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Cancel Russia? The Risk Of Targeting Culture In Times Of War

From Tolstoy and the Bolshoi Ballet to Russia Today, the West is banishing Russian composers, artists and media. But is banishment of culture the right move in times of war?

Cancel Russia? The Risk Of Targeting Culture In Times Of War

A ballerina at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow

Christian Meier

BERLIN — Last week German TV channel RTL Nitro changed its schedule: instead of showing the classic James Bond film From Russia with Love, it ran with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But wasn’t Vladimir Putin part of the secret service, and didn’t he say, “Once KGB, always KGB?” So maybe Goldfinger would have been a more appropriate choice? Or even Quantum of Solace?

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Of course, it’s important for programming to be tactful, especially during a crisis. But there are more important things at stake than tact. Almost the entire cultural sector seems to be scrutinizing itself, asking what links orchestras, museums or institutions have to Russia, whether they need to cut ties with them and how they can justify these decisions.

One of the most prominent cases is the firing of Valery Gergiev, the former chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. The city’s mayor, Dieter Reiter, demanded that the conductor, who has links to Putin, speak out publicly against the Russian president. Gergiev hadn’t made a public statement about the war in Ukraine, although in 2014 he signed an open letter supporting the annexation of Crimea. The well-connected conductor didn’t seem to suffer any fallout from that decision at the time, but now that letter and other pro-Putin statements are coming back to haunt him.

Reiter demanded that Gergiev “clearly and unambiguously” distance himself from Putin. Publicly funded institutions and private companies are having to find a way to navigate the issue of high-ranking employees whose opinions conflict with their fundamental values, and it’s understandable that sometimes they are choosing to part ways.

Authoritarian tactics

However, the question remains of how much good these public ultimatums do. Firstly, we must ask what is gained by pressuring someone into distancing themselves from Putin: forced public retractions or criticisms are of course a favorite tactic of authoritarian regimes and hardly constitute true loyalty.

In a liberal democracy we are used to allowing different opinions to coexist.

In a liberal democracy we are used to allowing different opinions to coexist, especially in the cultural sector. Breaking taboos and overstepping boundaries are often celebrated in the art world. Of course, that can’t be extended to include supporting a warmonger – although we shouldn’t forget that Peter Handke, who called for “justice for Serbia” during the conflict in the Balkans and later attended Slobodan Milošević’s funeral, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Handke’s Yugoslav books are the subject of much debate, but they have – rightly – never been banned. We are happy to differentiate between the literary work and the author’s political views, which are often hard to pin down.

That may not apply to Gergiev, with his close links to the Kremlin, in the context of an act of aggression by Russia that is unprecedented in Europe since World War II. But where do we draw the line? Should culture be made to serve the same purposes as politics and the economy?

Football club Schalke 04 has split from its sponsor Gazprom, Playmobil is no longer shipping toys to Russia, Ikea has halted all sales in the country – but what is the right response for the cultural sector, which doesn’t deal with products but ideas and, hopefully, education?

Russian culture in indefinite quarantine

This week saw the start of a domino effect in the cultural sector. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, announced that it would suspend all cooperation with Russian institutions, which it had “very trustingly” built up since the 1990s. They would not “cooperate with anyone who compares democratic states and their institutions with fascist organizations or Nazism,” said Parzinger in a somewhat imprecise statement, as if museum directors in St. Petersburg or Moscow had personally declared war on Ukraine. Shortly afterwards, the Dresden State Art Collections announced that they would suspend “all activities with Russian state institutions”.

Jürgen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, issued a similar statement, saying the Fair would suspend all cooperation with “Russian state institutions,” a decision that will first and foremost affect the “Russian national stand.” The Fair countered any possible accusations of restricting freedom of speech by saying Russia has disregarded basic human rights and sought to silence all opposition. They also said it should be noted that the Fair would not be taking measures “against Russian authors or restricting access to their works.”

The Bolshoi Ballet performed in the West even during the Cold War.

There has been a deluge of similar statements around the world: “The Metropolitan Opera will no longer work with supporters of Putin”, “Disney will not distribute its films in Russia,” “YouTube is banning Russian state media,” “The New York Metropolitan Opera is cancelling performances by Anna Netrebko,” “The Cannes Film Festival bans Russian delegates,” “The European Film Academy is boycotting Russian films,” “The Royal Opera House cancels Bolshoi Ballet’s residency,” among others.

