President Boris Yeltsin's tour last week of the retrospective exhibition of works by openly racist painter Ilya Glazunov signals the mainstreaming of the radical nationalist movement here.
In attending the exhibit, which features paintings of bulbous-lipped black men carting off naked white women and heavily bearded Hasidic Jews raising to their lips crystal goblets of Russian blood, Yeltsin was seeking to show his solidarity with the ethnic Russians whom Glazunov's tableaux glorify.
In any civilized nation, the appearance of the country's president at an openly anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-foreigner art show would have sparked outrage from ordinary citizens. In Russia, where racism against non-ethnic Russians is becoming axiomatic, representatives of the government hailed the show as a triumph of Russian patriotism. Moreover, funding for the massive Glazunov retrospective comes from state institutions.
The Russian government is not only endorsing controversial works that sanction violence as a panacea for the country's problems, but the state sponsors also are providing the painter with a forum in which to propagate his ideology. Glazunov has been using weekly forums to advance his political views, turning the cavernous exhibition site into a soapbox for his monarchist, pro-Russian agenda and whipping up an anti-foreigner frenzy.
"Russia is undergoing the most terrible moment of its history. Our children are being bought for millions of rubles. The most beautiful Russian girls are being sold as prostitutes in Europe and Asia. We are becoming an American colony!" Glazunov warned at a recent public meeting that had all the feel of a political rally. "The mad insects and dogs of the democratic press say 'Russia for Russians' is a fascist slogan. But who else is to own Russia if not Russians? Everybody should fight for the revival of Russia," he admonished.
And what does Glazunov suggest citizens do to recapture their country from the corrupting influence of the West? "Wake up, Russia," the painting in mass reproduction as the exhibit poster, illustrates the artist's prescription for curing the country's ills. In the center of the canvas, a bare-chested muscular youth raises the New Testament in one hand and an automatic rifle in the other; behind him stands a young woman in army fatigues with a machine gun slung over her shoulder and a Russian flag in her hands. As if fearing that his exhortation to viewers to employ violence to purify Russia is not manifest enough, Glazunov paints in a wounded young drummer boy whose instrument is emblazoned with the slogan: "Glory to Russia. Russia for Russians." The Russian press has charged that the work, with its priests clad in swastika-pattern robes, has Nazi overtones.
At worst, Yeltsin's stroll around the exhibition hall suggests he shares the painter's opinions. At best, his cameo appearance with Glazunov, whose exhibit opening was attended by prominent radical opposition leaders, shows that the president finds blatant racism to be tolerable. Instead of offering an inclusive alternative to the prevailing model of exclusionary Russian patriotism, Yeltsin seems to be trying to placate radical nationalists and win over their lumpen followers who accuse him of selling out to the West.
In a year in which high inflation, economic collapse, anti-Russian policies in former Soviet republics and loss of prestige on the international diplomatic scene have seen an upsurge in racism in Russia, Yeltsin's decision to court the nationalist constituency may seem ill-advised. The president's nod to nationalism in the form of Glazunov's canvases, however, is in keeping with Yeltsin's reserve in tackling the racism issue. The only response from the Russian president when thousands of citizens from the Caucasus region (referred to as "blacks" in the local parlance) were deported from Moscow, when Jewish cemeteries were leveled in a number of Russian cities, when police arrested members of a neo-Nazi gang that was planning to firebomb Moscow cinemas showing "Schindler's List," has been silence.
International human-rights organizations can stop beseeching the Russian president to issue a public statement against racism. Yeltsin's visit to the Glazunov exhibition shows where he stands.