In little over a month the Calvert Journal will be celebrating its first birthday. It’s worth exploring whether the journal has achieved its task of exploring other sides of Russia and Russian culture (rarely reported on in the mainstream media) or whether it has been trapped in certain discourses unable to completely extricate itself from the kind of external influence that has been all too obvious within the Russian art world itself.
One would do well to look back at the initial run of articles devoted to the journal in the British press. Re-reading the articles that Editor-in-Chief, Ekow Eshun, was to write for the British press you would find an enthusiastic description of a Russian cultural renaissance with a certain overuse of hyperbolic praise for the chic end of Russian cultural life. It was something between a glossy advert for the cool side of Moscow, St Petersburg and other regional capitals and links to recently built cultural venues – ‘cultural hubs’ or ‘creative clusters’ were the buzzwords used- that attracted the creative classes. A much talked-about category in 2012 representing those who appeared and disappeared in the street demonstrations between December 2011 and May 2012 and then retired to other activities when the going got tough and repression became a reality. The fairweather hipsters who played with politics and then retreated into the Strelka’s, and Garazh’s so rapturously described by Eshun in his FT article or to the Supper and Ping Pong Club’s and coffee bars described by him in his article for The Guardian. All this may have been a welcome relief from the British fondness for lapping up cold war style rhetoric in their dailies and weeklies but, in retrospect, it was no more the real Russia (and tells us little about Russian culture) than that written by many Anglo-Saxon foreign correspondents
There is, of course, a simple explanation for this. If you look on the About page of the journal you will find that the founders of the journal are Nonna Materkova and Alexei Kudrin. Shortly after the site of the Calvert Journal was operational, the sister Calvert 22 Foundation agreed a strategic partnership with VTB Capital– an investment bank. A brief summary of VTB Capital’s operations is given by its website. Kudrin himself is someone who has worked with President Putin since St. Petersburg days but was to fall from grace in 2011 leading him to flirt with the opposition movement. Representing pure economic neo-liberalism he was deemed as being a kind of counter-balance to the siloviki at the time. He has since become Dean of a faculty of St Petersburg University and has made the kind of timorous, meek criticisms of Putin’s latest ‘authoritarian turn’, one might expect from someone wedded to Putinism more or less from Day One.
The site Chto Delat had an article on the VTB Capital/Calvert strategic partnership as well as a very interesting quote from one of the Board Members of VTB Capital (Olga Podoinitsyna) and their interest in these links:
“Throughout the nearly 3 years of partnership between VTB Capital and Calvert 22 Foundation, we have made a considerable contribution to the showcasing of Russian art in London, and also promoting the understanding of Russia as part of the global community. We support Calvert 22 as a unique vehicle for bringing contemporary Russian culture to Britain, putting people in touch with the actual trends in the country and offering them a new perspective on Russia. Our company plays an important role in strengthening ties between the Russian and British business communities and the partnership with Calvert 22 is a key part of VTB Capital’s soft power approach to changing perceptions of Russia.”
This ‘strategic partnership’ did not, however, prevent Calvert 22 from relying on precarious labour. It seems that in spite of investment banking links, unwaged labour was a fundamental reality in the cultural sphere based around the ‘Calvert experiment’ until September last year. So for all the glitzy presentations where the Kudrin’s and the Masterkova’s milled with the ‘elite’ of the creative class, those waiting on them hand and foot found their own work unrewarded.
Knowledge of the institutional context may well explain why the journal (a very fine idea in and of itself) has only fulfilled part of the task of bringing Russian life and culture to an English-language readership. There are inspirational writers included in the team- to name but two Owen Hatherley, and Agata Pyzik– who do lend the journal some much needed gravitas and independence from the prevailing cool, hipster-like ethos . The occasional photo article with a sharp social theme rarely turns up, Max Adveev’s recent photos of migrant workers in Sochi being one of the very few exceptions. Yet it still feels like it is the ethos of the hipsters, the ‘creative class’ and ensuing cool fashion and coffee bar themes that tend to dominate.
So in spite of the occasional exceptional writer who provides genuine insight, Calvert provides a severely limited service of reporting on the genuine debates and phenomena that move Russian culture at its core. When it gets too large to be ignored Pavlensky’s scandalous act in Red Square does get a mention but before that or even since there had and has been no real attempt to explore actionist or activist art , or report on the kind of exhibitions that find themselves closed or curtailed by administrative fiat because of the sharpness of their theme. Even if feminist art does get discussed, certain uncomfortable facts and voices do not seem to receive equal right of redress.
So as yet Calvert doesn’t seem to have justified the early hopes of providing as rounded a view of Russian culture as one hoped it was going to. It has also failed to tread on as many toes as one would have liked. Hipsters and oligarchs, creative classes and financial might remain the ultimate name of the game and there is little real exploration of Russian culture that moves beyond these ideological, social and economic ‘tramlines’. The criticism rarely expands beyond the surface while playing to the few emphatic themes that the Anglo-Saxon press will report on (LGBT and Pussy Riot are mentioned occasionally in Calvert, but inequality or social themes are completely marginalized). It is not as though the journal is a mouthpiece (of course it isn’t). Simply put, its courage is ever so slight and the broadness of its range of topics rather too determined. It appears that we can be sure that it will never dare to really upset its benefactors such as Kudrin and VTB Capital, and only rarely will it begin to inform the English-language readership of issues beyond the hip and fashionable ones. Russian culture needs more ambitious and more courageous champions than Calvert.
(In the interests of full disclosure the writer of this article has been published by the Calvert Journal . In terms of proposed material suggested by the author articles on Cine Fantom, Svetlana Baskova’s film For Marx,, an article on the multi-media artist Tatiana Daniliyants and the proposal for an article on artistic life in the Kuzbass city of Novkuznetsk never got beyond discussion phase. Since late May 2013 the author has not been in discussion regarding other proposals for articles to be published in the Calvert Journal )
CORRECTION: Regarding my earlier assertion that voluntary, unpaid work was still being used I received the following message from a Calvert editor which I am happy to add:
“In light of the coverage of our internship and volunteering programme, the foundation took the decision over the summer to no longer offer unpaid internships or a volunteering programme across all the projects, including the gallery and journal. This came into effect with the Dear Art exhibition which opened in September.”