Democracy Lab

A Russian Artist's Snapshot of the National Psyche

Why Russia's entry at the world's toniest art fair speaks volumes about the country's predicament.

Last weekend, Russia presented its own unique contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale: an installation by conceptual artist Vadim Zakaharov. At the entrance of the Russian pavilion, a man in a blue suit sat in a saddle suspended beneath the ceiling, where he passed his time spitting peanut shells at the visitors. Golden coins engraved with the words "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" trickled down from the top of the two-story building and into a cave built in the basement. Only women were allowed to enter the cave (though they were banned from talking). There, they were offered transparent umbrellas that they could use to shield their heads from the rain of coins.

Some knelt on a red velvet pillow on the floor and looked up at the shower of gold, others poured coins into a bucket that was periodically raised to the second floor, where its contents replenished the flow. Another man, his hands buried in the pockets of an identical blue suit, stood guard at a hole in the floor where the buckets emerged, two stories above. His job was to make sure that no one tried to steal any of the loot. His pale face expressionless, he explained to visitors: "I am an official. I control the circulation of money."

Zakharov was using the Danae myth, a story that evokes the complicated relationship between money and desire, to reflect upon the strange realities of present-day Russia. To prepare the installation, Zakharov spent three months in Venice under conditions of strict secrecy, creating underground spaces in the pavilion building designed in 1914 by the Russian architect Aleksei Shchusev. When I met Zakharov in Venice, he offered several of his own interpretations of the work: "You can read multiple ideas here: A Plato's cave created by men, who control power, money, and the flow of corruption. ... The women locked in the cave are silent for now, but there is a sense in the air that it's time to listen to women's voices."

But reality has its ways of overcoming art. As if to demonstrate Zakharov's point about Russian men's control of wealth, billionaire Roman Abramovich arrived in Venice on his gigantic Luna yacht, which he anchored ostentatiously in the lagoon. That prompted complaints from locals and tourists, who objected to the way the ship blocked the view. But Abramovich is a major patron of the Biennale, so nobody dared to ask him to move his yacht away. The only critical statement was a painting by William Morris, which depicted the artist casting Abramovich's yacht into the lagoon in fury and disgust.

Zakharov's pavilion triggered a heated discussion among visitors gathered outside during the opening. Russian curator and art critic Valeri Kabov saw it as "a sad poetic allegory about Russians' helplessness and despair." The poet Lev Rubinstein said that he liked the installation. "Vadim's interpretation of the Danae myth illuminated the issue of control over the circulation of gold in nature," Rubinstein said with a smile.

Rubinstein, it should be noted, has spent much of the past two years organizing anti-Putin protests among writers and artists -- yet it made perfect sense for him to show up at the Biennale. For Russia, where protest art has taken to the streets across the country over the past two years, the Venice Biennale offers yet another chance to address the country's political and social problems.

There's a bit of paradox, though, in the fact that the Russian entry is actually sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, so Zakharov's rain of "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" was actually controlled by men in suits. (To touch upon one of many attendant ironies, the current culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, is a controversial historian who is notorious for urging Russians to consider the "positive side" of Stalin's rule.) Russia in the age of Putin is also not exactly known for promoting political expression. Maria Shubina, a writer and frequent Biennale observer, expressed her skeptical view of Russia's presentation in Venice: "I believe that the biggest contemporary art statement in Russia this year was Pussy Riot -- but they're in jail." In jail or a cave?

"Some of the men in the elite have already bought up all the luxurious property they wanted," real estate developer and art investor Dmitry Aksenov told me. "Now they want to invest in art." John Mann, a spokesman for Abramovich, told me proudly that many government officials turned up at last year's opening of the Garage, the Abramovich-sponsored museum of contemporary art in Moscow's Gorky Park. George Puzenkoff, a Russian painter now living in Berlin, took issue with Mann's suggestion that the bureaucrats have a genuine appreciation of culture: "There's no sincere interest in the Kremlin, absolute zero understanding of what art is about."

The Venice event is all about stimulating productive discussions. The organizers of the Biennale were eager to stress its importance at last week's opening: 88 countries, including some that are in conflict with each other in the world outside, seized the opportunity to engage in cultural dialogue. For the first time in Biennale history, even the Vatican joined the discussion this year, offering a work entitled "Creation, Un-creation, Re-Creation."

Russian art and voices could be seen and heard all over Venice this year. Leonardo DiCaprio showed up at the opening of "Difficulties In Translation," an installation by a group of talented Russian artists from Venice's Ca' Foscari University. On an unusually cold night for this time in Italy, a performance artist, Oleg Kulik, stripped layers of newspapers off his naked body to lie on a cross and enjoy a Russian steam bath and traditional massage with a bunch of leaves on the bank of the Grand Canal. Photographs chronicling the life of Katia, an artist specializing in body modification, who escaped from an Orthodox monastery to the Moscow artistic underground, broke some visitors' hearts with images of her scarred body. A floating installation of a wooden log with a double-headed eagle on top was entitled: "Russia. Try to overthrow."

But in spite of all the effort, the jury of the 55th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia did not give any awards to Russian artists -- not even a special mention. Perhaps it had something to do with questions about the sincerity of politically themed art that's cynically paid for by the government. In this respect, Zakharov's piece ironically captured a crucial truth: Money doesn't necessarily buy you love or respect. 

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Vendetta Politics in Georgia

Georgia is succumbing to a disease that plagues other post-Soviet countries: Newly elected leaders' urge to crack down on their predecessors.

MOSCOW —  Last night I got a call from friends in Georgia. They're worried about the political situation in their country. This seems to be happening a lot lately.

