Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Should Russian Culture Be ‘Canceled’ Over the Ukraine Invasion?

It’s a complicated question—made more complicated by the ways Russian art and culture are entangled with Russian imperialism.
August 26, 2022
Should Russian Culture Be ‘Canceled’ Over the Ukraine Invasion?
A plinth in Ternopil, Ukraine sits empty after a statue of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was dismantled in April 2022. Similar statues came down around Ukraine as part of the “Pushkinopad” (Pushkinfall) in response to the Russian invasion. (Photo by Mykola Vasilechko [CC BY-SA 4.0])

Should the anti-Russia backlash triggered by the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine spare Russian culture, whether in the form of performances by modern-day Russian musicians or courses on classical Russian literature? This question has stoked polemics since the early days of the invasion, when Russian artists such as singer Anna Netrebko, conductor Valery Gergiev, and pianist Alexander Malofeev found their contracts dropped and their concerts canceled, and when an Italian university postponed (though it later reinstated) a lecture course on Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Even many people who fully support the Ukrainian side feel that “canceling” Russian artists and writers, including long-dead ones, for Vladimir Putin’s or the Russian army’s sins is taking things too far; meanwhile, pro-Russian and Ukraine-skeptical voices invoke such cancellations as evidence of mindless Russophobic zeal in the pro-Ukraine corner. But there are also those who say that Russian culture, current or past, cannot be separated from Russian imperialism and militant nationalism—and that promoters of this aggressive ideology must be held to account.

Some things seem straightforward: For instance, as long as Russia wages a barbaric war in Ukraine, cultural institutions in liberal democracies should not collaborate with or engage any state-run or state-affiliated Russian cultural entities, including private organizations with government connections. The same, I would argue, applies to pro-war, pro-regime figures such as Gergiev. While, generally speaking, art should not be politicized and artists should not be punished for their politics, some circumstances—such as wars of aggression and unconscionable violations of human rights that amount to state-sponsored terror—allow for exceptions.

Other cases, however, are far more complicated. The soprano Anna Netrebko did condemn the invasion, but belatedly and perhaps opportunistically; what’s more, she has long lent her artistic prestige to the image-building of Putin’s Russia. But there are also people like Malofeev, or cellist Anastasia Kobekina, who had concerts canceled despite speaking out against the war from the start. As a new article in the New York Times Magazine details, even dissident artists who have vocally opposed the war and left Russia to escape political persecution, such as theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov and filmmaker Anastasia Palchikova, have found their projects jeopardized. And what to make of cancellations directed at Russian material, from Tchaikovsky concerts to an Anna Karenina adaptation on Netflix?

Soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev in 2018. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, their relationships with Vladimir Putin were scrutinized and criticized. (Photo by Herbert P. Oczeret / AFP / Getty)

While the official Russian media thunder about “Russophobia” and conflate hostility to the Putin regime with hostility to Russia’s people and culture, Russian dissidents and exiles concerned about stigma against Russian culture take a more defensive and doleful tone. Last May at the Cannes Festival, where he was promoting his new film Tchaikovsky’s Wife, Serebrennikov described boycotts of Russian culture as “unbearable”: “Russian culture has always promoted human values, the fragility of man, the compassion one can have. . . . Russian culture has always been anti-militaristic and anti-war.” More recently, in an essay in the Atlantic last month titled “Don’t Blame Dostoyevsky,” Russian-Swiss writer Mikhail Shishkin deplored the idea that Russian culture writ large is complicit in atrocities (citing an article that argues it’s instead Russian military culture that breeds barbarism) and lamented that “this war has turned the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy into the language of war criminals and murderers.” This, Shishkin wrote, is profoundly unfair, because Russian art and artists have always been victims of a tyrannical state that repressed and censored art and literature even while it used them as a political cover:

The road to the Bucha massacre leads not through Russian literature, but through its suppression—the denunciations or book bans against Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova and Andrei Platonov; the executions of Nikolai Gumilev, Isaac Babel, and Perez Markish; the driving of Marina Tsvetaeva to suicide; the persecution of Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms; the hounding of Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The history of Russian culture is one of desperate resistance, despite crushing defeats, against a criminal state power.

