When Soft Power Turns Hard

Cancel-culture controversy during the Russian-Ukrainian war

“Don’t confuse Putin and Pushkin,” André Glucksmann once warned. Today, Ukrainians no longer want to know Russian culture, that of the aggressor. The Ukrainian political scientist calls on the West to be lucid, because Russian propagandists are using Russian culture to give a more “humane” image to the warlike and genocidal barbarity of the Putin regime. But, as the author says, “Russia today is not represented by its culture. It is represented by Boutcha and Mariupol”.

In the very first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Western governments imposed a wide range of sanctions on various Russian entities and individuals, primarily on senior officials responsible for the aggression. Many companies and oligarchs have also been sanctioned as sponsors and accomplices of the war. However, cultural and scientific figures were not included in the blacklist, although many had been preparing the ground for war for years with their ideologically intoxicated works and propagandistic statements. Dozens of writers, actors, pop stars, filmmakers, and academics cheered passionately the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and signed, with the same unflagging enthusiasm, sycophantic letters in support of the president and what they called a “special military operation.” 

From the liberal point of view, support for the war and warmongering government by cultural figures should be a matter of moral rather than criminal responsibility. The naive Western belief that words should be fought with words allowed Russian propagandists to destroy Western institutions and shatter seriously public confidence in them. Only the latest events prompted Western governments to take a more responsible approach to the activities of Russian subversive centers and impose on them some restrictions or even bans. Meanwhile, the cultural sphere is still viewed by many Westerners as supposedly “apolitical,” separated from the genocidal rhetoric of Russian leaders, let alone the genocidal practices of their military. Pushkin, they say, is not responsible for Putin, and Dostoevsky is not to blame for what Shoigu and his subordinates are doing. 

Indeed, most Russian writers and intellectuals were critical of their government and social order, many of them suffered censorship and other repression, so why censor and squeeze them out again, posthumously? Calls to cancel some figures, or works, or events are rebuffed as a barbarism, an iconoclasm, an attempt on culture par excellence – Culture with a capital C. In some cases, however, cancelation becomes unavoidable – when the person in question behaves too audaciously: parades defiantly with a St George’s ribbon, like Anna Netrebko; poses at the frontline with a Kalashnikov rifle, like Zakhar Prilepin; or demands on YouTube to exterminate all Ukrainians, like Aleksandr Dugin.1

Though even outright support for the war by many figures does not necessarily lead to their cancelation or public condemnation – commensurate with what, for example, Depardieu received upon his accusations of sexual harassment (but not upon his sycophancy toward Putin). Dugin, actually, has been making genocidal statements at least since 2014 but this did not prevent him, until recently, from lecturing all over Europe and giving interviews to reputable publications. Many cultural managers still claim that culture has nothing to do with politics, and that people who go to, say, a Gergiev concert, do not and should not care about some other aspects of activity of this hero. After all, Leni Riefenstahl produced good films so why cancel her?

Ukrainians, of course, take the opposite view in these matters, arguing that in times of war everything is political, and any “soft power” – whether in culture or sports – contributes to the “hard power” of the aggressor state: it symbolically increases its prestige, gentrifies its rogue image, and introduces a certain ambiguity into our perception of the essentially criminal state. Putin’s Russia with the Hermitage and Bolshoi Theater does not look as nasty and hateful as al-Qaeda or Hamas, which have neither the Hermitage nor Bolshoi, nor anything else that could disguise their monstrous body with a human face.

“The issue for Western cultural fora [the Ukrainian authors opine] is not just that scores of writers, actors, singers, producers, and others signed letters supporting the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion in 2022. The issue is the role of Russian kulturträgers of all stripes in advancing Russian soft power. Seen from this perspective, deplatforming Russian culture would benefit Ukraine – and perhaps even Russians themselves.” Moreover, “supporting Russian culture today implies financing the war,” and this is another reason for pause. Because “watching a Russian movie, listening to Russian music, or attending a Russian theater performance provides Putin’s government with royalties and tax revenue”. It sends also the wrong signal to various international businesses that are still in Russia and continue to pay taxes to the rogue state.

Both Russian tsars and Bolshevik commissars perfectly understood that culture is not just ‘soft power’ but a weapon, and they did not spare resources to promote and duly manipulate it. Gullible Westerners may believe that Putin and Pushkin have nothing in common, and Russian culture and Russian war belong to different worlds and perhaps different realities. But Russian officials are fully aware of what culture is for and about, and how it should be effectively weaponized. Sometimes they express their confidence with striking sincerity: “Our recent exhibitions abroad are just a powerful cultural offensive, – boasted recently a committed Putinist, the director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky – if you like it is a kind of ‘special operation’, which a lot of people don’t like. But we are coming. And no one can be allowed to interfere with our offensive”.

Too many Westerners facilitate this ‘offensive’, this ‘special operation’ too eagerly, while Ukrainians try desperately to explain that no culture is innocent and impartial, and Russian culture is in particular complicit in Russian imperialism since it virtually never raised its voice in defense of subjugated nations nor ever criticized Russian expansionism. In this regard, Ukrainian experience with Russian culture profoundly differs from that of Westerners. In Ukraine, like in other colonies, Russian culture had to replace and marginalize the national culture, downgrade and provincialize it. In the West, it was not a threat but rather a curiosity, exoticism, a European facade of the essentially non-European, anti-European despotic state. Its primary task was to provoke interest, to emphasize civilizational commonality and create a negotiating field. 

