A Map of the Invisible City of Kitezh: Culture and Freedom in Russia, 2020−2022
From the outset of the project, we were intent on tracing the invisible lines of the hidden debate over freedom and enterprises that was still going on in the hyperregulated cultural sphere of Russia, among active people who were busy custom redesigning the intellectual and creative landscape. The outbreak of the pandemic was a blessing in disguise: all of a sudden we had more time and dialogue partners than we had imagined. We decided to let everyone speak anonymously, so that the interviews were perceived not as a sum total of individual insights, but as a group conversation outlining a broader picture.

The people we talked to identified themselves as producers, enablers, programmers, curators, managers, consultants or experts, and some of them had many hats.
We soon realised that each and every one of the several dozens of conversations pivoted around a handful of key notions, of which freedom was the central theme: everyone was trying to carve out a free patch within the framework of institutional relations between the state and the citizens.
For many of the participants, these dialogues were the first chance of reflection in a long while, an effort of understanding and analysis of their condition. Others chose not to disclose their true stance, substituting the value-driven debate over basic freedoms with speculation on heritage policies and rejoicing in insider codes.

As we were transcribing and processing the interviews, our ever-shrinking territory of freedom capsized. Early in 2022, the cultural landscape we had been painting disappeared, went underwater just like Kitezh-grad, the Russian version of Atlantis. We can still see it from a distance and mirror ourselves in it as if on the water surface, but apparently we do not belong there any longer. And yet, we believe it is paramount to preserve its landscape up to the tiniest detail for the next generations of researchers as well as for ourselves.

We would like to hope that the scholars of the (fingers crossed) not so remote future will be able to use the references outlined in this modest study in order to build bridges linking the world that is gone to the one that is still in development, to design a more sustainable space for a new, meaningful and honest dialogue. After all, it is for a reason that one of the participants coined the phrase: "Geography did not die after Jacques Paganel."
Anna Ayvazyan, Olga Grinkrug, Natalia Kopelyanskaya, Galina Kozlova, Ekaterina Rovnova
The pool of project experts includes members of the following organisations and institutions: Archstoyanie Festival, Bulgakov Museum, CC19 Cultural Centre, Expert Board of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, Gallery Na Shabolovke, House on Jerusalem Hill Creative Space, International Memorial <liquidated by the Supreme Court of Russia on 28 December 2021>, Kolomna Posad Museum and Creative Cluster, Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, Museum Experiences Centre for Social Innovations, Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, Nakhodka Museum and Exhibition Centre, Noesis prosocial games studio, Project Initiative, RANEPA, Russian Association of Cultural Managers, Perm Regional Museum, Samara Literary Museum, independent local historians.
The legend of Kitezh dates back to the Tatar-Mongol era. It tells the story of how the besieged city was able, through the prayers of its inhabitants, to bury itself in the waters of Lake Svetloyar, and so escape Khan Batu’s invading forces. At the turn of the 20th century, with Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1904), the legend grew into a national symbol.

Image: Konstantin Gorbatov, The Drowned City, 1933