Yekaterina Furtseva plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Damn. I wish you could make this stuff up. If you could, you might be able to undo it as quickly. But I’m afraid you can’t. I’m afraid this stuff happens according to some nasty, irrevocable law of human existence. I’m talking about the declaration made today by deputy chief of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation Magomedsalam Magomedov. Responding to an event we thought we were done with two weeks ago when a judge threw out the state’s case against a director and a theater manager for a controversial production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk, Mr. Magomedov suggested that the Russian federal government should begin looking at theater productions before they open. Mr. Magomedov may or may not remember that this is precisely the way theater was censored in the Soviet era. You remember all those famous banned productions at the Taganka, the Sovremennik, the Vakhtangov, the Satire Theater, even the Meyerhold Theater in the early 1930s? Well, that’s how they were banned: a government committee would come and watch a dress rehearsal then pass judgment: thumbs up, thumbs down. Mr. Magomedov is still another of those who would grab us all by the collar – if not the neck – and drag us back into the Soviet era.
This is another aspect of a massive attack taking place in Russia against culture, art and the freedom of expression. Magomedov’s chilling suggestion comes on the heels of still another regressive act on the part of Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. Unable to accept the Novosibirsk court’s decision that there was no crime offending the faith of Orthodox believers, Medinsky has now fired the managing director of the Novosibirsk Theater of Opera and Ballet where director Timofei Kulyabin staged the so-called “offensive” version of Wagner’s Tannhauser. But wait! Not only did Medinsky fire managing director Boris Mezdrich, who had vowed to stand with Kulyabin and Tannhauser, he replaced him with a man from St. Petersburg who attacked the production of Tannhauser publicly on the website of Medinsky’s own Ministry of Culture. Here is what the replacement, Vladimir Kekhman, wrote: “As a believer who has been christened in the Orthodox faith, and as a Jew, I take this [production] as an insult. It is a demonstration of internal godlessness in the style and in the spirit of a union of warring infidels. I won’t hide that I spoke today with Mezdrich and he told me that he won’t abandon this production and will stand to the end. I consider that he must resign and that this production must be removed from the repertoire.”
How do you like them apples? Thanks to Mr. Kekhman, we now know just what to do in order to fast-track our careers in theater management – denounce your colleagues on the Culture Ministry website.
It apparently doesn’t matter that Mr. Kekhman is a snitch and an opportunist of the blackest order, it doesn’t matter that lawyers are saying that Medinsky’s firing of Mezdrich violates Russian law, it doesn’t matter that a court has spoken and declared that Kulyabin’s production did not violate anyone’s rights – the Russian government, through its various representatives, continues to mount an all-out war against artists and those who would enable them.

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Okay, let me catch my breath and explain what this has to do with the plaque and building that are pictured in today’s post. You see, the one-time Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva (1910-1974) lived at 9 Tverskaya Street, right across from the Moscow Art Theater, from 1949 to 1960. That is, Furtseva lived here right up until she was appointed to the position of culture minister. She held that position from 1960 until her death under suspicious circumstances in 1974. (Officially she died of a heart attack; whispers remain strong that she drowned herself in her bathtub.) She was a controversial figure who some believed attempted to protect culture in a difficult time, while others saw her as a symbol of the repression of the Soviet state against art. She was mercurial and could be kind and understanding, as well as imperious and vengeful. So strong is that latter opinion that Russian Wikipedia actually has a titled section dealing with the events that Furtseva banned. They included productions at the Taganka, performances by Mstislav Rostropovich (her stance against him for giving shelter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn forced him to emigrate to the West), as well as planned concerts by The Beatles and Rolling Stones.
The plaque honoring Furtseva on the building where she once resided is clearly a sympathetic one. She is given a romantic, thoughtful gaze that rather suggests she was a victim herself. There are those, especially in recent years, who have sought to resurrect her reputation. It is a fact, plain and simple, that Furtseva achieved a level of power in the Soviet government that no other woman did before or after her. In addition to being Minister of Culture, she was the First Secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, and she was a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR. Women in places of power can irritate men and women alike. Apparently, the higher the power, the more they irritate. But Furtseva also earned the dislike of many of her peers. For everyone she helped, she slapped someone else back down.
I can see how, with time, the desire comes upon us to see a figure like this from neutral ground. We know that life is difficult and that maneuvering one’s way through politics is a dirty business. We know that we, ourselves, have made a few dubious choices in our lives, and it means something to us to look at controversial figures and to justify them, at least to some degree. I myself do that from time to time in this space and I’m willing to allow that Furtseva is a candidate for that kind of treatment.
It is harder to take that approach with contemporaries. So, when I see Magomedsalam Magomedov and Vladimir Medinsky and others like them attacking art and artists, and when I see them working hard to take us back to the days and tactics once used by people like Yekaterina Furtseva and others worse than she, I am appalled. I am infuriated. I have no desire to approach either Mr. Magomedov or Mr. Medinsky from a neutral point of view. They are seeking through their policies to destroy the way art is made today in Russia. They are attempting to destroy a world I have spent my life trying to build and support.
If I am willing to allow someone to tell me why I shouldn’t be so hard on Yekaterina Furtseva, I don’t have the time of day for Messers Magomedov or Medinsky. I stand with those of my contemporaries calling for Medinsky to step down as Russian Culture Minister, and I condemn Magomedov for his attempt to haul us even further back into a world resembling the Soviet Union. Let somebody else in 50 years argue the case for Medinsky et al. In real time people like this must be opposed. Period.

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