“The European nature of Russian culture diverted attention from the anti-European nature of the Russian state. And artists and performers were given the role of sales representatives selling the “mysterious Russian soul” where the bear and the satellite, the balalaika and ballet, the hut and constructivism are mixed in precisely calibrated proportions. Genius and villainy turned out to be quite compatible in the great-power narrative. The repressions of ’37 and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The tanks in Budapest and crash of the Prague Spring – but five world chess champions. The invasion of Afghanistan – but Brodsky with his Nobel Prize speech. All the time the cultural context, Pavlo Kazarin explains,  could be used as a universal “yes, but”: “dictatorship – but Nureyev and Plesetskaya”, “Gulag – but Chaliapin and Tarkovsky”, “mass killings – but Diaghilev’s seasons and the Russian avant-garde”. The simultaneous coexistence of political barbarism and official culture in Russia allowed many in the West to ignore the former and focus on the latter”.

Different experiences with Russia in general and with Russian culture in particular make communication between Ukrainians and Westerners on these issues quite difficult and provoke bitter misunderstandings: one may recall periodic scandals associated with Ukrainians’ refusal to perform at international fora together with Russians, even with “good”, anti-Putin Russians. The arguments against such a platform-sharing range from the simplest ones, related to distrust of all Russians as arguably infected with the imperial virus and therefore not quite sincere in their “opposition for export,” to the more serious caveats, related to the (possible but undesirable) symbolic connotations of such platform-sharing – either as a hint at the possibility of some kind of Ukrainian-Russian “dialogue” or as a discursive equation of two incommensurable positions: of the people who are victims of genocide and the people who carry it out and massively support it.

Westerners perceive Ukrainians, with their irreconcilable attitudes toward all things Russian, as radicals, emotionally traumatized, and therefore unable to think and behave rationally. Ukrainians, on the other hand, castigate their Western partners as blind and deaf, infantile at best or Russophile at worst; irresponsible facilitators of Putinism and enablers of its present crimes.

Is there any common ground where opposing views on Russian culture and the appropriate cultural policy during the war can be reconciled? The current trends do not look very promising: Ukrainian and Western citizens live in two different realities and under two different regimes of truth: one dominated by culture, the other by genocidal war. It is difficult to reconcile views, let alone feelings, in these two realities. But compromises on particular policies and specific issues are quite possible, and they are observable on both sides, especially on the Westerners’. They are not perhaps as radical as Ukrainians would like them to be, but they clearly demonstrate that Westerners are neither blind nor dead; they are aware of Ukrainians’ concerns and try to react: this is a sea-change from 2014, when the Russian Anschluss of Crimea and invasion of Donbas had virtually no repercussions in the international cultural milieu.

Today’s situation is different. In France, for example, according to Victoria and Patrice Lajoie, since January 2023, “only nine literary works from Russia – unpublished, translated from Russian – have been published, including only four by living authors”. (Ukrainians may sarcastically smile at this “only” because for them, four, let alone nine translated works in France would be “as many as” rather than “only.” But for Russian books, it is indeed “only” because by 2022 they had been published and reprinted in France by the dozens. Even today, the above-mentioned self-imposed limitations apply only to contemporary authors, while the classics are still being reproduced without noticeable restrictions.) The strongest blow seems to have fallen on Russian popular (“genre”) cinema – science fiction, adventure and war films (mostly about the so-called “Great Patriotic War”) – the most toxic ideologically and effective propagandistically.) Before the war, France used to release 10 to 20 such films every year in huge numbers on DVD, but now they have reportedly disappeared. Russian cultural events in France, with a few exceptions, were also terminated, including the popular Russian Book Days and the Honfleur Russian film festival.

For many Ukrainians who support the full cancelation of Russian cultural products, at least for the duration of the war, the French (and, more generally, international) “glass of sanctions” looks rather half-empty than half-full. But there are also sober voices that advise fellow Ukrainians not to expect and ask for too much but, rather, explain patiently their rationale to the international colleagues:

“We are unlikely to achieve our goal if we call for the cancelation of someone else’s cultural gains but we have the right to ask that the discussion of Russian war crimes not be replaced by a discussion of Tolstoy and Chekhov. We will not be able to sell the idea of a boycott of Russian culture but we must insist on decolonial optics when looking at it. And each of its cultural artifacts should be studied as a monument to the empire and an example of its official discourse, in particular about the conquered peoples. We cannot stop the West from talking about the European nature of Russian culture, but this should not be an excuse for them to ignore the anti-European nature of the Russian state. The right not to judge Tchaikovsky by a Russian soldier is inextricably linked to the obligation not to judge Russia by Tchaikovsky. After all, Russia is not represented today by its culture. It is represented by Bucha and Mariupol”.

These words may not satisfy radicals in Ukraine or moderates in the West, but they seem to provide a conceptual framework within which to develop a common decolonial policy that would take into account both newly acquired Ukrainian agency and the cognitive dissonance it evokes among Europeans.

Mykola Ryabchuk is a research director at the Institute of Political and Nationality Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He has written extensively on civil society, nation-state building, national identity, and post-communist transition. One of his books has been translated into French: De la 'Petite-Russie' à l'Ukraine, published in Paris by L'Harmattan in 2003.

Footnotes

  1. The recent cases of cancelation include decision of HBO, under public pressure, not to invite ardent Putinist Miloš Biković for the leading role in the series “The White Lotus”; and removal of Teodor Currentzis from the program of the Vienna festival under the threat of Ukrainians to boycott the event.

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