pinkhasov.

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Annals of the Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Art

The Economist reports:

It was bad enough that an art exhibition attracted the attention of Russia’s criminal-justice authorities. It was worse that the exhibition was in Moscow’s Sakharov centre and museum, one of the few institutions in Russia that stands squarely behind the tradition of human rights, exemplified by the saintly physicist and dissident for whom it is named. Now prosecutors have said that they want the organisers of the 2007 “Forbidden Art” exhibition, the director of the centre, Yuri Samodurov, and Andrei Yerofeev, an art historian (both pictured), to be sentenced to a three-year jail term for “debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred”. Many say that the exhibition’s real crime was to highlight the overlap between official orthodoxy and the religious version.

The prosecutors’ move has aroused a furious reaction from the dwindling ranks of Russia’s intelligentsia, and in the non-Kremlin media. In an open letter to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Mr Yerofeev apologises (link in Russian) for unintentionally hurting believers’ feelings, but also blasts the church for teaming up with hardline officials and rightwing extremists. Which, of course, was one of the messages of the exhibition.

A leading Russian intellectual and professor of Russian at Oxford Universiry, Andrei Zorin, has sent the following comment to Eastern Approaches. (The full Russian version is here.)

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Russia Abandons its Poets

In a story that could not be more timely in the wake of Vladimir Putin not recognizing Yuri Shevchuk, the New York Times reports:

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, Russian poetry has begun to resemble American poetry in ways that are both fascinating and sad. What’s fascinating is how talented, and how different from one another, Russia’s young poets are. What’s sad is how little they are read, and how little they matter. Whatever reach contemporary poetry had in Russian society has vanished like wood smoke.

The death on Tuesday of Andrei Voznesensky, a stirring poet of the post-Stalin “thaw era” in the 1950s and early 1960s, caused many to recall a time when that reach was enormous. Voznesensky’s generation of poets, which included Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina, declaimed their work in sports stadiums to overflow crowds. A moment presented itself — the relative artistic freedom of the early Khrushchev era — and these poets pounced on the microphone. As Mr. Voznesensky put it, with a punk lip curl: “The times spat at me. I spit back at the times.”

The poets of the thaw era were liberating figures, and have frequently been likened to the West’s most word-drunk rockers and singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. They were political, sexy, a bit louche and sometimes ridiculous. They squabbled. Mr. Yevtushenko seemed to be alluding to poets too, when he asked, “Why is it that right-wing bastards always stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, while liberals fall out among themselves?”

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Crime and Punishment, Russian Style

Raskolnikov and the Money-lender

The Moscow Times reports:

The opening of a Moscow metro station dedicated to 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, notorious for the gloomy atmosphere of his novels, has been postponed indefinitely amid a flap over its violent murals.

One marble mural in the Dostoyevskaya station, which was to open Saturday on the north end of the Light Green Line, depicts a young man killing two women with an ax, while another shows a man holding a gun to his temple.

Pictures of the murals, which illustrate the plots of Dostoevsky’s novels and are made from black and gray marble, have ignited a storm of controversy after first being posted on a LiveJournal blog on April 29.

“There have been observations that the murals are too gloomy and aggressive,” a Moscow metro official said Thursday, explaining the decision to delay the station’s opening, RIA-Novosti reported.

A leading Moscow psychologist, Mikhail Vinogradov, warned that the murals could make the station a popular place to commit suicide, Rosbalt reported.

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Russian Rappers fight back Against Putin

The Moscow Times reports:

Russian rap has shown its social conscience in recent weeks, highlighting how local performers are willing to deal with local problems rather than parade the babes and in-your-face oligarchic bling of the likes of Timati.

Following from rapper Noize MC’s song “Mercedes 666,” (see video embedded below) which damned LUKoil vice president Anatoly Barkov to hell after he was involved in a car crash that left two women dead, there comes Dino MC 47’s “Song About Explosions in the Metro,” which criticizes government elite for hypocrisy over the two bombings that killed 40 people late last month.

“Arrogant, overfed faces, with blue lights and security / telling us fr om TV that we won’t be threatened / their kids are in London and their money in the Caymans / what are we supposed to do? Wh ere do we hide?” Dino raps.

