Russian arts and literature don't warrant the cancel treatment

Not even during the Cold War did anyone try to boycott all things Russian

A dress rehearsal of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' ballet at the New Stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, November 16, 2021. EPA
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Almost overnight it appears that Russia, its people both past and present and its historical artists, writers and composers, have all turned into enemies of the West. Film festivals from Scotland to the Baltics, as well as the European Film Academy, have been dropping Russian productions – even when their directors have very riskily expressed their opposition to the war in Ukraine.

A university in Italy decided to postpone a course on the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, supposedly "to avoid any controversy, during a time of strong tensions", even though the great novelist and essayist has been dead since 1881.

The Munich Philharmonic has dismissed Valery Gergiev, one of the world's most admired conductors, for failing to comply with an ultimatum from the city's mayor to publicly denounce the war. Gergiev hasn't said anything about it at all, but that was apparently not good enough, given his long friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky painted in 1872 by Vasily Perov, reportedly the only one Dostoevsky posed for personally, at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, on November 11, 2021, on the 200th birth anniversary of the Russian writer and philosopher. EPA

The latest for the chop was Tugan Sokhiev, a conductor considered to be Gergiev's protege, who simultaneously resigned as music director of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse in France after "being forced to face the impossible option of choosing between my beloved Russian and beloved French musicians", he said.

Referring to the ever-widening boycott of all things Russian, Sokhiev added: "I will be soon asked to choose between Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy." That ought to be a silly joke, but it clearly isn't, given that the Polish National Opera recently cancelled its production of Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky (who also died in 1881) in order to express their "solidarity with the people of Ukraine".

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This war is not the Russian people's

All of this strikes me as both bizarre and wrong. It is wrong because this war is not the Russian people's. We cannot be certain of public opinion in the country, and the Russian authorities have in any case taken many steps to restrict their access to information about what is happening in Ukraine. But we hear of more and more opposition to the tragic events, both from prominent individuals – many of whom have, understandably, couched their statements as calls for peace rather than as condemnations of their government – and from the demonstrators who took to the streets in cities across Russia over the weekend, more than 4,300 of whom were detained by the police.

And it is bizarre, because not even during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and its nuclear arsenal posed an existential threat to the West (admittedly, the feeling may have been mutual), did anyone try to "cancel" Russian culture.

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs, with The Munich Philharmonic orchestra, Bruckner's Symphony No.  6 in A major WAB 106 on the stage of Grand Palace Hall during Enescu Festival 2021, in Bucharest, Romania, September 6, 2021. EPA

I grew up in the last decades of that era: the Berlin Wall fell shortly before I turned 18. At my boarding school within the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in England – a privileged environment, but hardly a hotbed of radicalism – I learned to play the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, who became one of my favourite composers. I studied the plays of Nikolai Gogol, who may be claimed by both Russia and Ukraine, but was undoubtedly a mystical nationalist within the context of imperial Russia. In a Russian language and culture class, I watched films by Sergei Eisenstein, and grasped sufficient Cyrillic that when I visited Saint Petersburg many years later, I could at least read street signs and menus. I had a record by the Red Army Choir: there was something amusingly incongruous about It's a long way to Tipperary being belted out in sonorous Muscovite tones.

Did any of this make me a "useful idiot", a naive supporter of communist totalitarianism? Of course not. And at the time, no one would have dreamed of suggesting so. Neither was any distinction drawn between pre-Soviet artists and those honoured by the USSR. We admired their creativity and their insights into the human condition, which could be appreciated universally beyond the political divide.

Both sides understood that culture was a way to connect, which was why the US State Department sent jazz stars such as Benny Goodman – the "King of Swing" – to tour the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s. The latter reciprocated, with the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet companies being warmly welcomed in the West. No one expected artists from the Eastern Bloc to denounce or publicly distance themselves from the regimes that had nurtured their talents. We were well aware what malign consequences could await them if they did.

Photograph of rehearsals of The Bolt, 1931. Courtesy of GRAD and St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music

If this realisation appears to be absent from the current campaign of Russophobia, it is not one that is forgotten in Russia, where there is a long tradition of artists having to be very wary of the state and its powers over them. I discussed this over dinner with the self-same Maestro Gergiev in 2006, after a performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, where he has been "artistic and general director" since 1996.

We were talking about Shostakovich, who veered between being celebrated by the state and on occasion so riling Joseph Stalin that in the 1930s, one newspaper announced: "Today there will be a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich." The composer later wrote that he was "near suicide". "The danger horrified me and I saw no other way out," he added.

Maestro Gergiev understood. "In the West," he told me, "you are very comfortable because you are not in this situation. You are outside looking at some distant and unclear picture. It's very foggy. So maybe we fly today, or maybe not. But if you are in the plane and hoping to survive an air crash, you feel very differently."

He was referring to the plight of the artist in the then USSR. But if you didn't know the context, couldn't he be talking about the situation today?

Banning creatives from the 19th century who died 140 years before the Ukraine conflict is obviously nonsensical. But if we could see the benefits of artistic exchanges when proxy wars were raging and both sides in the Cold War came within a whisker of Mutually Assured Destruction several times, neither should we ask artists – who have nothing to do with Russia’s military misadventure – to do the impossible today.

Russia's culture is a gift to the world. Renouncing it may make some people feel self-righteous, but it will do nothing to help the Ukrainian people. It would only deny them, and others, of great art that soars and inspires above borders and the often reckless disputes that mankind has inflicted upon itself since time immemorial.

Published: March 09, 2022, 4:00 AM
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