How has modern Russian culture been shaped by Putin’s war in Ukraine?

While pro-war artists are endorsed by the Kremlin, Russia’s crackdown on dissent has seen other artists leave.

Russia pro-Kremlin art
This illustration by DazBastaDraw, a pro-Kremlin artist, shows a Russian prisoner of war being tortured [Courtesy: DazBastaDraw]

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Andrey Muravyev, better known as the artist DazBastaDraw, mainly drew sketches and comics for himself as a hobby with no particular desire to make them public.

Now he showcases his patriotic artwork supporting Moscow’s “special military operation” (SMO) to more than 16,000 Telegram subscribers.

“I try to reflect in my works my attitude or reaction to certain phenomena or events,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

“Our cause is just. Victory will be ours. I sincerely believe the SMO should have started much earlier. My drawings are my emotions. When I find something funny, I’d like the audience to rejoice with me and vice versa.”

Art and culture have been influenced by warfare since the earliest cave paintings.

The 19th century painter Vasily Vereshchagin’s canvas The Apotheosis of War sparked heated discussion over Russia’s conquest of Central Asia.

Over the past two years, the Kremlin has enthusiastically promoted a militaristic outlook, including in the art world.

In July, Gosuslugi, a digital platform every Russian citizen needs to access government services, emailed its tens of millions of users a compilation of patriotic Z-poetry, named after the letter that’s come to symbolise pro-war sentiments.

The email featured a fragment of verse from the Donetsk-born poet Anna Revyakina: “What will they say about us later? We lived, we fought/We fought so that there would be no more war.”

Meanwhile, the pop star Shaman is recognised for his talent at getting the crowds going at Putin’s rallies with his song Vstanem (Let’s Rise) honouring fallen soldiers, for which he is lavished with state-sponsored gigs, including in the occupied territories.

While DazBastaDraw’s career is yet to ascend to such heights, he admits aligning with official interests.

“For a black car to arrive and people in formal suits to step out with a suitcase of cash, saying ‘Comrade artist, you’re great. We like what you do. Take this, and you’ll never be left wanting.’ Alas, no, that probably only happens in movies,” he said.

“But seriously, several times I’ve had orders from near-governmental organisations, mostly media. I have experience working together with law enforcement agencies. I think we were pleased with each other and the results of our cooperation.”

In September, the government allocated 1.6 billion roubles (about $17m) to the winners of a competition promoting patriotic and pro-war projects. The winners included a detective series about a young engineer who travels to the occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and confronts saboteurs as well as a film about the late Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko.

The promotion of such work, however, hasn’t always met a receptive public. Last year, the film The Witness, about a Belgian violinist who winds up in the midst of the “special operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, bombed at the box office.

According to Felix Sandalov, editor of the publishing house Straight Forward, there is not as much appetite for pro-war media as the ubiquitousness of the letter Z in Russian society might suggest.

“Judging by the recent manifesto of the self-proclaimed conservative Russian Writers Union, the Union of February 24, Z-poets and Z-writers are still dissatisfied with their position in society and continue to complain about the privileges of more successful writers who condemned the war,” Sandalov said.

“One should take these claims with a pinch of salt, but what is evident is that in terms of cultural consumption, Russian readers are not very enthusiastic about Z-literature. There is a significant rise in the use of coded language and indirect messaging. This is indicated, for example, by the increasing popularity of literature about the fall of the Third Reich and how Germans dealt with guilt after World War II as well as books about the deaths of famous dictators,and so forth.”

At the same time, “everything is more or less directly connected to the war in Russia now”, Sandalov’s co-editor, Aleksandr Gorbachev, said.

“Putin’s ideology and propaganda have been revamped up to constantly push the war narrative. There hardly are any subjects untouched by it.”

While not explicitly pro-war, the first song released by the popular rock band Leningrad since the start of the full-scale invasion was titled No Entry, which compared how Russian citizens have been treated in Europe to Jews in 1940s Germany. The group later released a track singing the praises of Rostec, the state-owned weapons manufacturer.

Unlike Leningrad, the rock band DDT and it’s frontman, Yury Shevchuk, have been outspoken against the invasion.

Shevchuk has consistently been a pacifist since the 1980s war in Afghanistan. In 2022, he was interrogated, fined under wartime censorship laws and had several concerts cancelled over his vocal stance.

“As for censorship, just take a look at the recent laws signed by Putin,” Gorbachev said.

“[The] LGBTQ [community] is now deemed an ‘extremist organisation’. Even a gay house party is in danger of a police raid,” he said. “Independent journalism and blogging is forbidden. You can go to jail just by calling a war a war and not a ‘special military operation’. History is problematic too. Anyone who dares to delve into the complexities of World War II and the role the USSR played in it risks becoming a felon.”

He added that women’s rights and feminism are “dangerous topics” in Russia as well as postcolonial studies.

“Thinking about the histories and rights of different territories and nations that are a part of Russia can be deemed a threat to the integrity of the Russian state – again a felony. And so on. And nobody knows what they will dislike tomorrow.”

While many artists and creatives remain in Russia, others have found such an atmosphere stifling and escaped abroad, such as the celebrated film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov and rapper Morgenshtern.

But they have not been entirely welcomed outside.

Last year, a literary discussion panel involving exiled Russian authors due to be held in New York was cancelled after pressure from Ukrainian attendees, prompting journalist Masha Gessen to resign as a trustee of the PEN literary society. The journalist has also raised controversy as one of the few Russian liberals, and a Jew, to draw parallels between Israel’s campaign in Gaza and the Holocaust.

The Straight Forward publishing house was founded to give this exiled culture a voice.

“This is material that cannot be published in Russia due to censorship,” Sandalov said.

“It is common now that even printing facilities refuse to print something contrarian, and libraries and bookshops are quietly getting rid of books by banned authors. In the end, we stand for supporting free speech and telling true stories that can alter people’s minds.”

Russian cultural exports have not been entirely ostracised, however.

Last year, the Russian crime series The Boy’s Word about teenage street gangs in the twilight of the USSR as well as its soundtrack were hits in both Russia and Ukraine despite politicians such as former President Petro Poroshenko urging viewers to boycott all things Russian.

Source: Al Jazeera