Cancelling Russian culture is today’s moral imperative

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.

What the Fuck!? podcast new episode: Punk poet Penny Rimbaud

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115655″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In this episode, Index’s associate editor Mark Frary talks to musician, poet and activist Penny Rimbaud, who founded anarchistic punk band Crass in the 1970s.

He talks about why the battle isn’t against Donald Trump but against all US presidencies and why the British are the most repressed in the world. He says the Sex Pistols and the Clash were only playing at being angry.

He also. says everyone should change their name, as he did, and why his poetic namesake is the inspiration behind his new album, Arthur Rimbaud in Verdun, now out on One Little Independent Records.

The high-concept album is based on a fiction constructed by Penny which places the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (who died in 1891) at the historic and tragic battle of Verdun in 1916. It is influenced by the sounds of John Coltrane and the visuals of Jackson Pollock.

Index on Censorship’s What the Fuck!? podcast invites politicians, activists, journalists and celebrities to talk about the worst things going on in the world, why you should care and why you should swear.

Listen to the launch episode with British artist Alison Jackson, famous for her fake photos of politicians and the royal family as she talks about the phenomenon of Donald Trump. The second episode features Harry Potter actor Natalia Tena, who talks about how she became aware of female genital cutting, a practice that affects more than 200 million girls and women around the world.


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Mehdi Rajabian’s Iran: where making music is a crime

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Mehdi Rajabian is once again facing imprisonment. His crime? Including women’s voices in his music.

Rajabian is a musician in Iran, where women’s behaviour and expression – including their ability to sing in public or record their songs – is severely limited by the regime. But Rajabian has been determined to defy the authorities’ efforts to intimidate him, repress his art, and silence women’s voices. “I need female singing in my project,” Rajabian told Index on Censorship from his home in the northern city of Sari. “I do not censor myself.”

In August, Rajabian was summoned by the security police, who arrested him and took him to court. He was handcuffed and brought in front of a judge, who told him that the inclusion of women’s voices in his project “encouraged prostitution”. Rajabian was held in a prison cell for several hours but was able to post bail with the help of his family. He remains on probation and banned from producing music.

It is not the first time that the 30-year-old has faced imprisonment for his art. He spent three months blindfolded in solitary confinement in 2013, and was subsequently sentenced to six years in prison. He was released at the end of 2017 after undertaking a 40-day hunger strike. “I was completely sick after the hunger strike,” he explained. “When a prisoner goes on hunger strike, it indicates that he is preparing to fight with his life, that is, he has reached the finish line.”

After his release, Rajabian continued to make music and last year his album Middle Eastern was brought out by Sony Music. Every track on the album, which features more than 100 artists from across the Middle East, is accompanied by a painting by Kurdish artist and Index on Censorship award-winner Zehra Doğan.

But now Rajabian says that the pressure on him has become so great that it is extremely difficult for him to be able to collaborate with other musicians and to finish his next album. In August, a music journalist was arrested and detained in Evin Prison for several days after mentioning women’s music and referring to Rajabian in an article.

“Artists and ordinary people [in Iran] are all afraid to even talk to me,” he says. “I have been completely alone at home for years. Coronavirus days are normal for me.”

At home alone, he reads, watches films, and listens to music by John Barry. “I am currently reading Alba de Céspedes y Bertini’s books,” he told Index. But he spends most of his time reading philosophy. He believes that his interest in philosophy is one of the reasons why his music has been so targeted by the regime.

“The Iranian regime is not afraid of the music itself, it is afraid of the philosophy and message of music,” Rajabian explains. “Artists who do not have philosophy in their art are never under pressure.”

What does Rajabian believe the future has in store for him? “You can’t predict anything here. I am ready for any event and reaction,” he says. “But I still believe that we must fight and stand up”.

“I will continue to work, even if I return to prison,” he says. “I know that there is a prison sentence and torture for me, but I will definitely complete and publish [the album]. In Iran, making music is difficult for me because of the bans, but I have to make it.”

“Encourage banned artists,” Rajabian concludes. “They are not encouraged in their own countries. Be their voice.”

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Ruth Smeeth: “From Ethiopia to Hong Kong, we will not abandon you”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114148″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Following the news this week has been harrowing. Beyond the ongoing awful deaths from Covid-19 and the daily redundancy notices we also now have some governments turning against their citizens. Free speech around the world, or rather the restrictions on it, have dominated nearly every news cycle and behind each report there have been inspiring personal stories of immense bravery in standing up against repression.

While there have been government orchestrated or sanctioned attacks on free speech across the globe, from Turkey to Poland, Brazil to Kashmir, the most stark has been the appalling attack on human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese government has dealt a fatal blow to the “one country, two systems” pledge. In the hours that followed the government enacting its new National Security Law for Hong Kong, hundreds of people deleted their social media accounts for fear of arrest. Pro-democracy campaigners have shut up shop in the fear of life imprisonment and journalists on the ground are under huge pressure to curtail their reports.

In spite of the very real threat of arrest, however, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand their human rights to free association, to free speech and to a life lived without fear of tyranny. Their actions, their bravery and their determination should inspire us all and I’d urge you to read the words of our correspondent from Hong Kong, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho. Events in Hong Kong need to generate more than just a hashtag – we need action from our governments. And we all must stand with Hong Kong.

As events developed in Hong Kong other national leaders were also moving against their populations. On Monday, the Ethiopian musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was murdered. Hundeessaa’s music provided the living soundtrack to the protest movement that led to the former prime minister’s resignation. In the hours that followed Hundeessaa’s murder 80 people were killed and the government deployed the military in order to restrict protest and limit access to Hundeessaa’s funeral. They have also switched off access to the internet (again) to stop people telling their stories.

It is easy for us to miss the people behind these events. And in a world where oppression is becoming all too common, sustaining our anger to support one cause when the next outrage is reported can be difficult. But we cannot and will not abandon those who have shown such bravery in the face of brute force and institutional power.

Index was created to be “a voice for the persecuted” and with you we will keep being exactly that.  Providing a platform for the voiceless and shining a light on repressive regimes wherever they may be.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Essential reading” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]