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Culture is an indivisible good: on the margins of “Ukrainians are calling for a cultural boycott of Russian artists. Is the world ready to listen?”

Many people have now called for an outright boycott of Russian culture, as if it bears some responsibility in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But such a radical move would only harm a new wave of Russian cultural figures attempting to challenge the essentialist understanding of the country’s values, as imposed by Kremlin’s propagandists.

August 4, 2022 - Joanna J. Matuszewska - Discussion

The Gogol Centre in Moscow, a hub of contemporary Russian culture, before it was closed down in the Spring of 2022. Photo: Irina Ovchinnikova / Shutterstock

Civilisation is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour

– Arnold Toynbee

If we treat culture seriously as an expression of our human civilisation, and not as just pure entertainment and/or an instrument for depoliticised escapism, we have to recognise that at certain points in history, various cultures have certain responsibilities.

At this particular moment, Ukrainian culture’s task, as defined by the country’s leading intellectuals, is decolonisation, liberation from an oppressive external force, and breaking the vicious model of national enslavement to the plans and desires of others.

The journalist Maxim Eristavi has drawn parallels between decolonisation and queerness. As he sees it, the similarity is visible in the resistance to the attempts to erase your identity, gaslight, dehumanise, exploit, and dominate you.

Indeed, national decolonisation may resemble the individual process of “coming out”. It brings exhilaration, release from pain and a feeling of once again owning your dreams for the future.

In contemporary Ukraine, this coming out of rejuvenated Ukrainian identity is made easier by the fact that it is deeply integrated with the natural “flow” of the body politic at large. There is no divergence, by and large, between the civil society and the state as to the end state of the process of decolonisation. Indeed, they reinforce each other in their desire to rebuild the country’s sense of political agency and create a liveable, inclusive cultural community for all Ukrainians.

When it comes to Russia’s culture, the dynamic is completely different. Its historical task at the moment is emancipation from a toxic political system. This is based on a deluded narrative that declares the country Savior’s chosen agent to re-establish moral truth and purity for the world. If need be, this should be achieved by means of war and destruction. This narrative shamelessly appropriates cultural emblems and codes from Russian history in order to weaponise them. Pure and simple, this is the abasement of Russian culture. Those who construct it are just body snatchers. It is they who have to be named and shamed, and ultimately taken before an international tribunal – not “Russian culture” as such. I put this term in quotation marks, as it is often used like a discursive apparition (often ironically preceded by the word “great”) designed to show the user’s general disgust with Russian politics and the behaviour of its political elites. As a result, it is a shortcut to expressing emotions that have nothing to do with Russian culture as a living reality. 

A new generation

This aforementioned outlook is wrong on a heuristic level. At the same time, the deontology of such an approach is not defensible in a moral sense.

As internal participants or external observers, we need to understand the historical dynamics in all aspects of these political developments.

It is not true that politics and culture are inseparable, especially when it comes to carrying out evil deeds.

When emblematic cultural personas of one country are weaponised in order to destroy the resistance of the victims of aggression in another country, it is a clear cut instance of symbolic violence and war crimes.

In this context, putting up billboards celebrating Pushkin in occupied Kherson is absolutely deplorable on many levels. Ukrainians have every right to “cancel” Pushkin at the moment.

But here some distinctions are needed. When the Russian occupiers use the names “Pushkin”, “Dostoevsky” and “Tolstoy”, we have to understand that their point of reference is not the real writers with those names. Instead, they are evoking certain imagery multiplied, indistinguishable characters– like from Grisha Bruskin’s paintings – that may serve as totems of symbolic repression.

Painting by Grisha Bruskin. Source: time.news

Their value for the occupiers is that they can be used to beat the population into submission. These cultural artifacts become weapons in the psychological war on the Ukrainian people. But opening debate now on whether any verses of these writers contributed to Russia’s “genocidal campaign” in the country completely misses that point.

Another issue involves identifying current Russian artists and writers (real people with real lives) with those historical holograms created by the Kremlin’s propagandists. Calling for an indiscriminate, blanket boycott of them is simply a failure of cultural imagination.

The Russian body politic does not clearly have this natural “flow” toward emancipation in the way that Ukraine is focused on decolonisation. Instead of counting on moral support from the state, Russian artists, writers, curators and performers can only count on niche and dispersed communities of like-minded people. Like all their compatriots, they can be sent to labour camps for uttering the word “war” on the street, for contacts with “foreign agents”, or for promoting “gay propaganda”. The cultural institutions they create are destroyed not by an external enemy but by the very state of which they are citizens.

Despite this incredibly super toxic environment, it is clear that Russian culture is still alive.

In order to appreciate it, we should stop simply perceiving “real” Russian culture as the exclusive domain of “Dead White Males” from the 19th century.

Today’s Russian cultural market is hospitable to a new generation of young writers, often women, who write on various taboo topics. This includes dysfunctional families (Vera Bogdanova’s The Season of Poisoned Fruits is a great example here) and LGBT issues. One book on this second theme by Katerina Silvanova and Elena Malisova, titled Summer in a Pioneer Tie, became an absolute bestseller with sales close to 300,000 copies.

Another important part of current cultural life is street art, which is often connected – though of course not always – with political protest. This is exemplified by the visual city work of Timofey Radya from Yekaterinburg, whose latest installation in June lasted two days before it was taken down by the authorities.

There is also a whole crop of non-conformist artists like Andrey Kuzkin. His powerful “Walking Circles” performance from 2008 still has relevance today.

An indivisible good

Do we also want to boycott these artists and others like them, who work against all odds? In my view, they actually deserve our solidarity and support, not cancelling just because they live under a brutal regime.

One more thing needs to be said. In the current situation, we need to form alliances for peace, democracy and freedom, both in Ukraine and across the world. These should be as inclusive and wide ranging as possible.

For me, it is obvious that Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov is a legitimate member of such a wide alliance. No matter what his secretary had said about Puskhin, Alexei Navalny is also a member of this group.

Let me end this article with the following comment. Culture, much like every human construct, is made of mutable social material. It is delicate and easy to destroy. It is by no means a monolith that anybody can put in a box and lock away. Boycotting any culture is just nonsense.

At a time when the forces of evil and destruction possess illusions that they will prevail, we should not give them even the smallest reason for hope by breaking up the unity of culture as a common human endavour. This will simply impoverish all of us for a long, long time.

Sooner or later, Ukraine will be free and Russia will be democratic.

Then, they will be able to bring their respective civilisational projects of decolonisation and emancipation to full fruition.

It is important that this immense work will resemble a continuous voyage of discovery and not just end at the first easy to reach harbour (nationalism, social exclusivity, authoritarian temptations).

Culture is an instrument that gives people courage to search out further destinations. It allows us to increase our drive to understand humanity’s predicaments as part of the universe. As such, it is an indivisible good. It is our task to protect it.

Joanna J. Matuszewska Ph.D. is an independent Polish scholar who appreciates both Ukrainian and Russian cultures.

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