There is a peculiarity that is pervasive in Russian society: social appeals to a repressive government to uphold one’s personal standards of taste are normal. Even 'liberals' confound taste with politics, says journalist Anna Arutunyan. So the moral indignation about theater director Serebrennikov's 'pornographic' plays or the attacks on film director Uchitel for his 'blasphemous' movie Matilda on the tsar's mistress prompt the state to undertake oppressive measures. Thus artists end up behind bars on fabricated allegations.

Gogol tsentrFans of theater director Serebrennikov gathered in his support at the Gogol Center after police razzia's in may 2017

by Anna Arutunyan

Many years ago during the relatively liberal period of the Medvedev regency, the political dissident writer and sometimes freedom fighter Eduard Limonov told me in an interview that his main criticism of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin was that they were 'banal'.

Coming from a punk politician like Limonov, it appeared, to my mind, that the problem could have been easily rectified with some imaginative esthetics – have the president and prime minister don leather jackets, smoke in public, quote Derrida, or do something else interesting and extravagant, like appear clothed in the imperial garb of Byzantine rulers. Or at least pick up a Kalashnikov, get on a motorcycle, and go fight for a just cause, like Limonov himself had once done in the Balkans. That latter point was, to an extent, made real with Putin’s inspiration of thousands of volunteers to go fight alongside separatists in East Ukraine in just such a fashion, which could have been the reason why Limonov eventually became quite supportive of the Putin regime: perhaps for him, the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the intervention in East Ukraine redeemed it from banality.

I didn’t ask Limonov then to elaborate on what he meant, but I probably should have. Because today, in the wake of the arrest of theater director Kirill Serebrennikov on embezzlement charges and the ongoing and violent harassment over Alexei Uchitel’s controversial film, Matilda, the exchange exposed an important component of political repression in Russia: taste.

Jump from taste to force

The collusion of taste with politics is nothing new, nor inherently Russian: recall the vilification of 'degenerate art' in Nazi Germany. But there are reasons that it crops up, and then props up, authoritarian regimes – it is strikingly easy and comfortable for human beings to conflate things we like with beauty, truth and justice. Matters of personal taste frequently transform in our minds into matters of moral condemnation – to understand how this works and how common it is, consider the woman’s skirt: its length can be considered a matter of taste, but when one wants to impose one’s taste upon others, religion and morality are deployed to turn it into a categorical imperative.

Such thinking can be found in all camps: from Russia’s religious conservatives and Kremlin imperialists, to the liberal intelligentsia, even to America’s alt-right. The danger is that once you make the jump from taste to moral condemnation, you are just one step away from the need to deploy force , upon which a government holds a monopoly.

This is what is currently happening in Russia, although Russian authoritarianism is by far not unique. The dramas unfolding around Kirill Serebrennikov and Alexei Uchitel – dramas in which people go to prison and are threatened with real violence – revolve around a pattern of thinking that remains pervasive in Russian society: social appeals to a repressive government to uphold one’s standards of taste are normal.

poklonskaja op 9 meiParliamentarian Poklonskaya (here at 9 May parade) is a fan of tsar Nicholas and protests against Matilda

In the case of Uchitel’s film, Matilda, people are upset by the portrayal of a tsar in the context of something as earthly as a sexual affair. In the case of Serebrennikov, a great deal of people are upset by risqué avant-garde theater replacing the old. Issues of personal taste are exacerbated until they become fodder for moral condemnation.

In 2012, for instance, Serebrennikov made himself many enemies because he was appointed head of Gogol Theater by the Moscow city government. The dependence of Russian theater on government financing in and of itself makes it vulnerable to persecution over matters of taste, but that is an obvious point. Another obvious point is that the previous cadre of the old Gogol Theater was justifiably upset over losing their jobs.

What is less obvious is how and why cultural figures who were otherwise opponents of government repression deployed the issue of taste in appealing to the government directly to stop what they called Serebrennikov’s 'takeover'. Here is an excerpt from an open letter in which they laid out their concerns over Serebrennikov: 'Appointing K. S. Serebrennikov, who calls on taking down the principles of the Stanislavsky system and who renounces Russian psychological theater, as artistic director, is a powerful blow [that will] lead to the death of Russian theater'.

Conservative backlash

While the theater troop being replaced by Serebrennikov and their supporters had many reasons to be upset, they specifically cited an issue of theatrical taste, as if upholding the Stanislavsky system was an obvious categorical imperative in and of itself that the government should come in and defend, with guns, if necessary. They probably did not mean for Serebrennikov to wind up behind bars, but the conservative backlash against Serebrennikov could not have failed to play a role in his arrest five years later on the pretext of financial irregularities.

