'A Civilizational Battle': Russia, Ukraine and the Conflict Over Culture

The Ukrainian National Ballet will tour Ireland with Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' next February and March.

'A Civilizational Battle': Russia, Ukraine and the Conflict Over Culture

There have been renewed calls for a boycott of Russian culture, but many Russian artists are at odds with the regime and we should support them, writes Adrian Smith.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears ten months, it is not surprising that the culture and music of both countries has continued to form a battleground of its own. Last week in the Guardian, the Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko penned an article in which he called for a boycott of Russian culture. Stating that his country is engaged in what he described as ‘a civilizational battle over culture and history’, Tkachenko made this plea in light of Russia’s brutal campaign of destruction across Ukraine and the systematic erosion of Ukrainian cultural identity in the occupied territories.

In these circumstances, one can entirely understand the culture minister’s emotional call for a boycott. However, having sympathy with the Minister’s predicament does not mean that we should automatically accede to his request. Despite an initial enthusiasm for such a boycott at the start of the war – that in Ireland included the cancellation of Russian ballets and the banning (and subsequent re-admission) of Russian performers at the Dublin International Piano Competition – momentum gradually dissipated as promoters eventually came to the realisation that artists and cultural works are not necessarily complicit solely by virtue of their nationality.

The question of whether or not to heed this renewed call for a boycott should cause us to pause and reflect on what is actually meant by the word ‘culture’ when it is dragged into the political realm. In a decree that Putin signed in September, the dissemination of Russian culture abroad is tied to the idea of promoting so-called Russian ‘traditional spiritual and moral values’. This is a slogan that is not described in any detail but in practice means an emphasis on traditional family values and patriotism, both of which are presented as opposing the values of a liberal and decadent West, and all of this is combined with the usual anti-gay, transphobic and anti-feminist rhetoric. In the document, no specific cultural works are held up as exemplars that could conceivably promote such values, although artists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are mentioned in passing as well as traditional genres such as opera, theatre and ballet.

Of course, the lack of any detail underlines the blatantly obvious truth, which is that the Kremlin’s image of ‘culture’ resembles that of a narrow-minded petty bourgeois snob whose interest is feigned rather than felt. For the Kremlin, the works of Russian artists such as Tolstoy that have attained the status of world classics are proof of the greatness of the Russian state. Of course, anyone with more than a passing interest in Russian culture knows that Tolstoy was the Russian state’s most fervent critic while Shostakovich’s music has been celebrated for its ironic swipes at Soviet totalitarianism. Furthermore, Russian music is not just Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich but also the rap music of Oxxxymiron, the rock of DDT’s Yuri Shevchuk and the protest punk of Pussy Riot, all of whom have condemned the war in Ukraine from the beginning. By adopting a blanket ban, surely we would be reinforcing the Kremlin’s vision of a monolithic Russian culture, rather than one that has frequently been at odds with the ruling power.

Pussy Riot

Reframing the war
The second problem with such a boycott is that it unwittingly plays into a narrative that the Kremlin has been peddling since its initial attempt to take Kiev failed. As the failings of the Russian army have been exposed, the Kremlin has been busy reframing the war as a battle not just against Ukraine but against the West and liberalism as a whole. The culture minister is correct when he writes that the Kremlin ‘is putting itself forward as the global leader of traditional values, claiming that its nation is built upon them’. Yet if this is the case, then why score an own goal by playing into the Kremlin’s hands by giving it the opportunity to claim that Russian culture is under attack?

Not surprisingly, both the Kremlin (or President Putin) and Russian state media reacted with glee to minister Tkachenko’s call. At a meeting of the Russian Council for the Development of Civil Society and Civil Rights that took place on the same day as the article was published, Putin compared such restrictions on Russian culture to the policies of Nazi Germany in the 1930s:

They are just ‘fools’, these people who introduce such restrictions. They deprive themselves of part of world culture. Honestly, I don’t know if we even need to make a counterargument. Why? Because those who do this are clearly enemies of our country and, through their own actions, end up harming themselves. […] Only Nazis in the 1930s burned classical literature on the town squares and to compare what is happening today in certain foreign countries in relation to Russian culture with Nazis, is the correct comparison.

These quotes were subsequently picked up by several media outlets who naturally spun the story as another example of the alleged discrimination against Russians and Russian culture in the West. Here, for example, is an excerpt from RIA Novosti, one of the major state-owned news agencies:

An unprecedented level of Russophobia has been recorded in a number of foreign countries. […] Western Russophobia is nothing but racism, the President of the Russian Federation declared. According to him, even at the height of the Cold War, it never occurred to anyone to deny the existence of the culture and art of their opponents. The conceit of those who have decided that they have the right to abolish the geniuses of world culture is off the scale, but no one will remember their names in a few years…

While everybody in the West knows that such accusations are beyond ridiculous, the question remains: why should we gift the Kremlin an opportunity to score a victory in a domestic media landscape dominated by propaganda? Hearing news of such boycotts in the West, particularly if spun in such terms, is likely to reinforce anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiments. Surely, changing the opinion of the Russian public, who have demonstrated increasing scepticism of the so-called ‘special operation’ – as demonstrated by several protests after the announcement of a ‘partial mobilisation’ in September – is an important part of putting pressure on the Kremlin to end its brutal war. 

There are better ways to support Ukrainians than boycotting Russian culture. We could, for instance, continue to perform the works of Ukrainian musicians such as the late-Romantic composer Mykola Lysenko and the contemporary composer Valentyn Silvestrov – as Cuore choir, Musici Ireland, and the Contempo and Banbha quartets recently have. We could also perhaps try to actively deconstruct the monolithic idea of Russian culture promoted by Putin. Even within the classics this shouldn’t be that difficult; take Mussorgsky’s opera
Boris Godunov for instance that received calls for it to be cancelled at La Scala in November: this is the story of a Russian Tsar who ascends to the throne by dubious means, is subsequently racked by guilt and paranoia, and ultimately leads his country into instability and chaos. Does this opera scenario have no relevance to the current state of affairs in Russia?

Out of sensitivity and good taste, now may not be the right time to programme works like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – a work written to commemorate the successful Russian defence of the Napoleonic invasion – but it is hard to see what is wrong with playing the ballets of a gay composer whose lineage is Ukrainian on his father’s side. On this point, the Ukrainian Culture Ministry’s own Ukrainian National Ballet company would seem to be in agreement. They will tour Swan Lake across Ireland next February and March and I, for one, will only be too happy to support them.

Published on 15 December 2022

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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