Last week the authorities in Tbilisi issued orders for the arrest of Vano Merabishvili, a former prime minister who more recently was serving as the head of President Mikheil Saakashvili's political party. (The officials behind the arrest answer to the government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the victor in last year's parliamentary election and a convinced opponent of the president.)

Merabishvili's detention is once again deepening the divide in Georgian society. Many Georgians are eager to see all former police and military officials, including President Saakashvili, behind bars. Others are just tired of political prosecutions and scandals. My friends sounded more frustrated than happy, and with good reason. Instead of reviving the economy and creating jobs as he promised, billionaire-turned-politician Ivanishvili now appears to be fixated on an unrelenting campaign of political revenge.

Just one year ago, Prime Minister Merabishvili was the second most influential man in the country: Saakhashvili described him as "the backbone" of Georgian politics. Merabishvili first became famous for cracking down on criminal bosses as minister of internal affairs in the years after the 2003 Rose revolution. He fired thousands of notoriously corrupt policemen and former KGB officers, built ministry buildings out of glass to symbolize transparency, and enshrined honesty as a guiding principle for the Georgian police. But none of those supporters who celebrated his reforms showed up on Tuesday, when the former reformer was ironically taken into custody on charges of embezzling public funds. Memory of Merabishvili's reforms faded as his ministry gradually slipped back into abusing executive power. Just before the 2007 presidential election, Saakashvili lost his temper with the opposition and commanded Merabishvili to deploy the security forces against protestors and impose censorship on state-controlled media. (Some critics claimed that the minister of internal affairs had ordered police to beat demonstrators "mainly in the kindneys and the stomach.") The Imedi TV station, which supported the opposition, was forced off the air after police stormed its buildings. Experts said that Saakashvili had committed political suicide. But it was Merabishvili who implemented the president's ideas.

But Saakashvili still struggled hard to prove his democratic credentials. Soon after the tumult of 2007 he announced a compromise, calling for early elections in January 2008. He won with 53.4 percent of votes, once again demonstrating his lasting popularity. A few months later, however, the newly elected president launched a war with South Ossetia and Russia; he later claimed that the conflict was unavoidable, blaming separatist Ossetians for killing too many Georgians along the border. As Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, people once again rallied around the president, the army, and the police. Merabishvili's ministry was yet again the most popular in the country, earning high ratings from the World Bank for its reforms.

Since assuming power as prime minister, Ivanishvili has taken to describing the war as "a huge provocation planned by Saakashvili and his military chiefs" (the latter a reference to none other than Merabishvili). In an interview I conducted with him three months ago, Ivanishvili accused both president Saakashvili and his ally Merabishvili of large-scale corruption and abuse of power. It was clear that arrests would soon follow. Immediately after last year's Ivanshvili election victory, hundreds of Saakashvili's supporters lost their jobs in the police and in other ministries.

Leaders in former Soviet countries are known for their vendettas against their political predecessors. Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, expelled and imprisoned many opponents after he came to power in 1994. In Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych insisted during his 2010 campaign that his first priority, if he won, would be to integrate Ukraine into the European Union. Upon his election, however, he promptly set about jailing political opponents. These days Yanukovych spends much of his time explaining to Brussels why his government threw his main political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, into prison for seven years. (She finished a close second to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.) The Europeans see his decision to lock up Tymoshenko as an act of political vengeance. Yanukovych's move to jail her has undermined his promise to put Ukraine on a path to E.U. membership.

Right after Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin as president last spring, Russian prosecutors started investigating the organizers of the anti-Putin street rallies that took place during the election campaign. Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader famous for coining the slogan "Putin is a thief," has been on trial for almost a month now; prosecutors are demanding a sentence of 10 years in jail for alleged embezzlement.

Was Navalny a serious threat? According to polls conducted by the independent Levada Center, Navalny's name recognition among the Russian population stood at 14 percent as of April 2013. The Levada Center further reported that unpopular new laws targeting Russian civil society groups and clamping down on a growing opposition have caused Vladimir Putin's approval rating to shrink to 27 percent. The study provoked a strong reaction from the authorities. This week prosecutors said that the Levada Center had violated a new law on the registration of foreign agents. Those allegations mean that there's a distinct possibility that Russia's last major independent pollster could be facing closure.

Georgia's Ivanishvili didn't wait long to mirror the style practiced by most of his neighboring fellow leaders.  Experts say that Ivanishvili opted to put Merabishvili in jail in order to weaken the opposition. "Instead of compromising and letting a healthy opposition party exist, Ivanishvili chose to wage a vendetta, diminishing the chance for Georgia to develop into a balanced democratic state," says Gia Nodia, an independent Georgian analyst. He says that Ivanishvili's next target is likely to be Tbilisi mayor Gig Ugulava, another leading figure in Saakashvili's political movement.

"[Ivanishvili] has started by repressing people, and I'm afraid that he's going to take an anti-western, isolationist course," my friend Lika told me on the phone. "Investors will all run away from Georgia." She still hopes that the billionaire leader will work to revive her country's economy.

But the latest news is not encouraging. In polls released by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. pro-democracy organization, 72 percent of respondents reported themselves as unemployed, up five percent from just a few months earlier. Terrifying scenes of violence took place in Lika's neighborhood in downtown Tbilisi last week, when thousands of alleged defenders of the Georgian Orthodox Church attacked a handful of gay activists at an officially permitted gay pride rally. Police did not manage to protect the activists: 17 were injured despite a message from Prime Minister Ivanishvili reminding law enforcement officials that sexual minorities are entitled to the same rights as other groups. The attacks on the activists were not the result of pure homophobia, says analyst Nodia: "What happened last Friday is a sign that social tensions are growing. Political repression might push Georgia into a long-term civil war." Let's hope he's wrong.

IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty Images