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The Muses Are Silenced: Russian Arts Community Targeted As State Imposes Conformity Over Ukraine War

Russian artist Aleksandra Skochilenko was placed in pretrial detention for using price tags in a store to distribute information about Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. She could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

"What danger could a person who loves to play music in the forest pose for the Russian Federation?" a St. Petersburg student who did not want to be identified asked about her friend, local artist Aleksandra Skochilenko, who faces up to 10 years in prison on charges that she "discredited the armed forces" by replacing grocery store price tags with information about the Russian bombing of a theater, Ukraine. She has admitted to changing the stickers but denies the charges, arguing that the information she shared was accurate.

Another friend of Skochilenko's, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Kirill, provided an answer to the student's question: "There is real strength in her pacificism and her goodness that now really can be a weapon against all this madness."

Shortly after Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow adopted new laws and regulations aimed at stifling dissent over the war and preventing the spread of information other than that provided by the government. In addition, pro-Kremlin media and other organizations have been organizing demonstrations of support for the war, many centered around the pro-war symbol of the Latin letter Z.

As the war continued, huge banners featuring the Z symbol have festooned theaters, museums, and other cultural institutions across the country, as the government has pushed the country's cultural communities to publicly express their support for the war, the military, and President Vladimir Putin.

On April 2, the Russian Culture Ministry announced a national "charity" program called Open Curtain, in which "institutions across the country will hold events for theatergoers, including for members of youth, volunteer, and veterans' organizations, for large families, and for residents of the LNR and DNR," the announcement said, using the abbreviations adopted by the Russia-backed separatist formations in parts of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.

"It is very important for us today to support all those who need it," Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova was quoted as saying. "Particularly those who are defending our country."

'Just A Building'

In March, according to reports, theater management began pushing actors and other workers to make social media comments backing Putin and the war.

"Everything began with the demand for such posts," said Sergei Levitsky, the former artistic director of the Russian Drama Theater in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryatia region, who was fired on March 22 for speaking out against the war. "I didn't get such requests personally, but our director did. And she tried to force our employees to do that. And we fought about it. While I was working in the theater, I said that our people will not do that…. And they didn't."

Prominent Buryatia actress Svetlana Polyanskaya told RFE/RL that with Levitsky's dismissal, the theater has lost its "locomotive."

"The theater was pulsating, thoughtful, and compelled others to think," she said. "It fostered empathy and discussed some very important and necessary themes. It attracted a young generation of theatergoers. It was alive and now it is dead."

"Now it is just a building," she concluded.

Levitsky is far from the only significant cultural figure to make such a decision. On April 25, it was announced that Moscow conductor Pavel Kogan, who has not given a concert since February 24, had resigned from his post as artistic director of the Moscow State Academic Symphony Orchestra, which he had occupied since 1989. The next day, theater director Denis Azarov stepped down from his position as artistic director of Moscow's Roman Viktyuk Theater.

Earlier, the artistic director of the Meyerhold Center in Moscow, Dmitry Volkostrelov was dismissed. The director of two movie theaters in the Moskino chain, Yekaterina Dolinina, was fired in February for her anti-war statements.

"Everything we that we had built over a long time was destroyed in an hour," she said in a March 1 interview with RTVI about the impact of the war and the sanctions against Russia that ensued. "New releases of films were canceled. Aging equipment cannot be replaced."

'A Bubble Burst'

In a televised meeting with cultural figures on March 25, Putin asserted that Russian culture was being "canceled" by the West and attempted to draw a parallel with the burning of "unwanted literature" in Nazi Germany.

But artists inside Russia say it is the Russian government and its actions that are destroying the country's culture, both by silencing independent artists and by waging a war that makes it impossible to discuss anything else. They are increasingly reminded of the Russian saying that "when the cannons roar, the muses are silent."

"It seems to me that everyone has now been left isolated," Levitsky said. "Everyone must choose for themselves how to act in accordance with their conscience -- in accordance with their convictions, their principles, their values. Because we all must answer to ourselves."

