The recent arrest of director Kirill Serebrennikov has re-ignited many discussions in Russian society about the nature of Vladimir Putin’s government. This open letter was published on August 24, 2017 on Snob.ru, quickly removed, and then re-posted along with an explanation by the site’s editorial staff of their stance. (My commentary on the whole thing coming soon.) Again, I am not a professional translator. This piece was a bit more difficult than my last translation — for example, the style of the original is a bit sloppy, but it sounds worse when translated directly into English than it does in Russian. I had to make some significant changes to the sentence structure in a few cases. In any case, I did my best to be accurate, but please comment if you speak Russian and find any important errors.
I, screenwriter and director Ivan Vyrypaev, in connection with the arrest of my comrade and colleague, director Kirill Serebrennikov, would like to address the Russian cultural community[i].
Colleagues, friends! Let’s admit to ourselves that today’s leaders[ii] of Russia will not be punished for Kirill Serebrennikov’s arrest. I see that the majority of you have written letters in his support, gone to rallies, given interviews, and even addressed the president. All of this, unfortunately, is becoming a tragi-comic phenomenon. In the meantime, most of you continue to shoot your films, put on plays and receive grants from the Ministry of Culture. One way or another, by collaborating with this regime while thinking that we can change something in this country, or make a meaningful contribution to change, through our art and our role in society, we are only fooling ourselves and our country once again. And this, I’m sorry to say, looks decidedly childish.
To start with, it would be good to honestly define who and what our current regime is. In 1917 in Russia, there was an armed coup in which power passed to an illegally convened government of “Bolsheviks.” This regime orchestrated a bloody terror against its citizens. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin are unquestionably criminals and deserve nothing other than universal condemnation. From 1917 until the present day, the regime in Russia has not changed. Our current government has openly inherited the reign of the terrorist Bolshevik organization. Memorials to Lenin stand in almost every city, his body lies in Red Square, not to mention that busts and memorials to Stalin are even now being erected. Furthermore, the government openly uses the emblems of the Bolshevik terrorist organization: seals, symbols, streets named after the leaders of the Red Terror, the music of the communist hymn (with different words), etc.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no referendum held in Russia to decide who and what now constituted Russia, and what relationship this modern Russia would have with the illegal Bolshevik regime. Formally we began to be called the Russian Federation, but our governmental philosophy, as before, continued to be the philosophy of the Bolshevik regime. There was no renunciation of the crimes of Lenin and Stalin, no public penance. Lenin has still not been buried, and the political symbol of the hammer and sickle, which in most civilized countries is equivalent to the fascist swastika, is to this day openly displayed in public spaces as an emblem, a souvenir, a memorial that is openly revered in our country. It is enough to walk along the old Arbat to see everything plastered with red stars, Budenny caps, Lenins and Stalins. Imagine if such a plethora of fascist symbols were being sold in the center of Berlin.
But the fundamental problem is that, in the consciousness of Russians and many of our cultural figures, Bolshevism is not equivalent to fascism. In this, most likely, lies Russia’s biggest problem, both in the internal arrangement of our society, and in our relationships with other nations, especially those in Europe. But we need to understand that this de-coupling of contemporary Russia from its Bolshevik ideology will not happen as long as our current regime remains a direct inheritor of the illegal, criminal power that from the October revolution to this very day has maintained its control over the population. It is interesting that Vladimir Putin’s main argument justifying the seizure of the Crimean territory, and Russia’s participation in the conflict in the Ukraine[iii] in general, is that there was a regime change in the Ukraine that put an illegal political group into power, when the same can be said about Russia, where the current regime is a direct descendant of the Bolshevik terror group that obtained its power illegally. There was never an official renunciation of the actions of the communist regime and its emblems; no declaration that this regime’s rule was illegal; no criminal indictment, and no ban on its emblems and symbols. This is exactly why we have conflicts with the Baltic nations, Poland, and other countries from the former “Communist bloc.” And it is also why our neighboring countries (Ukraine, the Baltics, and others) have such antagonism towards modern Russia and the Russian language, since Russian is directly associated with a regime that occupied not only Russia, but also a number of Eastern European countries after World War II. It stands to reason that such an attitude towards the Russian language should be ameliorated, as Germany did in its time, spending enormous amounts of money and efforts to separate “everything German” from “everything fascist.” But the fact is Russia never did that work because our current regime is still a descendant of Stalin’s – a regime that openly entered into a dialogue with Hitler’s government, supported the actions of the fascists in other countries, and even participated in military campaigns, invading, for example, Poland in 1939, and it turns out that that regime to this day, in essence, remains in power. If in the late 1990s and early 2000s the regime somehow hid and suppressed this allegiance, then today it is once again openly shown.