Alas, it’s not that simple. The title of Shishkin’s article—which I assume he didn’t write—is richly ironic, because if there’s one classic writer associated with militant Russian nationalism, Dostoyevsky (particularly in his later years) is the one. A character in his 1872 novel Demons who at least to some extent channels the author’s views argues that national identity is inextricably linked to a nation’s “own special God,” and that a nation can be great only when “it believes that it will prevail with its God and banish all the other gods from the world” (my translation). In real life a few years later, Dostoyevsky was a vocal cheerleader for the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, believing that it could unify Russians in a holy crusade to help oppressed fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians. In an essay on Dostoevsky’s 200th anniversary last November, the critic Dmitry Bykov noted that the Putin regime had enthusiastically embraced Dostoevsky—and that, while Dostoyevsky could only be compromised by this “sticky love,” he also easily lent himself to it. Of course, the Putin regime’s Dostoyevsky must be shorn of his enormous complexities and contradictions; but he is real, not made up.

Or consider Alexander Pushkin, another writer repeatedly invoked by Shishkin as an innocent casualty of the war. (Some 15 Pushkin statues, busts and plaques in Ukraine have been taken down since the start of the Russian invasion.) In many ways a man of thoroughly Western culture and Enlightenment values very different from Dostoyevsky’s mystical Slavophilism, the great poet, prose writer, and dramatist also had a disturbing streak of imperialistic nationalism. A famous 1831 poem titled “To the Slanderers of Russia,” written in response to the outcry in Europe against Russia’s brutal suppression of Poland’s pro-independence uprising, opens with a stanza uncannily adaptable to the Russia-Ukraine situation today, except for the fact that Ukraine has not “fallen”:

Why rave ye, babblers, so—ye lords of popular wonder?
Why such anathemas ’gainst Russia do you thunder?
What moves your idle rage? Is’t Poland’s fallen pride?
‘T is but Slavonic kin among themselves contending,
An ancient household strife, oft judged but still unending,
A question which, be sure, you never can decide.

[Translator unknown.]

The last verse, too, recalls the saber-rattling currently heard almost nightly on Russian talk shows, give or take a few nuclear missiles:

Then send your numbers without number,
Your madden’d sons, your goaded slaves,
In Russia’s plains there’s room to slumber,
And well they’ll know their brethren’s graves!

This poem, and a few others written around the same time, would certainly seem to place Pushkin’s ghost firmly on the pro-Kremlin side of today’s war. What’s more, one major Pushkin work, the 1829 narrative poem Poltava, directly attacks the Ukrainian national cause: Its villain is the Ukrainian hetman (head of state) Ivan Mazepa, who allied himself with the Swedes in the early eighteenth century in a quest to win independence from Russia. Mazepa, revered as a freedom fighter in today’s Ukraine—a status he also enjoyed in the eyes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western authors such as Voltaire, Byron, and Hugo—is depicted in the poem as a treacherous, greedy, cruel, power-hungry old man whose disloyalty to Peter the Great is motivated by ambition, not patriotism. That Ukrainians right now should have a fraught relationship with Pushkin is hardly surprising.

Of course, like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin is an extraordinarily complex figure. Both men started out as liberals with revolutionary sympathies and arguably developed something like Stockholm syndrome toward the monarchy later on as a result of traumatic experiences: in Dostoyevsky’s case, a mock execution followed by hard labor in a penal colony; in Pushkin’s case, the hanging of his close friends who had led a failed officers’ revolt against the tsar in December 1825 and the Siberian exile of others. But these complexities don’t change the fact that support for Russian political and cultural imperialism is profoundly interwoven with their work.

These tendencies persisted among Russian literary artists into the twentieth century, sometimes even among dissidents. Solzhenitsyn is a case in point: attachment to the idea of a powerful Russian state led the author of The Gulag Archipelago to tarnish his legacy late in life by embracing the Putin regime, which he praised in a 2006 interview for rebuilding state authority and reversing “reckless concessions in foreign policy.” Solzhenitsyn also strongly opposed Ukrainian sovereignty; indeed, in some ways, he envisioned Russian-Ukrainian unity in terms similar to Putin’s. Of course, one could counter that Solzhenitsyn’s vision definitely did not include blasting Ukrainian cities with Russian rockets. (As he wrote in his 1991 book Rebuilding Russia, “Of course, if the Ukrainian people should genuinely wish to separate [from Russia], no one would dare to restrain them by force.”) Be that as it may, the last thing he published in his lifetime—in April 2008, about four months before his death—was a short article in Izvestia slamming the Ukrainian government’s push for the international recognition of the Holodomor, Stalin’s forced famine of 1932-33, as a genocide of the Ukrainian people. The language of the piece (“The provocational outcry about ‘genocide’ was born . . . in stale chauvinistic minds filled with malice against ‘moskali’,” which is a Ukrainian slur for Russians) could have come straight from the Soviet-era version of Izvestia.

