Andrei Sapozhnikov on Neo-Suslovism: What tools is the Kremlin using to destroy modern Russian culture? [Novaya gazeta]
Mikhail Suslov in 1964 (Wikipedia)

8 February 2024

by Andrei Sapozhnikov

Source: Novaya gazeta

For almost two years now, ‘cultural governance’ by the Russian authorities has been heading in a conceptual and stylistic direction that post-Soviet Russia had never before taken, even at the most critical moments in its political system. Of course, this is also very far from being the 1990s that were free of the ‘ideological muzzle,’ a time when relations between the political establishment and cultural figures were largely confined to the latter being invited to participate in the ‘Vote or Lose’ campaign trail; just as it is far from the early Putin years when the minister of culture Shvidkoi could champion Vladimir Sorokin to the ‘Walking Together’ organisation; nor is it in any way close to the time of Surkov’s flirtations with rockers and liberal film directors; and not even to the post-Crimea reactionary turn when an artist could still keep a safe ‘Pioneer’s distance’ from the ultra-patriotic agenda – and not just from exile.

In 2022 the institution of cultural governance in Russia entered a new era entirely, one principally distinguished by the government’s unprecedented and pathological attention to areas of culture that until that point had been largely ignored. Suddenly, literary figures at small-circulation niche publications associated with ‘Jean-Jacques’ [the cafe chain- trans.] were reincarnated into bona fide engineers of human souls, ones deserving of persecution and recognition as terrorists, whose books must be removed from the shelves. Acclaimed musicians with cult followings have become ‘foreign agents’ embroiled in diplomatic plots, while playwrights catering to particularly highbrow audiences now feature in high-profile criminal cases of the Soviet variety. What is going on?

For our purposes, it is important not to dilute things into the causes and potential consequences of developments, but to focus on the ‘mechanics’ behind them. 

What is unfolding here is nothing short of the destruction of independent Russian culture by means of marginalisation, persecution, enforced loyalty, bans, punitive censorship, arrests, threats, stigmatisation, and other repressive measures directed against artists.

In fact, it is no exaggeration at all to describe what is going on here as state-sponsored terror directed against a specific group of people: cultural actors in Russia today. This group is quite distinct from the feckless Gazmanovite ‘proxies’. These people are not prepared to sign a timely ‘letter of support’, skip off to the Donbas, or give a concert ‘in honour of the region’s accession…’. This reign of terror puts them in grave danger. It makes their working conditions intolerable as it transforms the domestic cultural space into an all-powerful syndicate made up of servile glorifiers of the political milieu whose voices, through the perverted machinations of the state, now echo louder than ever before.

The Cultural Terror of 2022-2024 is highly effective – it may well be the most far-reaching campaign in modern world history to ‘cancel’ an entire cast of prominent artists. There are three causes for the effectiveness of this campaign:

  • The Kremlin’s ‘cultural policy’ of the 2020s is a kind of extreme distillation of the most reprehensible practices of the Putin era in, for example, communication with the intelligentsia, tested over 20 years of dictatorship. If we combine, for instance, the story of the destruction of Ultra.Kultura publishing house in the mid-2000s, the criminal case against the organisers of the Forbidden Art 2006 exhibition in the Sakharov Centre*, the Pussy Riot case, and the series of disruptions to concerts by young performers in 2018, then when taken as a whole, we can clearly see that the repressions of the 2020s are just a scaling up of the stockpiling of targeted weaponry.
  • The 2022-2024 campaign has a well-founded theoretical basis, of which, moreover, its architects may not even be aware. I view the Kremlin’s approach to culture in the 2020s as ideologically akin to two phenomena: McCarthyism and the views of Mikhail Suslov, who, during his time as a member of the Politburo, determined the CPSU’s policy on cultural figures.

Russia’s Presidential Administration extracted the ‘best’ of these two phenomena. From McCarthyism, it borrowed a propensity for hysterical exaggeration, attacks on the media, and name-calling. For instance, we know that Senator McCarthy himself (as referenced in his book The Fight for America) once accused the US Government of aiding Chinese Communists, after an incident in which 120 tons of defective ammunition intended for the Kuomintang was dumped into the Indian Ocean – with the authorisation of the Chinese Government itself (in his speech, the senator  upped the quantity to 120,000 tons and presented this story as a betrayal, keeping silent about the above-mentioned authorisation). The same approach was taken to cultural regulation during the McCarthy era. In Red Channels, a pamphlet attributed to the FBI, the writer Irwin Shaw was   declared a communist for supporting a petition that sought to challenge the prosecutions of Hollywood screenwriters sent to prison for “un-American activities”. For so doing, he was also blacklisted by Hollywood and was forced to emigrate to Europe.

