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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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Upstart Populist Party Shocks In Dutch Election Upset, 2 Days After Utrecht Attack

International reports have described the FvD as receiving “a surge of last-minute support” in the days following the Utrecht attack.

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Via Zerohedge…


Dutch voters have sent shock waves through Europe at the polls on Wednesday in the wake of Monday’s deadly Utrecht terror shooting, in which a now detained 37-year old Turkish man went on a terrifying tram killing spree which left three dead and three injured.

Euroskeptic party, Forum for Democracy (FvD), has emerged victorious in key provincial elections this week, paving the way to making it one of the two largest groups in the Dutch Senate, and representing growing Dutch frustration with the recent unprecedented refugee influx in Europe.

Newcomer Forum for Democracy party is led by 36-year-old Thierry Baudet, who is a critic of the EU and of the Netherlands’ immigration policies, via EPA

International reports have described the FvD as receiving “a surge of last-minute support” in the days following the Utrecht attack, which investigators have since described as having a “terror motive” based on a letter found in shooter Gokmen Tanis’ possession.

Forum for Democracy party leader Thierry Baudet had immediately placed ultimate blame  for the incident on the government’s “lax immigration policies” and provocatively stated a day before the elections (referencing his political rival)

If people want more deadly shootings like the one in Utrecht, then they have to vote for the VVD.

Baudet, riding a wave of renewed Euroskeptic sentiment, and whose party also wants to see more military spending, green initiatives, and an easing on income tax while greatly restricting the borders, said in the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote: “The voters in the Netherlands have spread their wings and shown their true power.”

Referencing the Utrecht attack and other deadly terror incidents on European soil, he added: “We have been called to the front because we have to. Because the country needs us.”

Three were killed and several injured in Monday’s Dutch tram terror attack, which raised the country’s emergency threat level to five as it was unfolding, its highest level.

Interestingly, the 36-year old Baudet and his party continued campaigning down to the last moments even as others stopped in the wake of Monday’s attack which rocked the Netherlands. According to Al Jazeera:

Following the lead of US President Donald Trump, Baudet opposes immigration and emphasises “Dutch first” cultural and economic themes. He opposes the euro and thinks the Netherlands should leave the European Union.

Baudet had continued campaigning when other parties stopped after Monday’s attack in Utrecht, in which a gunman shot three people dead on a tram. The populist leader blamed the incident on the government’s lax immigration policies.

The FvD is now set to take 12 seats in the upper house of parliament, which is equal to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative VVD Party, a scenario before this week considered unlikely according to many observers.

The FvD slightly outscoring the VVD means Rutte’s government has lost its majority for the 75-seat Senate ahead of upcoming May elections.

In a post-election speech on Wednesday, Baudet described further that what’s now being described in international media as “an upstart populist party [that has] shocked the Dutch political establishment” as punishing the arrogance of elites.

In his pro-Western civilization themed remarks, Baudet added, “We are standing in the rubble of what was once the most beautiful civilization in the world.”

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Empire Of Absurdity: Recycled Neocons, Recycled Enemies

Despite America’s military threats, bellicose speechifying, brutal sanctions, and Cold War-style conflict-framing, the incumbent Maduro seems firmly in control. 

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Authored by Major Danny Sjursen (ret.) via AntiWar.com:


There are times when I wish that the United States would just drop the charade and declare itself a global empire.

As a veteran of two imperial wars, a witness to the dark underside of America’s empire-denial, I’ve grown tired of the equivocation and denials from senior policymakers. The U.S. can’t be an empire, we’re told, because – unlike the Brits and Romans – America doesn’t annex territories outright, and our school children don’t color its colonies in red-white-and-blue on cute educational maps.

But this distinction, at root, is rather superficial. Conquest, colonization, and annexation are so 19th century – Washington has moved beyond the overt and engages in the (not-so) subtle modern form of imperialism. America’s empire over the last two decades – under Democrats and Republicans – has used a range of tools: economic, military, political, to topple regimes, instigate coups, and starve “enemy” civilians. Heck, it didn’t even start with 9/11 – bullying foreigners and overturning uncooperative regimes is as American as apple pie.

Still, observing post-9/11, post-Iraq/Afghanistan defeat, Washington play imperialism these days is tragicomically absurd. The emperor has no clothes, folks. Sure, America (for a few more fleeting years) boasts the world’s dominant economy, sure its dotted the globe with a few hundred military bases, and sure it’s military still outspends the next seven competitors combined. Nonetheless, what’s remarkable, what constitutes the real story of 2019, is this: the US empire can’t seem to accomplish anything anymore, can’t seem to bend anybody to its will. It’s almost sad to watch. America, the big-hulking has-been on the block, still struts its stuff, but most of the world simply ignores it.