Even Russia’s literary liberals could stray into imperial arrogance. In April 1992, at a Partisan Review conference on “Intellectuals and Social Change in Eastern and Western Europe” that I attended at Rutgers University-Newark, the novelist Tatyana Tolstaya nearly caused a mutiny among attendees from Soviet former republics when she casually voiced nostalgia for the way a Russian writer could feel at home anywhere in the Soviet Union and extolled the cultural bounty that Russian rule had bestowed on non-Russian ethnicities.

Around the same time, Joseph Brodsky, the brilliant poet and former political prisoner, penned a nasty anti-ode to Ukrainian independence which concluded with a baffling swipe at the great nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (in their dying moments, Brodsky gleefully predicted, independence-loving Ukrainians would “whisper and wheeze . . . not Shevchenko’s bullshit but poetry lines from Pushkin”). Writing in the New Yorker in 2011, Russian-born novelist and essaying Keith Gessen suggested that Brodsky’s views were conflicted and that, much as he abhorred the Soviet regime, he felt nostalgic for the common space united by Russian language. It should be noted that Brodsky never published the anti-Ukraine poem and only read it a few times at Russian events; but that may have been less because he thought it was unseemly than because he thought it would discredit him. Either way, it’s a reminder that attachment to Russian culture can easily take on a dark side where the question of non-Russian self-determination is involved.

Is Russian literary and artistic culture, then, in some sense complicit in the war in Ukraine? Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher and editor of the English-language multimedia project Ukraine World, suggests as much in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, invoking, above all, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin.

Yermolenko makes excellent and indisputable points about Russian literature’s frequent enmeshment with “Russia’s imperial ideology”—but he also paints with too broad a brush. Thus, the nineteenth-century romantic poet and writer Mikhail Lermontov, who wrote sympathetically about Georgians and other populations of the Caucasus, is enlisted in the cause of empire because his Georgia is a subjugated country whose glory can only be an object of nostalgia. But that’s hardly the same as celebration of conquest—and, arguably, Lermontov’s tone reflects the actual state of the region at the time he was writing. Nikolai Gogol, whose complex journey from a Ukrainian identity to a Russian one is reflected in his work, is reduced to an aggressive champion of Russification while his loving, deeply romantic depictions of Ukrainian life, culture and folklore are ignored.

What’s more, Yermolenko’s article leaves out major Russian writers who don’t fit the imperialist/nationalist paradigm. Thus, Anton Chekhov’s attitude toward fantasies of Russian supremacy can be gauged from a passage in the 1888 novella, The Steppe, in which an oafish peasant bellows out a line from a song: “Our beloved mother Russia is the head of all the world!”: “The echo of the steppe picked up his voice and carried it, and it seemed as if stupidity itself was rolling over the steppe on heavy wheels” (my translation). Sixteen years later, shortly before his death, Chekhov reportedly upbraided his brother-in-law for rooting for a Russian victory in the Russo-Japanese war, telling him that “our victory would only strengthen autocracy.”

Bookseller Anatoli Gounko gestures as he talks with AFP journalists at the massive Petrivka book market in Kyiv, on June 23, 2022. – Ukraine plans to ban many books in Russian as part of a wartime battle against propaganda, but the new law has divided both literature fans and booksellers alike. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty)

Leo Tolstoy was, at least in his later years, an outspoken and passionate critic of both nationalism and war. He wrote scathingly about the use of patriotism as an instrument of power-seeking and subjugation and the essential criminality of warfare. (One can debate whether he took both anti-patriotism and pacifism too far, but that’s another matter.) Passages in Anna Karenina scathingly mock the patriotic fervor that preceded the Russo-Turkish war. Some passages from his posthumously published novella Hadji Murat, a fierce denunciation of Russian colonialism in the Caucasus, are uncannily relevant today (as a Ukrainian newspaper article presciently noted two years ago). At one point, describing the aftermath of a brutal Russian raid on a Chechen village, Tolstoy clearly sympathizes with Chechens, “young and old,” who feel “something stronger than hate” toward “these Russian dogs” and are filled with “repugnance, disgust and bewilderment at the senseless cruelty of these creatures.” A passage describing Tsar Nicholas I is equally striking: “He had done a lot of evil to the Poles. In order to justify that evil, he had to be convinced that all Poles were scoundrels. And Nicholas did regard them as such and hated them in proportion to the evil he had done to them.” (My translation.)

