October 13, 2023

Technologies of Interception of Art and Culture in Putin’s Russia

Keti Chukhrov

The empty Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2022

The reactionary moves and traditionalist censorship of art and culture which one encounters in Putinist Russia are usually ascribed to the reluctance to follow contemporary developments in politics, culture, and economics and the inability to bid farewell to the conservative values of the religious past or imperialist grandeur. It is thought that Putinism is sustained by adepts of obscure beliefs who took over more progressive developments in culture. This is definitely the case; yet the impact of Putinist policy and its influence even among the progressive agents of society in the last fifteen years would not be as tenacious as it is, if it were not for the unconscious reproduction of manipulative devices employed by Putinist political technologies. In my attempt to unveil these manipulative devices I will concentrate mainly on cultural politics and art.

Manipulations of the Concept of the Contemporary

After 1989, there was an illusion in post-socialist Russia that the worst was over; censorship of experimental artistic production, persecution of underground avant-garde practices, banning of modernist and contemporary aesthetics, canonization of official provisions for culture—all these authoritarian forms of control seemed to have been overcome, and even the absence of institutions wouldn’t be an obstacle to integration into the global institutional context of contemporary art.

In the multilayered process between the 1980s and mid-2000s, the struggle for so-called democratic, European values and liberal rights seemed to be won by the cultural intelligentsia—at least in the field of contemporary art production, where art stood for all forms of emancipatory liberalization of the former totalitarian, conservative, or traditionalist constraints.

This process coincided with the gradual integration of post-authoritarian former socialist states into global post-socialist contemporaneity, where the subject of judgment, knowledge, and political emancipation spoke from the West. Such integration was at the same time conditioned by a general neoliberal normalization, i.e. the cooptation of art institutes and their practices by a neoliberal logic of cultural production packaged in anti-neoliberal critical terminology.

This very paradigm of contemporary art started to degrade with the first financial crisis in 2008, then with the ‘occupy movements’ and their failures in 2011–12, followed by the crisis of secular autocracies in the Middle East in 2013–2015, and the supersession of neoliberal democracy by an anti-globalist nationalist cultural politics in a number of post-Soviet countries.

In Russia it was mainly after 2012 that neo-national cultural politics increasing targeted contemporary art practices, which had already been developing for 20 years. This move took place not simply because of the rise of neocon ideology or the empowerment of clerical institutions, as is usually thought. Rather the assault on contemporary art by traditional institutions evolved with the aim of taking charge of the production of “the contemporary.”

Private capital started to invest in post-socialist contemporary art practices and established institutions much earlier than state companies and institutions did. State capital was engaged at this time with political technologies, cultural legacies, and pop culture. The reason for state capital and the security services to launch control over contemporary art practices is that the idea of “national” contemporary art gained a certain global convertibility in the 2010s. It started to represent the “national” cultural product packaged as global symbolic capital. Contemporary art became a valuable global commodity, such that national state monopolies did not want to leave it unattended.

Yet, the fight for nationalizing “the contemporary” was not simply about dumping the previous figures in this field in order to occupy their positions and take over their practices. To seize hold of contemporary practices, the whole paradigm of what contemporaneity means had to be changed. Thus institutions loyal to the state, which speak on behalf of traditional values, started to rebrand these values and redesign them as “contemporary.” The general strategy was the following: keep cultural institutions intact, but get rid of the agents that created them, then amplify their programs with contents incompatible with them. What happens when institutions are run without any knowledge of the episteme of the contemporary and when their true figures are lustrated and their places occupied by new agents? Whatever symbolic values are at hand—be they orthodox religion, folk music, 19th century realist painting, fine art, high tech media, ethnic or rock music, or even classical art—gets repackaged as contemporary art and culture.

The struggle, then, is not for the return of any genuine traditional knowledge or religious spirituality, but for gaining hegemony over “contemporaneity,” at least at the local and national levels. As soon as oligarchic capital is nationalized and governmentalized, autocratic regimes insidiously endeavor to get rid of all the superstructures that were previously built by private capital—especially if private capital refuses to follow governmental programs of monopolization and nationalist rebranding.