I am a citizen of Russia, I consider Russia my motherland and my home. A home where, many years ago, armed people broke in and began to loot, murder, rape, destroy churches, eliminate the faith of a people in the beginnings of spiritual freedom, and now these criminals, in essence, still remain in power. I don’t like to offend people and my intention is not to insult anyone. This includes those in power, because they most likely, as the expression goes, “know not what they do.” But, seeing the public positions Russia takes in regard to many important global political questions, I cannot look impassively on the catastrophe we are heading for. And this is all because these positions directly follow from the political positions of the communist regime. They formally deny many elements, for example “Stalinism,” but all the while consider the communist regime a necessary landmark in the development of the Russian government, rather than our “dark times” and a tragic mistake. And without admitting our mistake, we cannot remedy it; more accurately, there is simply no motivation to remedy it.
So here we are with this unfortunately already “normal” occurrence of regularly arresting people. And we – cultural representatives – once again write our letters, trying to explain to the regime that they’re wrong, trying to gain justice and respect. But who are we addressing and what are we asking for? Isn’t it just the same as asking Stalin to pardon Meyerhold? And why should Stalin ever have pardoned anyone? Stalin and his regime acted systematically and, as we say today, “within their own framework.”
Forgive me, but it is painful to me to see the magnificent director Aleksei Uchitel defending his film against the attacks of deputies and priests, but quite deliberately never making any demands to the government or to the president himself, as though the deputy or metropolitan were the main reason for what is happening to his film. Is that really what you believe, Aleksei Efimovich? Under this regime, what is happening to your film is completely normal. I write this, of course, out of respect for you and out of sorrow at seeing you and other respected colleagues again and again soliciting grants from the Ministry of Culture for your next film – which, perhaps, won’t be banned, if you are a little more careful, and present your themes more simply and less offensively. Don’t you understand that the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, along with its current head, are descendants of that same communist regime, only now they are more benevolent and not quite as harsh – they even gave you a preliminary authorization and didn’t shoot you. They haven’t shot Kirill Serebrennikov either, like they did Meyerhold, they only publicly shamed and arrested him. That means things are better now, right?
The problem is that while we are all fighting with deputies, angry priests, and “isolated” injustices, we won’t change anything, but rather will strengthen the regime’s confidence that everything depends on them.
Therefore, the only path towards liberating our long-suffering people from the yoke of the reigning regime is to replace that regime and change the fundamental value-based paradigm underlying the livelihood of this country.
How to do this? I personally do not believe in the path of violence. It does not lead to anything good. Therefore, our only weapon is the molding of public opinion. Inculcating new values into the new generation. And the first thing that we, the cultural figures, intelligentsia, and progressives of Russia, can do is to stop supporting this government. We don’t need to receive all these government awards and shake Vladimir Putin’s hand publicly, in front of cameras. Is it possible that you, my dear and respected colleagues, creative people, don’t understand that your playing the benevolent “Schindler” and living a double life is actually what put Kirill Serebrennikov behind bars?
I know some very influential people from various arenas (big business, art, and academia), who professed to me that they would “do everything they could, only without giving themselves away while the regime was still in power.” Forgive me, but I no longer believe in the efficacy of this method. How can you not understand that in, for example, helping sick children or donating money to private schools at the price of supporting Putin, you are doing more harm than good to our younger generation, who are obliged to grow up and attend school in Russia under this regime? A regime that currently fully controls the educational system, converting it from academics into propaganda. The same can be said about those in academics or sports. Do you truly believe that soon things will somehow change in and of themselves, and for now we should mind our own business and be silent? What, then, is “our business”? Scientific discoveries? Plays and films? Or is our most worthwhile business in fact the nurturing of “free and open-minded people”?
In 2018 we will have a presidential election. And most likely, Vladimir Putin will once again be the victor, but we have a year to lower his ratings as much as possible, and more importantly, to undermine his authority and that of the entire reigning ideology. Many of us are acquainted with important businessmen, and we know how much discontentment with the regime actually exists in these circles – those that aren’t in the inner circle of the president, of course. But, afraid of losing large sums of money, businesses hide and keep quiet, hoping to live through this era, and moving their finances abroad just in case.
