Cancelling Russian culture is today’s moral imperative

Putin has used Russian culture to further his aims. Promoting it today risks furthering his agenda, writes Marina Pesenti

23 Jun 2022

Artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiev at the opening of the Zaryadye Concert Hall. Photo:

Since the war started, Ukraine has become a magnet for the global media. As the war has progressed, its voice has become stronger in cultural matters, too. Ukraine has emerged from the shadows of its murderous “brother” and thrust itself into the western imagination, bleeding, yet stoic, full of raw emotion. It stopped being “the Ukraine”. “Kiev” became “Kyiv.”

Western intellectuals and the public suddenly started browsing Wikipedia pages on Ukraine’s history, trying to dissect reasons for its obstinance in the face of the enemy.

The Russia-Ukraine war has many layers. It’s a war of democracy versus authoritarianism. It is a war of blatant propaganda versus principled journalism. It is also a classical colonial war of a metropolis against one of its former subjects. A liberation struggle, extending into the realm of history and culture.

There’s a growing consensus among Ukraine’s cultural elites that this war should become a point of no-return for Russia trying to impose its imperial blueprint on the perception of history and culture of this region, both domestically and internationally.

In the early days of the war, as the first Russian rockets hit the Ukrainian capital, Ukrainian Institute, a young state institution with a mandate to promote Ukraine’s standing in the world through cultural diplomacy instruments, published a manifesto, calling on international partners to stop cooperation with Russia’s state cultural institutions. Similar to weaning itself off Russian energy, the West needs to stop thoughtlessly consuming Russian cultural products, without contextualising them, the Institute said.

As Russian artillery pound Ukrainian cities, London’s leading museums continue feeding the narrative about great Russian culture and history to their audiences. “Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution”opened at the V&A shortly before the invasion. It profiles “craftsmanship and luxury” of Carl Fabergé, the jeweller of the Russian imperial family. The backdrop of the story is Russia’s imperial history and close ties between both monarchies.

There has since been a pivot. British museums are suddenly showing more willingness towards giving Ukraine agency. London’s National Gallery reviewed its stance on a Degas canvas in its permanent collection, depicting a swirl of dancers in a distinctly Ukrainian traditional attire. “Russian Dancers” became “Ukrainian Dancers”. Tate Modern is currently working on a new exhibition project with Ukraine as its focus, the first of its kind in its history.

Ukraine’s cultural elites and scholars worldwide are determined to seize this moment and to shift the paradigm where imperial hierarchies persist. As it has stood the histories of big countries, mostly former empires, and their cultural figures and phenomena matter more than those of their colonial subjects. This explains why there are so few centres for Ukrainian Studies in the UK (Cambridge being the notable exception), so few translations of Ukrainian literature. No exhibitions in major museums, up until now.

“We cannot cancel Russian culture.” “Pushkin cannot be held responsible for Putin.” “We cannot exclude Russian artists from being invited to residencies and collaborative projects.” “It’s illiberal.” “It smacks of censorship.” These are the arguments often deployed by many intellectuals and creatives in the West. Let us address these concerns one by one.

Placing Russia at the centre of any cultural conversation should not happen without clear articulation of the fact that Russia has used culture for the purposes of aggressive political propaganda internationally. Culture is a broad reflection of the society it represents, and currently Russian society stands largely united behind an ideology promoting violence and blatant untruths.

The new consensus should go beyond the outcome of the Ukraine-Russia conflict and should be about realisation that cultural discourse is unfairly skewed in favour of big and powerful countries, denying many voice and agency. And Ukraine is not alone here.

Our perception of one’s culture is often shaped by a sheer fact of its presence on the cultural scene: through books, theatre productions, films and exhibitions. We often forget that there’s a powerful state machinery propping up this presence and that rogue states – and Russia has become one – weaponise culture and history to political ends, and even use them as a pretext to start a war. To be remembered, the Russian intent behind the killings in Ukraine is to “de-Nazify” the country.

Artists and academics often lack a toolkit to study and bring to the fore cultures previously absent from the discourse. These cultures are absent or underrepresented not for the reasons of uninteresting or lacking value. They are absent because of entrenched cultural hierarchies, intellectual laziness, lack of courage to work with original sources, as well as a long history of suppression of their culture and language by the metropolis.

It is intellectually dishonest and arrogant to place Ukrainian and “good” Russian artists on the same footing by inviting them to speak at the same panel discussion or to apply for funding, for the sake of “reconciliation” and “dialogue”. There can be no reconciliation while the war is still on. It can only start happening after Russia has admitted its guilt and paid reparations for the damage done. Any other framework would mean perpetuation of the colonial discourse.

This article appears in the forthcoming summer 2022 edition of Index on Censorship. Get ahead of the game and take out a subscription with a 30% discount from Exact Editions using the promo code Battle4Ukraine.

For another view, read Maria Sorenson’s article as she calls for artists to unite in their opposition to authoritarian regimes and an end to the blanket boycott of Russian culture.
Marina Pesenti
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4 responses to “Cancelling Russian culture is today’s moral imperative”

  1. barry says:

    more NATO shillery :(

  2. Citizen says:

    I can imagine the pain and sorrow of Ukrainians but remember one thing. When Americans uprised against Great Britain they didn’t forgot the English language. Hindustani expelled British colonial administration, but they widely use English. Because not only the British posses English language.
    So, not only Russians own Russian language.

    In the meantime, it is wild to associate stupid dictator and his bloody cronies with whole culture. When you apply this approach, you should ban everything in the world. Unfortunately every nation has ever made warcrimes, massacres and cities destruction.

    Cancelling leads people to stinky pseudopatriotic Putin’s hugs. To imperial and colonial mood. It won’t prevent the defascisation of Russia but enhance it. Because politians like Putin uses revanchism and dark hiden desires of people in order to gain the power. The policy of “group responsibility” is disgusting and logically stupid. It is a basis not to stop the war but to fuel it. Destroy Putin, generals, punishers and warcriminals? Yes. Humilate stupid Z-men? Yes. But if you’re going to claim the crusade against the whole countries, you should be prepared to face with more insane mass of people that now. You should be prepare to nuclear apocalypse.

  3. Your thesis: “Putin has used Russian culture to further his aims”

    My answer: Howbeit, this must be put in much more detail:

    1. Putin and likewise have made several artists to market his regime all over the world by financially supporting them.

    2. Putin and likewise are employing particular artist’s names to launder criminal money.

    This entire picture has but nothing to do with the Culture as it is, of which Russian culture is just one of the equitable parts. The above two points belong to the criminal court.

    “Promoting it today risks furthering his agenda.”

    On the other hand, causing particular artists/scientists to submit the respective avowals in exchange to dropping their exclusion from the creative process is already well known in the history:

    “Das Bekenntnis der Professoren an den deutschen Universitäten und Hochschulen zu Adolf Hitler und dem nationalsozialistischen Staat”

    Otherwise, throwing them away from the over-all creative process is a serious world-wide damage…

    Should Ukrainian society follow the above model, or it is worthwhile thinking over the situation in more detail?

    The problem is by far not that trivial…

  4. Jess W says:

    Whilst I definitely agree that contextualising and redistributing power & voice is key, promoting what you openly call a “Cancel culture” does not seem like the most nuanced and constructive approach, especially within an organisation that espouses informed debate & freedom of expression. It undermines cultural expression as a means to bridge these divides and increase mutual understanding beyond whatever top-down agendas are seeking to instrumentalise it.