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‘I didn't do any self-censorship'

President Putin will be officially opening the Netherlands–Russia Year on 8 April in Amsterdam. Leiden Slavist Sjeng Scheijen was responsible for putting together the cultural programme. How much freedom did he have in doing so? ‘The Dutch photography project on the demolition of Sochi districts was no PR gem, but the Russians did help pay for it.’

Strengthening the ties with Europe

The Netherlands–Russia Year is a Russian initiative and it is not intended to commemorate any particular event, says Scheijen from his temporary Moscow home. ‘Russia wants to strengthen its cultural and economic ties with European countries. This is how the Russians organise their international cultural policy. The Netherlands is the fifth European country on the list, after countries such as France and Spain.’

Cultural attaché

It is not surprising that the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have chosen Scheijen as the artistic director of this bilateral year. He has previously worked for two years as a cultural attaché at the Dutch embassy in Moscow. Following his PhD defence in Leiden on the work of the figurehead of Russian modern art Serge Diaghilev, he has also organised a number of large-scale exhibitions on Russian art, for instance on Diaghilev and artist Ilja Repin.

Swan Lake

President Putin will open the year officially on 8 April during his visit to the Netherlands. In addition to the trade missions, a number of social gatherings have been organised to discuss the relations between the two countries, and there are also opportunities for cultural events. These include theatre plays by Russian writers such as Chekhov, the Swan Lake ballet, and a number of exhibitions on Russian art. Scheijen was guest curator of two exhibitions: an exhibition on revolutions in Russian art at the Bonnefante Museum and another exhibition he put together on socialist realism in art at the Drenthe Museum.


These exhibitions are directly related to Scheijen's Veni project on the downfall of the Russian avant-garde, a broad experimental art movement from the early 20th century. In his research he used unpublished diaries and correspondence by artists from the Russian archives. ‘People always assume that the avant-garde artists were immediately oppressed by the new socialist regime. But I have found evidence to show that many artists practised self-censorship or adapted their art to socialist realism because they wanted to, on the basis of their own ideals.’’


Sjeng Scheijen is artistic director of the Netherlands-Russia year
Sjeng Scheijen is artistic director of the Netherlands-Russia year

Scheijen will not be coming back to the Netherlands for Putin’s visit, but he might meet Prime Minister Rutte in Moscow when the latter pays a return visit later this year. The Dutch programme that Scheijen set up in Russia will be starting in May. ‘I did not want too solemn a programme. It varies from street art and photography exhibitions to 18th century classical music. There are also performances by Dutch bands. This summer, the orchestra of Kytemena will be performing in Gorky Park, Moscow’s largest city park.’

No PR gem

Recently, Russia has featured frequently in the news in connection with restrictions on the freedom of speech. To what extent did Scheijen take particular sensitivities into account? ‘I did not practise self-censorship. We were able to do more or less everything we wanted. For instance, there is a photography exhibition by the Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra who spent five years documenting the preparations for the Olympic Winter Games in the Russian city of Sochi. He shows the remains of the working-class districts that were demolished in the process and the inhabitants who were forced to leave. This is certainly no PR gem, but the Russians even helped to pay for the project. The art world is still relatively free.’

(3 April 2013)


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