A Hollow Victory for the arts

By Rutger Helmers

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I don’t know how many of you follow
operatic life in Novosibirsk, Russia, but I know I have been, lately. This February,
a local production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser
in Russia’s third largest city became the focal point of fierce debate when
promising young director Timofey Kulyabin and the manager of the Novosibirsk
Opera Boris Mezdrich were charged of ‘intentional public desecration of objects
of religious worship,’ following a law introduced in 2013 – shortly after the
Pussy Riot trials – intended to protect the ‘feelings of believers’. The case
appears symptomatic for the influence of the Orthodox Church in Russian state
policy in recent years, as well as the authorities’ tightening control over
various media, which now apparently also affects opera.

The law in question, which is not very
clear in its definitions, may have implications for many fields of culture and
society. I was confronted with it myself some time ago, when I requested
permission to use a nineteenth-century image from a Russian archive, and was required
to confirm that I would do so without any ‘slogans related to the realization
of extremist or terrorist activity’, without ‘any attributes or symbols similar
to Nazi attributes’, without employing ‘the state symbols of the Russian
Federation (the state coat of arms, flag, and hymn)’, and finally, ‘without
offending the feelings of the faithful.’ It was the last clause that worried me
the most: it was a promise that seemed almost impossible to keep given the
sheer number of people subscribing to one religion or another.

The feelings of believers, of course, have
been very much on our minds lately, since the horrible attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. And it seems the
contemporary debate about the freedom of expression is inextricably mixed up
with the notion of terrorism, as opponents of Kulyabin’s Tannhäuser invoked the Charlie
attacks to press their case. Duma member Yaroslav
Nilov
, who heartily supported the prosecution of Kulyabin and Mezdrich,
argued that this would serve to deter others from following their example, and
insinuated that their behaviour might otherwise ‘foster the desire to seek
retribution and commit terrorist acts’ among the hurt believers.

Kulyabin’s production was of the kind often
decried as director’s theatre by conservative operagoers: Wagner’s opera was
given a contemporary setting in which the eponymous hero Tannhäuser was represented
as a film director shooting a movie called Venus’s
Grotto
about the early life of Jesus, which involved both religious imagery
and nudity. The production, it appears, was well received by audiences and the
press, until the Novosibirsk metropolitan Tikhon filed a complaint, claiming he
had received many reports from shocked members of his congregation. Several
thousands of Orthodox activists took to the streets, demanding that the
authorities would respect their feelings, artists throughout Russia rallied for
support of Kulyabin and Mezdrich. The affair is reminiscent of recent
controversial productions elsewhere, like the Düsseldorf
Tannhäuser
in 2013, which was rife with Holocaust-imagery, or the
Metropolitan Opera’s staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer last October, which its opponents
denounce as anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist. But as far as I know, in neither of
these cases did the director risk a three-year jail sentence. Could it be, I
wondered, that an opera performance would acquire the same resonance as Pussy
Riot’s punk-rock provocations?

Eventually, on March 10th, the Novosibirsk
court decided to drop the case against Kulyabin and Mezdrich, and the affair
seemed to end well for the proponents of artistic freedom. It was a hollow
victory, however, as the Ministry of Culture responded by sacking Mezdrich. The
Ministry is struggling to maintain a neutral stance and called for the Orthodox
activists to cease their public protests; at the same time, however, Putin’s
press officer Dmitry Peskov
declared that the state had the right to expect that productions by subsidized
collectives ‘would not cause such an acute reaction from public opinion’.

The dust hasn’t settled just yet. This
week, a stand of the Novosibirsk Opera was found vandalized with the text ‘For
Tannhäuser’, and critics continue to question the government’s position: if the
Ministry of Culture is in fact opposed to censorship, they ask, why would they
continue to put the screws on the arts?

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