As my former colleague and playwright Natalia Antonova wrote of the motivations behind the flood of complaints in the wake of Serebrennikov’s takeover: 'Perhaps what’s happening to Gogol Centre today is connected to that old actors’ rebellion, a rebellion that was cultural at its heart: regressive conservatism in dusty stage wigs against the experimental, often jarring, even frightening nature of modern theatre. This kind of conservatism is currently winning on all fronts in Russia, so why not at Gogol Centre?'

Once a critical mass of moral condemnation has been attained, the next step is tactical: how is the wrongdoer to be persecuted for the transgression of taste or morality? The Kremlin does not exactly want to become Iran or Saudi Arabia and impose an outright theocracy; it does not want to stoop down to having show trials over nudity or the length of skirts. But in the last years there has been a tendency to pass new, ever more restrictive legislation.

Affronts against taste are not a crime in Russia, but there are any number of crimes under the criminal code that virtually any Russian can be found guilty of – from insults against religious feeling or blasphemy to financial sloppiness.

This allows any number of righteously indignant groups outraged over matters of taste to abuse laws and punish transgressors for things which are not technically a crime. It is not a crime to not be liked by someone, but say a group really, really wants to go after that person – in Russia’s murky legal system, they have any number of laws to do so.

Suddenly, artistic content that can be criticized on issues of taste – such as Uchitel’s depiction of Czar Nicholas II love affair with a ballerina – becomes the subject of criminal persecution. Conservative lawmakers including Natalia Poklonskaya, the young former attorney general of Crimea, have targeted Uchitel for an assortment of crimes – from financial irregularities to blasphemy – but it is the fact that they are all different and inconsistent that points to Uchitel’s real transgression in the eyes of his detractors, which is a crime against taste. That, in and of itself, is not punishable under Russian law – but many other things are, so let’s use them!

Harbinger of absolutism

This pattern of using the law to punish a transgression that is not covered by the criminal code is common and should not surprise: it stands behind most politically-motivated persecutions, from Mikhail Khodorkovksy to Pussy Riot, whose crime of dancing on a church alter was such a violent affront to good taste that the Kremlin later had tailor-made legislation criminalizing blasphemy introduced just for such cases. It is also by far not unique to Russia.

But the insidious thing about the conflation of taste and justice is that it isn’t just the nationalists and conservatives and morally bankrupt Kremlin officials who use it to abuse authority. It is that virtually everyone can do it when we don’t like something. The Kremlin may be acting on it and weaponizing it to police its citizens, but the drive to appeal to the absolute to justify our transient wants and likes largely comes from below, only later metastasizing into moral panics and repressive governments.

Sobyanin kitschLiberal Muscovites call this 'Sobyanin-kitsch'

Consider what happens when a similar logic is deployed by people with good intentions, who would balk at the very idea of politically-motivated repression. It would be a far cry to suggest that members of the liberal camp would ever consciously want to jail someone over a matter of taste. But even in their case, the logic of transforming an issue of personal taste into one of moral condemnation is ever present.

For instance, this summer, Moscow was in the throes of a renovation campaign that had uprooted city roads as concrete was replaced with brickwork, grassy patches and trees, and pedestrian lanes were expanded to accommodate hipsters and outdoor cafes. Once again, there were many things wrong with this campaign – from the fact that mayor Sobyanin and City Hall didn’t really consult with residents to the inefficient use of funds, time, and space, not to mention possible corruption – but the issue that really roiled Muscovites was taste. The overhaul wasn’t the real problem, one Moscow opponent told me, the problem was 'the same tasteless Sobyanin kitch'.

Commentator Alexander Baunov summed up this problem as political, and one critical to the development of a healthy civil society: 'The Russian member of the intelligentsia accepts the right of the Russian to become a bourgeois only in exchange for the acceptance of the intelligentsia’s viewpoints. People who criticize… Sobyanin’s [renovation] begin with the fact that they suffer from having good taste. Their own personal taste suddenly and without any further explanations is taken for a constant, while everything else is a variable.'

The roots of authoritarian society, thus, lie dormant in our minds. There is something magical and childlike about this logic – that what I like is true and absolute and permanent – but it also prevents a society from developing impartial laws and separating branches of government. It stands in the way of pluralism, and it is, in its essence, a harbinger of absolutism. Once taste is absolute, then so is the narrative that it informs, and that narrative, then, becomes scripture, and scripture can be enforced by those who wield lethal power

Where our childlike, magical thinking is wrong is that tastes change. Take Eduard Limonov. Yesterday’s Kremlin detractor became a supporter of Putin’s imperialist course. And as for Serebrennikov, Limonov, who has spent time in a Russian jail, said this: 'Let them sit, like everyone else, whether a theater director, an actor or a businessman….'