IN 2001 GERHARD SCHRӦDER, then Germany’s chancellor, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, announced the creation of a bilateral forum, The Petersburg Dialogue. The idea was to “promote joint decision-making on today’s most acute problems,” Mr Putin said, bringing together hundreds of politicians, journalists, businesspeople, researchers and civil-society groups from each country. Though its ambitions are laudable, in practice the biannual meetings have often been testy. In 2012 Angela Merkel flew to Russia shortly after the Bundestag passed a resolution criticising Kremlin repression.
The Petersburg Dialogue was one of the groups involved in a wide-ranging new exhibition, “Diversity United”, conceived by the Foundation of Art and Culture in Bonn alongside the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The show, which opened in Berlin on June 9th, features 90 artists from 34 different countries, each exploring “themes of power and equality, migration and territory, political and personal identity” and touching on “the recurring question of Europe’s role in the world”. The exhibition offers a “free exchange of ideas which transcend borders and differences”, the catalogue says, and is accompanied by a programme of lectures and talks. After its Berlin run, it was to travel first to Moscow before transferring to Paris.
Or so curators hoped. At the end of May Russia blacklisted the Centre for Liberal Modernity and the German-Russian Exchange, two Germans NGOs included in the Petersburg Dialogue, claiming that their activities “threaten the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation”. As a result, Walter Smerling, the chairman of the Foundation of Art and Culture, has said that “Diversity United” will not go ahead in Moscow in these conditions. Cultural commentators have pointed out the irony of an exhibition underlining “the importance of intercultural dialogue in times of political uncertainties” being in effect shut down by political interference.
Mr Smerling says he had long been curious about how the show would be received in Moscow, given that “a lot of artists criticise the situation of democracy in Europe, especially in Russia”. An LED sign by Sejla Kameric, a Bosnian visual artist (pictured above), reads “Liberty” but is covered in metal spikes; it symbolises “the contrast between the freedoms that some enjoy and the struggles that others have to endure”, the artist has said. The work of the assorted Russian artists might have proved even more controversial. Ekaterina Muromtseva’s “Picket” series (pictured top) draws attention to the swelling protest movements in recent years, such as the marches supporting Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician. Her large-format watercolours depict faceless figures holding placards; they evolved from a poster she herself wanted to carry on a demonstration following the arrest in 2019 of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist reporting on corruption.
Russia’s clampdown on artistic freedoms in recent years is well publicised; artists such as Ms Muromtseva put themselves at risk by speaking out. Members of Pussy Riot, a punk band and performance-art group which stages high-profile “happenings”, have been arrested and imprisoned. Artists do not have to publicly criticise Mr Putin’s government to incite the ire of the authorities. Yulia Tsvetkova, a feminist artist and LGBT activist, has been under house arrest since November 2019, accused of disseminating pornography and “gay propaganda”.
It is evident that the noble aims of the exhibition and the Petersburg Dialogue are at odds with Mr Putin’s authoritarianism. A “free exchange of ideas” and open dialogue seem not to be on the Russian government’s agenda, least of all about itself. An unfortunate side-effect is that the show may only be hosted in Germany and France, countries which are among the most liberal in the world.
Yet in many ways the circumstances surrounding “Diversity United” are an advert for the power of art: its fate is a tacit acknowledgement that art can change viewers’ perceptions and challenge repressive regimes. Mr Smerling says the organisers hope they will be able to open in Moscow eventually. Given the current political mood there, they may be waiting a long time.
“Diversity United” continues at Tempelholfer Feld, Berlin, until September 19th