Suslov’s successors have adopted his totally thick-headed dogmatism, but instead of orthodox Marxism they placed at its core orthodox Putinism, which combines to great effect with Suslov’s principles, namely, “They don’t skimp on ideology” or “I haven’t read this book… but publication of this work will harm Communism, the Soviet government, and the Soviet people”, etc. These principles cast cultural figures as ideological cogs subordinate to the aims of the ruling group. So, for the sake of convenience if nothing else, and following the example of neo-McCarthyism, why not call the phenomenon under discussion neo-Suslovism?

  • In contrast to McCarthyism or even the various ‘doctrines’ of Vladislav Surkov (see Texts 97–07 , Europe publishing house, 2008), neo-Suslovism, only just coined in the previous paragraph, has yet to be codified or described at all since it is so new and already developing fast. I would now like to devote the second part of this essay to the deconstruction of neo-Suslovism, setting out in mini-chapters the key reason for its effectiveness: its toolkit.

Shadow diplomacy and playing the spoons to fellow inmates

If we analyse textbook examples of moral panic, such as the ‘Satanic Panic‘ of the 1980s or the popularisation of the theory of a ‘Zionist Occupation Government’ among supporters of far-right movements around the world, we can note that the spread of hysteria in these cases was not least due to the ‘ubiquity’ of the theories on which it was based.

Suppose there is a worldwide conspiracy of Satanists committing ritual murder, both in the USA and even in South Africa, and those guilty are the hippies of New Age communes, the Mormons, social services – and in general any other actors in public life – because in the uncertainty and ‘boundlessness’ of the whole ‘Satanic panic’ story, concerns within society increased to such a level that American parents became afraid to let their children go to school.

The Kremlin administration is still somewhat far from Satanic conspiracies, but it has managed to test the principle of an almost conspiracy-like globalisation, expressed in an apparent transcendence of the declared ‘dictatorship of the law’, and in fact quite recently.

The detention of Bi-2 band members in Thailand, according to The Guardian and a number of Russian opposition politicians, organised by the Russian Foreign Ministry through pressure on the Thai side (the Russian Foreign Ministry officially denied any such assumption. – Ed.) in order to deport the musicians to Russia, is extremely symptomatic, firstly, as a sign of an increase in the ‘danger level’ of artists in the role of objects of state surveillance, and secondly, precisely as a factor in the globalisation of moral panic because of wartime repression.

In 2022-2023, it was considered a novelty to place cultural figures on international wanted lists, issue sentences in absentia or arrests for ‘fake news,’ as, for example, in the case of Dmitry Glukhovsky (who was also designated a ‘foreign agent’). But as a result of the limited jurisdiction of the Russian Federation, in fact, its borders, such measures had no weight either symbolically or practically, since most of the public critics of the regime at the time of the ‘arrests’ had long been abroad.

But the case of Bi-2 largely erased this distance, which provoked panic and discussion about the danger of ‘friendly’ countries for political emigration. Never before in post-Soviet Russia has a musician, writer or actor been the subject of special extradition proceedings or foreign policy manipulations in general, unless one includes the author of the book Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within, KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, among the artists.

Indeed, in the recent past, such ‘diplomatic’ tactics were usually applied to ‘traitors’ of the regime in a slightly different interpretation of the word – to the officers from the GRU or FSB who fled the Russian Federation and began to cooperate with Western intelligence services abroad, like Litvinenko or Skripal. But in 2024, the same people whose names were mentioned in the media in connection with the cases of liquidation of ‘traitors’ to the secret services, took on musicians: ‘The group ‘Bi-2’ during the special military operation, to my deep disappointment, can only be characterised as ‘scum’… Soon they will be playing and singing on the spoons and metal plates, tap-dancing in front of their cellmates. Personally, I would love to see it,’ commented Andrei Lugovoi, a State Duma deputy, whom the British court considers a perpetrator of Litvinenko’s murder.

And this threat to play the spoons in a prison cell would have sounded like off-the-record ‘official hot air’ a month ago, but against the backdrop of the Russian government’s systematic activity in the direction of worsening the lives of disloyal artists abroad, which began in early 2024, it should probably be taken more seriously.

