Let's hear it for the good old bad old days

Mother Russia's encounter with the culture of the Big Mac has threatened disaster for the nation's arts.
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With its acres of concrete, marble and glass, Moscow's President Hotel looks like any other international hostelry, but there is a difference. Once the Hotel of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it was built by the Soviet regime for its VIP guests. Even today there is a checkpoint with guards who ask for your passport.

I only knew that things had changed when I entered the hall. Beside every microphone on the speakers' platform stood a bottle of Coca-Cola. It was a small detail, but then the devil lies in the detail.

The President was the venue for the first-ever international conference (held last month under the aegis of Unesco) on culture in Central and Eastern Europe or, as the jargon has it, the "countries in transition". The omnipresence of the West, which the little red bottles signalled, was a leitmotif - sometimes spoken, but mostly implied - of the discussions.

It was the background to an extraordinary intervention by one of Russia's leading film makers, Nikita Mikhalkov, whose latest film Burnt by the Sun, won a prize at Cannes and is currently playing in Moscow. Someone had noted that the new democracies were "resuming history as if the Communists had never been there". For Mikhalkov, this was a bad mistake. He said: "In 1917 the Bolsheviks said, `Let's forget everything before the revolution.' Now there is a real danger that we'll say, `Let's forget everything before 1989.' That could be very damaging."

To a foreigner like myself, it was all very puzzling. The end of state control over every corner of artistic life was an unparalleled victory for freedom of speech. Were people beginning to regret the passing of the bad old days?

After the conference, I put this question to one of its organisers, Kirill Razlogov, director of the respected Russian Institute for Cultural Studies. He said: "Under the Communists, the arts had a high prestige. To be an artist brought you an exciting life and a good standard of living. Now the prestige has gone and there is less money."

The intelligentsia fears that the government is no longer really interested in culture and funds it partly out of inertia and partly to keep its noisy arts community quiet. The ruling coalition denies this, although it has been forced to cut arts budgets because of the general economic crisis.

But there is more to this debate than a row about personal benefits. Artists and intellectuals have a more fundamental gripe: they believe that the state is powerless in the face of two threats: an avalanche of Western, and particularly American, cultural goods, especially in film and on television, and the growing claims of minority nationalities inside the Russian Federation. Somehow, the soul of Russia is at stake. Another way of putting it is that Russia has lost its high profile on the international arts scene. The country that produced Tolstoy and Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Eisenstein seems to be running out of steam. Many fear that the arts run the risk of becoming a cultural colony (or, in another of Mikhalkov's phrases, a "spiritual Macdonald's").

I borrowed Lenin's famous question and asked Razlogov: "What is to be done?" His reply was depressing: "You either stop modernisation - or hope something will crop up in the next 200 years."

As the conference drew to a close, I noticed that not a single speaker had opened their bottle of Coca-Cola. Perhaps they could tell a Greek gift when they saw one.