This year has been announced as the ‘UK-Russia Year of Culture’. The Kremlin will be bringing over an exhibition of early 20th-century Russian avant garde art to show off at the Tate; galleries sponsored by Russian state banks will exhibit the best in cutting-edge, contemporary Russian art in Shoreditch. Meanwhile in Moscow, the new culture minister has condemned ‘foreign forms of art like installations and performances’ and avant garde artists are jailed (and then amnestied).
‘But doesn’t that show that when in Britain the Kremlin feels it needs to fit in with our way of doing things?’ a friend of mine suggested. I’d argue the opposite. The effect of the imitation is not respect but parody: ‘Look how meaningless your cultural language is,’ the Kremlin seems to be saying, ‘we can mouth it when we need to.’ The Kremlin’s co-option of Western (and its own avant garde’s) cultural language is putting on a carnival mask in order to mock it. It’s not even paying lip service; it’s taking the piss.
Taken generally, a lot of official Russian behaviour makes sense if you think of it as satire; and satire based on the insights derived from cynicism of Siberian bleakness, too. The Russians can build hotels on time if they want. But why not put all the hacks in comedy half-built hotels to hear them whine on twitter, much to the irritation of people expecting either sports journalism or something more morally adventurous. And why not invite your friends to steal as much as they can from $30 billion of public money, but structure the whole scam as an international festival of sport under the imprimature of those men of integrity at the IOC? As an appetiser, mock noble aspirations for the Ukraine by releasing a tape of America's regime change point people in Kiev making the whole thing sound like Bill and Ted's excellent colour revolution. Don't just assassinate a troublesome fellow; drown him in Polonium in London, to rub in that the British government cares more about property prices than the integrity of its own justice system. And so on. What makes it worse is that these jokes aren't just authoritarian buffoonery; they're very much on point.
As an aside, this is why Russia comes across as worse than China, despite a more formally open system. For all its faults, China is not run by nihilists.