Make no mistake, Washington isn’t done trying; it’s happy to keep throwing good money (and blood) at bad: to the tune of a cool $6 trillion, 7,000 troop deaths, and 500,000 foreign deaths – including maybe 240,000 civilians. But what’s it all been for? The world is no safer, global terror attacks have only increased, and Uncle Sam just can’t seem to achieve any of its preferred policy goals.

Think on it for a second: Russia and Iran “won” in Syria; the Taliban and Pakistan are about ready to “win” in Afghanistan; Iran is more influential than ever in Iraq; the Houthis won’t quit in Yemen; Moscow is keeping Crimea; Libya remains unstable; North Korea ain’t giving up its nukes; and China’s power continues to grow in its version of the Caribbean – the South China Sea. No amount of American cash, no volume of our soldiers’ blood, no escalation in drone strikes or the conventional bombing of brown folks, has favorably changed the calculus in any of these regional conflicts.

What does this tell us? Quite a lot, I’d argue – but not what the neoliberal/neoconservative alliance of pundits and policymakers are selling. See for these unrepentant militarists the problem is always the same: Washington didn’t use enough force, didn’t spend enough blood and treasure. So is the solution: more defense spending, more CIA operations, more saber-rattling, and more global military interventions.

No, the inconvenient truth is as simple as it is disturbing to red-blooded patriots. To wit, the United States – or any wannabe hegemon – simply doesn’t possess the capability to shape the world in its own image. See those pesky locals – Arabs, Asians, Muslims, Slavs – don’t know what’s good for them, don’t understand that (obviously) there is a secret American zipped inside each of their very bodies, ready to burst out if given a little push!

It turns out that low-tech, cheap insurgent tactics, when combined with impassioned nationalism, can bog down the “world’s best military” indefinitely. It seems, too, that other regional heavyweights – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea – stand ready to call America’s nuclear bluff. That they know the US all-volunteer military and consumerist economy can’t ultimately absorb the potential losses a conventional war would demand. Even scarier for the military-industrial-congressional-media establishment is the logical extension of all this accumulated failure: the questionable efficacy of military force in the 21st century.

Rather than recognize the limits of American military, economic, and political power, Bush II, Obama, and now Trump, have simply dusted off the old playbook. It’s reached the level of absurdity under the unhinged regime of Mr. Trump. Proverbially blasting Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” as its foreign policy soundtrack, the Donald and company have doubled down. Heck, if Washington can’t get its way in Africa, Europe, Asia, or the Mideast, well why not clamp down in our own hemisphere, our traditional sphere of influence – South and Central America.

Enter the lunacy of the current Venezuela controversy. Trump’s team saw a golden opportunity in this socialist, backwater petrostate. Surely here, in nearby Monroe Doctrine country, Uncle Sam could get his way, topple the Maduro regime, and coronate the insurgent (though questionably legitimate) Juan Guaido. It’s early 20th century Yankee imperialism reborn. Everything seemed perfect. Trump could recall the specter of America’s tried and true enemy – “evil” socialism – cynically (and absurdly) equating Venezuelan populism with some absurd Cold-War-era existential threat to the nation. The idea that Venezuela presents a challenge on the scale of Soviet Russia is actually farcical. What’s more, and this is my favorite bit of irrationality, we were all recently treated to a game of “I know you are but what am I?” from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who (with a straight face) claimed Cuba, tiny island Cuba, was the real “imperialist” in Venezuela.

Next, in a move reminiscent of some sort of macabre 1980’s theme party, Trump resuscitated Elliot Abrams – you know, the convicted felon of Iran-Contra infamy, to serve as Washington’s special envoy to embattled Venezuela. Who better to act as “fair arbiter” in that country than a war-criminal with the blood of a few hundred thousand Central Americans (remember the Contras?!?) on his hands back in the the good old (Reagan) days.

Despite all this: America’s military threats, bellicose speechifying, brutal sanctions, and Cold War-style conflict-framing, the incumbent Maduro seems firmly in control. This isn’t to say that Venezuelans don’t have genuine grievances with the Maduro government (they do), but for now at least, it appears the military is staying loyal to the president, Russia/China are filling in the humanitarian aid gaps, and Uncle Sam is about to chalk up another loss on the world scene. Ultimately, whatever the outcome, the crisis will only end with a Venezuelan solution.

America’s impotence would almost be sad to watch, if, and only if, it wasn’t all so tragic for the Venezuelan people.

