United Russia Presents Local Cultural Icons
Published: June 8, 2011 (Issue # 1659)
There is nothing very new about recruiting prominent cultural figures to take part in political advertising. It’s a tactic that was adopted long ago by United Russia, the powerful pro-Kremlin party.
But there always seemed to be a problem: among the celebrities it co-opted, it was hard to find anyone of great artistic or intellectual stature, still less of genius. Those used in the party’s advertising campaigns have been more the showbiz crowd, people who are well-known but may be forgotten in 20 or 50 years.
That approach changed dramatically at the end of last month, when United Russia published a series of posters, stamped with the party logo, featuring some of the towering figures of Russian arts and literature from the past. The images were released as part of a campaign to celebrate the 308th birthday of the city of St. Petersburg on 27 May.
Suddenly the streets of St. Petersburg were festooned with images of titanic figures such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Pushkin.
Also apparently queuing up to congratulate the city on behalf of United Russia were the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the poets Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, and the chemist Dmitry Mendeleev.
The unmistakable party logo at the bottom-left corner of each poster immediately exposed the project as a case of cynical political and moral looting. None of the writers, artists, composers, singers, or scientists who appeared on the posters had any connection with United Russia, a party that was set up in the wake of communism but has come to be seen by modern-day dissidents as embracing some of the Kremlin’s past totalitarian tactics.
Brodsky’s dissident poetry was published secretly, attracting as much attention from the KGB as it did in literary circles. He was detained in a psychiatric hospital for political reasons in 1965 and was later held on a collective farm in the Archangelsk oblast. The charge against him was that he was a social parasite — a Soviet term for not having a regular job.
He was eventually forced out of the Soviet Union in 1972 and lived in exile in the United States.
And now we see him being portrayed on the posters of United Russia – a party loathed by Brodsky’s successors, the dissidents of today, and a party not even vaguely identified with support for human rights or any challenge to the Kremlin or the political status quo.
And what about the Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova? Her former husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyev, was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921 on false charges of conspiracy to commit counter-revolutionary activities. Their son, historian Lev Gumilyev, spent time in the gulags on political charges.
Today the dead are unable to rise from their graves to protest against the smear on their memory. But some of their furious descendants are speaking out.
Anastasia Shostakovich, great-granddaughter of the composer, said the stunt amounts to the imposition of “posthumous party membership.”
Alexei Tanner, deputy head of United Russia’s regional branch and the official responsible for its ideology and propaganda, said the project “made perfect sense.”
“The party congratulates the city on its birthday. All we wanted is for local residents to meditate on the unfortunate fate of these most talented people,” Tanner told reporters in St. Petersburg.
The United Russia spokesman said the party is ready to offer its apologies to those descendants who felt offended by the campaign, but he stressed that the party’s actions were legal.
The Soviet regime first made it impossible for dissidents to get work and then branded them social parasites. Today it is Russia’s biggest political party that is the parasite, attempting to promote its political ambitions by feeding off the fame of some of Russia’s greatest artistic heroes — and failing to realize that by doing so it has essentially declared itself a political corpse.
A full version of this commentary is available at Transitions Online, an award-winning analytical online magazine covering Eastern Europe and CIS countries, at www.tol.org.