Culture Clash

Putin's Clampdown on Art, Film, and Dissent

Pigeons fly past a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin pasted on the Brancusi Atelier by activists from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to mark the 20th annual World Press Freedom day in Paris, May 3, 2013. Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Over a year and a half has passed since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Since then, Russia has waged a campaign of aggression against Kiev and, despite Western economic and political pressure on Moscow, Moscow has not changed its foreign policy stripes. Although many have focused on what Russia has done internationally, however, too few have paid attention to what has happened inside Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism has become extreme.

Putin’s reputation as a champion against a supposedly predatory West has solidified among the public, and hard-liners within Putin’s circle—the siloviki (men of force), as this group of generals and ex-KGB veterans are known—have seen their influence expand. As a result, anti-Western conservatism, on the rise since Putin became president in 2012, is now widespread. Aided by an atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia that enjoys unspoken government support, Putin has launched a crackdown on civil and political freedoms through Russia’s abusive legal system—all under the guise of limiting Western (and, more generally, modernizing) influences. 

The cancellation of the Moscow Premiere Film Festival, which was due to take place in early September, is a case in point. Headed by Russian film critic Vyacheslav Shmyrov, the festival began in 2002 and was famed for showing controversial films, including Russia-88, a feature about Russian neo-Nazis; Winter’s Path, an idiosyncratic love story between a classical singer and a homeless, homophobic, psychotic criminal; and other films that have struggled to get distribution in Russia. For Shmyrov, the festival was as much a charitable and social enterprise as it was an artistic one—Muscovites could attend the festival simply by collecting vouchers published in Moskovsky Kosmomolets, a daily newspaper.

A state-sanctioned festival that showed films promoting alternative lifestyles and politics, however, could last only so long in a country that has become increasingly closed and controlled.

In late 2014, Russia passed a law banning the use of profanities in films as part of a wider campaign by Russian

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