In Russia, contemporary art—whose superstructures were created by non-governmental private funding—had to be demolished by governmental institutions simply because state capital was cognitively lagging behind these superstructures and would not be able to take over their rule. As a result, what we observe during the last 25 years is a process of interception of the practices of contemporary art and culture by ruling structures and pro-governmental businesses, which never had any experience in the production of contemporary art. It is these agents that accomplish the rebranding of what is contemporary, first in the conditions of an authoritarian turn, and then, ultimately, dictatorship.

Four Stages of the Interception of Art and Culture in Post-Socialist Russia

There are four clearcut politico-economical stages in the development of contemporary art during the post-Soviet period. The 1990s can be considered the pre-institutional period for artistic and publishing practices, which is marked by the close collaboration between private collectors (Marat Gelman, Vladimir Ovcharenko, Elena Selina, among others), curators, and international sponsors (Soros, French cultural center), forming a unified artistic process with transparent horizontal connections.

During those years, primitively accumulated local capital, foreign sponsors, and artistic practices formed a unified para-institutional body headed by agents such as Moscow Art Magazine (Victor Misiano), Rigina gallery (Vladimir Ovcharenko), XL gallery (Elena Selina), Center for Contemporary Art (Leonid Bazhanov), Ad Marginem publishers (Alexander Ivanov), Gnosis/Logos Publishers (Valery Anashvili), and the Institute of Problems of Contemporary Art, the first self-organized educational initiative in contemporary art (Joseph Backstein). In this process artists, curators, publishers, and authors—although they might have used funding from Soros or other foundations—control their non-commercial strategies themselves and compose intellectual alliances and collaborative groups autonomously.

The first stage of interception after this period takes place with the first Moscow Biennial (2005) under the patronage of the chairman of the Federal Agency of Culture Mikhail Shvidkoy, and the biennial commissar Joseph Backstein. Their initiative to intervene into the artistic community with a “big event” was not supported by curator Victor Misiano and the team of the Moscow Art Magazine. The biennial was preceded by the opening of the first private or semi-private institutions such as the Stella Art Foundation (2003), the newly founded Moscow Museum of Modern Art headed by Zurab Tsereteli (2000), the Museum of Photography, headed by Olga Sviblova (1997), the establishment of the Kandinsky prize (headed by Shalva Breus, 2007), and the opening of the Rodchenko school (headed by Olga Sviblova, 2006). Cultural agents—curators, artists, authors—now became employed agents. The management and ruling structures of the creative process was alienated from them, although the new managers—representatives of private capital in cooperation with municipal institutions—managed to form a tight collaborative bond with the artistic milieu. It must be mentioned that, initially, the artistic community was very embarrassed by the fact that Zurab Tsereteli—an artist very remote from contemporary art practice and closely aligned with then Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov—would be in charge of the main museum of contemporary art in Russia. It is then that artist Anatoly Osmolovsky coined the subversive term “to be for the wealthy.” This period lasted from 2003 to 2008: power in cultural production already belongs to private and semi-private capital, and artists and curators serve it. Yet, to repeat, the agents of private capital treat the artistic community with respect, and allow their creative autonomy.

The second stage of interception of art and culture takes place through state officials or big capital ordained by the state and loyal to it. Its key actors were Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, Sergey Kapkov, head of the Moscow city department of culture, Alexander Mamut, a media tycoon and a founder of Strelka Institute (2009), Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova, founders of the Garage contemporary art museum (2008), Leonid Mikhelson, founder of the V-A-C Art Center (2009, now known as GES-2), and Viktor Vekselberg and Dmirty Medvedev, founders of the Skolkovo Innovation Center. At this stage institutions sought to integrate themselves into the global art context by means of inviting renowned curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jean-Hubert Martin, and Kate Fowle. With such invitations the “local” context was blurred by invited “stars” and projects commissioned from above. Institutional production had to become part of the modernized urban space, and art practice was inevitably subsumed by cultural industries; the role of the artist or curator became obscure in the broader project of so-called “modernization”—which was the charge given to cultural workers by then-president Dmitry Medvedev. Although during this period (2007–11), no full-fledged control of contemporary art institutions can be observed, grassroots artistic procedures were already subsumed by the management ideology of cultural investors – Mamut, Zhukova, Mikhelson, etc. It should be mentioned that despite such subsumption, the Strelka Institute and the Garage Contemporary Art Center managed to acquire relative professional autonomy over time. They gradually got rid of cargo curating and shifted to more conceptually organized and research based cultural projects. During this period, belief was strong that culture and city planning could be modernized and made public, and that intellectual production would excel over show business and cheap patriotic propaganda, which, it then seemed, were losing their audiences.

