At a recent contemporary-art exhibition I attended in the town of Asbest, in the Ural mountains east of Moscow, residents puzzled over the meaning behind an installation featuring a children’s playground. The video explaining the art’s meaning did not work, so visitors grasped for clues. Individual knots along some of the metal rods could hint at barbed wire, one suggested. Might this be a nod at the local region’s once-closed towns, a reference to the Urals’ secret Soviet-era industrial and scientific centers where information was strictly controlled, or perhaps even to growing restrictions in modern Russia?
Asbest, so named for its role as the world’s biggest producer of asbestos, is a bleak place with crumbling infrastructure, and is defined by the world’s largest open-pit asbestos mine. Young couples on their wedding day pose for photographs by the town’s sign, a giant slab of asbestos. Here, the gulag is more than merely a memory, and a residual fear hangs in the air even today. Hence the dark interpretation of the hot-pink-colored children’s playground.
The installation’s actual meaning was very different. Behzad Khosravi Noori, an Iranian Swedish artist, had built the multimedia monument to explore the connection between personal memory and events in the former Yugoslavia. The playground had been brought to Asbest as part of the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art and placed, curiously, in the middle of a classical Soviet ballroom (Asbest does not have an art gallery).
As it turns out, none of the exhibits at the biennial was actually about political issues in contemporary Russia—despite the event’s being held in the country, and its focus on contemporary art. This has not always been the case: An exhibit in 2019’s biennial translated Russia’s constitution into Morse code, and dripped water according to that “translation” onto burning-hot irons. Counterintuitively, by making no mention of the current state of the country, this year’s Ural Biennial managed to say more about Russia than any one exhibit could.
During the Soviet era, censors fought “bourgeois formalism” and cosmopolitanism by requiring artists to work under total state control. Stalinist officials criticized, banned, and arrested them. Some were executed; others hanged themselves after interrogation. From 1937 to 1938, at the height of the Great Terror, the predecessor agency to the KGB executed more than 30 artists in a single town. According to Immortal Barracks, a database that tracks Soviet interments and killings, 559 artists were victims of repression in one form or another.
Thankfully, art lovers working at Soviet museums managed to hide and save many masterpieces, but a generation of Soviet children grew up without seeing paintings by Marc Chagall, Vasily Kandinsky, or Pavel Filonov. One sculptor, Vera Mukhina, beloved by Stalin, said at the time that the country had “forgotten about the artist’s right to create.” As a result, artists, poets, and writers—as well as physicists, mathematicians, and others—joined the ranks of the so-called kitchen dissidents, gathering quietly in private apartments to read smuggled copies of banned books, or discuss the hidden meaning in new theatrical performances.
Though controls would marginally loosen and tighten at times, it wasn’t until the latter years of the Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, and after the fall of the U.S.S.R. that Russians were able to grapple with art that openly critiqued the individuals and institutions in power. When they finally could, Russians devoured as much art as possible, whether it was made at home or abroad—ballet, movies, theater, paintings, you name it. People waited in long lines outside the Tretyakov Gallery to see avant-garde art by Chagall, Kandinsky, or Kazimir Malevich. I remember being pushed around in a huge crowd of art lovers who were impatient for the opening of a 1991 exhibition of the American artist Peter Max’s work in St. Petersburg.
From afar, all of this freedom may seem to have fallen away when Vladimir Putin came to power, in 2000, but that is not true. For a time, Putin’s Russia tolerated the most provocative of artists. A decade ago, the Ministry of Culture itself awarded Voina, a street-art group, a prize for its guerrilla work of the painted outline of a penis on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg, which rose and fell whenever the bridge moved. Over time, that openness eroded. Several members of the all-female punk-rock band Pussy Riot have been arrested multiple times, first in 2012, for staging a performance in a church, and most recently during the coronavirus pandemic, for showing support for the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Certainly, Putin’s Russia is not Xi Jinping’s China. Controls on information here are looser, room for dissent greater. Yet space for artistic freedom has shrunk drastically. Today, the world’s best artists and theater groups are welcome in Russia, as long as they do not insult the government. In an echo of history, writers, directors, painters, and sculptors are moving into exile, and the ones who stay are vetted by a special “public council” at the Ministry of Culture, which determines whether they meet state security standards. Once again, all manner of artists must self-censor.
The shift is part of a general trend toward an erosion of liberties. Media, rights groups, and opposition politicians have all come under pressure. Dozens of journalists, human-rights defenders, and activists have been designated as “foreign agents.” Security services have done little to investigate a spate of assassinations targeting opponents of the Kremlin. Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt last year, is now in prison; his political movement has been labeled extremist and forced to disband.
The Ural Biennial counts among its sponsors both foreign and Russian groups, including the state corporation Rostec, which means it is unlikely to see much open criticism of the state, even in the best of times. The curators of the biennial’s main project—Assaf Kimmel, Çağla Ilk, and Misal Adnan Yildiz, all from Germany—had more than six months to prepare. When I asked what issues they’d faced, Yildiz specifically mentioned “control of information.”
One of the ways that artists in Russia have sought to bypass the restrictions, which are growing more and more onerous, is by looking to the country’s past to offer critique. Last month, the Tretyakov Gallery launched a show devoted to art rejected by Tsarist censors in the 19th century, the “hidden” meaning of which is all too apparent. (The show has been turned into a permanent exhibition in Moscow.) Similarly, this year’s Ural Biennial exhibits focus on recent history, implicitly making reference to modern issues such as forced exile and censorship. Among them is a work devoted to an athlete, Victor Starukhin, who was born in the Urals but fled Bolshevik rule for Japan, where he became a baseball star. The biennial’s main project, titled “Thinking Hands Touching Each Other,” was inspired by We, a novel by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin that addresses control and intimacy in a totalitarian system; the book was banned by Soviet censors, and the writer died in exile in Paris.
(Even when Russian contemporary artists do try to explore Soviet-era controversies, many people here prefer not to know the truth. Another biennial exhibit was Pavel Otdelnov’s exploration of 1957’s Kyshtym disaster, a nuclear catastrophe in which an underground tank containing highly radioactive liquid exploded in the Urals, killing thousands and poisoning local waterways and lakes for decades to come. When I asked one Asbest woman about the artwork—which featured renderings of nuclear scientists’ ruined dormitories and recordings of victims’ stories—she told me she did not plan to visit the exhibit. “We still don’t talk about what happened,” she said.)
Russia’s minister of culture, Olga Lyubimova, says state censorship of the arts is “unacceptable.” But, as the satirist Victor Shenderovich says, the fear of free speech is “nailed into the Russian nervous system.”
“As soon as artists begin to step forward with direct statements, they are immediately included in a division of political dissidents,” he told me. “Just as it was during the era of Aesopian plays being put on at the Taganka Theater in Soviet times, culture in Russia once again has to rely on hints and winks.”