If Yermolenko’s critique of Russian literature is too broad and overgeneralized, an April 22 essay by Ukrainian novelist and poet Oksana Zabuzhko in the Times Literary Supplement paints in even starker and darker colors: In her view, a misguided Western infatuation with Russian literature is partly responsible for the West’s naïveté toward Russia and Putin. Zabuzhko’s indictment includes not only Dostoyevsky but Tolstoy, whose desire to understand and forgive even the worst evildoers, she argues, lets perpetrators of atrocities such as the Bucha massacre off the hook. (In an especially baffling line, she suggests that Tolstoy’s overly nonjudgmental attitude in War and Peace toward the teenage Natasha Rostova’s infatuation with a seductive rogue while her fiancé is away at war is part of a pattern of coddling evil.) Ivan Turgenev’s heartbreaking short story “Mumu,” in which a mute serf is forced by his mistress to drown the little dog that is his only friend, is read by Zabuzhko as a revolting plea for sympathy for a man who kills while following orders. (She leaves out the fact that the serf escapes afterward.) Zabuzhko’s essay can be understood as an expression of pain and anger after Bucha, much the same way as Tolstoy understands the Chechens’ refusal to see the “Russian dogs” as human; but it cannot be engaged as a serious critique.

This is not to say that Russian literature does not deserve serious critique for its dalliances (and sometimes alliances) with nationalist and imperialist ideology. Yermolenko has a valid point when he notes that “although Western universities study imperialism and orientalism in Western literary canon . . . they have almost completely ignored similar strains in the literature of the world’s last unreconstructed colonial empire,” i.e., Russia. But while the themes of imperialism and ethnic chauvinism in Russian literature warrant more attention, the “anti-colonial” scholarship that has so often promoted reductive, cliché-ridden, prosecutorial discourse in Western academia is not something to emulate. Russian literature is much greater than the sum of its nationalist parts, and to view it primarily through a political lens would be a genuine loss.

Another complicating factor is the historical enmeshment of Russian and Ukrainian culture going back, at least, to the nineteenth century. Gogol, whose legacy and identity has been fiercely disputed by Ukraine and Russia in recent years, most starkly exemplifies this relationship and its tensions. But even Shevchenko, the founding father of Ukrainian-language literature, also wrote in Russian—not only for publication but in his personal diary. And there are other ironies: while Tchaikovsky has been sometimes canceled as a Russian, the Kyiv Tchaikovsky Conservatory recently rebuffed demands to change its name, noting that the composer had Ukrainian roots (his great-grandfather on the paternal side was a Zaporizhian Cossack, and the original family name was Chaika) and that he spent extensive time in Ukraine and often drew inspiration from Ukrainian folk songs.

Of course, debating cultural identity, cultural influences, and the politicization of culture is all well and good in peacetime. When Ukrainian cities—and cultural sites—are under relentless Russian shelling, and when Russia’s war on Ukraine includes a concerted campaign to erase and destroy Ukrainian culture, one can hardly blame Ukrainians for making overly harsh generalizations about Russian culture or taking down Pushkin monuments.

This is the backdrop that needs to be remembered when the issue of beleaguered Russian artists, canceled concerts, or sidelined movies comes up. No, Russian works shouldn’t be dropped simply because they’re Russian. Yes, it’s frustrating for someone like Serebrennikov to be forced out of his own country for his opposition to the regime and then be treated in the West as tarnished by a presumed association with that regime. But to describe cultural boycotts as “unbearable” when cities are being reduced to rubble, millions have lost their homes, tens of thousands have lost their lives, and untold numbers have been victims of wanton cruelty is, to put it mildly, tone-deaf.

An apt comment on this subject was offered earlier this month in an interview in Novaya Gazeta, the now-exiled independent Russian newspaper, with Russian political scientist Sergei Medvedev (also exiled and now teaching in Prague). Asked what he thinks of “bans on Russian music, poetry and literature in Western countries,” Medvedev replied:

Firstly, I believe this is largely mythologized, inflated by Kremlin propaganda. Secondly, against the background of what is happening in Ukraine, this is a secondary issue for me. Let’s stop the war in Ukraine first. When Russia stops killing Ukrainians, then we’ll get together and talk about the fate of Russian culture in the West. But until then, I just have a kind of moral block against talking about attitudes towards Russians, toward visas, toward Russian culture, Russian books, [about] the stigmatization of all things Russian. If it’s happening—all right, we’ll have to deal with it. At least we are alive and our house hasn’t been bombed to pieces.

Amen to that.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.