The 8th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum, 14-16 November 2019

Writing about the Forum is quite a challenge. It is hard to get your arms around this gathering of 35,000 registered participants and attendees due to the large number of events running in parallel at some 90 venues in St Petersburg and its surroundings stretching out to 30 km distant. There are multiple thematic dimensions and multiple levels of participation – from expert speakers and panelists, to expert auditors of the round tables and colloquia, to media representatives, to the general public that has procured tickets to its exhibitions, concerts, dance and other performances.

To be sure, the single most important venue is the magnificent General Staff Building of the Hermitage Museum, which has a great many variable configuration spaces for such events and might best be described as a downtown convention center. Nonetheless, it would be impossible for any outside news agency to cover the simultaneous events with their own reporters even within this one building, not to mention the other sites. This is why the journalists’ pool consists largely of film crews who dip in and out of the meeting rooms and exhibitions to capture a few minutes here and there of the best-known  speakers and panelists to air on their news programs.  For the rest, we all depend on the press releases issued several times a day by the organizers of the Forum – who are performing their work to the highest standards, including cogent summaries of the remarks of the most notable speakers.

For these reasons, coverage of the event can be done quite effectively by accredited journalists living anywhere on the globe, not just by visitors to St Petersburg proper.  However, as I will explain below, there are many events for the broad public coming under the Forum umbrella which you have to savor in person. This is especially what I want to share in the brief essay below.

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The St Petersburg International Forum follows a uniquely Russian formula of mixing different objectives:  putting together leading professionals in the Russian cultural establishment with their interlocutors in the federal government, putting together the cultural establishment of the federal Center with the local establishments in the Regions, and putting together the Russian cultural establishment with its peers internationally to agree on joint projects for years to come.

As in every year, it has a theme from one of the arts – this year highlighting Theater, given that 2019  has been the Year of Theater in Russia.  As in every year, it has a more abstract conceptual motif. This year the motif is “cultural codes,” a very trendy notion underlying the ubiquitous identity politics that we see in country after country. The given notion is expressed graphically in the iconography of the Forum, in the choice of design for the backdrops in the “media passage” where interviews are taken by television camera crews.

The relevance of the overriding motif was driven home by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his speech at the Gala Concert opening the Forum:

“One of the main themes of the Forum is how to preserve the national identity of culture in the global world -which is truly a very complicated task – while being completely open to the world.  Without this balance it is impossible to speak in general about the development of humanity, about the development of art, which unites all of us without regard to religion, to our aesthetic preferences, our political passions and state borders.”

At the same time, the Forum also unashamedly serves the geopolitical objectives of the Russian Federation.  With guest experts from France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and elsewhere, the Forum is a major exercise in Soft Power.

Unsurprisingly, in this context, the featured “guest country” in 2019 is China, which has brought a very large delegation, even though the number of specifically Chinese performing arts and other entertainments is rather limited. The Chinese presence is felt more in the panelists of discussion sessions and agreement signing sessions.  This Forum was used to roll out news of the establishment of the first satellite museum of The Hermitage in China, in Shanghai, with the opening to take place in 2020.  Other Chinese featured topics were the conclusion of agreements on cooperation between the Chinese and Russian film industries for joint projects and promotion of each other’s films in their home markets. Given that China is today the world’s number two cinema market in terms of box office receipts and the number one market in terms of screens open to the public, this prospective cooperation holds promise for the Russian cinema industry which is now seeking to greatly expand its export activities.

Perhaps the most interesting Chinese offering within the Forum program for the general public is the experimental staging of a work by Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 Mo Yan that I saw on a preview performance for the press. The piece, entitled “To Kill the Emperor,” has a mixed Russian and Chinese group of performers and employs a stage solution that is very new to Russia: a central ramp on which the actors perform, with the audience seated on either side. The attractiveness of the offering was heightened by its being played within the premises of the luxurious Faberge Museum of Viktor Vekselberg. I will not pass judgment on the work’s artistic merit, only affirm that it could fit comfortably within any of the “off-off” theatrical pieces in our West European arts festivals.

Meanwhile, the performance of one Chinese classical music orchestra at the Petersburg Philharmonic Society hall and performances by Chinese soloists in other events were unexceptional in nature.

The secondary guests of the Forum, categorized as “special programs” are Turkey and the Slovenia- based Forum of Slavic Cultures.  It would appear that the most notable contribution of Turkey this year is an exhibition of Ottoman court dress as viewed by contemporary designers going on in the Ethnographic Museum.  Small change in the grand scheme of things. Presumably there was more afoot behind closed doors among the respective administrators of cultural affairs from Russia and Turkey.

