The sanctions imposed by Western cultural bureaucrats on famous Russian artists who refuse to condemn the war in Ukraine stem from a bad conscience.
In a word
- Russian artists are under pressure in the West to denounce the Moscow war
- Many Western intellectuals have long ignored Russia’s inhuman policy
- Moscow’s longstanding hostility to Ukrainian culture should not be overlooked
The war in Ukraine has resurrected the old Western specter of the political instrumentalization of the arts. This setback came as the “culture wars” seemed to be fading like an excess of the past.
World famous Russian musical artists, soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, had the misfortune to catch the eye first. They were finally asked to distance themselves from the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Mr Gergiev, who had conducted Tchaikovsky’s ‘Queen of Spades’ at La Scala in Milan just the day before the invasion, refused and was banned from performing. Soon he was forced to cancel engagements at Carnegie Hall and other venues in the United States. Ms Netrebko was not allowed to return to the stage until after weeks of hesitation, she spoke out unequivocally against the war on March 30 and expressed her solidarity with the Ukrainian victims. She remains undesirable at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Sanctions were not limited to Russian artists. For example, the Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis and his ensemble musicAeterna composed of musicians from several countries have also been affected. Load? The group is funded by a bank believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like Mr. Gergiev, Mr. Currentzis had refused to condemn the war against Ukraine. The intertwining of art and politics is not unique to Russia, but apart from China and North Korea, it is hardly as close as in any other country.
Since virtually all Russian stages and orchestras are funded either by the state or by oligarchs, there are hardly any ensembles allowed to perform in the West anymore.
Ukrainian diplomats regularly protest when Russian musicians are invited to concerts in solidarity with their country or when the program includes works by Russian composers. In Katowice, Poland, American Lawrence Foster was banned from conducting Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, and the Prague State Opera canceled Tchaikovsky’s fairy-tale opera “The Little Slipper”. The rector of the University of Milan-Bicocca even banned the lecture of an expert on Dostoyevsky to avoid “polemics” and withdrew this order only under public pressure.
The boycott of Russian composers is considered barbaric, but things are a bit more complicated.
Sanctions imposed on Russian artists by bureaucrats in universities and cultural institutions for refusing to bow to Western public pressure are harshly criticized by European media commentators. The boycott of Russian composers is considered barbaric. But things are a bit more complicated. In the theatrical thunder that sometimes even drowns out the din of war, it’s easy to hear how different motives led to this widespread boycott.
The two sides of the coin
President Putin’s war on Ukraine did not begin with the February 24 Russian invasion; it has been ongoing for eight years. Yet neither the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which violated international law, nor Russia’s staging of “popular uprisings” in eastern Ukraine significantly affected political relations, economic and cultural relations between the EU and Russia. Like German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who claims to have woken up “in another world” only the day after the invasion, cultural bureaucrats had a belated awakening due in large part to a bad conscience.
The case of Mr. Gergiev, “cultural ambassador” of President Putin, is a particularly glaring example. It was by no means a secret that the director of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater conducted a concert in the oasis city of Palmyra in 2016 to celebrate Mr Putin’s victory in the Syrian war. This blatant act of political servility did not prevent the city of Munich from extending Mr. Gergiev’s contract as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra two years later and from explicitly thanking him.
The boycott of Ukrainian culture in Russia has received much less media attention and criticism. Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov has reported that one of his concerts in Moscow was canceled by police due to an alleged bomb threat. The real reason was that the program included “Steps”, a work by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Svetlana Rips was fired as director of Mikhail Pletnev’s Russian National Orchestra because, like Mr Pletnev, who lives abroad, she failed to provide the desired support for the “special operation” in Ukraine.
Long history of brutality
The persecution and repression of Ukrainian culture did not begin in Russia with the invasion of Ukraine. Books were first confiscated from the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow in 2010. In 2015, the institution was closed under accusations of disseminating nationalist and anti-Russian writings. Library director Natalya Sharina, a Russian, was arrested and, after 20 months under house arrest, convicted in a political trial of “extremism” and “theft”.
Under the regime of Joseph Stalin (1922-1953), Ukrainians were considered counter-revolutionaries and kulaks (peasant landowners, considered enemies of the state). Ethnic Russians settled in areas where most Ukrainians fell victim to the Holodomor, the Soviet state-imposed famine (1932-1933). In his secret report on Stalinist crimes presented to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, after the death of the tyrant, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev spoke of Stalin’s intention to deport Ukrainians and Germans from Volga, Chechens, Crimean Tatars and other peoples. The plan failed because no space could be found to accommodate 40 million people. During the Russian Civil War, collectivization, the Holodomor and World War II, approximately 20 million Ukrainians perished.
According to the Russian leader, the role of culture is to strengthen the nation through homogenization and to serve as the arm of national politics.
Discrimination against Ukrainians began towards the end of the 18th century. For Russian nationalists, they were “little Russians” – linguistically and culturally backward peasants inferior because they had been westernized during three centuries of Polish rule. It was up to the Russians to absorb the wayward brothers into their empire and introduce them into Russian high culture.
Grand Russian Nationalism here resembles Grand Serbian Nationalism, which viewed Croats as Serbs who had alienated themselves from their nation by turning to Roman Catholicism. Czech nationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries adopted a comparable paternalistic attitude towards Slovaks, perceived as “Magyarized” Czechs. Stronger neighbors opposed the national aspirations of Ukrainians, Croats and Slovaks on the grounds that they contradicted the true interests of the Slavic brothers and delivered them to foreign powers.
President Putin’s favorite ideological philosopher, Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), considered Russia’s Ukrainian “little brothers” to be Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, Basques and Catalans – weak ethnicities unable to form their own states . According to the Russian leader, the role of culture is to strengthen the nation through homogenization and to serve as the arm of national politics. Russia, Mr Putin said, defends its culture against a West that “denies moral foundations and any traditional identity, whether national, religious, cultural or even gender-based”. However, nothing has damaged the reputation of Russian culture more than Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
Russian publicist Sonja Margolina, who lives in Berlin, said in the New Zurcher Zeitung that we are witnessing “the self-abolition of Russia as a cultural nation”. She observed, of the Western reaction, “[i]It is absurd to want to cancel Dostoyevsky and the productions of Russian authors, composers or directors from theater and opera programmes. It is up to the public alone to decide their value. No cultural boycott, no sanction can hurt Russia more than the tears of a Ukrainian child.