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Tolstoy's Lesson: Why Boycotting Russian Culture Is Such A Bad Idea

The Ukrainian Culture Minister has called for a total boycott of Russian culture. Such a move should be resisted because it ignores culture's potential to challenge power.

Tolstoy's Lesson: Why Boycotting Russian Culture Is Such A Bad Idea

The exhibition ''War and Peace in Russian Art'' at the Russian Museum of Malaga

Gaspard Koenig


PARIS — Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian Culture minister, recently called for an international boycott of Russian culture — a measure that has already been put into practice by some Western opera theaters and universities.

Yet, despite the utter sympathy that we feel for Ukraine, the answer for Tkachenko is clear: No.

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Today, Tkachenko argues that Russia is trying to undermine Ukrainian’s culture by destroying its cultural heritage or by eradicating Ukrainian’s language in occupied territories. And that’s precisely the reason why Ukraine, which wishes to be the herald of European democracies, shouldn’t use the same means nor the same logic as its enemy.

A war against an autocrat’s army shouldn’t turn into a fight against a whole people, and even less against a whole civilization — with its past and its artists.

Lessons from War and Peace

The risk of essentializing Russian identity goes beyond the cultural sphere. And it’s disturbing to see a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, such as Oleksandra Matviichuk, who runs a Ukrainian NGO that advocates for civil liberties, refusing to be interviewed alongside her co-winner Yan Rachinsky, who runs Memorial (another famous Russian organization for defense of human rights). If Nobel Peace Prize Laureates fail to make this distinction, who will be able to properly make it?

Contemporary Russian culture also participates in resistance

Russian culture deserves even less to be suppressed. Indeed, from Gogol mocking the tsarist bureaucracy to Solzhenitsyn denouncing Soviet crimes, Russian authors have often been some of the most effective critics of political power. Actually, perhaps opening up War and Peace wouldn’t be totally useless. It could help to understand the current war’s ebbs and flows, the imperial craziness, and the indoctrination of a certain portion of the population.

Through his novel, Leo Tolstoy narrates the French invasion of Russia. And one shouldn’t think that civilians were spared at the time, nor that the law of war was respected. In his work, Tolstoy thus describes the behavior of two French soldiers in Moscow: one of them steals an old man’s boots, and the other one is about to rape a young Armenian woman.

The French invasion of Russia can therefore be seen as a mirror — of course, polished by history and literature — of the current tragedy that Ukraine is facing.

A mural of Tolstoy in Tula, Russia


Justifications and responsibilities

Tolstoy also provides us with more general instructions on war, and they are particularly instructive, especially in the epilogue. In his novel, he also becomes a philosopher of history and mocks the pompous reasons that are invoked, through the war, what were actually no more than cold-blood assassinations.

“Men march from West to East, massacre their peers, and while doing so, they perform speeches on the glory of France, on the perfidy of England, and so on.”

Above all, Tolstoy forces men to face their responsibilities. “These justifications,” he goes on, “free the men from facing their responsibilities.” But every Russian conscript today should assume the responsibility evoked by Tolstoy, by choosing to desert rather than to kill (and the Ukrainian army has opened a hotline supporting Russian deserters).

Culture is a weapon

Contemporary Russian culture also participates in resistance. Despite censorship, scathing pieces still find their way to publication in alternative publishing houses such as Popcorn Books.

Summer in a Pioneer Tie is a novel depicting a homosexual love story in a Soviet summer camp has sold around 200,000 copies since it was published last year. The novel is an open critique of communism’s last years, and tenderly depicts LGBTQ+ relationships. As a result, the book is a straight attack of the conservative values that the Kremlin has been promoting.

Actually, the book became such a phenomenon that the Russian Parliament has just unanimously voted a law banning the depiction of “non-traditional sexual relationships.”

Yet, Tkachenko remains right on one thing: culture is a weapon. But instead of negating it, culture should be used against our adversary.

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A screenshot from the Re;memory promotional video, where a bereaved woman touches the screen that shows her dead relative talking to her

Screenshot from the Re;memory promotional video

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