As I noted at the outset, the core events of the Forum are precisely discussions before audiences varying from 30 to 200 by and for professionals – administrators and directors of cinema, museums, drama and opera theaters, their patrons and talking partners in the government departments responsible for cultural affairs, economic development and urbanism. Since St Petersburg has its share of students and professors of culture, and many others arrive from elsewhere in the Federation, we may assume that these events are being well attended by a population totaling several thousand auditors.

It is also a safe guess that the rest of the 35,000 on the registration lists are from the general public coming to the Forum to be entertained.  One of the biggest draws surely is the Jazz Across Borders program which opened in the Philharmonic Hall but spreads out from there to little jazz clubs across the city.  The lead performer, the biggest local name is saxophonist Igor Butman who has his own big band and regularly appears at festivals and large concerts across Russia. But the special feature of the Forum is the presence of other big names who are here just to have fun.  In this connection, I note the posters around town advertising the jazz performance with friends planned by concert pianist Denis Matsuev. This is “cross-over” and cultural popularization at its best.

I missed Butman, missed Matsuev, but on Thursday evening I had the pleasure to attend an event in the same spirit which the Russians call a “kapustnik” – meaning a gathering of artists to amuse themselves and their closest fans – staged by the well-known film director Nikita Mikhalkov. Held in the classical auditorium of the Grand Drama Theater on the Fontanka, the show drew a large contingent of sophisticates who had come up from Moscow and also attracted the cream of Petersburg’s drama establishment.

Thursday night was the first of two evenings of staged “fragments” from the prose of Chekhov and Bunin. It was performed by young actors who have passed through the Mikhalkov Academy of Theater and  Cinema which opened two years ago. The three-hour presentation entitled “Metamorphoses” consisted of sketches of love matches in the genre of Chekhov’s well-known story “The Lady with the Dog.” The acting was the very best of the Moscow School, which is head and shoulders above any drama theater in the Northern Capital. The scenography employed the latest technologies of video projection, as one might expect from a leading international film director like Mikhalkov.

The staged prose pieces were separated by three-minute segments of “Vesti Russkoi Imperii” – mock news reports dated 1901-1902, delivered in period dress by one of the most widely viewed female anchors from the Vesti-24 news channel.

“Russia imposes sanctions on U.S. steel,” “Russian tycoons set oil prices,” “ Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya opens in Prague to a full house,” “Russia hands out hot porridge to the hungry of Beijing,” “British prices for Russian eggs fall slightly,” “Russian craftsmen fill large orders for matryoshka dolls from Britain,” and a 1902 Coca Cola ad spelling out the virtues of its ingredients – coca leaves, water and sugar. These and other tongue-in-cheek news items are all set off by film footage from the period.  Mikhalkov obviously had a great time putting all this together and the audience broke out into rhythmic applause several times.

Finally, in reviewing the entertainments on offer under the umbrella of the Cultural Forum, I call attention to the blockbuster art exhibition that has just opened in the Manezh and is devoted to two Soviet artists, Samokhvalov from Moscow and Deineke from Leningrad, who were among the most feted practitioners of Socialist Realism during a period lasting from the 1930s to the 1950s.

All in all, there are more than 300 oil paintings, posters, drawings, sculptural etudes on display.  They come from St Petersburg’s own Russian Museum, from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, from the Kursk Art Museum named for Deineka, and from other museums and private collections across Russia. Nominally, the logic of this double-header exhibition is to mark the 120th anniversary from the birth of Deineka. Samokhvalov is there as the counterpoint, basis of comparison.  Both artists were praised by the exhibition curator for their virtuosity and for drawing on the rich traditional color palette and compositions of pre-revolutionary Russia.

To unjaundiced eyes, this attempt to celebrate Socialist Realism is a stunning failure. With few exceptions, the works on display can be charitably described as the work of illustrators, not original artists. At best we can see in them a pale reflection of the truly memorable works of their brilliant contemporary Petrov-Vodkin.

If art critics from the Financial Times and other pedigreed Western media come to this show, you can be sure they will raise the question of why totalitarian art is being showcased now by the “Putin regime.” The facile connection between Kitsch of totalitarianism and today’s Russia will surely be drawn.

However, such reasoning will be wrong-headed. The Cultural Forum is primarily a platform for genuine high quality art by living creative geniuses. Many just happen to be in the constellation of the Establishment formed during the Putin years.  Nikita Mikhalkov, Denis Matsuev, Yuri Bashmet, Valery Gergiev, Sergei Bondarchuk all are here together with many of their star-quality peers. They are in one way or another enthusiastic supporters of Putin and of the vision of the New Russia he and his close advisers are promoting.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019