Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Raindance Film Festival, Apollo Piccadilly Circus, 26 Sept – 7 Oct

Notable for having repeatedly premiered next year’s most talked about films (cf. The Blair Witch Project, Memento, Old Boy), Raindance returns this week with its signature array of new movies from across continents, provocative new documentaries and live events. The Piccadilly Apollo and Haymarket Cineworld will lay on everything from a far-Eastern adaptation of The Tempest set in near-future Japan to an Irish horror mockumentary: Portrait of a Zombie. There will be a new Mexican Cinema strand, and as ever, short films will form an essential element of the line-up which debuts over 200 shorts on average each year. This year’s festival winner will be automatically shortlisted in the Best Short Film category at the 2013 Academy Awards. The full programme can be downloaded by clicking here.

 

Literature

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, 5 – 14 Oct

Cheltenham’s Imperial Square will hold more marquees and Times readers than usual next weekend as the town’s annual literary festival gets under way. Big names involved in talks and debates include the world’s best-known “left-leaning demagogue” J. K. Rowling, recent memoirists Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster, screen stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul O’Grady and Clare Balding, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, talking about his new book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. The festival’s theme is apparently People: Power, and even if it barely needs the word “literature” in its title, the line-up is broad enough for everyone to find something of interest.

 

Music

Darbar Festival, Southbank Centre, 27 – 30 September

Darbar is a festival of Indian classical music which brings concerts, talks, food and yoga to the Southbank’s Centre’s Pucell Room once a year. At fourteen concerts across four days the programme boasts a selection of India’s best musicians, many of whom are sixth or seventh-generation instrumentalists, appearing in the UK for the first time. Ones to watch include the tabla master Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and sitarist Ustad Shujaat Khan. Music is drawn from both the Hindustani (north Indian) and Carnatic (southern) traditions and for those who want to know more, the curators run an Indian Classical Music Appreciation Course, enabling newcomers to get their heads around the subcontinent’s ancient musical forms. After London, many of the concerts will tour to the rest of the UK.

 

Theatre

Our Country’s Good, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2 – 6 October

In 1789 a young lieutenant named Ralph Clark was charged with directing inmates interred at the (new) New South Wales penal colony in a performance of the Restoration comedy the Recruiting Officer, commissioned to celebrate the king’s birthday. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally (of Schindler’s Ark/List fame), Timberlake Wetenbaker’s play sees the lieutenant struggle with a morose cast, critical fellow officers, two damaged script books and a leading lady threatened with the gallows, to find out what theatre is really made of. First directed by Max Stafford-Clark in the late 80s and revived this year by the same director for his Out of Joint Theatre Company, the play will tour nationally before joining the opening season at London’s new St James Theatre early next year. This Tuesday’s performance will be followed by a post-show talk with the cast and crew.

 

Art

Open Studio Weekend, Gasworks, Vauxhall SE11 5RH, 28 – 29 September

A south London contemporary art organisation, Gasworks has studio space for eleven resident artists, three of whom have arranged a series of events for an Open Studio Weekend. Starting tonight Cécile B. Evans will premiere new works generated by an open call for rejection letters from artists and curators between 6-9pm, including a full studio tour at 7pm. The weekend continues on Saturday with Sunoj D., who will discuss his research for a commission by the National History Museum about the experiences and values of modern farmers (2pm, bring a plant pot), ending on Sunday (12pm) with a walk through London, exploring sights of protest and conflict from through the city’s history with Francisca Benítez.

The "left-leaning demagogue" J. K. Rowling will appear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival next week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times