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Ukrainians are calling for a cultural boycott of Russian artists. Is the world ready to listen?

Politics and culture are inseparable. Many event organisers are now searching for a third option instead of a direct boycott of Russian attendees.

July 20, 2022 - Kate Tsurkan - Articles and Commentary

Main street of Lillehammer, host of the Norwegian Festival of Literature. Photo: Rudmer Zwerver / Shutterstock

Ukrainian artists and cultural institutions have issued a worldwide call to action, urging their peers to suspend co-operation with Russian artists for as long as Russian soldiers occupy Ukrainian land. The Ukrainian Institute, tasked with promoting Ukrainian culture abroad and fostering ties with other countries, spells out the importance of a cultural boycott of Russian artists on its website: “We consider it inappropriate to invite Ukrainian and Russian artists, culture makers, and scholars to participate in or perform at the same event, to encourage cooperation, dialogue, or reconciliation while the Russian army keeps killing the Ukrainian people. Discussions on Ukraine cannot take place without representatives of Ukrainian society.”

For some westerners, this might seem strange, given that many well-known Russian artists are vocal critics of Vladimir Putin’s regime–shouldn’t Ukrainians embrace them as natural allies, then? Unfortunately, the history of Ukraine-Russia relations is more complicated than that. It is marked by a tendency on the part of Russian intellectuals to degrade Ukrainian cultural achievements or even claim them as their own. Numerous statements given by Russian intellectuals since the start of the invasion on February 24 only seem to prove the immortal words of the twentieth-century Ukrainian writer and statesman Volydymyr Vynnychenko correct–that is, the Russian intellectual ends where Ukraine begins.

A flashpoint of the ongoing call for a boycott was this year’s Norwegian Festival of Literature, which took place in late spring. The festival’s organisers had invited the poet and rockstar Serhiy Zhadan to virtually attend (all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18-60, with a few exceptions, are required to remain in the country should they be called up for active military service). The writer and translator Sofia Andrukhovych was also due to be in attendance. However, when they both learned that Alexei Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmush, along with Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta would also be in attendance, they dropped out. Invitations were extended to Ukrainian writers Kateryna Babkina and Lyuba Yakimchuk to replace them, both of whom promptly declined.

Whose voices are being heard?

Yakimchuk felt there was a noticeable difference in how the organisers of the festival had intended to portray Russian and Ukrainian cultures to their audience. The title of Yarmush’s event was Russia and neighbouring countries: A status report, while the event for Ukrainians was simply titled Ukrainian stars. “Russians were invited to speak on behalf of their neighbours,” explained a frustrated Yakimchuk. “This is a classic imperialist approach. We deserve to have a voice outside the Russian imperialist context.” When asked if she would ever consider sharing a stage with Russian artists again in the future, Yakimchuk coyly informed me that this is something worth considering only after the last Russian war criminal has faced their tribunal.

Kira Yarmush, meanwhile, had her own thoughts on the state of Russian culture during wartime. In an interview with Meduza to promote her debut novel, Alexei Navalny’s press secretary stated that, “Russian culture is a great culture. Undoubtedly, one specific person and several of his closest accomplices bear responsibility for the war. It would be strange to cancel Pushkin because Putin started a war against Ukraine.” However, such statements come across as tone deaf and ultimately deflect from the fact that it is Yarmush’s fellow countrymen who have actively engaged in a terroristic campaign of murder, rape, and looting across Ukraine.

The reference to Pushkin provokes further questions. It was revealed earlier this month that billboards were put up across occupied Kherson bearing the image of Pushkin with the declaration that “Kherson is a city with a Russian history.” Is it not logical, then, to put aside one’s personal affinities for Pushkin’s poetic verse and at least acknowledge that he and other cultural figures have become tools of Russia’s genocidal campaign? Certainly, it requires less effort than accepting Pushkin wrote poetry disparaging Ukrainian national heroes or how he sneeringly remarked in his diaries that the historic Kharkiv National University was “not worth a restaurant in Kursk”. A basic reading of Pushkin’s body of work–or just about any celebrated Russian writer– reveals how far back Russians have viewed Ukrainians as somehow inferior.

Yarmush’s words echo those of the Russian film director Kirill Serebrennikov during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where he called for lifting sanctions against the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. He went on to declare that, “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.” Serebrennikov argued that the families of Russian soldiers had to be cared for, despite the fact that phone calls intercepted by Ukrainian security services reveal many of them actively support the war in Ukraine. Understandably, Ukrainians were outraged by Serebrennikov’s comments and that he had been given the opportunity to do so at such a major platform as the Cannes Film Festival. Serebrennikov’s recent statements are not the only thing that make it difficult to sympathise with his projected image as a dissident artist, however. As the Ukrainian filmmaker Iryna Tsylik recalled shortly thereafter, Serebrennikov also staged, after the beginning of Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine in 2014, a production of a play by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s propagandist and chief architect of that war.

