Have the "Red Guards" won the cultural revolution in Russia?
November 2, 2022
  • Ivan Davydov


Russia’s conservative Red Guards, as Ivan Davydov calls them, have created a demand for a repressive cultural policy. The state is now taking a huge step toward them, but disappointment awaits: the authorities need underlings, not ideological volunteers, on the cultural front.
Boris Akunin, one of modern Russia’s most popular writers – who has lived outside the country for a long time and immediately condemned Putin's "special operation" – reported that Russian theaters had begun to remove his name from the posters of his own plays. Later, it emerged that the case was not an isolated one: for example, the name of the “unreliable” choreographer Alexei Ratmansky disappeared from the websites of the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, even though Ratmansky had actively collaborated with the theaters and had led the ballet company at the Bolshoi for five years.

Books of "dubious" authors who emigrated, were declared "foreign agents" and/or denounced Russian politics haven’t been banned yet, though the big bookstores have reportedly been instructed to sell them discreetly, to put them on dusty shelves – they shouldn’t be put in front of customers.

A statement from the Ministry of Culture quickly appeared: “The cultural figures who left the country at this difficult time, abandoned Russia, who publicly opposed its rich culture, are absolutely logically leaving both our institutions and their posters one after another.” It added: "This demand comes primarily from society, and we cannot and should not ignore it.”

This is an important moment, a milestone: the state, represented by the relevant agency, is taking a huge step toward those who might be called conservative Red Guards, toward those who demand Stalinist-like purges and the creation of a “cultural front” that serves the interests of the “special military operation.”

To appreciate the gravity of what is happening, it’s worth remembering how the relationship developed between the state and these “Red Guards”, who consider themselves the most devoted supporters of the state.

Soviet legacy

But first, a remark about Soviet inertia. Throughout its existence, the Soviet state strove for total control over the cultural sphere, rewarding in every possible way people who were ready to serve political interests and cruelly persecuting – sometimes more, sometimes less – those who strove for creative independence. Culture was perceived as part of propaganda, and the USSR really began to collapse when, amid Gorbachev's glasnost, books returned to the country that had been banned for decades and ideological control over modern "cultural figures" was weakened.

The genesis of the Soviet project lies in the ideas that shook Europe in the 19th and even the 18th century. An aggressively sterilized culture was supposed to raise a new, proper man, and the Soviet project had clear ideas about what this new man should be. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a ban on state ideology was written into the Russian Constitution. Oddly enough, it is still there.
“But the people brought up by the castrated Soviet officialdom haven’t gone anywhere – in fact, they are at the head of Russia now too."
The idea that culture firstly owes something to someone and secondly should obey and create a population convenient for that state turned out to be rather enduring.

Russia before Putin didn’t even try to formulate what it wanted from a person, while Putin’s Russia for a long time was satisfied with a rather simple idea: “stay out of politics, but otherwise you can do what you want.” An intelligible way to describe a kind of "social contract,” though it was clearly not enough to steer culture.

“Red Guards” sidelined

In the Putin era, a certain mythology developed among the zealots of Soviet cultural traditions who had fallen out of the mainstream. Note that this milieu wasn’t homogeneous at all, bringing together both mourners for Holy Rus – destroyed by the Bolsheviks – and mourners for the great Soviet Union – destroyed by an American conspiracy. Communists, monarchists, anti-fascists and anti-Semites got along very well there – and people could often be all of these at once. Aesthetically, their demands were rather primitive: a work of art should be realistic (i.e. "similar" to reality), extremely proper in the most uncomplicated, petty-bourgeois terms, and carry an ideological load (i.e. speak to the greatness of the motherland and expose its enemies). Overall, this ultimatum-like demand for didacticism is perhaps the main feature of the aesthetics of the “conservative Red Guards” of the Putin era.
Writer Alexander Prokhanov, Russia's leading neoconservative. Source: Wiki Commons
Of course, among them – as in everything – there were both talented and talentless people. The latter – also as in everything – prevailed. Incidentally, the talented got along well with the new agenda: for example, the writer Alexander Prokhanov, a leading neoconservative, was popular, published with the most “liberal” publishing houses and accepted prestigious literary awards from the “liberals.” Suffice it to say that his ponderous postmodernist prose – oversaturated with complex metaphors and full of peculiar and sometimes even perverted eroticism – didn’t fit into the aesthetic canon of conservatives.

Still, this didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the creators of the neoconservative cultural myth. The basic tenets of this worldview can be roughly formulated as follows: imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as its successor promoted the ideals of goodness and spirituality; the rotten West couldn’t tolerate that and systematically destroyed first Russia and then the Soviet Union; currently, there is a conspiracy of liberals in culture (it is often mentioned that they are also “Zionists,” since classic anti-Semitism easily coexists in this milieu with the rhetoric of Soviet internationalism) who deliberately keep the people from seeing the creations of real national geniuses, corrupting them with either senseless bubble gum, copied from Hollywood templates, or outright propaganda with the sickest perversions.

