Dumbing Russia Down

By Matthews, Owen; Nemtsova, Anna | Newsweek International, March 31, 2008 | Go to article overview

Dumbing Russia Down


Matthews, Owen, Nemtsova, Anna, Newsweek International


Byline: Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova

The Kremlin has largely marginalized Russia's intelligentsia. But 'Girls of the Military' is a hit.

Is Russian intellectual life thriving or dying? Sometimes, it's hard to tell. This week culture mavens will flock to the Golden Mask theater festival, which will showcase the best of Russia's lively underground drama scene. Highlights include a satirical play by the Presniakov brothers featuring a surreal debate between George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin. Guests of the Moscow Photo Biennale have received stacks of invitations to two dozen openings--and those will be just a fraction of the art shows, performances and readings scheduled for this week. Among them: a new play about Lenin by writer Victor Pelevin and a cutting-edge exhibit at a new-media gallery called the Electroboutique ViewStation.

But that's not typical. The 99.9 percent of Russians who are not on Moscow's high-culture circuit will have a very different set of cultural experiences: they can enjoy a television gala called "Girls of the Military," a novel kind of beauty-and-talent show that promises to add tanks and aircraft to the usual mix of bikini parades and contestants' mini-biopics. There's also the Russian version of the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and a selection of shows featuring washed-out old Soviet-era singers, interspersed with news reports that feature endless coverage of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's daily visits and speeches.

So which is it? Cultural boom or bust? Without question, high culture is a minority pursuit in every country--and popular television is anything but highbrow. But in Russia, there is a breathtaking disconnect between an artsy fringe culture and the rigidly conformist state-controlled mainstream. On one level, Russia's oil-fueled economy has generated a lively arts scene, on par with any in Europe. But at the same time, the Kremlin's near-stranglehold of Russian media means that any kind of free political debate has disappeared completely from popular culture. That has left journalists, creative artists and academics in Russia feeling embattled, argues Catherine Nepomnyashchy, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. "The government has effectively consolidated control over the mass media, while a popular entertainment culture of soap operas and game shows, detective novels and astrology has flourished, marginalizing the once respected and influential voices of the creative intelligentsia," she notes.

How did this happen? Russia's intelligentsia was once the arbiter of the nation's cultural values, says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. Years ago a small group of educated, urban professionals had cultural values that were emphatically anti-Soviet. Thanks to glasnost, they were able push their radical ideas into the very heart of political debate, and for a few heady years, dissident culture became mainstream culture in all its chaotic glory. Leading cultural figures like writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and historian Yuri Afanasiyev held marathon televised debates about the state of the nation, and were watched by millions. As recently as a decade ago, Russia's top-rated television programs included punchy and controversial political magazine shows, like Yevgeny Kisilev's "Itogi. …

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