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Russians to Anna Karenina: Drop Dead!

It’s come to this:  Americans are more accepting of Anna Karenina than Russians!  So much for the arrogant, insane Russian propaganda that its people are more appreciative of culture and literature than Americans!  The Moscow Times reports:

One of the country’s most famous directors has filmed a Leo Tolstoy classic, but more than a year after the premiere of Sergei Solovyov’s much-praised “Anna Karenina,” the movie has not gone on release in Russia.

Solovyov had long wanted to film “Anna Karenina,” a subject that has fascinated film directors for almost a century. He had to overcome financial problems and more than a decade of trials to complete the film. Tatyana Drubich has the title role, with legendary actor Oleg Yankovsky in his last film playing the cuckolded husband and Yaroslav Boiko as Count Vronsky, Karenina’s lover.

“Everywhere in Russia and in the West where I showed ‘Anna Karenina,’ the feedback was great!” Solovyov said in a telephone interview. “Every time I show it, people sit on stairs, lie on the stage … Tribeca, one of the biggest New York cinemas, was chock-full, and this was on Friday night!”

But even though there are deals in the offing for the film to be shown all over the West, local distributors have been reluctant to take on a film that, they say, will not appeal to the young Russians who make up the majority of the cinema-going audience.

“They all think ‘Karenina’s’ audience is rather narrow and specific and the typical sort of moviegoers up to age 25 … are not interested in such a movie,” said the film’s producer, Oleg Urushev. Distributors told him that “Karenina is not a rating-boosting character. That’s the problem,” he said.

“They say Tolstoy is not a rating-boosting character, and this is very stupid,” Solovyov said.

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Rotten Russia

The American Spectator reports:

There is a chilling sequence in Tsar, Pavel Lungin’s dark and brilliant new film about Ivan the Terrible. Ivan, played by the mercurial rock musician Pyotr Mamonov, steps out of his private chapel wild-eyed after a long session of wheedling and bargaining with his God. The Tsar walks, lost in thought, through a series of rooms. As he shuffles along grovelling boyars ceremonially dress him. One group gently places a cloth-of-gold gown over his shoulders. Another group presents an embroidered collar, then cuffs, a crown and staff. Finally the Tsar emerges into the winter sunlight, golden and terrible. The crowd of people who have been waiting for him since dawn prostrate themselves in the slush and the sh*t of the palace yard. Silence falls. The message is clear: for the grovelling boyars and the grovelling peasants alike, the Tsar is God’s messenger on earth, the sole fount of worldly power and protection.

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Book Review: Postcards from Neo-Soviet Russia

The Seattle Times reports:

‘Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia’
edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker
Tin House Books, 374 pp., $18.95

“Do you know how I knew spring was here? I found a skull in the garden. I immediately looked for a bullet hole in it.” With a beginning like this, you know you have picked up no bland, overly processed work of fiction, but something raw, intense and sure to leave an impression.

And that is just what “Rasskazy” (the word means “stories”) offers with its collection of 22 short pieces by some of Russia’s finest young writers.

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Russia and the Movies

The Diplomat reports:

In St Petersburg you learn how the Cold War was won. Next to a McDonald’s there is a movie theatre, and my translator Anna is taking me out to a Hollywood blockbuster. I don’t quite understand why; Russia is famous for its avant-garde directors and has a proud cinematic tradition. It’s not until we’re sitting in the overheated dark, with the smell of cigarettes and diesel drifting in from the street, that I realise this is a lesson. For a few moments the soundtrack swells, a hush falls, then with a whir and a click the dialogue vanishes beneath a jumpy tape-recording.

Unlike most other countries in Europe, English is not a stalwart of the primary school curriculum. Russia dubs its imports, but the budget for doing so isn’t exactly vast. Pitt and Clooney whisper beneath the rapid-fire bouts of disinterested Slavic drawl, but it’s impossible to catch what they’re saying. No matter how many characters a film may have, only two Russian voice actors play them all – one for the men and one for the women. And it seems to be the same two every time.

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