Cultural production and neoliberal turn in Russia

How has cultural production changed in Russia after the leap from Marxist economy to neoliberal markets? What is expected from the state’s cultural institutions and how do the entrepreneurs working in the cultural field operate? How is cultural production effected by global economy? What are regional differences in cultural economy and politics? Is cultural production entirely governed by the Kremlin or can the actors of cultural institutions decide what is interesting for wide audiences?

The special issue titled Culture in Putin’s Russia: Institutions, Industries, Policies, recently published in the North-American journal Cultural Studies, answers these question through seven innovative case studies. An international collaboration conducted under the auspices of the Aleksanteri Institute CoE “Choices of Russia’s Modernization,” brought together a group of scholars in cultural and media studies, sociology, theory of social philosophy, and anthropology. In addition to academics, art curators and experts shared their insights about the Russian art scene in the research seminar which initially triggered off the publication project.

The case studies cover such topics as library reform in Moscow, the tension between street art and local politics in Yekaterinburg and Nizhnyi Novgorod, the ideal of entrepreneurship in fashion business, careers of museum workers in St. Petersburg art museums and creative spaces, the emerging networks of creative industries at the intersection of commercialism and high-cultural expectations, Tatar urban festivals in Kazan as a strategy to renegotiate an ethnonational identity, and the effects of digitals platforms on urban outlets and cultural consumerism.  

The issue advances a novel research agenda by bringing together critical approaches developed in Anglo-American Cultural Studies, empirical research tradition in sociology and anthropology, and the study of popular culture that gained ground in Russian Studies after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Consolidating these methodologies offers broader analytical perspective on cultural production in Russia and allows an exploration of this politically important field in a critical frame with research questions common to cultural production globally.

Culture as business and national treasure

In light of the case studies included in the special issue, one can conclude that cultural production in Russia is increasingly guided by economic incentives introduced by the state on the one hand, and by private actors on the other. Digital communication has created diversity within the cultural field and enhanced flexibility of work conditions by means of networking options. At the same time, the cultural sector has been divided into large mostly state-sponsored institutions, and new privately funded organizations with the emergence of a precariat of cultural workers in Russia just as in many other countries.

Russian cultural institutions practice neoliberal policies by fostering entrepreneurial subjectivity and its business models in a fierce competition for funding and public attention. Meanwhile, the concept of Russian culture, russkaia kul’tura, is still associated with value-based expectations about the difference between high and low culture, which the state supports while also emphasizing culture’s role as a field where national identity or the state’s understanding of it is played out. Cultural production in today’s Russia takes place at the intersection of state-guided nationalism and competition-driven neoliberalism.