The Bolshoi Ballet performed in the West even during the Cold War, but for now it would be unthinkable. It is likely that this ostracizing of Russian culture will last as long as the war continues, but its effects could be felt for far longer. Even once the military conflict is over, however it is resolved, it will remain unclear how to re-establish relations with Russia and under what conditions. It is Putin’s act of aggression that has led to these ties being cut – but it is wider Russian culture that may go into indefinite quarantine.

Dostoesvky's The Brothers Karamazov


No more Dostoevsky or Tchaikovsky

Under normal circumstances the public is allowed to choose for themselves which artists and cultural institutions they would like to support, but this choice has now been taken away. A university in Milan made the bizarre decision to remove Dostoevsky from the syllabus, as if the writer were a supporter of Putin. More absurdly, Oprah Winfrey removed Tolstoy’s War and Peace from her book club. And a few days ago the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra took Tchaikovsky off its program, as if the composer had anything to do with the current madness.

Of course, people can still listen to the Slavonic March in the privacy of their own home, but many Russian artists may be banished from public cultural settings for some time to come. It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to determine which artists have established their careers independently of the regime and which support it.

This week Russian foreign broadcasters RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik were banned in the European Union. With these broadcasters, the situation is more clear-cut, as they are directly funded by the state and are used to spread the regime’s propaganda abroad, disguised as journalism. They refer to the invasion as a “special operation” carried out to protect Russia’s national security interests. The EU has decided to ban all broadcasting of RT and Sputnik content – whether by cable, satellite or online. No streaming, no social media – a complete shutdown.

Officially, these are temporary economic sanctions. The EU justified them by saying the content spread by these broadcasters is a danger to the population due to its “systematic manipulation of facts” and poses a “significant and direct risk to public order and safety within the Union.” Experts say that Brussels is particularly concerned about the risk for Ukraine’s neighboring countries, which have significant ethnic Russian minorities. But Germany is also one of the main targets for Russia’s fake news.

Propaganda in a democracy

There are justifications for the ban, but it also opens the EU up to criticism. A democratic society must ask itself how much propaganda it can tolerate – to differentiate it from a regime that is prepared to justify bombing a TV tower in Kyiv with the claim that the Ukrainians would use it to spread “fake news.” A new law introduced by the Russian parliament would make spreading what the regime deems to be “fake news” about the armed forces punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Our best hope lies in the possibility that our free society seems more attractive to the Russian people.

As early as last year, the broadcaster RT accused the German media regulator of “Russophobia” because it refused to allow it to broadcast without a German license – a court case that has nothing to do with the current EU measures. That accusation of Russophobia was tactical, accusing the West of hypocrisy is a classic tool in the Russian propaganda arsenal.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask ourselves what a reflective, considered approach to Russian culture would look like in this time of war. Our best hope lies in the possibility that our free society seems more attractive to the Russian people than Putin’s authoritarian regime. To achieve that, we need to maintain a certain level of openness – and continue to value the “soft power” of a free, relatively unrestricted culture.

Each case thus requires careful considering. If we must ultimately count on the will of Russian society to resist Putin, we must avoid doing him the favor of equating its current leader with all of Russia's culture.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putinism Without Putin? USSR 2.0? Clean Slate? How Kremlin Succession Will Play Out

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, political commentators have consistently returned to the question of Putin's successor. Russia expert Andreas Umland foreshadows a potentially tumultuous transition, resulting in a new power regime. Whether this is more or less democratic than the current Putinist system, is difficult to predict.

A kid holds up a sign with Putin's photograph over the Russian flag

Gathering in Moscow to congratulate Russia's President Vladimir Putin on his birthday.

Andreas Umland


STOCKHOLM — The Kremlin recently hinted that Vladimir Putin may remain as Russia's president until 2030. After the Constitution of the Russian Federation was amended in 2020, he may even extend his rule until 2036.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

However, it seems unlikely that Putin will remain in power for another decade. Too many risks have accumulated recently to count on a long gerontocratic rule for him and his entourage.

The most obvious and immediate risk factor for Putin's rule is the Russian-Ukrainian war. If Russia loses, the legitimacy of Putin and his regime will be threatened and they will likely collapse.

The rapid annexation of Crimea without hostilities in 2014 will ultimately be seen as the apex of his rule. Conversely, a protracted and bloody loss of the peninsula would be its nadir and probable demise.

Additional risk factors for the current Russian regime are related to further external challenges, for example, in the Caucasus. Other potentially dangerous factors for Putin are economic problems and their social consequences, environmental and industrial disasters, and domestic political instability.

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