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Cancelling a culture

The crusade against classical culture and history initiated by Russian authorities is being thwarted by everyday practice

EuropeCulture

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1894-1930), Soviet poet, playwright and graphic artist with some of his propaganda posters. Photo courtesy Sovfoto/Universal Images Group.

In Yekaterinburg, which has a reputation for being a progressive and modern city, the famous case of Vera Zasulich, which captured the attention of the Russian public at the end of the nineteenth century, has recently been retroactively reviewed. On April 12, 1878, a jury acquitted the girl who had shot and wounded St. Petersburg Governor Fyodor Trepov. The fact of the crime was obvious and no one denied it. However, Zasulich’s action was a response to the arbitrariness of an official who ordered the flogging of a political prisoner, Arkhip Bogolyubov, for failing to take off his cap in the prison yard. Trepov’s decision was illegal even according to the rules of the time, but, of course, it went unpunished. And Zasulich’s deed drew universal approval, so much so that state prosecutor Vladimir Zhukovsky refused to appear at the trial and resigned. Zasulich was defended by the well-known lawyer Pyotr Alexandrov, while the no less celebrated judge, Anatoly Koni, who was handling the case, made no secret of his sympathy for her, which brought him into disgrace and jeopardized his otherwise brilliant career. The Minister of Justice, Count Palin, who had organized the harassment of Koni after his acquittal, was himself forced to resign for his lack of zeal in the case. Zasulich, after leaving Russia, later corresponded with Karl Marx and promoted the ideas of socialism, returning to her homeland in triumph in 1917.

In the twentieth century, historians interpreted the case of Zasulich as an indicator of the awakening and consolidation of civil society, which declared its independence from the state and demanded that the authorities respect the dignity of their subjects. Koni was considered a classic; his works were used to train young lawyers. And now, 150 years later, Russia is replaying this process to show how wrong and dangerous the humane verdict was.

The trial was attended by first-year students of Ural State Law University, and students from several schools took the bench and delivered their verdict in the case. However, not only the future lawyers participated in the trial, but also actual judges of the Sverdlovsk Regional Court. Naturally, the sentence was the most severe, and the accused was not granted any leniency.

As interesting as it is, the story of the review of the Zasulich case would be anecdotal were it not part of a systematic campaign launched by the authorities to “correct” Russian history and eradicate the democratic traditions of Russian classical culture. The removal of books from libraries and their subsequent destruction is becoming a daily practice, and school programs in literature and history are being revised. First and foremost, everything that, in the opinion of the authorities, may evoke a positive attitude toward the revolution is eliminated. Children are no longer taught the freewheeling poems of the early Pushkin, nor “The Song of the Stormy Petrel” by Maxim Gorky. They also removed Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men, which described a popular uprising in some fictional nineteenth century European state. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s revolutionary poems are no longer to be read to children either. Of Soviet history and culture they leave uncensored only what is associated with the Second World War, and then only insofar as it refers to the victories won. A little talk of Stalinist repression, yes, but carefully, so as not to cause unwanted associations with what is happening today.

Leo Tolstoy should now be taught minimally in schools, as these works are “long, boring and are tiresome for children.” And in history textbooks, any references to Kyiv, criticism of the autocracy and serfdom, and sections on the revolutionary movement are removed. Historical television programs, as well as school textbooks, are devoted mainly to praising the Russian Empire and minimizing the lost wars. New chapters are being written for textbooks about the achievements of Vladimir Putin, called “the greatest strategist in history,” and even a section on “special military operations in Ukraine” is being prepared.

As for modern literature, censors have already found a wide field of activity for themselves. Libraries should no longer issue books written by “foreign agents” (which include almost all well-known political scientists, sociologists, and writers who do not want to please the authorities), as well as works that contain references to LGBTQ people. It is not very clear what to do with Tchaikovsky’s music now, but until he is banned, it is simply impossible to mention his “non-traditional orientation.” According to official propaganda, gays are the main threat to modern humanity, and the war in Ukraine is being waged to protect family values. There is also an attempt to withdraw books deemed unreliable or immoral from bookstores but without much success. Merchants pack them in special dust jackets, which indicate the “enemy” status of the author, or put them on separate shelves with appropriate notes. According to sellers, this dramatically boosts sales.

The State Duma is seriously discussing initiatives to ban the teaching of English in schools and to punish citizens who write complaints about officials (recall that Catherine II also issued a decree prohibiting serfs from complaining about their masters). In some cities, children raised in kindergartens are forced to march in military uniforms in front of local authorities in honour of Victory Day on May 9, and in schools, the number of science classes is reduced to make time for additional classes on how to disassemble a Kalashnikov assault rifle and discuss the importance of war for nation-building.

All this news, which has come pouring down in a muddy stream on the heads of Russians, can create a sense of life in a dystopia—it is not by chance that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four became one of the most bought and read books in Russia last year. According to bookstore owners, the works of Franz Kafka are also very popular, as are the anti-war novels of Erich Maria Remarque.

Fortunately for Russian society, the crusade against classical culture and history initiated by the authorities is being thwarted by everyday practice, which is dominated by completely different trends. In the Internet age, censorship is extremely inefficient. People continue to read forbidden books and magazines, downloading them from the web if they can’t find them in print. A kind of cultural war has unfolded, in which one’s state acts as an occupying force, and citizens resort to guerrilla tactics.

The authorities levy fines on cultural figures and experts who violate the new rules, lawyers defend them in court for free, and the public collects money to pay the fines. Musicians who speak out against the war are banned, and their concerts are canceled, but on the Internet, these songs gain millions of views in a matter of days. While some groups are not allowed to perform, others compose new anti-war songs, and the youth audience chants “No to war!”

The authorities tried to block some social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which resulted in a sharp increase in digital literacy as people massively installed programs that allow them to bypass the roadblocks. But bans do not only hit opponents of the regime, and the fight against them is not always connected with political opposition. Small entrepreneurs who do apartment repairs, bake cakes, or make custom dollhouses post their ads on Instagram. All these people are now in a state of continuous struggle, reducing public policy to complete inefficiency. Western cultural sanctions are also being circumvented in the same way. Illegally downloaded American and European films that are not available for Russian distribution can be watched without difficulty at home. Movie theater owners suffer losses, but cultural life does not stop.

Resolutions and draft laws of Duma deputies become occasions for cynical jokes, just like the deputies themselves. As early as the nineteenth century, it was said that the most reliable defense against bad laws is their poor execution. Modern Russia fully confirms the truth of this thesis. Obscurantism and reactionary intentions demonstrated by official politicians and state functionaries are met with passive but insurmountable resistance from society, which stubbornly refuses to return to the Middle Ages. And you don’t need to be a prophet to predict which of the two trends will prevail. While propagandists talk about the the people rallying around the “great leader,” and liberal émigrés curse their own country, declaring it hopeless, millions of people who continue to live in conditions of war and repression create conditions for a freer and fairer future, by their passive resistance.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a professor at the Moscow Higher School for Social and Economic Sciences. He is the editor of the online journal and YouTube channel Rabkor. In 1982 he was imprisoned for dissident activities under Brezhnev and later faced arrests both under Yeltsin in 1993 and under Putin in 2021. In 2023 the authorities declared him a “foreign agent” but refused to leave the country, unlike many other critics of the regime. His books in English translation include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press 2007), From Empires to Imperialism: the State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation (Routledge 2014), and Between Class and Discourse: Left Intellectuals in Defence of Capitalism (Routledge, 2020).

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