Russia’s Unjust War Reshuffles the Ranks on the Culture Front

Increasingly, it is not only Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs who are being pilloried in the court of public opinion, but the country’s culture and language as well.

‘Performance in the Bolshoi Theatre’ from the Alexander II coronation book of 1856. Via Wikimedia Commons

A Russian-born prodigy who might well be the greatest living pianist, Evgeny Kissin, was corresponding with the Sun by email on how one of the globe’s great cultures has, virtually overnight, become a planetary pariah. 

Mr. Kissin acknowledges the influence of politics on music, yet draws a bright line between the two. “I can’t think,” he says, “of any composer whose music one could refuse to play for political reasons.”

I’d written Mr. Kissin as it was beginning to dawn on most Americans that whether one’s favorite Russian export is vodka or Rachmaninoff, it will be increasingly difficult to come by in the months ahead owing to President Putin’s unjustified war in Ukraine and the widening cultural boycott of all things Russian. 

As images pour in of Ukrainian cities under bombardment and the country’s president dodging assassins, persons powerless to stop Russian tanks are opening a second front — on Russian culture, hoping that shame and sanctions will help to halt Mr. Putin’s advance toward Kiev. 

In an indication of the complexity of the relationship between art and politics, Mr. Kissin also avers that “some prominent Russian people of art, including musicians, have been supporting Putin more than necessary.” He supports blocking performances if those involved “have been active supporters of Putin in the past.” 

Mr. Kissin was born at Moscow, back when Russia was still a Soviet Socialist Republic. He grew up in what he calls “a totalitarian state” and believes “boycotts of antidemocratic regimes are absolutely necessary.”

Mr. Kissin also related how he was once forced to personally appeal to Mr. Putin to keep his alma mater, the Gnessin Special Music School, from being banished to the outskirts of Moscow in an instance of corrupt wheeling and dealing. Mr. Kissin wrote a note to the Russian president, who scrawled his assent on the letter. 

Now Mr. Kissin’s experience is being echoed around the world, and the lines between art and politics are being blurred faster than news of the latest cancellation of a Russian performer. 

Increasingly, it is not only Mr. Putin and his oligarchs who are being pilloried in the court of public opinion, but the country’s culture and language as well. President Zelensky has urged the West to distance itself from anything that “smells Russian.”

A little more than a week into Russia’s invasion, bars were pouring vodka down the drain and concert halls from Vienna to New York were pushing maestros off conducting podiums. The Russian conductor of the Munich philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, was relieved of his duties due to his past support for Mr. Putin. 

A petition signed by Ukraine’s minister of culture, among others, calls for “Russian nationals” to be banned from the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, the Salzburg music festival, the Frankfurt book festival, and many other events.

It also demands that the international cultural community “stop covering Russia in the media.” The petition ends with a rousing peroration: “The Russian Federation is a rogue state. Russian culture, when used as propaganda, is toxic! Don’t be an accomplice!”

More and more temples of high culture are taking that admonition to heart. One oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, has stepped down from the board of the Guggenheim, his affiliations suddenly seen as repugnant.  

In a conversation with the Sun, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, Clive Gillinson, discussed his decision to drop a conductor, Valery Gergiev, and a pianist, Denis Matsuev, who supported Mr. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, from upcoming performances.

Mr. Gillinson noted that while Carnegie Hall believes in “cultural diplomacy,” the invasion of Ukraine “changed everything” and “harkened back to the world of Hitler.” While he does not expect Russian artists to explicitly denounce Mr. Putin, he drew the line at “overt support” for a “mass murderer” who is using force to “overturn the world order.”   

Mr. Gillinson is not alone in seeking to Putin-proof a cultural flagship. The director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, announced that his institution won’t “engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him.”

Most notably, that includes a famed soprano, Anna Netrebeko. She is on the outs at Mr. Gelb’s Met because of a history of standing by the Russian strongman, and in particular her patronage of an opera house in Donetsk, a city controlled by pro-Moscow separatists. 

Mr. Gelb has said: “Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward.” 

Performers who inhabit different points on the posh-to-popular spectrum have been affected as well, with the guilty-pleasure Eurovision competition banning Russians from participation for fear their presence would bring the event into “disrepute.” 

It is not only live performances that have become embroiled in geopolitical controversy. Condé Nast, the publisher of GQ, Vogue, the New Yorker, Glamour, and Vanity Fair, among others, has decided to “suspend all of our publishing operations with Condé Nast Russia at this time.”  

Netflix has announced that its ubiquitous streaming service would no longer be available in Russia. Moscow’s state television arm, RT, will shutter its American operations because of what a producer at the station calls “unforeseen business interruption events.”  

It is not just the world of music that has decided to mute Russian culture. The Bolshoi Ballet has been scratched from the Royal Opera House in London. The University of Milano-Bicocca briefly spiked a lecture series on Dostoyevsky, only to reinstate it after widespread incredulity. 

The writer who was set to deliver the talks, Paolo Nori,  remarked: “Not only is being a living Russian wrong in Italy today, but also being a dead Russian.” 

Russian associations are being scrubbed worldwide. The New York Post reports that a Canadian diner renamed “poutine” on its menu for fear that it sounded suspiciously similar to the Russian president’s surname. In Jerusalem, a pub named “Putin” rebranded as “Zelensky.” The finance minister of Ontario ordered that 700 liquor stores in his province remove Russian vodka and other alcoholic products. 

Amid the crush of cancellations, Mr. Kissin shared a bit of verse with the Sun that is making the rounds among Russians these days: “I would have forgotten Russian / only because Putin spoke it.”

It’s an open question whether efforts to erase Russia from the present will create a better or bleaker future for those suffering the agonies that are the wages of Vladimir Putin’s current ambitions. 

The New York Sun

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