'The Slaves Create The Tyrants': Septuagenarian Russian Artist Protests War Against Ukraine
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Culture critic Andrei Arkhangelsky, in a recent essay for RFE/RL's Russian Service, wrote about the toxic impact of the war on Russian culture.

"The entire 30-year post-Soviet Russian culture has been, at the least, made worthless since February 24," he wrote. "On that day, all previous words died. We hear cultural figures being reproached with: 'Why are you silent?' But we must understand that this is not the silence of servility or conformity, but also the silence of helplessness."

"What has happened is so insane from the perspective of any rational person that it deprives him of the gift of speech," Arkhangelsky wrote. "In the current situation, the silence of culture is also a statement."

On April 19, the prominent playwright Mikhail Durnenkov wrote on Facebook that he hopes Russia will be defeated in its refocused effort to secure control over the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.

"I believe that the more crushing that defeat is, the more quickly my compatriots will wake up from this shameful dream," he wrote.

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Immediately, Durnenkov's social media accounts were flooded with threats. Aleksandr Kalyagin, director of the Russian Union of Theater Workers, demanded Durnenkov's expulsion. Actor and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Burlyayev called for Durnenkov to be prosecuted, although Durnenkov has been living in Finland for weeks.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Durnenkov recalled that he walked through the center of Moscow a few days after the invasion and was shocked to see ordinary life going on as if nothing had happened.

"I looked into one café and there were beautiful couples sitting there, drinking white wine from sparkling glasses," he recalled. "They were laughing and looking like an advertisement for the European lifestyle. And this sight made some sort of a bubble burst inside my head."

Just around the corner, he said, he saw about 15 waiting police vans, standing "like white coffins on wheels."

Durnenkov said he is not surprised that more leading figures from the arts have not spoken out against the war.

"I know a lot of good theater directors who simply can't allow themselves to make anti-war statements," he said. "They understand that the next second their company would be reorganized, and everyone would be scattered."

However, he added, a theater company that survives at such a price might be making a fool's bargain.

"If you think that you just need to wait a little while, then it makes sense," he said. "But if it drags out a long time, for years, then it is a mistaken strategy. It won't lead to a quick death, but to a long suffocation, just like in Soviet times -- humiliating and inescapable."

Russian playwright and director Ivan Vyrypayev, who lives in Poland, published an open letter to Russian theaters on March 8 in which he announced that all proceeds from performances of his plays would be donated to help refugees from Ukraine. Within days, nearly 40 state-run drama theaters from across Russia had pulled his plays from their repertoires.

Vyrypayev told RFE/RL that was exactly the reaction he had been hoping for.

"You see, I can't demand that they don't produce my plays because there are contracts," he said, adding that he did not want pro-Putin actors speaking his words.

"I think that the only thing people can do now is deal with the tragedy that is going on now," he said. "For me, it is a catastrophe. I don't understand how anyone can be doing anything else. If they think they can just perform these plays and accept flowers -- I say, no."

"The consequences of what is happening are very serious," he added. "Russia has ceased to exist as a cultural phenomenon."

Russian visual artist Yevgeny Antufiyev asked Moscow's GES-2 modern art museum, whose opening in December was attended by Putin, to remove his works immediately after the invasion of Ukraine.

"It is not the time for contemporary art when people are dying and blood is spilling," he told Britain's The Guardian earlier this month. "We can't pretend as if life is normal."

Playwright Durnenkov agreed, saying "in this situation, we can't write about anything else."

"The task of the artist is to fight against dehumanization," he told RFE/RL. "Today it is easy to find an enemy or a victim. It is a lot harder to look into the face of the enemy and understand why he is acting that way. What fear motivates him? How can we fight against that fear? No one but the artist can do this work."

"To the end of our days, we will have to work on this," Durnenkov added. "To dig through this pit full of corpses in hopes of finding one living person."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Caucasus.Realities, Idel.Realities, and Siberia.Realities, and Current Time