Late one evening this July, I found myself on top of an unfinished Moscow high-rise listening to three baritone saxophonists serenade the summer sky. Inside, a crew of young Russian artists had turned a construction site into a temporary gallery, home to an exhibition they called “Façade: Under Construction”. A rickety wheelbarrow and a cement mixer shared the space with abstract sculptures and conceptual video art. A chic crowd sipped wine and swayed along the ledge. The Kremlin’s crimson star glowed in the distance.
Russia’s political life is increasingly repressive, and its posture on the world stage ever more belligerent. Last month its oldest human-rights group, Memorial, was declared a “foreign agent”, the latest strike in a long-running crackdown on independent organisations. Amid growing tensions over Syria, Russian state television has been warning breathlessly of potential war with America. Conservative forces have taken to attacking cultural institutions too. Earlier this month, activists calling themselves “The Officers of Russia” barricaded an exhibition of the American photographer Jock Sturges, who shoots nude portraits of adolescents and their families, and splashed urine on the pictures. “Our culture should be Russian,” one reportedly shouted. “We don’t need European culture here.”
Pollsters point out that Russian society is depoliticised and quiescent. Vladimir Putin enjoys an approval rating of over 80%. In recent parliamentary elections his United Russia party took more than 75% of the seats. Turnout was at a record low.
It would be easy to see the lack of resistance as a sign of listlessness. But it would also be wrong.
Despite the noxious atmosphere, there is another Moscow – creative, educated and worldly. The Officers of Russia’s cries aside, this is undoubtedly a “European” city, where you might have to choose, as I did last week, between the Bolshoi Theatre’s rendition of the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine’s “Jewels” or a performance of the minimalist American composer Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos” by young Russian musicians in a refurbished factory space (I went for Balanchine, which proved to be sublime). The dissonance between the two Moscows – the besieged fortress and the cosmopolitan capital – can be baffling. Visitors arrive imagining an ominous, grey backwater and are surprised to find breezy promenades, free public Wi-Fi and hipsters who would be at home in Brooklyn or Hackney.
An unusual logic dictates the duality. Following the Bolotnaya protests in 2011-12, during which tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets, the space for participation in politics has closed. By arresting and harassing its opponents, the Kremlin has made it clear that attempts to stand up to the state will end badly. Some have been won over by the patriotic fervour unleashed after the annexation of Crimea. Others have left the country (even official emigration statistics show a sharp rise in departures since 2012). But many more have simply turned away from politics, and gone into what Russians half-jokingly call “internal emigration”.
In such conditions, people express themselves privately rather than publicly, culturally rather than politically. “Energy isn’t being spent on resistance, but on ourselves, on our projects, on self-development,” Marina Rudenko, one of the curators of the “Façade” exhibit, told me. In the arts especially, independent artist-run spaces and exhibitions like “Façade” have proliferated. Invitations are passed around between friends on Facebook, avoiding the public eye. As a response to institutional strictures, the practice has echoes of the Soviet-era non-conformist artists who held exhibitions in their flats and private spaces to show the work that could never be presented in official museums (though today’s censorship remains far less onerous than in the Soviet days).
Many in the intelligentsia find refuge in self-contained worlds of their own creation, attending lectures, taking lessons and pondering art. These worlds do not show up in most sociological surveys. They are too marginal to tilt Russia’s economic indicators, or to shift the country’s political course. But they serve as a model for a different way of being. “A separate world is being created, an aesthetic world, a conceptual world,” says Alice Kern, another of the “Façade” curators. “It’s a survival mechanism, a way to be yourself.”