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A real guide to modern Russian art and culture

Fake news isn’t limited to politics. It impacts on art and culture too. Here’s the truth about modern Russian art and culture.

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London’s Royal Academy of Arts is currently presenting an exhibition of Russian and Soviet art from 1917-1932.

Although some fine works are on display, much of the press around the exhibition has been full of ‘fake art news’ regarding the history of modern Russian art.

This is no surprise seeing as the Royal Academy has its own dubious relationship with one of the Soviet Union’s global antagonists, the CIA.  For anyone planning on going to the exhibition, here are some helpful real facts about modern Russian art and culture.

When Ivan IV proclaimed himself Tsar of All the Russians 1547, Russia began to emerge as one of the world’s most powerful states.  Some foreign observers characterise pre-Soviet Russia by Nikolai I’s mid-19th century policy of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nation(Правосла́вие, самодержа́вие, наро́дность), but this difficult to translate phrase belies the  reality of a  Russian society which has always been amongst the most multicultural in the world.

The Russian state has at various times encompassed cultures ranging from the Muslim lands of central Asia to the Roman Catholic and Protestant lands of central and eastern Europe. Russia’s geographic immensity has in turn created a culture that is uniquely Eurasian, blending visual, musical, intellectual and spiritual traditions from the many cultures within the Russian state. At no time in Russian history was this cacophony of cultures more explosive than in the 20th century.

(1) 1900-1917(When Future Met Past)

Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, Russian art was at its most cosmopolitan, but rarely did Russian artists sever ties to their culture which was often far removed from prevailing European trends. In the visual arts, the realism associated with the Peredvizhniki(Передви́жники) group continued to captivate imaginations with scenes portraying a wide array of Russian lifestyles and landscapes.

Simultaneously, many Russians began looking to the future as the turn of the 20th century brought new technological and philosophical ideas into Russian minds.

Composer Alexander Scriabin (Алекса́ндр Скря́бин) typified this new outlook. At the turn of the 20th century, Scriabin became regarded as Russia’s most important composer since Tchaikovsky, combining romantic tendencies with radically new concepts concerning polyphony and dissonance.

Like many of his contemporaries, Scriabin was informed equally by the post-Enlightenment thought of Europeans like Nietzsche and Freud as he was by ancient Russian mysticism. The ecumenical spiritualist Helena Blavatsky(Еле́на Блава́тская) proved to be one of the most lasting influences on Scriabin’s philosophical outlook. Scriabin’s own theory on the relation of colour to sound likewise resonated across the culture.

The age of Scriabin was also the age of Kandinsky (Канди́нский) and the abandonment by Kandinsky of traditional realistic forms paralleled Scriabin’s abandonment of traditional romantic idioms.

(2) 1917-1930 (Innovation And Revolution)

The decade after The October Revolution and subsequent civil and foreign wars, saw Russian culture explode with highly original concepts. Against the backdrop of the abolition of the pre-1917 social order, liberalised laws on birth control and homosexuality, and a new emphasis on mass education, artists from all fields began to experiment. Constructivist architecture emphasised the unity of material and shape whilst experiments with conductorless orchestras spoke to a more egalitarian age.

The technology which had captivated many earlier thinkers was now becoming the reality of everyday life across Russia. Lenin’s GOELRO Plan (план ГОЭЛРО) reflected the Communist leader’s desire to bring electricity to every Soviet street and village. With the gradual growth of electricity came film, a medium embraced both by Russian artists and the Communist Party.

Sergei Eisenstein’s use of light and shadow to communicate themes of fraternity and struggles against oppression became the cinematic inspiration for European and American innovators such as Leni Riefenstahl and Orson Welles. Avant-garde painting also reached its zenith after 1917 as artists ranging from Pavel Filonov (Па́вел Фило́нов) to Russian Pole Kazimir Malevich challenged previous conceptions about the nature of painting.  Vladimir Mayakovsky (Влади́мир Маяко́вский) became the literary champion of the post-Revolutionary zeitgeist, writing poems that continue to resonate across the Russian speaking world. Not only was art changing rapidly in the 1920s, but so too was the background of artists.

