There Is Something Putin Can’t Control

According to “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated novel about the devil’s visit to Stalinist Moscow, “manuscripts don’t burn.” This famous phrase became a shorthand for art’s supposed ability to triumph over repression. Today, Bulgakov’s formula is being put to the test once again in Russia, where a new film adaptation of the book has caused a scandal.

“The Master and Margarita” captured the surreal atmosphere of dark forces and mysterious disappearances in the 1930s Soviet Union. Firmly in the national canon, the book would seem to be safe for cinematic treatment. But the movie’s director is an American citizen who opposes the war in Ukraine, and its winking allusions to the cruelties of life under dictatorship resonate a little too uncannily among Russian audiences, who are flocking to see it.

In response, self-declared patriots have called for the film to be banned and for its director to be prosecuted. They’ve aimed much of their ire at the Ministry of Culture and the state film fund, which cosponsored the film’s production before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the invasion’s wake, President Vladimir Putin has made sweeping attempts to restrict creative expression. Writers, visual artists and performers who’ve spoken out against the war have variously been shunned, labeled “foreign agents” and imprisoned.

But as “The Master and Margarita” shows — after decades of suppression and censorship, the book helped liberate readers’ imaginations and provide a touchstone for the reforming Soviet intelligentsia — power never totally succeeds in shaping art to its ends. Ahead of a presidential election expected to extend his tenure by six more years, Mr. Putin appears politically impregnable. Yet try all he might, he can’t control culture.

The Kremlin does not operate by force alone. Pro-war Z culture, named after the letter written on Russian tanks, is touted on television and promoted across the country, with the promise of cash prizes, contracts and publicity for those who participate. Z poems and songs relentlessly invoke the Soviet Union’s fight against the Nazis in World War II. According to the nationalist writer Alexander Prokhanov, the war in Ukraine has fueled a new “Russian avant-garde.” Its dubious fruits are on display in “Walking Into the Fire,” a rock opera based on Mr. Prokhanov’s poems whose stars croon about defending the motherland atop real tanks.

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The Ministry of Culture, for its part, offers funding for films on approved topics, including “the degradation of Europe” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission.” In the state-backed 2023 movie “The Witness,” a Belgian violin player in Kyiv is tortured by Ukrainian soldiers, who coerce him into playing the Nazi Air Force anthem near a portrait of Adolf Hitler. Subtlety is not a must.

For artists, cooperation with the state doesn’t necessarily require creating new material that parrots the Kremlin. In a scheme investigated by the independent Russian outlet Meduza, the administration offers blacklisted musicians and actors the chance to atone for their sins by making an appearance at the front or supporting a children’s charity in Russian-occupied territories. The pop star Philipp Kirkorov, for example, after apologizing for his attendance at the infamous “almost naked” party that angered conservatives, sang some of his greatest hits for wounded soldiers in the Donbas.

Yet even as repression has worsened, some writers and artists who remain in Russia continue to question Mr. Putin’s version of reality. Many of them are women who reject Z culture’s aggressive masculinity and subvert its clichés. In “W Is for War,” the poet Natalia Beskhlebnaia tries to explain the concept of war to her 3-year-old son. In another poem, which plays on similarities between Russian idioms associated with war and pregnancy, she observes how the invasion has seeped into every facet of life — even a “placenta still hot in the arms of a midwife.”

Ms. Beskhlebnaia’s verses appear in the Resistance and Opposition Arts Review, a digital collection of poetry, essays, music and visual art that is published outside Russia but has readers and contributors within it, who reach the site through a VPN. Other writers publish on taboo topics with the help of allegory. One novelist whose books are sold in stores in Russia — and who asked not to be named to avoid reprisals — addresses family and state violence, including the impact of mobilization, through folklore motifs.

For much of Mr. Putin’s rule, it was fashionable for educated Russians to stay out of politics. Now artists are reckoning with the shameful feeling that they did not realize what was happening in time or do enough to stop it, while also trying not to run afoul of laws that forbid dissent. For her series “Birch People,” Yanina Boldyreva, a Novosibirsk-based artist, staged unsettling photographs of a civilization whose members grew so passive that they entered a vegetative state. Ms. Boldyreva told me that her work, which she shows online and at private exhibitions, tries “to understand how we ended up where we are and how to react in order to change something.”

A faceless figure sits in front of a television covered in cement.
Yanina Boldyreva, from her series “Birch People.”Credit…Yanina Boldyreva

So far Z culture, despite the state’s attempts to bankroll and promote it, has not been especially successful. “The Witness” received withering reviews, while most Z pop videos have been watched far fewer times than an antiwar rap by the star Oxxxymiron, who left the country after the invasion.

Though many Z cultural artifacts indulge in bombastic flag-waving, others are ambiguous. The rapper Husky, who was once seen as something of an opposition figure, disappointed some of his fans by staying in Russia and appearing to endorse the war. Yet his rap song “God of War,” in which a soldier dreams about being blown apart by a drone, lacks any hint of heroic struggle. The song’s chorus sounds like teeth chattering in fear.

Bulgakov understood the fraught balance between following one’s vision and adapting to ideological constraints. He secretly wrote his great anti-authoritarian novel during Stalin’s terror. In the late 1930s, however, while he was finishing “The Master and Margarita,” Bulgakov wrote a play about the youthful Stalin that depicted him as a romantic rebel. This concession to official taste raised the tempting prospect that his other theatrical works might be performed again. But the production was canceled, leaving Bulgakov bereft and in poor health. He died months later.

Mr. Putin, with his perpetually extended rule and historical obsessions, has tried to turn back the clock. Z culture reflects this retrospective gaze. Mr. Putin’s strongest supporters are over 55, and his approval is weakest among those who grew up after the Soviet collapse. These younger cohorts, who’ve crowded into cinemas to see “The Master and Margarita,” are leading the creative effort to imagine a country where the future is not the past and evil no longer masquerades as good. They sense a revelation that Bulgakov did not live to see: Though culture may buttress a dictator, it can also break power’s spell.

Excerpts: The New York Times

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