In fact, everyone knows very well what this regime depends on and how it is structured. Vladimir Putin guarantees a kind of stability and order for his inner circle, who can increase their capital under the current order. But as soon as the acting president loses his control over the masses, he will no longer be useful even to his closest friends – looking at their faces, it is immediately apparent that these people have only pragmatic values. We can change our regime in Russia using nonviolent methods, and even without holding rallies. We only need to stop wasting our personal energy supporting this regime. Stop shaking their hands on camera, stop attending public events, not mentioning the name of the current president in the media — just like the president himself did at the advice of his PR service, in ceasing to mention the name “Navalny” – and of course, under no circumstances participating in his electoral campaigns. I know that for many of you this is not a simple task, but I am sure that it is nonetheless possible. Over the next year, with our unquestionable influence on a large number of people, and with some of us even being seen as an authority by millions, we can significantly lower Putin’s reputation and power in the eyes of our citizens, and especially among the youth. And if Putin wins the election with a lower percentage of the vote than he is counting on, then his position in the eyes of his inner circle will decrease significantly. And from that moment will begin the slow extinguishing of his strength and authority.
To do this, you don’t have to take risks and openly declare your position as I am doing now. The regime is cruel and capable of anything. But it is enough for you to simply stop supporting this regime, as far as possible. Do not provide them with free PR. Don’t praise them, don’t associate your business with that of the regime, ignore them with all of your strength, do not help them with anything, and we will see the effects. It’s all about energy: whither we send it, there it is. Therefore, don’t spend it on supporting the regime, and the regime’s strength will fade. On the contrary, let us direct all of our energy and authority towards discrediting the whole “Bolshevik ideology,” let us talk frequently and freely about the crimes against humanity committed by Lenin and Stalin, and by the entire communist party. Let us speak more and more often about the fact that the memorials to Lenin that stand all over Russia are commemorating a murderer. In doing this, it is important not to dishonor the memory of those who gave their lives in service to the motherland and its people. However, the popular idea that it was Stalin who won World War II must be overthrown. The Russian people, just like the peoples of Europe, were the victims of the inhumane machine of Hitlerism and Stalinism. Stalin did not win the war, he built victory with the bodies of millions of people, our fathers and grandfathers, who truly accomplished heroic deeds, but we must not forget that many of them went into combat faced with the muzzles of Russian automatic machine guns. This is worth talking about as well, as much as possible. World War II – that great human tragedy, which our current government uses as bait for the hook that the Russian people has swallowed. It hurts me that on May 9, instead of silence and shame, we have death machines rolling across Red Square, and the standard-bearers of the ruling regime stand next to the unburied corpse of Lenin and raise, in the eyes of the citizens, their political ratings, all the while calling it patriotism.
In coming to my conclusion, I would like to direct your attention once again to the fact that it is due to our carelessness, fear, irresponsibility, laziness, and egoism that we have the government that we do. And the most important thing we should do today is to believe in our own power, because believe me, it is great. Violence, revolution, armed coups – none of these will bring us happiness or make our world better, but a refusal to support violence is guaranteed to have positive results – as in the case of India and the path of the great Gandhi.
I am far removed from politics and never concerned myself with it, but today I feel the time has come, and there is really a chance to change something, because it is impossible to continue on this way. This year I would like to dedicate my attention and energy to the same things I have called on my colleagues to do. I personally do not have a large audience at all, but nevertheless I can confidently say that my audience consists of people who care about their lives and the life of our entire planet. And most importantly, that they are very active and not apathetic. And I will try to equal them. And if we join together and stop supporting violence, then we can do something for the future of our country and our world. Let’s start with these presidential elections and see what happens. We will do our parts without aggression, without anger, without the desire for revenge, but simply because we were born to make life on this planet a little better. And freedom for Kirill Serebrennikov, of course!
[i] The phrase used in Russian is “деятели российской культуры” – actors of Russian culture. The word “деятели” has no ideal translation, especially in the context of the arts where more direct translations like “actor” or “producer” have different primary meanings. The word “community” has implications that do not appear in the Russian, but it seemed like the best option here. I have translated “деятели” as “figures” or “representatives” in other parts of this article.
[ii] The Russian word “власть” appears in every paragraph and almost every sentence of this letter. Its literal translation is “power,” but it is often used to mean “government” in Russian. It does have a bit of a cynical implication to it, but is so frequently used that it is hard to say that it is always cynical. Therefore, I have most often translated it as “regime,” but in varying contexts also as “leaders,” “power,” “government,” “reign.”
[iii] The author uses the prepositional phrase “на Украине,” which I was taught (approximately 10 years ago) was equivalent to the English “in the Ukraine,” while the Russian phrase “в Украине” is equivalent to “in Ukraine.” Generally, the latter phrase acknowledges Ukraine’s sovereignty and existence as a separate nation, whereas the former implies it is a region rather than a state. I am not familiar with current Russian conventions in this area.