Gulags Are for Artists Like Me
A protester is arrested after confronting and clashing with members of the Victoria Police during an anti-lockdown protest on September 18th, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Diego Fedele/Getty Images)

Gulags Are for Artists Like Me

Peter Mousaferiadis
Peter Mousaferiadis

Two weeks ago, I posted a snap from a friend and photographer at the Age newspaper.  The controversial pic was of an elderly woman of Greek heritage in her 80s looking on to the militarised police response unfolding at Northcote Plaza in Melbourne’s inner north. I stated the facts as I understood them on a social media platform. Within a short time, I was inundated with a flood of opinions. I received multiple messages reprimanding me as a formal artist who should know better and “STOP it!” Someone even inboxed me that “artists like me should be sent to the Gulags!”

A woman caught up in protests outside Northcote Plaza on Friday, September 24th, 2021. Luis Enrique Ascui

But wait. Isn’t this the definitive role of the arts? Artists pursue their preferred medium from the various branches of creativity to express their ideas. As an artist, I was trained to question realities and view them through this lens to illustrate my opinion of the world.

In the early 1990s, when I studied conducting in Eastern Europe, I met conductors who told me their experiences of artistic censorship.

These musical giants of this era I studied under were in the winter of their lives of “conductor suppression.” I had never heard of this term which was used during the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc to ensure that orchestral conductors did not conduct with too much emotion for fear of provoking passion in the audience who may be incited to riot. The consequence which could result in being sent to forced labour camps known as Gulags.

Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, titled the “Pathétique Symphony” or “Symphony of Passion,” ends with a pensive and mournful movement. This sombre movement was often swapped with the third triumphant movement to ensure that it did not incite riots but rather oppose Western music ideals and instead seek to encourage traditional Russian music. Conductors were often directed to conduct this work with no passion (pardon the pun), or they risked being expelled to the Gulags.

The Gulags were a system of Soviet labour camps, detention, transit camps and prisons that from 1918 until 1960 housed the political prisoners and criminals of the Soviet Union. This punishment wasn’t limited to conductors but included composers, novelists, intellectuals, visual artists and anyone that was considered a threat to Stalin’s political establishment.

Artists have throughout the ages been subject to torture and forced labour. Theodorakis, considered one of Greece’s greatest composers, was interned in 1967 for five months in the concentration camp of Oropos by the Regime of the Colonels that overthrew the Greek government. He passed away a few weeks ago. This far right wing authoritarian military junta banned the playing of, singing of, and listening to Theodorakis’s music.

Víctor Jara, a Chilean activist and folk singer who moved an entire nation of people with his guitar playing and songs was murdered for his music. He had his arms broken and became one of the countless fatal casualties of the neo-liberalist experiment which spearheaded Pinochet into Chile to overthrow Allende. Today, the Chile Stadium is named the Víctor Jara Stadium and immortalises every labourer and their prayer for greater justice.

Journalists are not excluded from the arts. Those who abide by the principles of ethical journalism deliver daily narratives provided for us to interpret and question the unfolding events across the lands. Journalists serve as motivation or incentive for actors and civil society organisations. According to UNESCO, between 2006 and 2020, more than 1,200 journalists were killed for doing just that. For following their calling and being journalists. Nine out of 10 of these killings remain unsolved.

There has been a disturbing trend in Australia, accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, that is, the erosion of many of the foundations of our democratic values with its checks and balances in a deliberate attempt by both Federal and State governments to block free press and impede informed and diverse debate. There have been concerted efforts to reduce transparency and limit public accountability so that governments can increase their power. This has led to arrests and responses which are disproportionate to the threats posed.

The apparent fear instilled in many and the blind allegiance towards our government has led me to a determined investigation. Particularly, I ask why so many progressives are not questioning these tactics. Is it not a burden on their conscience? Could the rise of identity politics during the past two decades have diminished our empathy and compassion?

Have we forgotten the raids on ABC journalists in Australia and the persecution of independent journalists by our allies? I personally know of mainstream journalists who have been threatened over the past few weeks for daring to cover police brutality towards innocent civilians. Even environmental activists, whistle blowers, and many ordinary citizens have are afraid of reprisals being made against them.

Then we have the swathe of anti-protest laws which have been in motion from well before the pandemic. The excessive force we’ve witnessed against protestors is only the beginning of what is to come. As we move through to the other side of this pandemic we need to ensure that the right to assembly is restored to every citizen and on any view whether it’s Black Lives Matter, anti-lockdown, anti-green pass protests, and so on. Civil societies must be given this freedom to effectively advocate for human rights. This fundamental right needs to be granted to all people including vulnerable groups.

Has anyone asked themselves why such overarching powers have been given to certain agencies? The Draconian measures we are experiencing essentially advance the interests and provide preferential treatment to big business with no regard for small to medium businesses.

The role that journalists must play to uphold our democratic values is integral to democracy and social cohesion. Journalists hold governments and their agencies to account. This position is being compromised as our societies become more corporatised and our governments continue to advance large business interests through back door and offshore deals.

A pillar to creating thriving democracies and peaceful societies is to ensure free speech, the free flow of information, and that journalists be given the opportunity to provide us with real news so we can make informed decisions.

The essential quality of democratic societies is to ensure that they represent their community and if they do not, then they are failing. Artists and journalists alike need to be given a safe haven to demonstrate their views through their medium. Not silenced. Not threatened. Not punished.

We all have a role to speak out at injustice and to preserve the rights of artists to illustrate the world as they see it. Continued inertia will edge us closer towards a world we may regret. A world where artists and journalists risk ending up in a position where their fates are similar to their counterparts in authoritarian autocracies.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it—the Gulags were an ugly, cruel moment in humanity’s past, but we need to remember them for what they were. We need to always keep in mind the role they played in censoring the people—notably, artists, journalists, and others who sought to hold up a mirror to society with their creations. We cannot censor, threaten, or silence the Arts—we cannot return to the era of the Gulags.

Peter Mousaferiadis

Peter Mousaferiadis a cultural entrepreneur has had a career as a conductor and creative director. He is based in Melbourne.