In particular, the incidents involving bans on the ‘foreign agent’ Morgenstern entering the UAE and the ‘foreign agent’ Maxim Galkin entering Indonesia, the cancellation of comedian Ruslan Bely’s concerts in Thailand and Indonesia, coupled with the tangible risk of extradition of ‘Bi-2’ to the Russian authorities while Western diplomats fail to get involved in the issue and – what seems to me important – against the background of the scandal around the alleged links of the member of the European Parliament Tatjana Ždanoka with the FSB – indicate that the Russian Federation retains a significant influence in terms of international events.

And this ‘invisible hand’ is obviously ready to be used by the Russian authorities to persecute anti-war cultural figures around the world (at least in ‘friendly’ Asia for the time being) and to maintain an atmosphere of moral panic in the emigrant community as well, which, apparently, artists need to take into account when choosing countries of residence and performance in 2024.

Lavender Stigmatization

Andrey Lugovoi is a self-proclaimed specialist on ‘scumbags’ and ‘traitors,’ and he converts this specialty not only into statements about spoons and tap-dancing, but also into concealed calls for mob justice, in the spirit of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which during the genocide in Rwanda made public the home addresses of Tutsis for physical violence against them.

‘For those who personally want to get across to Asya that betrayal of one’s country is the most fearful sin.’ Lugovoi wrote in a now-deleted post on his Telegram channel, in which he shared the home address of writer Asya Kazantseva.

Such an invitation to a personal clarification of the sinfulness of ‘betrayal’ to a young woman with a one-year-old child is just like the regular recognition of cultural figures as ‘foreign agents,’ the provocations of pro-Kremlin pranksters ‘pulling’ radical political remarks from them, and, for example, the recent scandal with the ‘Naked Party,’ in which, notably, the participants were mainly ‘conformist artists’ without any sort of antiwar background, which can be used as a tool to distance the cultural sphere from what the authorities understand ‘the common people’ to be.

Neo-Suslovism can, in principle, be looked at as a set of measures aimed at marginalizing any unofficial manifestations of cultural life that deviate from the ‘general party line.’ For this purpose, the reputation of pro-Kremlin artists is heavily guarded and ‘varnished’ by the authorities (as an example – a recent special statement by a representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that ‘the police have no questions’ for singer SHAMAN on LGBT propaganda), and members of ‘the opposing camp,’ on the other hand,

The Kremlin either forces them using court pranksters to pronounce casus belli for the deployment of personal repression, or embeds the activities of antiwar personalities in conditional ‘socially condemned’ canons. Which are usually also artificially constructed.

For example, by elevating harassment of the queer community almost to the rank of the main pillar of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation, the Russian authorities have gotten their hands on a tool that legitimizes the punishment of both authors of young-adult novels like‘Summer in a Pioneer Scarf (recognized as ‘foreign agents’ and banned from publishing books in Russia) and celebrities at a party with a specific dress code. This is, essentially, the same ‘Lavender Scare’ of McCarthyist times, based on the thesis that the LGBT community poses a threat to US national security due to its susceptibility to communism.

Neo-Suslovism is much broader than McCarthyism, which is why stigmatization within its framework occurs not on the principle of targeted discrimination, but through a modernized filter of ‘harm to communism, to the Soviet authorities, to the Soviet people.’ This is demonstrated by the rather recent case involving the cancellation of Kristina Orbakaite’s concerts in Siberia due to the denunciations of pro-Kremlin activists, who called the singer the ‘daughter of a foreign agent’ (which is not accurate), ‘who has not made up her mind regarding the Special Military Operation.’

That is, if in the beginning of 2022, in the first phase of the conflict, a cultural figure could have problems as a result of direct criticism of the course of the Russian authorities, now it is enough to be ‘on the fence.’

Pranksters often help artists to determine their position, putting public figures in tight spots and clearing remaining barriers to the start of organized harassment for the authorities. It was so back in May 2022, when director Rimas Tuminas was dismissed from Moscow’s Yevgeny Vakhtangov Theatre for agreeing in a telephone conversation to stage the play ‘My Friend Bandera’ in Ukraine – similar stories from the following months happened with Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Liudmila Ulitskaya and Mikhail Veller, often ending for them with the impossibility of continuing artistic activity inside Russia in any form.

This is the aim of the stigmatization of culture. Propaganda prepares public opinion to make it acceptable that the people who have defined the cultural landscape of modern Russia should be humiliated and vilified as part of a process of the ‘natural self-purification of society.’ If this tool does not perform its function efficiently enough, the authorities always have a final argument.

