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In TASS special project Top Officials, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky speaks about the most controversial issues of Russia's cultural life, his attitude towards Joseph Stalin and much more.
On “star students” and outsiders, the Restoration Fraud Case probe and manly behavior
- You were a star student at school, weren’t you?
- And at the university, too. During my studies at the MGIMO institute of international relations back in the Soviet years I received the Lenin Grant. The only one at my department. A hundred and thirty rubles a month - an equivalent of the basic salary in those days.
- That’s what I mean. And now you’ve suddenly plummeted to a C-student’s level.
- What makes you think so?
- The recent VTSIOM poll, which has found that Russians are not quite happy about the performance of government ministers and deputy prime ministers. In 2016, the results of government officials’ activity proved worse than last year’s. Your personal rating has been down from 3.45 points to 3.34 points. Do you agree with this rating?
- To rate ratings is a very unrewarding business. Possibly, there can be no such thing as A-level government ministers in people’s opinion.
- But somebody has to be used as a benchmark after all?
- Sergey Lavrov, our foreign minister. His rating in the poll was one of the highest. And, generally speaking, Lavrov is an ideal for any MGIMO graduate.
The most important opinion is that of the president and the head of government
- Do you care about the public opinion?
- Surely I do. But I never do things on purpose, just in order to cater to somebody’s tastes. I just keep doing my job.
The most important opinion is that of the president and the head of government. And my own, of course, the one that is hiding deep inside. It is always bad. I’m never pleased with myself. Exceptions are rare.
- For instance?
- I’d prefer to avoid this Tops-of-the-Pops style speculations. My attitude to such matters is far more straightforward.
- To what extent has the so-called “Restorers’ Affair,” in which your deputy Grigory Pirumov and some other employees of the Culture Ministry were arrested, hit the ministry’s reputation? You will agree that suspicion of gross fraud is more than serious.
- Certainly, any unseemly affair does affect “experts’ ratings.” But it makes few changes to our daily routine: I see my main task in implementing the government’s policy in the field of culture. Current problems and conflicts should not be allowed to have influence on that. Some like the way we go about our business, and others, don’t. It’s always been that way. We do make mistakes, which is also unavoidable. And we do our utmost to correct them as we move on.
We do make mistakes... and we do our utmost to correct them as we move on
Now, about the concrete case you are asking about. We’ve launched a series of checks and inspections, although we always kept an eye on the operation of the department of property management and investment policy from the standpoint of pricing and discounts awarded in this or that contest… We can discuss this on and on. I would not like to repeat myself. I dwelt upon this problem at length at the latest meeting of the ministry’s board. The construction department has not revised its restoration work price lists for four years. According to our findings they are the nation’s lowest. Last year, the average discount off the bid price is 15%, and for some sites it is as high as 24%. In the meantime, in 2011 the discount was just one percent of the experts’ appraisal.
Possibly, it was careless of us to feel complacent. Now we are studying everything in depth once again. Including the quality of work. The results of a comprehensive probe of the North-Western directorate will be available in May. The Moscow Directorate will begin to be inspected after that. Both are our independent divisions…
In their coverage of the Restorers’ Affair the media don’t bother to get into detail. In the meantime it is important to remember that very different organizations may act in the capacity of the customer and, consequently, the entity that accepts the work done. The Ministry of Culture is present there in a very limited capacity. Apart from us there are the regional authorities and individual organizations with their own budget, such as the Hermitage Museum or Moscow’s Maly Theater… They declare bidding contests, they select contractors and then they accept the work done.
The restoration of the New Jerusalem Monastery, for instance, was ordered by a same-name foundation. The monastery is a monument of culture but our ministry neither orders any works nor pays for them.
- What about Izborsk?
- The Ministry of Culture did act in the capacity of the client in that particular case, that’s true. As far as understand, the exposed violations were promptly eliminated. But there was a great fuss…
The problem is far more serious that it might seem at first sight, so I would refrain from detailed comments. Let's leave it to the professionals. The way I see it, it is very good that the federal security service FSB is in charge of the investigation. That’s an elite law enforcement agency. I do hope that the high level of professionalism will let them sort things out calmly and impartially.
- Nevertheless, some of those present at the Culture Ministry’s board meeting said the restrictive measures taken towards the accused should be eased and the arrested released from the detention center until trial. Was it you who sent the message to court?
- The question was put to the vote openly. The board meeting made a decision and the decision is to be honored. We handed the petition over to the lawyers. Everything else is their realm of responsibility.
Incidentally, I would like to remind you that I’ve fundamentally reorganized the system of forming the ministry’s board. I removed from it all functionaries except for the minister’s deputies. The vacated twenty seats have been taken up by creative personalities. The proposal for releasing the accused from custody came from the culture workers. The other speakers at the meeting supported them.
To close the subject: under our legislation only a court of law is in the position to declare a person guilty. I see no chance for me to turn my back on my subordinates before a verdict has been pronounced. Doing otherwise would be not very manly, to say the least.
- In this particular case the Ministry’s board presented a common front, but among culture workers there are many unanimous critics of practically each new initiative your Ministry in general and you as its head, in particular, have come up with.
- You must be reading Facebook in the morning, I guess. Don’t do that. In the evenings, too. I really mean it. I don’t do it myself. And I deliberately avoid opening accounts in the social networks. Just don’t have the time for that. I’m registered in Twitter just for the sake of taking a look at very brief posts on my way home.
- Are you trying to skip negative information not to get upset?
My job is to implement the government's culture policy
- In my media review I always have information from the opposing flanks. Please get the simple but main thing. My job is not to be liked by everyone. My job is to implement the government's culture policy. If the criticism is about our these or those activities (in the interests of the state and culture!), there is nothing "negative" in it by definition. This is normal routine search for the best possible solutions. If anyone's position denies the existence of the culture policy, we have no subject for dialog. In this event high-profile cases are just an easy media pretext to make a name for oneself. This does not affect our work. That's what we stand for. Full stop.
- But can you keep the discontent progressive public away from the budget pie?
- My personal likes and dislikes play no role here at all. We created a sophisticated system of contested distribution of budget grants for a good reason. It applies to everything – from cinema to theaters. This is a multi-level mechanism of decision-making. It is completely detached from the minister’s opinion. Moreover, I’m ignorant of the outcome of the voting up to the last moment. There are councils of experts that make decisions. In some cases their conclusions are brought to me for approval. But I cannot change anything on my own.
As a rule everything is decided at the level of departments concerned, where the professionals in this or that branch of activity oversee the process. If there is something I disagree with for fundamental reasons, I can intervene and overturn the experts’ verdict. But such cases are very few.