Russian opera soprano singer Anna Netrebko (Photo by Christoph DE BARRY / AFP)

Don’t boycott Russian culture

It damages rather than defends civilisation

Artillery Row

Besides Iranian drones, North Korean artillery shells and home-grown T-64 tanks, it would appear that Russia has found yet another weapon with which to wage war in Ukraine — the poetry of Alexander Pushkin. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent televised citing of Pushkin’s “To the Slanderers of Russia” was one of the many examples deployed by Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko this week when he penned a personal plea to all Western allies of Ukraine to boycott Russian culture until battlefield hostilities have ceased. Proclaiming that “this war is a civilizational battle over culture”, he concluded that such a boycott is “necessary if we are to defeat Russia’s totalitarian project”. 

Tkachenko is correct in noting that, as Putin strives to capture Ukraine territory, the promotion of Russian culture is a weapon in his arsenal to subsequently “russify” those areas, suppress Ukrainian culture and identity, and render two nations as one. After Russian forces seized the city of Kherson in March, they erected billboards exhibiting images of Pushkin to emphasise the poet’s ties to the city and emphasise the two nations’ shared history and culture, as a way to strengthen their claims to what Putin terms “historic Russian lands”

It was Putin who gave the order to invade Ukraine, not Tolstoy

As Tkachenko notes, Ukrainian culture is under threat, and it has never been more important to celebrate it. Whilst Russia should indeed be vilified for its suppression of Ukrainian culture — along with the rest of its illegal intervention in the country — encouraging other countries to boycott Russian culture is simply not the antidote to this particular poison. 

Besides depriving a generation of the treasures of Russian art, literature and music, such tactics risk setting a dangerous precedent of cancelling the culture of any nation with whose government one has a conflict, conflating the actions of the government with the output of its artists. Even if he cloaks himself in the “greatness” of Russian culture to justify his geostrategic aims, it was Putin who gave the order to invade Ukraine, not Tolstoy.

Tkachenko niftily tries to avoid laying himself open to claims of tarring the whole country with one brush by stating that only those Russian artists who “support its totalitarian regime” should be prohibited from performing abroad. However, he also urges that recitals of Tchaikovsky’s music be “paused” whilst the war goes on. Short of finding someone skilled with a ouija board, Tchaikovsky’s views on the war in Ukraine are likely to remain decidedly murky. 

An additional issue is that totalitarian regimes tend to be, well, totalitarian — by definition, not a place where citizens can freely express their actual views. In March this year, Russia’s Parliament passed a law imposing large fines and sentences of up to fifteen years imprisonment for “knowingly” spreading “fake” news about the military and all other Russian state bodies working abroad. In such a repressive environment for free speech as contemporary Russia, one sees the difficulty in only embracing those artists who have jumped through the hoop and loudly condemned Putin’s regime. 

Tkachenko himself praises the Met Opera for dropping Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in favour of Ukrainian singer Liudmyla Monastyrska, after the former refused to publicly denounce Russia’s leadership. However, Netrebko noted that she does in fact personally oppose Russia’s “senseless war of aggression”, but would not formally denounce Putin “out of security concerns” for herself and her family. To only work with those Russian artists who have decried Putin’s regime is to place them in the position of choosing between their career in the West and the safety of their loved ones back home. 

When the war ends, there will need to be a process of reconciliation between the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, with culture forming one of the most important methods to promote understanding between the two. Even whilst hostilities are ongoing, knowing the intertwined culture, history and politics of Russia will be key for foreign observers to understand how we reached the point where Russian tanks rolled over Ukrainian borders on 24 February 2022. 

Ukraine should be encouraging Russian anti-war voices

Tchakenko is aiming at the wrong target. Boycotting the cultural products of any nation is to remove the medium by which its citizens can have a voice abroad and publicly hold that errant government to account. In May, Ukraine pushed for all Russians — even those who had criticised the war — to be banned from the Cannes Film Festival, including director Kirill Serebrennikov. One of the most potent critics of Putin’s regime, he spent two years under house arrest after condemning the 2014 annexation of Crimea and laws against Russia’s LGBT community. Ukraine should be encouraging Russian anti-war voices, not silencing them. To ignore the plurality of views within Russia on the war means that, ironically, the only Russian voice we then hear is that of Putin himself.

Such a boycott would only further exacerbate the distress of Russian artists, who have already suffered an informal backlash abroad. Russian pianists were this year banned from taking part in the Dublin International Piano Competition and Honens International Piano Competition in Canada. In March, Netflix paused all productions in the country, and the Cannes Film Festival banned all Russian journalists and official Russian delegates from this year’s event.

There is simply no safe option available to Russian artists. Domestic authorities have been pressuring concert organisers to remove performers who have criticised the war in Ukraine, notably classical pianist Polina Osetinskaya who had two concerts unexpectedly cancelled after calling the invasion a “dark day” in her nation’s history. Meanwhile, artist Alexandra Skochilenko remains in prison, having been arrested in March for placing information about Russia’s bombings in Ukraine in place of price tags at a St Petersburg supermarket. Iconic Russian singer Alla Pugacheva condemned the war back in September, requesting to be placed on the country’s list of foreign agents in solidarity with her husband. She was then investigated for “discrediting” the Russian military under the censorship laws and, the next month, fled to Israel.

In 1970, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky mocked those intellectuals who disengaged from Soviet society and would metaphorically not “leave their room”, yet even silence is a risky option now. In August, the Russian Parliament’s Working Group on the Investigation of Anti-Russian Activities in the Field of Culture compiled a list of 142 celebrities who had remained silent on the issue of Russia’s operations in Ukraine, including director Fyodor Bondarchuk and actor Danila Kozlovsky, demanding they reveal their position. Publicly supporting the war may safeguard one’s position at home but destroy it abroad. In March, Latvia’s government banned twenty-five Russian pro-war celebrities, including Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhailov, from entering the country. 

Professor Catriona Kelly, Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Soviet Culture at Cambridge University, notes that there may be lasting effects of the Ukraine conflict on Russia’s cultural output in the years to come. Besides the exodus of anti-war talent such as film director Kantemir Balagov and actress Renata Litvinova, Kelly points out, “The Russian government may make support for the war a criterion for the receipt of money from state bodies, but the war is swallowing up large amounts of public funding, which makes bankrolling culture a low priority”. She adds that “artists of talent who do not support the current state agenda may disengage”, repeating processes in the 1970s and 1980s under Brezhnev whereby filmmakers ended up working for TV or in light comedy, able to criticise the government only indirectly through historical films or allegory. 

A benefit of culture is that it overcomes the borders drawn on maps, allowing people to understand the lives and views of strangers on the other side of the world. To boycott Russian culture is to ignore the plurality of voices which exist in the country and to judge works of art by the behaviour of their creators’ government, not the quality of the works themselves. Ukraine deserves all the support we in the West can muster, yet hostilities must remain confined to the battlefield, not the box office. 

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