In pre-Soviet times, the fine arts were largely the reserve of the aristocratic whilst after 1917 all Soviet citizens were given increasing opportunities to receive artistic training. Whilst many eyes were on the future in the 1920s, one must remember that even the most futuristic Russian artists retained a measure of influence from Russian spiritual traditions ranging from the mystical to the Orthodox. Thus even in the age where Communism broke Orthodoxy’s union with the state, Russians continued to be deeply informed by prior traditions.

(3) 1930-1947 (The Triumph of Realism and Patriotism).

Soviet society changed profoundly after Stalin consolidated his leadership in the 1930s.  Many socially liberal laws of the 1920s were quickly repealed to reflect a new, more centralised leadership.

In architecture, constructivism gave way to what is retrospectively called Stalinist architecture, a uniquely Soviet style which combined neo-classical grandeur with Soviet iconography on an erstwhile unprecedented scale. At this time many so-called avant-garde artists left Soviet soil to continue their work in Europe and North America.

As avant-garde painting declined a new school of art arose which would dominate the Soviet Union till the 1990s. Socialist Realism looked back to previous realistic traditions, whilst making use of contemporary painting techniques. Crucially unlike previous styles of realism, Socialist Realism imparted a clearly defined didacticism.

Socialist Realism ranged from inspirational historical paintings and paintings of Soviet leaders, to scenes from everyday life. In the 1930s Socialist Realist sculptors began pioneering a style of Soviet sculpture that can be seen on monuments and edifices throughout the world to this day.

The sound-films of the 1930s allowed Soviet composers to write scores to films which were increasingly produced during Stalin’s reign. The most prominent Soviet composers Shostakovich (Шостакович), Prokofiev (Прокофьев) and Khachaturian (Хачатурян/ Խաչատրյան) each provided numerous film scores during this time. The outbreak of the Great Patriotic War saw artists contributing greatly to the war effort. Shostakovich’s most enduring orchestral work, his 7th symphony was dedicated to the heroes of the siege of Leningrad.

Socialist realist painters were enlisted to keep moral high by painting triumphalist portraits of soldiers whilst denouncing the fascist enemy. Some of Socialist Realisms most enduring sculptures were erected after 1945 in the form of war memorials which were erected in the Soviet Union and in countries where the Red Army won decisive battles.

(4) 1947-1964 (From Zhdanov to Khrushchev)

No man shaped post-war cultural policy more than Andrei Zhdanov (Андре́й  Жда́нов).

Zhdanov took a hard line against all forms of avant-garde and abstract art. Zhdanov condemned ‘formalism’ in the arts; this is to say, art where the form or methodology is perceived as eclipsing a socially pertinent meaning. Zhdanov’s theories whilst very much a product of Stalin’s age, continue to speak to the controversy over whether highly abstract art possesses the ability to resonate with the masses.

Interestingly, this was a time when the CIA was actively promoting obscure and abstract arts to try and feign a western superiority vis-a-vis the USSR, when in the Soviet Union, art that was considered meaningful and moving to ordinary citizens remained favoured by the artistic establishment.

Even artists who had contributed to the war effort were not immune as the infamous Zhdanov decree of 1947 which simultaneously proscribed  Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian, the last of whom was an enthusiastic Communist.

Although Zhdanov died in 1948, his policies remained mostly unchanged until the death of Stalin in 1953.

The post-war era was a fruitful time for architects as mass building projects were inaugurated, particularly in the ‘hero cities’ (город-герой) that bore the brunt of destruction during the war.  Whilst Stalinism remained a dominant form of architecture in the late 40s and early 50s, eventually many Soviet architects began pioneering brutalism.

Brutalism became a dominant feature in Soviet cityscapes in the decades after the Great Patriotic War. The so-called ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ reached into the arts as many of the individuals proscribed under Stalin were publically rehabilitated. This included those proscribed in 1947 by Zhdanov.

