Staunton, October 11 – Moscow’s case against theater director Kirill Serebrennikov is not the sideshow many assume, Vladimir Pastukhov says. Instead, it marks a fundamental and even dangerous change in the Kremlin’s approach to the intelligentsia and the very possibility of any kind of aesthetic freedom in Russia.
In a 2600-word commentary this week, the UK-based Russian historian says that there are many lessons members of the Russian intelligentsia and indeed all who care about the future of that country should draw from the Serebrennikov case, all of which are extremely disturbing (republic.ru/posts/86877).
First of all, he suggests, the case and others like it show that a third question has now been added to the classical inquiries of the Russian intelligentsia: “who is to blame?” and “what is to be done?” Now, Pastukhov argues, the question “why is something being done?” of equal or even greater moment.
Unlike the first two, this question is “not abstract but very concrete” and requires a consideration of the motives of particular individuals in particular government agencies. What is most striking about the Serebrennikov case, he says, is “not so much its ruthlessness as its senselessness.”
Many people believe that Serebrennikov is guilty as charged, that he violated some law and is now being brought to justice, Pastukhov says; but his case in fact is “a classic example of the legal arbitrariness of the Putin era” and one that says more about where the Kremlin is heading than many acknowledge.
More evidence may come out in the trial, but it is already obvious that the charges brought against the director reflect a distortion of the law itself, a perversion of what the statutes actually say, in order that the powers that be can send a message to the intelligentsia and society as a whole.
This is not a case of some “abstract confict of the spirit and the letter of the law” but rather a conscious use of a law that is not at all appropriate. Serebrennikov may be guilty of many things, including misuse of funds or not paying his taxes, but there is no possibility that he engaged in fraud.
And consequently, this case “perhaps even better than all preceding political trials shows that accusations in theft have become an instrument of political repressions and that Article 159 (fraud) … now occupies the very same place which three quarters of a century ago was given to the infamous Article 58 of the 1922 RSFSR Criminal Code” which punished people for “counter-revolutionary activity.”
To the extent that is true, the Russian historian says, “Serebrennikov is a thief just as Meyerhold was a counter-revolutionary.”
There is of course “one essential difference between Stalin’s and Putin’s repressions.” In Stalin’s time, officials invented the charges and forced people to confess to them but t the same time “formal legality was undeviatingly observed.” In Putin’s, confessions aren’t needed because what is fabricated are not the facts of the case but its “legal basis.”
Although the current version of terror is less bloody, he continues, “in long-term historical perspective, it is more dangerous than the ante-diluvian Stalinist model. Today, the very fabric of law is being destroyed,” and that in turn means that it will be even more difficult to climb out of this whole than it was from the collapse of the Great Terror.
But the most important lesson of the Serebrennikov case, Pastukhov argues, is to be found in another place. “Serebrennikov and the powers are hardly elements alien to one another.” They are part of one system, deeply interconnected, and “therefore to describe their relations in terms of hostility and devotion is unjust.”
Both are deeply “anti-capitalistic” in their attitudes, he argues, and thus the main lesson that the Russian intelligentsia should be drawing from the Serebrennikov case is “the simple truth that the loss of political freedom sooner or later leads to the loss of aesthetic and creative freedoms as well.”
In reality, the historian says, Serebrennikov is “suffering not for the law or for politics but for aesthetics. At a certain instance, his non-traditional art became aesthetically alien to the powers that be,” and he and it had to be suppressed via the use of the criminal code.
For a long time, the Putin regime “wasn’t interested in aesthetics.” It demanded loyalty from those artists it supported but did not dictate the content of the work. But “over the course of the three years since the beginning of the second Crimean war, the powers that be have essentially changed.”
They “have ceased to be aesthetically neutral but rather have acquired a cearly expressed prophile, primarily Black Hundreds in its nature.” That is because, he argues, having gained support from “the most marginal and reactionary elements of Russian society, they were forced to stylize their worldview” according to the tastes of these groups.
It is thus the old, old story: “First you use someone for your own political goals and then this ‘someone’ begins to use you.” But the powers that be “haven’t noticed that hey have become a hostage of those with whose help they ecuredd the reunification of Crimea and built Novorossia. [And] consequently, they changed their demands to the artist.”
Under these new conditions, the powers weren’t prepared anymore to allow an artist to do what he or she wanted at least on government money. That might have been possible under “the gray Medynsky,” but it is hardly possible given the power of “’the black Poklonskaya.’” And hence the case.
Thus, this case reflects two negative trends in Russian society: “the degeneration of the repressive apparatus into a terrorist machine, which works autonomous and without selectively strikes out for various goals” and “the secondary ideologization of the powers that be.” In short, Serebrennikov didn’t become different: the authorities have.
By means of this case, Pastukhov concludes, “the government has sent a signal that it will no longer be indifferent” about what is on stage. And thus the relative freedom of the first two “post-communist decades is coming to an end. The Serebrennikov case is not an accident: it is the beginning of a new era.”
Whatever happens next, the historian suggests, “relations between the post-communist powers that be and the post-communist intelligentsia have changed forever.” And at least in the next months and years, they will unfortunately ever more resemble “the ideological and aesthetic standards” many will remember from Soviet times.