Of course, none of the neoconservatives tried to explain why they failed to achieve popularity with their own “cultural products.” However, that is an understandable, a rather human reaction.

First chance

That myth perfectly explained the cultural layout of Yeltsin's Russia, as both Yeltsin himself and his entourage were perceived as members of a global anti-Russian conspiracy, taking Western orders and striving to destroy a great country. With the emergence of Putin, the situation became more complicated, but a way out was found: the new president, of course, was saving Russia from troubles, but he simply didn’t have enough time to do everything at once, while around him there were too many “fifth columnists” planted by the enemy that continue their destructive activities; first and foremost, they operated in the realm of meaning, in the space of culture, because the real war is the war for minds.

Putin's state gradually grew stronger, and its authoritarian features became more and more apparent. In his famous "Munich Speech" (February 10, 2007), the new master explicitly stated that the concept of a unipolar world had come to an end and that confrontation with the West was possible.

Such statements required an ideological foundation, and the concept of a “besieged fortress” began to take shape in Russian propaganda: Russia is forced to survive in an unfriendly environment, and it is vital for it to protect its sovereignty. The process of ideological searching turned out to be long – perhaps, even now it hasn’t been completed – but overall by the third Putin term, the main theses were formulated: a pivot toward a history allowing for just a single interpretation that is approved by the state; the Great Patriotic War and the Victory as the basis of a kind of state pseudo-religious cult; the protection of "traditional" to counteract "liberal" values, the latter being alien and imposed from outside; a light rehabilitation of the Soviet Union – first and foremost, the legacy of Stalin.


Cultural neoconservatives felt that their time was coming. But they got ahead of themselves.
“Time after time, sincere activists or just opportunists discovered that the authorities didn’t need volunteer helpers at all."
The dissatisfaction of another group of "outraged members of the public" could well serve as a reason for repression if the authorities needed one, while any initiative continued to be suppressed. And this scheme basically held until the beginning of the special military operation.

In 2016, members of the public organization Officers of Russia destroyed an exhibition of photographs by Jock Sturges in a private Moscow gallery. Sturges was pure obscenity to them, and it seemed that now their point of view coincided with that of the state. But no! The pogromists were punished – albeit not severely – and TV presenter Dmitri Kiselev, a top Russian propagandist, devoted a whole story on his Vesti nedeli program explaining why it was bad to destroy exhibitions. Even bad ones.

The former Crimean prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya, who became the official symbol of the so-called “Crimean Spring,” a propaganda hero and a member of the Duma, became fascinated around the same time with the figure of Nicholas II. Her interest led Poklonskaya to fight against the Alexei Uchitel film Matilda, which tells about the romance of young Nicholas and the famous ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. Poklonskaya demanded to stop the spread of "slander against the holy sovereign,” though for her efforts she got nothing but mockery – and not only in the opposition press. Meanwhile, her most radical supporters, who set fire to cinemas that dared to show the film, went to jail. In the end, Poklonskaya's political career petered out – not only because of the story with Matilda, though it didn’t help.

The Russian Red Guards were lost, having discovered that the rhetoric of the state was empty, that just sincere zeal wasn’t enough, that the authorities needed not just loyal supporters but completely controlled and specially appointed ones. Meanwhile, the “cultural front” still worried the authorities quite a bit. Then-Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky eagerly made rather tough speeches, but they didn’t have serious consequences for the bearers of "alien liberal values." The latter continued to receive grants from the state (the issue of money, of course, worried the conservatives as well). They continued to work, to corrupt the youth and to promote terrible perversions.

Correct books by ideologically consistent authors, as before, gathered dust on the shelves, if they even made it into stores at all: after all, stores need to make money, and for some reason patriotic writers didn’t interest customers. But not for some reason – it was the Zionist conspiracy in action!
Former Minister of Culture Medinsky invested serious money in the production of ideologically correct blockbusters. Source: Wiki Commons
The exception was cinema: the Ministry of Culture under Medinsky invested serious money in the production of ideologically correct blockbusters, and although there were no masterpieces, many films had considerable success at the box office thanks to heavy advertising. Still, this wasn’t a cause for celebration, as it was unscrupulous professionals, not sincere activists, who produced the high-budget state cinema. That shouldn’t have been surprising, but it hurt the activists. Reviews were published on marginal patriotic outlets like Russkaya Narodnaya Liniya arguing that all these shoddy productions failed to glorify the feats of Russian and Soviet heroes and in fact continued to undermine the prestige of the motherland. Zakhar Prilepin complained in September that “in the past six months, not even a single feature film about the special operation has been begun, not a single art exhibition on the topic has been held, the dozen songs about the war that our musicians already wrote haven’t been allowed on nationwide radio stations.”