Do the ethical ambiguities of Russian dissident intellectuals matter to international culture festivals, though? I put that question to the main organisers of the Norwegian Festival shortly after Zhadan and Andrukhovych dropped out. The organisers simply replied that, “While it is a sad loss for the festival programme, we fully respect their decision. The war in Ukraine is brutal and horrific. We support the Ukrainian people in this terrible situation.”

So why were other Ukrainian writers contacted, then? It is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that Ukrainian writers might have different stances on this issue, yet the decision to do so–rather than consider dropping Yarmush and Muratov from the lineup–suggests that the organizers were more interested in having the Russian perspective on the war in Ukraine from the start, and that an event with Ukrainian artists was of secondary importance. Ultimately, the “Ukrainian stars” event was replaced with a talk on “Ukraine, history and the war” featuring the prominent historian Serhiy Plokhiy and a performance by FolkeMelodi, a local Ukrainian diaspora folk choir.

Echoes of imperialism

Bohdana Neborak, current editor-in-chief of The Ukrainians explained why the inclusion of the folk choir was seen by many Ukrainians as problematic: “Under both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Ukrainian culture was allowed to be expressed only through rural folk culture, including choirs and dance ensembles. Inviting a folk choir to replace some of the brightest literary minds of today is something straight out of a Russian propaganda textbook. Attendees of the festival with no knowledge of the region could have easily made the assumption that Ukrainian culture is simple and unremarkable by comparison, when the reality could not be farther from the truth. The sad truth is that Russia has the blood of numerous Ukrainian artists on its hands, most notably the 20th century collective that perished during the Stalinist purges and are known today as the Executed Renaissance.”

Back in March, prior to the addition of Zhadan and Andrukhovych to the Norwegian festival programme, Oksana Schur, the literary critic and International Programme Curator at Ukraine’s Book Arsenal Festival, was invited to join. She cautioned the organisers that Ukrainian artists would not attend if Russian artists would also be there. “It’s not only a matter of reputation,” she told me, “but also a question of national security.” Many Russian dissident intellectuals–including Yarmush’s close associate Alexei Navalny–have contributed in some way to Russia’s hybrid war, namely regarding their lacklustre and murky responses to the annexation of Crimea. After a back-and-forth via email, the organisers of the Norwegian festival eventually stopped responding to Schur. When she later saw the “Ukrainian stars” event listed in the programme, she informed Zhadan and Andrukhovych of the situation.

I contacted Christian Kjelstrup, who was specifically tasked by the festival with preparing and moderating the Ukrainian event. He confirmed that Yarmush and Muratov had been invited long before the fateful events of February 24, and that the idea of creating an event for Ukrainians only occurred afterwards. Regarding the stance of many Ukrainian artists that Russian culture is currently indistinguishable from Russia’s politics, he replied: “To me all good culture is international and universal, and thus people within the field of culture should try to cooperate. Having said this, I do understand if there are very negative associations with everything Russian in Ukraine these days.” Kjelstrup was also quick to remind me that Russian writers have been victims of Russian state violence, too.

The suffering of some Russian writers has little to do with the fact that Russians are now imposing their culture on Ukraine with brutal force. I asked Kjelstrup ifit is right to equate cultural genocide with political oppression? Kjelstrup did not offer a reply to this, but regarding FolkeMelodi, he insisted that they were slated to perform from the very beginning: “The idea was to have both Ukrainian literature and music on stage, to celebrate Ukrainian culture. How can that be offensive?” However, screenshots provided to me by both Neborak and Schur indicate that FolkeMelodi was not listed when Zhadan and Andrukhovych were still part of the festival programme, so whether or not the choir was in the stages of final negotiations or the web designer simply forgot to include them remains open to speculation.

The West’s support for Ukraine since February 24 – from both governmental and civic standpoints – has been astounding and unprecedented. Ukrainians are thankful and will no doubt remember those who helped them in their time of great need for generations to come. However, while Ukrainians have taken up arms to defeat the seemingly mighty invading army, Russian dissidents in exile are often consulted as experts and asked their thoughts on freedom of speech and democracy. That many of Ukraine’s artists, including former political prisoners of the Kremlin, are too busy fighting at the frontline for those values, does not mean that their voices should be ignored in favour of ones from their belligerent neighbour.

As this war drags on with no immediate end in sight, it remains to be seen whether the world is ready to engage with Ukrainians as more than just passive objects of suffering.

Ukrainians clearly have their own culture and identity, and it is time that the world finally acknowledged that, and listened to Ukrainian concerns. Four months in, the Ukrainian government has not fallen, the Ukrainian army has inflicted astounding losses on the Russian army, and Ukrainian civil society is fundraising and collecting much-needed items for its army at breakneck speed. Ukrainians are living by example, and festival organisers, Russian dissidents and the rest of the world should be taking note.

Kate Tsurkan is the editor-in-chief of Apofenie Magazine and a PhD candidate at New York University. Her written work and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Harpers, Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. Along with Daisy Gibbons she is currently translating Oleh Sentsov’s Chronicle of a Hunger Striker, forthcoming from Deep Vellum.

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