Direct action and counteraction. In lieu of a conclusion

“I remember when Suslov and his officials from the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee started the ‘Daniel and Sinyavsky case’. This case was very similar to Khrushchev’s disgraceful war against Boris Pasternak. At that time, too, the newspapers were full of vulgar invectives against the poet, which lowered the prestige of our party and state in the world”, – recalled Anastas Mikoyan recalled in his memoirs, How It Was. [Так было. Размышления о минувшем, Tsentrpoligraf, Moscow, 2014 – RiR) 

Obviously, the international prestige of the state for both Suslov and his ideological successors, who in 2023 initiated the ‘Theatre Case’ against playwright Svetlana Petriichuk and director Yevgenia Berkovich, disconcerting in its ‘Sovietness’, was of little importance.

As it was for the Gurulev, a member of the State Duma, who called for Boris Akunin’s ‘destruction,’ as it was for the officials who organised searches of the premises of the Zakharov publishing house that published the works of the writer was was to be ‘destroyed,’ as it was for the Moscow Cultural Department that wiped out Kirill Serebrennikov’s Gogol Centre, as it was for the people responsible for replacing Maksim Vitorgan’s character in the TV series Contact with a deepfake. At this stage, one does not ‘skimp on ideology,’ apparently, even if for its sake it is necessary to raise the question of the murder of a literary man.

В сущности, до второй половины 2023 года, которая для российской культуры открылась арестом Беркович и Петрийчук, к совсем уж откровенным репрессиям в отношении «креативного класса» власти старались не прибегать и все же соблюдали некую аккуратность. Однако если верить источникам «Медузы»***, близким к Кремлю, 

In fact, until the second half of 2023, which for Russian culture opened with the arrests of Berkovich and Petriichuk, the authorities tried not to resort to outright repression of the ‘creative class’ and still observed a degree of caution. However, according to Meduza‘s sources close to the Kremlin, at the end of 2023 there began a coordinated campaign to persecute undesirable cultural figures, especially writers, and efforts to return ‘moderate’ figures to Russia were abandoned and new measures involving criminal cases, pressure on publishers, and adding names to the lists of terrorists and extremists were adopted.

As we saw a week ago, diplomatic conspiracies have now also been added to the inventory of this toolkit – and, based on an analysis of the dynamics of the evolution of neo-Suslovism, there are no grounds to believe that in the near future the Kremlin’s arsenal will not soon acquire additional levers of cultural repression.

Having attempted in this essay to compile an exhaustive ‘portrait’ of the era of neo-Suslovism, which, however, is still in full swing, we conclude the text with a moral question: how can cultural figures with an anti-war stance (or those involved in prosecutions for LGBT propaganda) continue to work under these conditions without sinking into despair or apathy?

It would seem that as of February 2024, there are two answers to this question. The first has been agreed with the Russian presidential administration and boils down to the fact that for ‘absolution of sins’ it is necessary to adopt the Kremlin’s ‘system of repentance.’ This system, as we can judge from the stories of Roma Zverev, Dima Bilan or Filipp Kirkorov, consists of either travelling to the Donbas or making a donation towards humanitarian aid together with public condemnation of the actions of the Ukrainian armed forces.

The second option, however, was expounded to me in a recent interview by the emigrant, ‘foreign agent’ and leader of the group Nogu Svelo! Maks Pokrovsky, who in February 2022 completely reoriented his music to sloganising anti-war compositions.

‘Yes, our family’s living space has shrunk. There is less money in our pockets, but nobody starved to death. I am the leader of a wonderful collective… We work as a team, we work as a family… I have a wonderful studio. It’s modest, but it’s beautiful. It’s in the centre of the universe called New York City… I am alive. We are alive… Our team, our family, our band. So are the artists who take part in Roma’s project (‘After Russia’ by Roma Liberov, an album-collection of songs by emigrant artists who left Russia in the 2020s based on poems by emigrants who left Russia in the 1920s. – Ed.). We are not silent, we have not starved to death, we have, to a greater or lesser extent, assimilated. And, probably, we have each other, because after all, despite the fact that we artists are strange people and don’t always get along with each other, still, within the framework of this, already our second project, we are still alive.’

Maks Pokovskym, leader of the rock band Nogu Svelo!

For now, there is probably a third option, which is to refuse to make any public comments and remain neutral ‘for as long as at all possible.’ But if we were to predict the cultural results of the year that began with the cancellation of concerts of an extremely apolitical singer for ‘lack of a position on the Special Military Operation’ and the operation to deport a Russian-speaking rock band that is far from being notable for any association with protests, it’s possible to foresee that by 2025 the authorities will have finally eliminated this option. Because what we are seeing is a Soviet-type dogmatism, with zero tolerance even for latent hints of dissent.

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Alyssa Rider and Simon Cosgrove

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