So Trump and his recycled neocons will continue to rant and rave and threaten Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and so on and so forth. America will still flex its aging, sagging muscles – a reflexive habit at this point.

Only now it’ll seem sad. Because no one is paying attention anymore.

The opposite of love is isn’t hate – it’s indifference.

*  *  *

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.comHe served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

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Trudeau’s Top Bureaucrat Unexpectedly Quits Amid Growing Corruption Scandal

In a scathing letter to Trudeau, Wernick said that “recent events” led him to conclude he couldn’t hold his post during the election campaign this fall.

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Via Zerohedge


Since it was exposed by a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper earlier this month, the scandal that’s become known as the SNC-Lavalin affair has already led to the firing of several of Trudeau’s close advisors and raised serious questions about whether the prime minister was complicit in pressuring the attorney general to offer a deferred prosecution agreement with a large, Quebec-based engineering firm.

And according to the first round of polls released since the affair exploded into public view…

…it could cost Trudeau his position as prime minister and return control to the conservatives, according to the CBC.

Campaign Research showed the Conservatives ahead with 37% to 32% for the Liberals, while both Ipsos and Léger put the margin at 36% to 34% in the Conservatives’ favour.Since December, when both polling firms were last in the field, the Liberals have lost one point in Campaign Research’s polling and four percentage points in the Ipsos poll, while the party is down five points since November in the Léger poll.

Meanwhile, as the noose tightens around Trudeau, on Monday another of the key Canadian government officials at the center of the SNC-Lavalin scandal has quit his post.

Michael Wernick, clerk of the privy council, the highest-ranking position in Canada’s civil service and a key aide to Justin Trudeau, announced his retirement Monday. Trudeau named Ian Shugart, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, to replace him.

In a scathing letter to Trudeau, Wernick said that “recent events” led him to conclude he couldn’t hold his post during the election campaign this fall.

“It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties,” he said, citing the need for impartiality on the issue of potential foreign interference. According to Bloomberg, the exact date of his departure is unclear.

As we reported in February, Canada’s former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, quit following allegations that several key Trudeau government figures pressured her to intervene to end a criminal prosecution against Montreal-based construction giant SNC. Wernick was among those she named in saying the prime minister’s office wanted her to pursue a negotiated settlement.

Wernick has since twice spoken to a committee of lawmakers investigating the case, and during that testimony both defended his actions on the SNC file and warned about the risk of foreign election interference, as “blame Putin” has become traditional Plan B plan for most politicians seeing their careers go up in flames.

“I’m deeply concerned about my country right now, its politics and where it’s headed. I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election,” he said in his first appearance before the House of Commons justice committee, before repeating the warning a second time this month. “If that was seen as alarmist, so be it. I was pulling the alarm. We need a public debate about foreign interference.”

Because somehow foreign interference has something to do with Wenick’s alleged corruption.

Incidentally, as we wonder what the real reason is behind Wernick’s swift departure, we are confident we will know soon enough.

Anyway, back to the now former clerk, who is meant to be non-partisan in service of the government of the day, also criticized comments by a Conservative senator and praised one of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers.

Wernick’s testimony was criticized as overly cozy with the ruling Liberals. Murray Rankin, a New Democratic Party lawmaker, asked the clerk how lawmakers could “do anything but conclude that you have in fact crossed the line into partisan activity?” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said he seemed “willing to interfere in partisan fashion for whoever is in power.”

Whatever Wernick’s true motives, he is the latest but not last in what will be a long line of cabinet departures as the SNC scandal exposes even more corruption in Trudeau’s cabinet (some have ironically pointed out that Canada’s “beloved” prime minister could be gone for actual corruption long before Trump). Trudeau had already lost a top political aide, Gerald Butts, to the scandal. A second minister, Jane Philpott, followed Wilson-Raybould in quitting cabinet.

Separately, on Monday, Trudeau appointed a former deputy prime minister in a Liberal government, Anne McLellan, as a special adviser to investigate some of the legal questions raised by the controversy. They include how governments should interact with the attorney general and whether that role should continue to be held by the justice minister.

As Bloomberg notes, the increasingly shaky Liberal government hasn’t ruled out helping SNC by ordering a deferred prosecution agreement in the corruption and bribery case, which centers around the company’s work in Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya. Doing so would allow the company to pay a fine and avoid any ban on receiving government contracts. That decision is up to the current attorney general, David Lametti; of course, such an action would only raise tensions amid speculation that the government is pushing for a specific political, and favorable for Trudeau, outcome.

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