The thaw saw the emergence of new avant-garde and abstract artists although their numbers were far lower than those working in the area of Socialist Realism. In spite of this, one event from this era remains emblematic of the disconnect between avant-garde artists and the government of the day. The incident took place in 1962 where Khrushchev viewed an exhibition of artists at the Moscow Manege. Upon seeing the avant-garde works, Khrushchev condemned the art as ‘horse shit’.

Just two years later Khrushchev was out of power, but his condemnation relegated much avant-garde art to the periphery of society where it would remain until the mid-1980s.

Today, Russian culture, like Russian society reflects a combination of comfort, curiosity and healthy criticism of the past. Contemporary composers, painters, sculptors and architects in Russia are as comfortable with international styles as they are with paying homage to Russia’s rich cultural heritage.

Whilst the 1990s was a time when Russia’s depressed economy meant that many individuals from outside Russia were able to purchase Russian masterworks for insanely low prices. Today, Russian art collectors are preserving and buying back much of Russia’s cultural heritage.

Russia’s art scene is commercially healthy. One can hope that with all of Russia’s young talent, a new great revolution in art may yet again be born in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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‘I will take over as Brexit Party leader’: Nigel Farage back on the frontline

Nigel Farage says that if the UK takes part in European elections, he will lead his new Brexit Party.

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Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has announced that he will lead his new Brexit Party into the European elections if UK MPs decide to delay Brexit beyond May 22.

Farage, who has ostensibly appointed himself leader, told various media, including the BBC and Sky News on Friday morning: “I will take over as leader of the Brexit Party and lead it into the European Elections.”

It comes after the Brexit Party’s leader, Catherine Blaiklock, quit over a series of alleged Islamophobic statements and retweets of far-right figures on social media.

It is not yet thought that Farage has officially been elected as leader, as the party does not, as yet, have a formal infrastructure to conduct such a vote.

The right-wing MEP vowed to put out a whole host of Brexit Party candidates if the UK participates in the upcoming EU elections in May, adding: “If we fight those elections, we will fight them on trust.”

On Thursday night, the EU agreed to PM May’s request for a delaying to Brexit beyond the March 29 deadline. Brussels announced two new exit dates depending on what happens next week in the UK parliament.

The UK will have to leave the bloc on April 12 unless British MPs agree to May’s Brexit deal. If the withdrawal agreement is passed by next week, EU leaders have agreed to grant an extension until May 22.

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Baltics cannot rely on Germany any more

The matter is NATO today is not as strong as it is supposed to be. And it is not only because of leadership blunders.

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Submitted by Adomas Abromaitis…

On March 29 Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will celebrate 15 years of becoming NATO member states. The way to the alliance membership was not simple for newly born independent countries. They have reached great success in fulfilling many of NATO demands: they have considerably increased their defence expenditures, renewed armaments and increased the number of military personnel.

In turn, they get used to rely on more powerful member states, their advice, help and even decision making. All these 15 years they felt more or less safe because of proclaimed European NATO allies’ capabilities.

Unfortunately, now it is high time to doubt. The matter is NATO today is not as strong as it supposed to be. And it is not only because of leadership’s blunders. Every member state does a bit. As for the Baltic states, they are particularly vulnerable, because they fully depend on other NATO member states in their defence. Thus, Germany, Canada and Britain are leading nations of the NATO battle group stationed in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia respectively.

But the state of national armed forces in Germany, for example, raises doubts and makes it impossible not only defend the Baltics against Russia, but Germany itself.

It turned out, that Germany itself remains dissatisfied with its combat readiness and minister of defence’s ability to perform her duties. Things are so bad, that the military’s annual readiness report would be kept classified for the first time for “security reasons.”

“Apparently the readiness of the Bundeswehr is so bad that the public should not be allowed to know about it,” said Tobias Lindner, a Greens member who serves on the budget and defense committees.

