Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Ukraine wants a boycott of Russian culture. It’s already happening.

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When I was a boy, my parents gave in to prevailing economic head winds and bought a small, Japanese-made car that got far better mileage than the giant, American-made tanks we used to drive. My grandparents, who lived through two world wars, the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the Great Depression, never made the transition. One day, I innocently asked my grandmother why she didn’t drive a Japanese car. “Because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” she said. “And we can never forget that.”

She was a forgiving type, so this persistence of anger for 40 years was striking. It was not part of some larger bumper-sticker campaign or boycott movement, nor was it embedded in a general sense of xenophobia. It was just a personal and deeply felt sense that when it came to Japan, it could never be business as usual. Feelings ran high against Germany for decades after the war, as well, including against Richard Wagner. The composer had died decades before Adolf Hitler came to power, but his antisemitism prefigured and inspired the atrocities of the Third Reich. When Zubin Mehta conducted Wagner’s “Liebestod” in Israel in 1981, there was visceral audience protest and it remained a political act to perform his music there for decades.

Russia is a pariah state, too. But there are increasing signs that it is also becoming a pariah culture. Writing in the Guardian last week, Ukraine’s minister of culture called for a larger boycott of Russian culture, including the music of Tchaikovsky, until Russia ceases its aggression in Ukraine.

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“Russian culture has been used by members of the Kremlin to justify their terrible war,” wrote Oleksandr Tkachenko. He laid out a broader argument, connecting Russian military aggression not just to efforts to erase Ukrainian culture, but also to a larger culture war in which Russia claims to defend an internationally shared set of traditional values against a meddling, corrupt and sexually deviant Western alliance.

Tkachenko’s call for a cultural boycott extends far beyond ad hoc measures that were taken, often against individual artists, early in the war. In the opera world, soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev came under intense pressure to distance themselves from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gergiev’s career has mostly dried up in the West; Netrebko, who vacillated about Putin before ultimately criticizing the war, is still performing outside Russia, though even her fans acknowledge she is no beacon of moral clarity.

In the art world, the National Gallery in London abandoned a collaborative effort with Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts to present an exhibition called “After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art.” A reconfigured version of the show will open next year in London but won’t be seen in Russia.

Tkachenko’s call for a broader boycott comes at a seasonal high point for one of Russia’s best-loved cultural exports, the holiday favorite “The Nutcracker,” with its score by Tchaikovsky and its roots deep in czarist fantasies of power, prestige and cultural appropriation. “The Nutcracker” is an economic mainstay for ballet companies around the world, and not presenting it during the Christmas season would be disastrous for many groups.

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It also comes at a time when the war in Ukraine feels frozen in stalemate despite Ukraine’s success earlier in the fall. One senses some urgency in Tkachenko’s concern that Ukraine’s allies not backslide into complacency.

The larger Russian contribution to culture — music, dance, theater, literature and the fine arts — makes it difficult to imagine how a general boycott might work. Cultures produce culture under a wide range of conditions, from freewheeling, market-driven societies to the peculiar but powerful mix of political oppression, enormous concentrations of wealth and an educated elite that defined Russia’s robust cultural contributions for centuries. The wealth and breadth of Russian culture simply can’t be excised from international cultural life, at the institutional or personal level.

But the cruelty and cynicism of Russia’s war against Ukraine will recast the meaning of its artistic production, especially for those who have admired it from afar. Last March, I stopped reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which I had been spending evenings with on and off for months. I was immersed in the book and deeply moved by it. The war left me uneasy with the pleasure it inspired.

It also recast my sense of the narrative. In one scene, a young nobleman, Nikolai Rostov, swoons with patriotic fervor when his military unit passes in front of the czar. “What would I do if the Emperor spoke to me?” thought Rostov. “I think I’d die of happiness.” This encounter might be read merely for its psychological data about a young man caught up in an emotionally volatile moment of patriotism and national pride — at a time when Russia was vulnerable to Napoleon. But the young man’s romantic feelings of love for the czar — like a celebrity crush — suggest a limitless, irrational nationalism that might be turned to all manner of geopolitical mischief. (While denying rumors of a romantic relationship with Putin, Netrebko once gushed like young Nikolai: “He’s a very attractive man. Such a strong, male energy.”)

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The war recalibrates everything. The sustaining humanism and decency of Chekhov now seem less relevant than the pervasive survey of Russian violence in the works of Maxim Gorky. The sound of a country I have both visited and imagined is no longer the sultry evening romance of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” but the bored, vicious and brutal indolence of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Region.”

Boycotting an entire culture is problematic because so much culture is inherently countercultural. No one indicts Russia more acutely than Russian writers and artists. Russian aggression may be resisted and defeated militarily, but the only real cure for it will arise from Russian shame, disgust and self-criticism. A boycott also leaves culture in the hands of Putin and his accessories, who will amplify the worst of it.

Like American culture, Russian culture is so broad and multifaceted that we can cherry-pick it to create almost any picture of some putative thing called the Russian soul. Russian propagandists are doing exactly that, right now, etching a picture of a virtuous, beleaguered country defending itself against meddlesome and dissolute international adversaries. The pick-and-choose model of cultural analysis should make the rest of us leery of using the same methods to curate our own sense of Russia as inherently toxic.

But what if it is? Once that question begins to gnaw at enough people, the distinction between toxic leaders and a misled populace begins to break down. The pariah state seems to arise not just from an accident or anomaly of history, but from a deeper pariah culture. The arts cease to be a broad and variegated field of human expression and become a key to unlock the mystery of political violence. Everything is situated around burning questions: How could a country come to this? How could a people commit these crimes?

Individual Russians, including artists who work frequently in the West, are being asked: What do you think of the war? What is your view of Putin? The urgency of these interrogations suggests how far Russia has already advanced toward pariah culture status. It’s no longer tenable for artists to say, “I am an artist, I don’t concern myself with politics.” The crimes Russia has committed erase any quaint idea that there is an outside to politics, a cultural realm innocent of implication in political crimes.

What it’s like to be a Russian artist now: ‘You breathe the polluted air’

All of this suggests that something more powerful than a boycott may be forming, which is the growing sense that Russia may indeed be exceptional among nations, and uniquely toxic. That is a broad-brush judgment, and unfair to many Russians, including the artists and creators who have beguiled audiences across the globe.

But once it takes root, it lives deep inside the individual imagination and conscience, and it can take decades or centuries to dislodge. Just as my grandmother was powerless to undo the carnage of a world war, we are powerless to undo the savagery Putin has already unleashed on Ukraine. But we don’t have to buy a particular brand of car, or finish reading Tolstoy. In that choice there is a tiny expression of power and freedom, and I think today I’d rather read Gogol.

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