Rejecting Russian Culture Only Plays Into Putin’s Hands

Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, was the first person to go to space. Since Gagarin has been dead for more than half a century, Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine is not his fault. Nonetheless, he’s canceled because of it. Space Foundation, an American nonprofit, holds an annual fundraiser called “Yuri’s Night” in his honor. But this year, it was renamed, “A Celebration of Space,” a change that the organisation explained was made “in light of recent world events.” The event, with Yuri erased, is scheduled for tonight.

Gagarin is not alone among Russians in being posthumously excised from global culture over the past six weeks. Orchestras at two Irish universities have dropped Russian composers from their lineups. Theatres in Switzerland and Poland have dropped operas by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (who was of Ukrainian descent) and Modest Mussorgky, respectively. The Cardiff Philharmonic had an all-Tchaikovsky concert scheduled for mid-March, and canceled it, saying it was “not appropriate at this time”. (The institution has defended itself by saying that the planned performance of the 1812 Overture features the sound of cannons and celebrates a nationalistic moment in Russian history.) One university in Italy canceled a course on Fyodor Dostoevsky “to avoid any controversy… especially during a time of strong tensions,” though the administration backtracked after widespread international backlash.

In other philistine news, Spain’s Teatro Real, a major opera house, has canceled performances by the Bolshoi Ballet, and many other institutions are doing the same. More than thirty sports federations have banned Russian athletes from competition.

Some Russian performers have faced retaliation from Western arts organisations for not taking the right political line, an approach that would almost certainly be seen as totalitarian if taken by a Russian or Chinese organisation. Valery Gergiev was fired as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic for refusing to condemn Putin’s invasion. In late February, his appearances at Carnegie Hall, directing the Vienna Philharmonic, were canceled for the same reason. Russian pianist Denis Matsuev was booted from the program, too. Another Russian pianist, Alexander Malofeev, was dropped from a Canadian concert after refusing to speak out against the war, even though he feared retaliation against his family if he did so.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko was barred from singing at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, also for failing to condemn Putin (even though she had denounced the war on her Instagram page). The Met announced that week that it would no longer hire any artists who support Putin. Of Netrebko, the company’s general manager acknowledged that its decision was an artistic loss — “Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history” — but he didn’t imagine it was likely that she’d ever return to the Met.

There are some nuances here. Perhaps shunning the Bolshoi, which is completely funded by the Russian government, or Gergiev, who is close to Putin, isn’t as criminally idiotic as firing apolitical Russian pianists or erasing Yuri Gagarin from history. But in Russia, the arts are heavily funded by the government, and dissent isn’t freely permitted, so all such moves by global institutions effectively punish artists for being Russian.

Putin has made much of the West’s cancellation of Russian culture, comparing it to book burning in Nazi Germany as well as to the backlash against Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s reactionary views on trans people. Analogies to Nazism are always a stretch, and this is no exception, and the parallel with Rowling is a creepy right-wing dog whistle on Putin’s part. But he has a point that Russian culture is being targeted irrationally.

Also read: Two Anti-War Poems

This should worry the Russia haters: among other things, their bigotry plays into his hands. By canceling artists who have nothing to do with the conflict, the West risks alienating ordinary Russians who might otherwise oppose Putin’s actions. Pointless and prejudicial cancellation of artists also risks fuelling undeserved sympathy worldwide for Putin’s national victimisation narrative, especially in the large swaths of the globe where people don’t buy the Western narrative of the Ukraine invasion (according to some studies, that’s almost everywhere other than the United States and Europe). Putin’s approval ratings are very high in Russia right now, and this kind of nonsense on the part of the West doesn’t help.

Back in 2003, when France didn’t support the invasion of Iraq, a right-wing frenzy of France hatred ensued in the United States. But in practice, it was absurd to the point of harmlessness: some restaurants renamed french fries as “freedom fries” and removed “French dressing” from salad bars. (Recently, explaining this wacky bit of recent history to my teenager, I got the feeling that he thought “freedom fries” was a hilarious joke — possibly a hoax — that his earnest lefty parents just hadn’t been sophisticated enough to get at the time.) But the cancellation of french fries and French dressing was limited to conservatives, had nothing to do with actual French culture, and was (rightly) mocked by Jon Stewart liberals.

Now the same people who used to watch Jon Stewart lampoon “freedom fries” are waging a war on Russian culture that is far more provincial and foolish.

That’s what makes the recent assault on Russian culture so much more troubling. It’s not led by conservatives or even by unsophisticated knee-jerk American patriots (those people are singing the national anthem and cheering enthusiastically for the Russian hockey players on their favourite NHL teams). The drive to reject Russian culture comes instead from the most liberal and cultured sectors of our society, the supposed cosmopolitans.

What’s most awful about war is that people die, usually pointlessly. But war also undermines that global culture that fosters human solidarity, binding people together across borders. We cannot afford to lose that shared admiration for great human achievements, whether in space, music, dance, or sports. Even the editorialists at the conservative New York Post recently pointed out, nostalgically, that even “at the height of the Cold War, Russia and America shared the common language of music… Art is always essential to human life, but cultural exchange becomes even more crucial at times of political tension.”

When it’s up to the New York Post to condemn nationalistic bigotry and defend human solidarity, internationalism, and high culture, we should all be alarmed. But that’s how bad things are right now as, in their bellicose frenzy, the liberal elites begin to ravage everything they supposedly value.

Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

Featured image: Reuters

This article was first published on Jacobin. Read it here.