Inspector General Eberhard Zorn said (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-arms/germany-not-satisfied-with-readiness-of-submarines-some-aircraft-idUSKBN1QS1G7) the average readiness of the country’s nearly 10,000 weapons systems stood at about 70 percent in 2018, which meant Germany was able to fulfill its military obligations despite increasing responsibilities.

No overall comparison figure was available for 2017, but last year’s report revealed readiness rates of under 50 percent for specific weapons such as the aging CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters and the Tornado fighter jets.

Zorn said this year’s report was more comprehensive and included details on five main weapons systems used by the cyber command, and eight arms critical for NATO’s high readiness task force, which Germany heads this year.

“The overall view allows such concrete conclusions about the current readiness of the Bundeswehr that knowledge by unauthorized individuals would harm the security interests of the Federal Republic of Germany,” he wrote.

Critics are sure of incompetence of the Federal Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen. Though she has occupied the upper echelons of German politics for 14 years now — and shows no sign of success. This mother of seven, gynecologist by profession, by some miracle for a long time has been remaining in power, though has no trust even among German military elites. Despite numerous scandals she tries to manage the Armed Forces as a housewife does and, of course, the results are devastating for German military capabilities. The same statement could be easily apply for the Baltic States, which highly dependent on Germany in military sphere.

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Crimea: The Geopolitical Jewel Russia Continues to Polish

As Putin continues to polish his Black Sea jewel, Europe has to decide if it is going to continue playing the U.S’s games over Ukraine or begin the next phase of its independence.

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Authored by Tom Luongo via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


With all that is happening in the world Crimea has taken a bit of a backseat recently. Yes, the US, EU and Canada just added more sanctions on Russia via the odious Magnitsky legislation but this is inconsequential.

There’s been a flurry of good news coming out of Crimea and the Black Sea recently that bears discussion. Let’s start with the most important. President Vladimir Putin was in Crimea earlier this week to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the peninsula’s reunification with Russia. There he also officially inaugurated two major upgrades to Crimea’s power grid.

Located in Simferopol and Sevastopol, two new power plants will produce 940 megawatts and secure Crimea’s energy needs for now and into the future.

Power has been Crimea’s Achilles’ heel since breaking off from Ukraine in 2014. It received almost 90% of its power from the mainland. In November 2015, the trunk lines into Crimea were sabotaged by Ukrainian nationalist radicals, encouraged by President Petro Poroshenko plunging it into darkness as winter took hold.

Does this sound familiar? A place that defies US edicts geopolitically is first hit with a full trade embargo, sanctions and threatened militarily by proxies before having its electricity shut off?

*Cough* Venezuela *Cough*

And there are reports that the US has game-planned a similar fate for Iran as well. For Crimea it was easy because of the single-point-of-failure, the trunks from the mainland. For Venezuela it was as well, with the Guri dam, which affected nearly 70 percent of the country.

So, Putin timing the fifth anniversary of reunification with the announcement of the plants moving to full operational status was yet another smooth bit of international political maneuvering.

A not-so-subtle poke in the eye of the Gang Who Can’t Sanction Straight in D.C. as well as lame duck Poroshenko. Elections are at the end of the month and this celebration by Russia and Crimea will not sit well with many Ukrainians, especially the diaspora here in the US which is virulently anti-Putin in my experience.

Secure and stable power generation is a hallmark of a first world territory. Without that economic growth and stability are impossible. This is why to first help stabilize the situation in Crimea after the blackout Russia brought in 400 MW of power across the Kerch Strait from Krasnodor.

Tying Crimea to the mainland via the Kerch Strait bridge was a masterstroke by Putin. The initial power lines were simply a necessity. For those that complain he isn’t doing enough to counter US and European aggression need only look at the Kerch Strait bridge.

Not only did the Russians not seek international approval given the nearly universal refusal to recognize Crimea as Russian they built the thing in a time frame that defies description.

Imagine if this had been an EU project. They would still be debating the initial engineering plans and the political effects on some protected minority.

