The past two weeks have seen reshuffles at the top of some of Russia’s most iconic cultural institutions. Conductor Valery Gergiev has become general director of the Bolshoi Theatre (combining the post with that of director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg), and actor Vladimir Mashkov has been appointed head of the Union of Theatre Workers. Both Mashkov and Gergiev are prominent members of Vladimir Putin’s public support group. They served as «trusted representatives» of the Russian president in elections, they can campaign for the ruling «United Russia» party and are happy to take part in state events. Vladimir Mashkov even ran for the State Duma on the ruling party’s ticket.
Right before the start of the presidential election campaign, the Kremlin hands out ambassadorial posts, but in essence Mashkov’s and Gergiev’s appointments are different. Of course, there are similarities: the authorities needed to replace previous leaders who had shown themselves to be disloyal in various ways. Vladimir Urin, former general director of the Bolshoi, signed an anti-war letter along with others from the theater industry. Most of the signatories had already been sacked, but Urin held out longer than the others. Alexander Kalyagin regularly stood up for the persecuted ‘theatre workers’ in his charge who disagreed with the actions of the authorities. They did not directly oppose the system, did not produce or did not attempt to direct anything truly unorthodox and rebellious. Yet the authorities no longer tolerate even this kind of behavior on the part of more or less prominent managers in the arts sector.
The difference is that Gergiev was given a coveted position, a kind of reward from the Kremlin for his loyalty and support of the war. With his global fame and recognition Gergiev could have as well left the country to work abroad and would have been accepted, if he were to signal his rejection of the war. However, the conductor chose to stay in Russia. Gergiev has long been friends with top government officials, including Putin, and he knew that his gesture of support for the invasion of Ukraine would not go unrewarded. In a way, Gergiev did not lose by placing his bet with Putin: he has now become the head of the most famous and iconic theatres in Russia. That appointment brings him both prestige and control over very substantial financial flows.
The authorities need the support of such a figure during the presidential campaign: it is both proof that the acknowledged masters support the regime and its policies, and a signal to the West that the Kremlin is holding on to its culture. Even the Bolshoi Theatre has not been spared for the sake of this demonstrative gesture: not all of its employees are enthusiastic about Gergiev’s appointment. The Mariinsky and the Bolshoi have always competed, they represent different schools and approaches to work. It is likely that there will be discontent and small-scale unrest in the Moscow theatre. Olga Lyubimova, the culture minister, has publicly admitted that the Bolshoi has «entered a zone of turbulence.» But Gergiev and his vanity proved more valuable to the Kremlin than the peace and quiet of one of Russia’s most important symbols.
Now, Mashkov’s appointment is different. The actor is not very well known outside Russia, and frankly, he is not an A-list theater actor in Russia either. The Union of Theatre Workers is not a moneymaking institution like the Bolshoi Theatre with all its infrastructure and clout. It is the authorities themselves that need to plant a loyal supporter in such an office, someone who is deeply rooted in the system, The functionary Mashkov will be a supervisor of the culture-makers, an ambassador for the power vertical in this creative environment. Once he is installed at the helm of the Union, he will make sure the Union releases no further statements criticizing the Russian leadership, instead, we can expect to see more and more speeches in Putin’s support. There are many figures in Russian culture who, although not directly opposed to the war, are not prepared to agitate for it, just as they are not prepared to agitate for the Kremlin. Mashkov’s appointment makes individual hesitations and struggles over public displays of loyalty irrelevant. The actor will be not only a guardian of the theatre industry, but also theirs spokesperson and front man, who is closely affiliated with the power vertical.
Vladimir Putin visited the famed «Rossiya» Exhibition and Forum one month after it was officially unveiled. His nomination announcement at the venue, predicted by several media sources, never materialized. Putin handed out awards to volunteers, visited regional booths as well as the ROSATOM exhibition. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media that the Russian leader seemed satisfied with what he had seen. This seems to be the case: during a meeting with the new ambassadors of several countries, Putin advised them to visit the exhibition to get to know Russia better. The bet of the head of the Kremlin’s political bloc, Sergei Kiriyenko, who built a world of technological progress to be explored by an elderly man largely unfamiliar with modern technology, paid off. The alternate reality created by the neural net mesmerized Putin. Kiriyenko and his subordinates succeeded in entertaining the president and creating a mini-model of Russia for him to enjoy: not a model of the actual country, mind you, but of the country the head of state imagines. Putin was finally immersed in a virtual world in which Russia was overtaking the West in technology and destroying hundreds of vehicles almost daily in the war with Ukraine. Granted, this virtual country has very little to do with reality. Chinese technology that can be procured on AliExpress is often passed off as Russian technological achievements. Civilian developments are not competitive on the market and are behind the times. Military production is also impossible without the broader, more general technological development. This gap is becoming apparent to many loyal citizens, but Putin’s entourage prefers to entertain him rather than bring him face to face with reality.
Kremlin war-time judo
Intra-elite confrontations within the Russian elite continue to grow. Gergiev’s appointment as general director of the Bolshoi Theatre is a good case in point. Sergei Novikov, head of the Kremlin’s public projects department and a close associate of Sergei Kiriyenko, was also hoping to get this post. He has experience in theatre productions and is basically interested in creative work. But no one was going to let Novikov go from the Kremlin before the elections, so Gergiev seized the opportunity and lobbied for his own appointment. By all appearances, the process was not an easy one: Gergiev’s arrival at the Bolshoi was announced by the media in early November, but the appointment did not take place until the end of the month. At the same time, Gergiev was promised not only the position of general director of the Bolshoi, but also the position at the helm of both theaters at once: Bolshoi and Mariinsky. Gergiev had proposed such an appointment to the country’s leadership several years ago, but it was rejected. To put it simply, he did not quite get what he wanted. The reason for this could be the tacit resistance on the part of Kiriyenko’s team. If Gergiev were to head the joint directorate, it would be difficult to fire him in the future. It is easier to ask a person for resignation if this person is in charge of one, not two theaters simultaneously. And we may well see such a scenario in the foreseeable future. The Minister of Culture has already spoken of «turbulence». Given the discontent of the Bolshoi staff, the authorities may meet them halfway by «returning» Gergiev to the Mariinsky Theatre as his only responsibility. The presidential administration has a candidate ready to take his place: none other Sergei Novikov. Gergiev’s impulsive move could be used by Kiriyenko’s team to their own advantage.
The head of the AP political bloc himself is also engaged in a cunning game. Recently he has been publicly distancing himself from election issues and events. We have previously written about the fact that the Kremlin has begun to send signals to the public about «the legitimacy of the upcoming lections» that will be held without any «brouhaha». Of course, these signals do not correspond to reality, but they do indicate Kiriyenko’s desire to hide a little in the shadows. This may be because Kiriyenko’s efforts to be the ultimate authority on a range of issues — from ideology and elections to higher education and the upbringing of children — have become too obvious. It has become too obvious that the head of the Kremlin’s political bloc wants something more. So Kiriyenko, who until recently was making an unprecedented public show of his position, is literally hiding. Putin’s main guides at the «Russiya» Exhibition and Forum were not Kiriyenko, but the event’s director, Natalia Virtuozova, as well as presidential aide and former Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin. The latter was also appointed head of the board of trustees of the new version of the «young pioneers» organization, the Movement of the First. The movement, too, is in the orbit of influence and one of the creations of Kiriyenko’s team. The ambitious head of the Kremlin’s political bloc is stepping into the shadows on the eve of the presidential campaign, and he is doing so quite deliberately. In the increasingly talked-about succession race, public ambitions have always been more of a hindrance than help. Kiriyenko seems to have realized this, but perhaps too late.