The third stage is marked by the conservative and patriotic turn, whose emblem is the trial of Pussy Riot in 2012, initiated by the new team of the Ministry of Culture headed by Vladimir Medinsky. If previously the terrain of contemporary art and culture was intercepted by pro-governmental big business and oligarchs, who still insisted on intellectual production and tried to function within the frame of globally oriented semio-capital, starting in 2012 it is the nation state as corporation that defines what is contemporary—without taking into consideration any context of contemporary art internationally. One of the notorious results of this shift is the 8th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2019), curated by theater director Dmitry Chernyakov.

Just as the tandem of modernizers (Surkov-Kapkov-Mamut) once dumped the bohemian, self-organized art institutes, this tandem was itself swept away by the nation state “kulturträgers.” What was decisive in this interception was not so much any explicitly nationalist narrative as the appropriation of existing institutions, along with the criteria of recognition and judgment. What is deplorable in this sequence of supersessions of cultural production by the newcomers is the annihilation of previously developed textures, cultural codes, and achievements. As a result of this takeover, by February 24, 2022 Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, and Ekaterinburg were teeming with cultural institutions and their productions. Yet this “product” represented the habitus of neophyte museum guides, who hastily stuffed themselves with superficial information about global art history to pretend to being cultural curators, in place of the much more knowledgeable but the dumped ones. With the desertion of cultural space by curators and artists after February 24th, this process will only expand further.

Interestingly, in the 2010s the tendency among the progressive institutions worldwide was to form confederations to counter mega art-museums and detach themselves from hegemonic cultural policies. One such initiative was the alliance L’Internationale initiated by curator Zdenka Badovinac. It integrated MG+MSUM (Ljubljana), M HKA (Antverp), Reina Sofia (Madrid), Van Abbe (Eindhoven), SALT (Istanbul), and MACBA (Barcelona). In Moscow we witness the contrary: an alliance between the Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin museum, the Garage Art Center, and GES-2, announced in 2019, demonstrates the aspiration of smaller and relatively independent institutions to side with hegemonic state museums.

The fourth stage of interception is marked by the re-emergence of show business. Pop culture and show business are summoned by the state to censure and erase the remnants of critical culture and grassroots intellectual networks. In the latest programs of the School of Art and Design (at the Higher School of Economics) art is dissolved in the creative industries—fashion, commercials, pop-music, TV, internet, design—and swept up by show business, which seemed to have lost its position in the Surkov-Kapkov epoch in favor of cognitively oriented procedures. Yet now, when show business is imbued with patriotic branding, its hegemony has been restored in public space and culture. As a result, creative industries and show business have become more refined aesthetically and conceptually, whereas contemporary art has been deprived of its lexicon and downgraded in the direction of decorative art, advertising, fashion, and sentimental journalistic storytelling.

Semantic Manipulations in Putinist Political Technologies

As I mentioned at the beginning, the impact of Putinism is not confined to propaganda, but its power spreads broadly due to the unconscious reproduction of the semantic distortions with which Kremlin political technologists operate.

Such linguistic and semantic manipulations—the replacement of former meanings with newer ones in the use of the same words, or simply imposing new meanings on words which they never had—were applied by the Third Reich. Victor Klemperer, in his Language of the Third Reich (1957), describes instances where Nazism was exerted unconsciously by those who would never explicitly subscribe to its standpoints or beliefs. This was enabled precisely by the unconscious application of language. Compliance with the regime can reveal itself unconsciously even when its agents refuse to associate with it politically. As Klemperer writes “If someone replaces the words ‘heroic’ and ‘virtuous’ with ‘fanatical’ for long enough, he will come to believe that a fanatic really is a virtuous hero, and that no one can be a hero without fanaticism.”1 He further explains how words during the Nazi regime started to be devoid of their cognitive component in favor of evoking an affective response.

