Alexei Lubimov was nearing the end of Franz Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 when Moscow police burst into the hall and ordered him to stop his performance.
The confrontation last month epitomized the darker times shrouding a country with one of the world’s richest cultural legacies. As Russia wages its brutal war on Ukraine, the Kremlin is cracking down to quell dissent within its own borders. Artistic expression, which flourished openly for more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, can quickly provoke threats and arrests.
“The Russian cultural tradition has now been interrupted. It was interrupted in Soviet times, too, but at the end of the Soviet era, some generations of intellectuals were born,” said Ukrainian film producer Alexander Rodnyansky, who has long worked in Russia. “There was serious literature, serious cinema. … But I’m afraid that it is lost again.”
The consequences are chilling for musicians, dancers, filmmakers, authors and poets. The decisions they make — and the risks they do or don’t take — could shape the country for decades.
“For us, the people of art, there are no orders,” Lubimov told a local reporter after the concert, casting doubt on the police claim that an anonymous bomb threat meant the building had to be cleared immediately. “Our arena is the intellectual and cultural space, and there simply can’t be any coercive orders.”
President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 announcement of a “special military operation” in Ukraine almost immediately triggered an exodus of artists and intellectuals from Russia. Actor Chulpan Khamatova, previously a Putin supporter, issued an antiwar statement and relocated to Latvia. Young film directors, including Cannes award winners Kantemir Balagov and Kira Kovalenko, left to pursue international projects.
Officials did not appear to shed tears for the talent being lost. Putin called those fleeing “traitors of the nation” and said in mid-March that “such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”
The president also has gone on the counteroffensive. After the Munich Philharmonic orchestra fired Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a close ally and friend who had not spoken out against the invasion, Putin accused the West of trying to erase a “thousand-year-old country and our people.”
And artists who have tried to appeal to both Russian and Western audiences are being forced to choose between the two.
“It’s very much a question of choosing which side of your career is the one that you want to stick with,” said Catriona Kelly, a professor at the University of Oxford who specializes in Russian culture. “If they don’t make up their mind to reject the Russian government’s current policy and reject the war, they will just lose their careers in the West.”
Artists who stay in Russia face an existential dilemma — to work and express their feelings openly, at the risk of being jailed if they anger the government, or to allow themselves to be used to rally public support for the war.
Individuals who have made the first choice are already facing severe consequences. Sasha Skochilenko, a 32-year-old artist from St. Petersburg, could receive up to 10 years in prison for an antiwar performance in which she replaced price labels at a local supermarket with summaries about the bombing of a theater and art school in Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city besieged by Russians.
What’s happening seems “much worse” than in the final years of the Soviet Union, said Andrei Zorin, chair of Russian at Oxford.
“Back then, you knew what level of trespassing past the official ideology would mean for you. [You knew] for what you would lose your job or get expelled from a university, and for what you could be jailed, so you could calculate the risks,” Zorin said. “Now it’s absolutely impossible. You can be imprisoned for a post online, and no one can understand what happens and why.”
New laws against “spreading fake news” and “discrediting” the army have left few avenues for Russian artists to showcase their work. So in Israel, Russian writer Linor Goralik recently launched Roar magazine to offer a platform for those at home or in exile. The first issue published in late April with dozens of essays, poems, photographs, paintings and drawings.
“My team and authors — those who are in Russia — take very big risks,” Goralik, who was born in Ukraine, told the Meduza news website. “I wrote the same words to almost every author who did not leave the country: ‘I’m afraid for everyone. Let’s publish this anonymously.’ ”
Some well-known figures, including athletes, are using their prominence to back Putin. Nearly a dozen Russian Olympians made an appearance during a staged patriotic rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki sports stadium on March 18. Putin delivered a fiery speech on unity to the flag-waving crowd, with a concert featuring pop singer Oleg Gazmanov.
The social contract between Russian artists and the government has existed for years. Writers, actors and directors could work with little interference if they steered clear of political controversy.
Funding and exposure became a separate issue in recent years as the Kremlin increased its control of television channels, still a primary source of information and entertainment for millions of Russians. The result was a cultural bubble of censored shows and films, commissioned by those channels with the goal of promoting “national unity.”
In 2021, an investigation by the BBC’s Russian service revealed the struggles of dozens of television and movie actors, screenwriters and producers, who were pressured to push traditional and patriotic values, cut off from work for expressing opposition views or writing on taboo topics.
The groundwork for much of this was laid by Vladimir Medinsky, an ultraconservative nationalist who served as the country’s culture minister from 2012 to 2020. He was far more political than his immediate predecessors and focused on recasting Russian history — particularly its military past — in the most favorable light.
Medinsky directed major state funding toward projects of his choosing, amassing significant control over TV programs, movies and theater productions, and had ample opportunity for historical revisionism. He made headlines for slamming film directors for their lack of patriotism, advocated limiting foreign film releases in Russia and pushed for “spirit-lifting” domestically made pictures.
“Measures of state protectionism in the field of cinema must be strengthened, otherwise our cinema will sooner or later be destroyed by the global Hollywood machine,” Medinsky said in late 2018, according to the Interfax news agency.
He was deposed as minister in 2020, spent the next two years editing history textbooks — his work was criticized for inaccuracies — and early in the war became Putin’s chief negotiator in futile peace talks with Ukraine. Yet his efforts to mold Russian pop culture and history endure.
“There is no more place for real, high-quality movies with great authors, powerful statements on current social issues,” Rodnyansky said.
Zorin is trying to keep a positive outlook on what the future might hold, saying that “no tyranny is eternal.”
“But the problem is what happens afterwards,” he said, “whether the culture will have left some inherent forces and some potential to regenerate after the end of the tyranny or if the decay is terminal. And I think it’s an open question.”