Guardian of Russian culture

SUN JOURNAL

Arts: Mikhail Y. Shvydkoi is entrusted with not only safeguarding the traditions of his nation's creative life but also ensuring that it has a future.

February 09, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Mikhail Y. Shvydkoi, Russia's minister of culture, is entrusted with keeping the flame of Russia's high culture flickering during these turbulent times.

The 62-year-old theater scholar is responsible for his nation's most prominent arts institutions, including the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and the Hermitage Museum and the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg. He has been named by Art Review magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the art world.

Shvydkoi was invited to visit Baltimore for the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival but was unable to attend. The Baltimore festival, which opens Thursday and runs through March 2, is a celebration of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary and its great artistic wealth.

Born in Kyrgyzstan, then a part of the Soviet Union, Shvydkoi graduated from the State Institute of Theatrical Art in 1971 and served for 17 years as deputy editor of the Soviet Theater magazine. He also worked as a drama critic and screenwriter.

He was named deputy minister of culture in 1993 and later became chief of the television channel Kultura and of the Russian State Television and Radio Company. Vladimir V. Putin, then-acting president, appointed him culture minister in February 2000.

Shvydkoi was the only high-ranking Kremlin official to take on the public defense of modernist writers who were attacked last year by the pro-Putin youth group "Moving Together." The group filed pornography charges against a novelist who lampooned Stalin.

"A criminal case should not be opened against a writer, for writers can write whatever they see fit or want," Shvydkoi told Ekho Moskvvy radio in July. "This is written in the constitution."

Shvydkoi talked with The Sun a few days ago in his Moscow office, a short stroll from the Kremlin.

Baltimore's major arts and cultural institutions will mark the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg with Vivat! St. Petersburg, a two-week celebration of Russian culture. What, in your opinion, does this say about Russian-American relations?

I think today's Russian-American relations in the cultural field may be better today than in the last 15 years. We have found new interest in the United States in Russian culture - more than maybe five or 10 years ago.

I'll explain to you why. During perestroika, in the middle of the 1980s, Russian culture and Russia were interesting [to the West] as the culture of the empire of the devil. There was the Iron Curtain, and people looked through the Iron Curtain through small holes. And through holes, everything looks more interesting.

To Americans on the street, Russia lost its image [as the home] of the Bolshoi Ballet and its symphonies. To them, Russia is still a country of ecological catastrophe and prostitutes, of criminals, of [money laundering]. The image of Russia today, I think, is not the image of a country with high culture.

But through the culture, through the emotional information, we can give them a much more real image of the country.

If you want to present the real cultures, we must have much more support from the governments of both sides. This is very important. I explain to my children that American culture is not just thrillers and blockbusters. It is something more.

Can St. Petersburg once again become a center for modern art? Or will it become, like Venice, a sort of living museum?

St. Petersburg is our European capital in Russia. Moscow is much more of an Asian capital. During the Soviet times, a lot of creative artists left St. Petersburg and came to Moscow, because the creative atmosphere was more flexible, more free.

But during the 1980s, a lot of the young people created the St. Petersburg avant-garde. They tried to re-create the glamour of St. Petersburg. And I think they have a chance, although the '90s was not the time for that.

Why does Russia have a Ministry of Culture and centralized control of its arts institutions?

This is a European tradition. In every country where there was a monarchy, there was a ministry of culture. And this is more or less the Russian tradition, too.

It is my position that we must decentralize a lot of the function in the cultural field, of course.

But on the other hand, our heritage - the level of quality of the philharmonic orchestras, of high-brow arts, of cultural education - we must keep under the federal control. We must keep our standards of quality high, during decentralization.

It's very complicated. ... Each provincial governor has his own imagination about what is good, what is bad.

Without state support, what would happen to the arts in Russia?

I will give you just two figures. The budget of the Ministry of Culture today is about $700 million. The total cultural budget - regional, municipal and federal - is approximately $1.5 billion. This is tax money.

If you talk about private sponsorship, it is less than 10 percent of this.

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