PERM, Russia – On one wall, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin happily brandishes a pistol, as his arch-nemesis, Mikhail Khordokovsky, smiles enigmatically from behind prison bars. Nearby, identical Putin heads are superimposed on rows of neighborhood boys in a group photo.
“Motherland” is the theme of the art show at the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, a state-supported institution. Marat Guelman, the curator, does not shy from including paintings that do not show Russia’s prime minister in the kind of action man poses that the Kremlin prefers.
In recent weeks, the world has awakened up to the fact that not all Russians want Vladimir Putin to be president for life. And the Russians turning out for midwinter protests are only the visible tip of a larger social iceberg of skepticism. Out of sight are large numbers of Russians who either tune out of politics, or for whom the Putin mystique is long gone.
Guelman told me at the opening of Motherland, in Perm, at the Museum of Contemporary Art : “What we are doing here is more important than the presidential elections. We’ve found a strategy to make people’s lives better in Russia. Not to wait to elect the right president, but to start locally and to create a normal society.”
Well before protests broke out last month, Russian artists happily satirized the czar-like airs of the nation’s strong man. Art, live theater and opposition newspapers — all media with limited audiences — have long been allowed largely free rein in modern Russia.
Western reporters, eager to find art censorship in authoritarian Russia, focused on the legal travails of Voina, or War, a St. Petersburg art collective with an anarchist bent. Voina’s latest legal cases stem from two recent pieces of “performance art” — filming Voina members turning over a police car, and, more recently, burning an (empty) police truck. While such actions may have artistic merit, I am sure that if they took place in New York, there would be arrests and prosecutions.
In reality, Russia’s art scene is about as free as in New York, Berlin or London.
Guelman’s museum, known as PERMM, writes of his show: “Motherland is not a political exhibition, and it’s only political message is that the museum, PERMM, is unregulated, uncensored art space.”
Today’s artistic freedom contrasts sharply with the artistic repression of the Soviet era, symbolized by the so-called “Bulldozer Show” of 1974. In response to an unauthorized show of avant garde art, the KGB sent bulldozers, water cannons, and dump trucks to break up the show and destroying most of the paintings in the process. The next year, in 1975, Vladimir Putin joined the KGB.
In Prime Minister Putin’s Russia, a largely unregulated art scene is no accident. It is part of a careful information control of Kremlin strategists. They let artists and intellectuals blow off steam, knowing that gallery shows and opposition newspapers have small audiences in a nation of 142 million people.
In contrast, the Kremlin keeps tight control over television and most radio. This strategy proved successful for the Putin decade – the 2000’s.
Then the Internet exploded in Russia. Now anti-Putin images, like the ones here, can suddenly bounce all over the nation. Before, a political comedy session in a Moscow coffee shop might draw 80 people, usually converts to the anti-Putin cause. Now, anti-Putin political comedy shows and video clips draw 1 million hits.
Putin defenders reply that modern art is for snobs and intellectuals. They say that Russia’s silent majority will vote for Mr. Putin on March 4. (And as some here like to point out, American Republicans often charge that most American journalists and intellectuals sympathize with the Democratic Party, but that America’s silent majority votes conservative).
The Russians may be right. In recent polls, 42 to 48 percent of respondent indicated that they will vote for Mr. Putin in the presidential elections. The Kremlin’s challenge of the next few weeks is to convert this core of supporters into a real majority, allowing Mr. Putin to win on the first round.
With the number of Russian internet users at 51 million and climbing, more and more people are saying that this will be Russia’s last “television election.”