… the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be, and it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it.2

If Nazi technology resided more in transforming the semantic application of a word without its cancellation, in Putinist conditions the politico-technological method lies in the coercive and inappropriate usage of a word instead of the proper one, thus distorting the semantic impact of a phenomenon or activity: for example the word “contemporary” could be applied to denote practices or institutions standing for converse activities. The fourth stage of the interception of culture, which consists in the subsumption of critical thinking and grassroots intellectual activities by show business, reveals this device quite explicitly. Semantic manipulation is evident in numerous cases of cultural production after 2011. It occurs when, as mentioned above, a theater director (Dmitry Chernyakov) counts as the curator of the Moscow Biennale (2019); or when an art department teaches film, but sneaks it in as contemporary art, since the latter is something inexplicable, politically incorrect, or simply unknown; or when the Pushkin Museum tries to garner acclaim as an institution working with contemporary culture, presenting an exhibition of Bill Viola as the embodiment of the most contemporary artistic practice. The same logic of sneaking in a false meaning is equally at play when a young curator makes an exhibition about Moscow Conceptualism, but instead of studying the method of its negative critique, he or she instead emphasizes how conceptualism opened up to popular culture, the free market, and capitalist freedom. There is nothing literally Putinist in such a distortion of Moscow conceptualism; yet it unconsciously reproduces its ethics, which allows one to cheat with history, legacy, and context and establish forged facts as real ones.

To take another example, this time from the realm of art education: a cultural administrator, who writes a PhD thesis in art curatorship (and will supposedly work as a curator), criticizes in her work artistic production from the viewpoint of urban leisure: art with its challenging and critical poetics is not as audience-friendly as theater, cinema, and other forms of recreation. By insisting on homogenizing the audience under the umbrella of civilized cultural consumption, the PhD student involuntarily contributes to Putinist cultural politics.

The reason why Putinism is so strong is that it runs deep into the realms of desire and modes of production, making it possible to cheat with history and appropriate others’ achievements and products. The syndrome of unconscious Putinism enables one to “sell” one’s lack of knowledge as an actual qualification. Or it enables one to define the disastrous war as a special operation, as was the case after February 24. Ultimately, such methods facilitate the reconfiguring of absence into presence and vice versa.

What is crucial in this manipulation is that distorted meanings come to invade one’s views, manners, and aesthetic and ethical programs. This takes place not only through conservative political propaganda, but also by means of the depoliticized “happy” industries of fashion, show business, and monetized networks that reproduce consumerist lifestyles and thereby preclude any critical reasoning in culture and politics. In the process of raiding and destroying cultural institutions and NGOs—like Memorial, the Sakharov Center, and the National Center for Contemporary Art—the leading role was ascribed to show business figures and influencers of glamorous consumption rather than agents of traditional values.

It is therefore no surprise that while the Russian army is now destroying Ukraine, many of those who remain in Russia and might even be against the war, still continue their complacent lifestyles, involuntarily reproducing the Putinist regime.

This essay originally appeared in Springerin, issue 1 (2023)


Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013), 16.


Ibid., 53.

Contemporary Art

Keti Chukhrov is a ScD in philosophy, and a Tage Danielsson guest professor at the Linkoping University. In 2022-2023 she was a guest professor at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe. Until November 2022 she worked as a professor at the School of Philosophy and Сultural Studies at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). In 2017-2019 she was a Marie Sklodowska Curie fellow at Wolverhampton University (UK). She has authored numerous texts on art theory and philosophy. Her latest book Practicing the Good: Desire and Boredom in Soviet Socialism (University of Minnesota Press/e-flux, 2020) deals with the impact of socialist political economy on the epistemes of historical socialism. Her books include To Be—To Perform: “Theater” in the Philosophic Critique of Art (European Un-ty, 2011), and Pound &£ (Logos, 1999), and a volume of dramatic writing: Merely Humans (2010). Her research interests and publications deal with the philosophy of performativity, the comparative epistemologies of capitalist and non-capitalist societies, and art as the institute of global contemporaneity. She authored the film-plays Afghan-Kuzminki (2013), Love-machines (2013), Communion (2016), and Undead (2022), featured at numerous venues.


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