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Russia ousts director of elite museum as Kremlin pushes for patriotic art

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Russia has ousted the longtime director of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, one of the world’s most famous art museums, just days after Russia’s Culture Ministry demanded that she prove the museum’s prestigious collection was “in line with spiritual and moral values.”

The Tretyakov’s director since 2015, Zelfira Tregulova, has been replaced by the daughter of a senior official in the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service.

The new director, Yelena Pronicheva, has little experience in fine art, and her appointment appeared to be the latest move to force Russian artists and cultural institutions to conform with the Kremlin’s increasingly conservative vision for the country.

Pronicheva, 39, was born in Melitopol, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine — one of four regions of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed illegally to be annexed by Russia. Her father, Vladimir Pronichev, was a longtime senior official in the FSB, rising to first deputy director and then head of its border service.

Unlike Tregulova, 67, who holds a degree in art history, worked at museums her entire career and helped curate exhibitions around the world, Pronicheva studied political science. She then worked in government in the Committee on Budget and Taxes of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, and in the department of foreign economic activity of Gazprombank, which is connected to the giant state-controlled energy company.

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From 2013 to 2015, Pronicheva was the executive director of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. More recently, she was the head of the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, which has been closed for renovations to its building since 2013. Instead, the museum reportedly organized temporary exhibits.

In a statement announcing Pronicheva’s appointment, the Russian Culture Ministry said that Tregulova’s contract had expired.

In recent months, Tregulova had come under intense criticism from Russia’s hawkish proponents of the war in Ukraine due to the Tretyakov’s alleged resistance to the patriotic fervor that has engulfed the country’s elite.

In November 2022, Russia’s art scene was stunned by the abrupt cancellation of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art at the Tretyakov Gallery. The official reason behind the cancellation, as stated by the Ministry of Culture, was that proper paperwork was not in place and that “the exhibits did not rise up to the level of the exhibition space.”

But Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the Tretyakov Gallery’s leadership, in fact, had protested against showcasing propagandistic works submitted by artists from the occupied eastern Ukrainian territories that Russia claims to have annexed.

“As the project was being prepared, the staff of the Tretyakov Gallery raised questions about patriotic installations,” Yulia Muzykantskaya, the Biennale’s president, told BFM Radio at the time.

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Three months later, in late January, Tregulova received a threatening letter from the Ministry of Culture demanding that she report back “on the issue of bringing the content of permanent exhibitions and gallery exhibitions in line with spiritual and moral values,” the Moscow Times reported, citing the internal document.

The letter was reportedly sent by the ministry in response to a complaint from a disgruntled Tretyakov visitor, a man named Sergei Shadrin, who complained that the museum exhibitions did not correspond to the state policy aimed “at preserving and strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values,” which was laid out by Putin in an official government decree last year.

The decree echoed Putin’s increasingly fervent anti-Western rhetoric that he has drilled into Russian audiences in nearly every public appearance since the Feb. 24 start of his invasion of Ukraine.

The document declares “patriotism, service to the Motherland, family and spirituality” as Russia’s traditional values, while American-borne “destructive ideologies” that cultivate selfishness and immorality, deny the concept of marriage as a union of a man and a woman and promote “nontraditional” sexual relations are perceived as the ultimate threat.

“It is clear that Tregulova, who professed the development of cooperation with the museums around the world, today does not fit into the current political line of the Kremlin,” Alexey Venediktov, the head of now-banned liberal Echo Moscow radio station, wrote on the Telegram messaging platform. “Her great authority in the cultural environment of Russia and ability to organize grandiose exhibitions … could have balanced everything out in the eyes of the Kremlin but it didn’t — blind men.”

Soviet artists drew a freedom message. A KGB agent named Putin investigated.

The NSN news agency reported that Tregulova had no advance warning that she would be fired. “Do you want to hear what I think about my dismissal, which I learned about from the media? Nothing! That’s it, thank you,” Tregulova said, according to NSN.

Tretyakov Gallery employees, cited by the Moscow Times, voiced doubt that Shadrin, the allegedly offended museum visitor, even exists. The employees likened the pressure campaign against the gallery to Soviet tactics to eliminate undesirable art by drawing up “a letter supposedly from the people,” which is then used by officials to promote their own agenda under the premises of alleged public concern.

The current push against the Tretyakov Gallery is reminiscent of the Soviet leader’s Nikita Khrushchev’s crusade against nonconformist art that blossomed in the Union during the thaw of the 1960s following the death of dictator Joseph Stalin.

“Everything was leading up to this, especially when this ‘compliance with spiritual and moral values’ check began,” wrote Larisa Malyukova, a culture columnist for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. “Now, obviously, there will be no incidents at the Tretyakov Gallery,” Malyukova added. “Our collective Shadrin can be satisfied.”

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.