In the Soviet Union, literary prizes were awarded in the Kremlin, the proceedings broadcast on the national television channel. Writers could be honored with the Lenin Prize, the State Prize of the USSR or the Award of the Komsomol. The editor of a major literary journal could be a member of the Supreme Soviet, with a rank equivalent to that of a field marshal. Literature, like the other arts, was either official or unofficial. Official literature was written by unionized writers, approved by the government and published by state presses. Unofficial literature could not be published and could not receive awards; it could, however, carry a lengthy prison sentence. Writers were important people.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, the government lost its monopoly on literary prizes, among other commodities. Russia’s first independent arts award, the Triumph Prize, was sponsored by the newly minted oligarch Boris Berezovsky (who, after a decade-long exile in London, died in an apparent suicide in March). The first prize ceremony was held in 1992, at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. At a time when it was hard to get food, let alone books or magazines, the ceremony was a lavish event, with a bountiful buffet and a hefty prize purse. The artists invited were glad for a good meal.
During the corrupt, chaotic process of privatization, a handful of businessmen acquired lucrative state enterprises at cut-rate prices, becoming multimillionaires overnight. To the people, they were thieves, and the oligarchs found it necessary to rebrand themselves. They did so, in part, by drawing on pre-revolutionary models of art patronage. In the later nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, industrialists like Savva Mamontov (who opened his own private opera and was said to possess “a sort of electric current that ignited other people’s energies”) and Pavel Tretyakov (whose art collection became one of Russia’s best museums) had supported artists who left a lasting mark on world culture. These patrons were called “Maecenases”: wealthy, powerful men motivated by a passion for art and the desire to bring glory to their country. They were filthy rich, but they were also the good guys.
And so, starting in the 1990s, Russia’s oligarchs made like Maecenases, collecting art, supporting the theater and sponsoring literary prizes. Many also donated large sums to charity—usually to crowd-pleasing causes like orphans, pensioners, veterans and medical aid. They came to be called “philanthropists,” although, like philanthropists elsewhere, they were motivated largely by self-interest. Businessmen often concentrated their charity work in their hometowns or in the places where their businesses were located; for those running for office, this had the convenient side effect of winning votes. Others scored political points for providing social benefits that were no longer the government’s responsibility, taking some of the sting out of the demise of the Soviet welfare state. Putin’s government has made it clear that it supports this practice; some observers say that government-approved philanthropy constitutes an unofficial tax.
Most Russian philanthropists steered clear of explicitly political causes. One exception was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who became the richest man in Russia thanks to his acquisition, during privatization, of the oil company Yukos. His 2003 arrest for fraud and tax evasion was widely attributed to his economic and political challenges to the government—especially his attempt to sell Yukos—but he also supported opposition parties and human rights groups. Khodorkovsky is now Putin’s official nemesis. The proceedings against him have been the defining show trials of the Putin administration; only the Pussy Riot affair, in which three young women were prosecuted for a protest performance in a Moscow church (two are currently incarcerated), has received as much attention.