Not only does it open up the Eastern Black Sea to trade via Crimea but it ends the use of the Sea of Azov as a potential staging ground for naval provocations as last fall’s incident proved. Ukraine is cut off from acting aggressively and cannot count on any help from the US and Europe.

Moreover, Crimea is now permanently Russia’s. And every bit of infrastructure Russia builds there ties the two further together and weakens any bonds Crimea had with Ukraine. The resultant growth and modernization will make its way, economically and culturally back into southern Ukraine and erode the hard border over time.

This is far more important than striking out and metaphorically punching Poroshenko in the mouth, that many of Putin’s detractors wish for.

Presidents change, after all. Patience and attrition is how you beat an aggressive, distant enemy like the US

To remind everyone just how insane the Trump White House has become on matters international, no less than Vice President Mike Pence lobbied Germany to provoke another naval incident at the Kerch Strait.

If there was ever an example of how little Trump’s gang of moldy neocons think of Europe it is this bit of news. In effect, Pence was saying, “We can’t start a war with Russia because it would go nuclear, but you can because Russia can’t live without your trade.”

This coming after the US unilaterally pulled out of the INF treaty and is now flying nuclear bombers to eastern Europe. The message is clear. If the EU doesn’t get with this open-ended belligerent program against Russia and China of John Bolton’s they will be the ones paying the price when chaos breaks out.

On the other side there is Putin; building bridges, pipelines, power plants and roads.

He’s making it clear what the future holds not only for Europe but the Middle East, central Asia and India. We will defend Crimea at all costs, develop it not only into a tourist destination but also a major trade hub as well.

You are more than welcome to join us. But, we don’t need you.

These power plants will raise Crimea’s power output well beyond its current needs, allowing first export of power as well as providing the foundation for future growth.

And as if it weren’t coordinated in any way, the Chinese, on the morning of Putin’s speech, announced that Crimea would be an excellent fit for investment projects attached to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

That’s according to the head of the association of Chinese compatriots on the peninsula, Ge Zhili. “Our organization is bolstering cooperation ties, exchanges and friendly contacts with the Crimean society,” he said at an event dedicated to the fifth anniversary of Crimea’s reunification with Russia, which was held in the Russian Embassy in Beijing on Monday.

It is also ready to contribute to the establishment of “reliable partner ties” and the explanation of legal details of business cooperation with Crimea, Ge Zhili said. “The Chinese society hopes for the development of friendly cooperation with Crimea; we are ready to overcome difficulties for fruitful results.”

Again this is a direct challenge to the US who has Crimea under strict sanctions in the West. China is happy now to move forward with integrating Crimea into its plans. It’s just another example of how Russia and China simply ignore Trump’s fulminations and move on.

I can’t wait until I get to write this article all over again, this time about North Korea, now that Bolton has thrown Russian and Chinese assistance in getting North Korea to the negotiating table back in their face by destroying the Hanoi talks.

This announcement is not to be underestimated given that Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is in Rome this week to open up relations with the new Italian government. Five Star Movement’s Leader Luigi Di Maio said he would welcome becoming a part of BRI, much to the consternation of Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as his coalition partner Lega Leader Matteo Salvini.

It’s already well known that Salvini is interested in ending sanctions on Crimea and re-opening trade with Russia. Italy is desperate for new markets and opportunities, currently stifled under the euro itself as well as Germany’s insistence on austerity hollowing out Italy’s economy and its future prospects.

These issues as well as energy security ones are coming to a head this year with Brexit, the European Parliamentary elections in May and the completion of the Nordstream 2 pipeline later this year.

As Putin continues to polish his Black Sea jewel, Europe has to decide if it is going to continue playing the U.S’s games over Ukraine or begin the next phase of its independence. Salvini will lead a Euroskeptic revolt within the European Parliament in May. It may be big enough to finally defy Merkel and end EU sanctions on Russia over Crimea.

At that point the US will also have a choice, burn down the world economy with even more sanctions, tariffs and acts of war or accept the facts on the ground.

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