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© Ismene Brown 2017

24 JAN 17

Russia's Culture Ministry has set up a controlled group of theatre leaders to decide how to handle artistic controversies and name new appointments, it's reported today. The new annual commission will supposedly decide creative 'conflicts' - such as the acceptability of opera and ballet productions to various factions such as the Russian Orthodox Church, or the funding of productions critical of whatever the Ministry decides is right - and appoint the top jobs in theatres.

In time, it's intended that the commission will also reach into internal disputes in theatres - such as, presumably, those involving the vitriolic power struggles inside the Bolshoi Theatre made notorious since 2013.

While overtly this puts the collective nominally in charge of the hottest potatoes in Russian theatre - a growing issue in today's overheating politics - it also turns poachers into gamekeepers, and is unlikely to inspire much trust in the transparency of the exercise.

The major changes going on to control public arts ideas and content (including the banning of expletives on stage, the de-funding of unacceptable art, and the draconian crack-down on queer and 'multicultural' issues - see the main photo) - have been insistently presented as ensuring the best and most popularly acceptable in Russia's cultural traditions, but they have been very widely resisted in the theatre and arts world.

This new step will presumably be presented as a triumph for the theatre world's collective wisdom, with independence being assured by the profile of the luminaries on the deciding body. But to a Western eye, where the arm's-length principle is the norm, this body looks like very much less like any genuine shield for artistic independence than an instrument required to disguise the growing state control in the arts.  

The members of the Ministry's working body will change every year, said the Minister, thus ensuring that the only continuity will be the famously conservative Minister himself. Any dissident voices would soon disappear; and the fact that the group will be nominating top appointments to the Minister looks like the time-old jobs-for-the-boys setup, giving a new group dibs in the pot every year.

It remains to be guessed whether this system would guarantee that the Orthodox Church would be kept in its place far from the kind of interference it has formidably managed in Novosibirsk - where the opera house directorship now takes orders from the Church - or that an internationally minded innovator might have a reasonable chance of heading a major theatre or ballet company. But the new structure certainly appears to abolish any lingering autonomy and independent authority for arts directors in Russia, who would know that any resistance to their programming or commissioning may be referred over their heads by any busybody or rival to the Ministry of Culture commission.

Many Russians take the long view that over three centuries and more, their country's artists have continued to pour out, by hook or by crook, world-beating and pioneering work against the flow of state intervention or censorship - often with much encouragement from foreign countries. But there's no doubt that current geopolitics have a lot to do with this.

The more pertinent question arising is what human cost is likely to be extracted for defying conformism - Boris Mezdrich, director of the Novosibirsk Opera House, lost his job over the Tannhaüser uproar despite the fact that the Orthodox Church lost its legal case against the production. One reason Bolshoi Ballet director Sergei Filin was so grievously attacked was for his Western-facing taste.

Here's my translation of the Parliamentary Gazette report.

Ministry to decide future theatre 'conflicts'

Parliamentary Gazette, January 24 2017

A working group has been set up in the Ministry of Culture to resolve issues of conflicts in the theatre world, the head of the ministry Vladimir Medinsky has told journalists.

The Minister explained that the scope of the new body will include working out recommendations for the development of theatre matters and training issues, reports the Interfax agency.

The composition of the working group will be rotated annually. This year it comprises the Alexandrinsky Theatre’s artistic director Valerii Fokin, the Bolshoi Theatre’s general director Vladimir Urin, the Theatrical Union’s president Alexander Kalyagin, State National Theatre artistic director Evgenii Mironov, the director of the Vakhtangov Theatre Kirill Krok and other theatre figures.

Medinsky said the working group will draw up proposals including personnel questions such the appointment of artistic directors and chief theatre directors. The Minister expressed the hope that in time the Commission’s work, with the participation of authoritative theatrical figures, will extend into internal industrial disputes too.

The initiative to set up a working body to handle controversies relating to theatre productions was made by Valeri Fokin at a joint session of the Russian Presidential Council for Culture and Arts and the Presidential Council for the Russian Language at the end of last year. Fokin invited specialists from the Ministry of Culture and members of the Theatrical Union to unite in the task.

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