How Putin Reads Tolstoy: The Case For A Hard Line Against Russian Culture
From ballet to opera to classic literature, Russia has turned its culture into an instrument for its own expansion. The West must fight back, Ukraine's culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko writes in an op-ed in German daily Die Welt. It's time to stop supporting Russian artists and seek out Ukrainians instead.
KYIV — At first glance, it seems only a small administrative act: on Jan. 25, Vladimir Putin changed the mission of his country's state cultural policy. Its task now includes "protecting society from external ideological expansion."
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Behind this change lies the idea that there are "unfriendly states involved in activities aimed at undermining the cultural sovereignty of the Russian Federation." What is at stake is nothing less than the "protection of historical truth."
Culture is thus a tool and even a weapon in the hands of the state. Russia actively uses it to promote its interests — from making Russian ballet and other symbols of Russian culture (Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Dmitri Shostakovich) popular, to protecting the rights of Russian speakers abroad.
It is time to do something about this.
Unfortunately, most European countries have still not understood that violence is the basis of the Russian ideological value system — and that culture is an instrument to enforce this ideology.
Weapons for Putin's ideology
For example, the organizers of the International May Festival in Wiesbaden, one of the oldest theater and music festivals in Germany.
She is part of the Putin system.
There, they continue to hold on to the performance of Russian singer Anna Netrebko. Two Ukrainian participants in the festival (musicians from the Symphony Orchestra of the National Philharmonic of Ukraine and the Choir of the Ukrainian National Opera) have already pulled out because of this.
Anna Netrebko is a part of the Putin system. She should not be given a stage, a boycott would be the appropriate reaction. This has already happened with Russian pop singer Philipp Kirkorov, who was supposed to tour Germany. His performances have now been canceled.
Kirkorov traveled to Russian military bases in the annexed Crimea after the war began and gave two concerts there. He also found time on his trip to visit a hospital treating Russian soldiers wounded during the invasion of Ukraine. In an interview with Crimean journalists, Kirkorov referred to these soldiers as "brave warriors whose performance is priceless."
Tolstoy on May 23, 1908 at Yasnaya Polyana, lithograph print by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. Symbols of Russian culture, such as Tolstoy, are used for propaganda purposes by Putin.
Sanctioning Russian artists
Netrebko and Kirkorov, as well as more than a hundred Kremlin supporters, including singers, television hosts, film actors, and other Russian propagandists, were included in Ukraine's sanctions list, which was signed by President Volodymyr Zelensky in early January.
The International Working Group on Sanctions against Russia, together with the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, created a carefully-developed roadmap of recommended individual sanctions.
Therefore, the time has come for all democratic states to include in their sanctions lists those individuals who have so far been spared.
Victoria Poleva is a famous contemporary Ukrainian composer
Promoting Ukrainian artists instead
Ukrainian culture is rich in artists who are in no way inferior to Russian ones. I am thinking of the European premieres of contemporary Ukrainian composers, including Zoltan Almashi's string orchestra work "Maria's City" (commemorating the destruction of Mariupol), Victoria Poleva's "Bucha. Lacrimosa" or Evgeni Orkin's "Odesa Rhapsody."
Where was your wonderful, sophisticated music before?
I think of the music of Maksym Berezovsky and Boris Lyatoshynsky, of Miroslav Skoryk and Valentyn Sylvestrov.
Their works were played in the most prestigious halls in Germany. A large audience could feel the originality of Ukrainian music and its inseparability from European music.
And often foreigners have a question: "Where was your wonderful, sophisticated music before? Why didn't we hear it?" The answer is simple: because so much more attention was paid to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich or Rachmaninov.
Unlike Russian artists, Ukrainian ones had no lobby among music agents. They were constantly on the road in Russia, generously sponsored by Russian companies. In addition, many cultural assets are professionally packaged into "a tradition" by experienced Russian propagandists. They seduce the whole world to endlessly chew the same "cultural bubble gum."
*Oleksandr Tkachenko is Ukraine's Minister of Culture and Information Policy.