Another headache was TV. Though the state systematically established a monopoly on political TV content, until recently almost unrestricted freedom reigned in the entertainment sphere. The management of the channels chased ratings and didn’t care whatsoever about the upbringing of the younger generation. Even gays made it on the screen, imagine! If that isn’t a conspiracy, neoconservatives asked themselves, then what is?

The state produced an entire “cultural policy strategy,” which was filled with rhetoric that sounded correct to conservatives, while certain “incorrect artists” found themselves in court and sometimes even in prison; however, overall the state didn’t have a cultural policy. That’s because, for the Red Guards, politics is the complete prohibition on everything “ideologically alien” and full promotion of “ideologically correct products” – meaning theirs.

Second chance

The “special military operation” that Putin announced on February 24 revived the hopes of conservative Red Guards. Firstly, regardless of the goals officially being declared, the actions themselves fit their needs: here is a direct confrontation with the West (“Russia isn’t fighting Ukraine, but NATO” is the official propaganda line), a gathering of ancestral lands that were lost when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Secondly, what the ideological neoconservatives had repeatedly warned about was confirmed: there were many opponents of the official state policy among cultural figures. And it's not just those who never concealed their oppositional views.
“Now conformists who had integrated into the system must be put down as national traitors, including the super-popular late-night talk show host Ivan Urgant and even Alla Pugacheva, the biggest woman from Soviet and Russian show business."
The emigration of dissenters was perceived as a cleansing. And, of course, as a sign that their vacant places will automatically be taken by sincere supporters of the state, who have been waiting in the wings for decades.

Thirdly, the state finally began to act on its own, banning concerts of “incorrect” musical groups, closing “incorrect” theaters and generally abandoning entertainment content on federal TV channels. Now they show endless political talk shows almost around the clock, hammering home the exploits of our military, the impotence of the Kyiv junta and the intrigues of overseas puppeteers.
The head of RT Margarita Simonyan actively promotes a group of poets who extol the special military operation. Source: Wiki Commons
People appeared inside the government claiming to represent the interests of the Red Guards: back in the spring, Duma Committee on Culture Chair Elena Yampolskaya wrote an article about how bookstores were still selling books of ideological enemies and how it would be good to have publishers and booksellers answer for that. The head of RT Margarita Simonyan actively promotes a group of poets who extol the special military operation (and complains that publishers don’t want to print their collections, and bookstores don’t want to take them – yes, even now).

Meanwhile, the statement from the Ministry of Culture quoted at the beginning of this article is rather eloquent.

So, have the Red Guards won?

Shadow of failure

It’s not so simple. First of all, recall that for this milieu, politics is totality. Yet there is still no total ban on alien (“degenerate” – in the language of the Third Reich) art. The state is finally promising to cut off funding for “incorrect” people but isn’t promising to destroy them.

And there’s more! Putin press secretary Dmitri Peskov refuted the Ministry of Culture statement: “There is no trend in Russia to remove books or erase the names of Akunin and other authors from posters and there can’t be one.” And Putin himself stood up for a man who was arrested for listening to a Ukrainian song in his car.

Big state officials have repeatedly emphasized: we won’t become like the totalitarian West, where cancel culture reigns! Yes – they say that with a straight face.

There is no unity in the ranks of the Red Guards either. While they were on the sidelines, there was a feeling that it was a single stratum. Yet as soon as they felt they were in vogue and believed that there was an opportunity to gain influence and money, cracks immediately started to appear, with marginal groups fighting with each other. Denunciations, curses, revelations. It seems that they’re now paying more attention to their internal squabbles than to the struggle against the “incorrect” – the state has finally taken up that matter, and now finding out who is the most correct among the “correct” is more interesting. The intraspecific struggle is always tougher than the interspecific.

The Red Guards are convenient for the state, but not needed. They are convenient because they create a lot of noise and formulate extremely radical positions. That noise (both in politics and in culture) can be passed off as public opinion, while by curbing the radicals a little they can show what can happen if the state lets up control. The state still doesn’t need volunteer helpers. It needs underlings. It is the mobilized who are to fight on the cultural front – not volunteers.

The Russian conservative Red Guards have created demand for a repressive cultural policy. That demand is already being met, albeit without the desired comprehensiveness (this is what I had in mind when I called the Ministry of Culture's statement about the prohibition on Akunin's name a milestone). But the Red Guards themselves will not gain anything from this. Nobody is waiting for them where real power, real influence and real money are meted out.

The activists won’t get anything besides perhaps moral satisfaction from the repression. Yet there is already grief at the fact that the repression is both mild and not total, and often targets the wrong people. Meanwhile, on the next turn the Red Guards themselves could become victims: excessive enthusiasm in Russia is punishable, even if it is pro-regime.
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