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Amid growing censorship, international culture chiefs gather in Moscow to discuss soft power

Speakers at the World Cities Culture Forum Summit addressed culture development as a driver for social progress, while Russian liberals warn of a slip back into Stalinism

Just as Russia became even more isolated on the world stage over the country’s military actions in Syria, top culture officials from two dozen cities around the world gathered in Moscow earlier this month to discuss culture development as a driver for social progress.

The World Cities Culture Forum Summit (5-7 October) was hosted by the City of Moscow’s Department of Culture. Participants included Justine Simons, London's deputy mayor for culture and creative industries, who is a co-founder and chair of the forum, Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and Amsterdam’s deputy mayor Kajsa Ollongren.

At the forum opening, Simons lauded Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin for understanding culture’s role in urban development. Moscow liberals, meanwhile, have criticised Sobyanin lately for backing tasteless decorations and festivals like the Circle of Light event, which set a Guinness World Record for the largest-ever video projection, and the government in general for encouraging an atmosphere of censorship.

Simons told the Russian edition of RT, the Kremlin-funded news outlet, that the Syria crisis did not deter her from travelling to Moscow. “This is the latest step that will help bring our countries together, in spite of sanctions and everything else,” Simons said.

Ana Mendez de Andes, an adviser to the City Council of Madrid, told RT that “we must pursue common goals and not become estranged” and that cultural professionals can influence their governments. “We are speaking out for active cooperation and development of relations with Russia,” she said.

Finkelpearl said that work is being carried out to restore cultural ties at the lower and middle level of government. “This is a slow process, but I think that culture must in and of itself be apolitical, and that’s why politics cannot influence our events and agreements,” he said according to RT.

At the forum’s only public session, held at the Palace of Culture at Zil, a sprawling Stalin-era automobile plant that is being developed into a residential and arts complex, participants discussed issues facing Western cities, such as funding shortfalls and assimilating migrants. Finkelpearl praised Vladimir Filippov, Moscow’s English-speaking deputy culture chief, for transforming the Russian capital’s 441 public libraries into neighborhood culture spaces. “We need to steal your idea, if we could,” said Finkelpearl.

The forum opened just days after two photo exhibitions were attacked in Moscow by conservative activists. On 24 October, Konstantin Raikin, a Moscow theater director, warned at a national theater convention that Russia was slipping willingly back into Stalinism.

“I think that these are shameful infringements on artistic freedom, on the ban against censorship,” Raikin said. He accused cultural bosses of speaking “with us in such Stalinist language, with such Stalinist directives, that one simply can’t believe one’s ears.”

In response, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said that censorship is “in no form acceptable” when involving private productions, as long as they don’t violate anti-extremism laws, but that the “state has the right to designate a particular theme” for the projects that it funds, the Ria Novosti news agency reported.