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Dr. Platt is a professor in the department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and a translator of contemporary Russian poetry.
Within days of the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the canceling and boycotting of Russian cultural events in Europe and North America began. Cultural organizations broke ties with Russian performers and artists. Two of the world’s most revered Russian musical artists — the conductor Valery Gergiev and the soprano Anna Netrebko — had their performances in multiple countries canceled. The repercussions have reached artists and works with no direct connection to President Vladimir Putin or his agenda, like the 20-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who had openly denounced the invasion, whose debut concert tour in Canada was called off. The Polish National Opera even canceled performances of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” The list goes on.
In the heat of this moment — as the depraved brutality of the unprovoked Russian invasion becomes more and more apparent — these high-profile retaliations against anyone and anything Russian may be understandable, but they are far from reasonable. Russian art, music, painting and film do not “belong” to the Russian state. In fact, there is no one “Russian culture” — there are many.
It is profoundly ironic that those who react to the war in Ukraine by aggressively or indiscriminately canceling or restricting artists and artistic works simply for being Russian are reflecting the same kind of nationalist thinking driving the Russian invasion in the first place. Mr. Putin legitimates his war as an attempt to “save” Russians in Ukraine and reunite them with the Russian Federation. For him, there can be only one Russian culture and it can have only one homeland. Yet most Russians in Ukraine have no desire for Mr. Putin’s “salvation” — and a great many have taken up arms to resist it. They have a different homeland. Now that is a demonstration of a distinct Russian culture.
In Mr. Putin’s view, the only place Russian identity and culture — like Russian people — are safe is under the Russian state — any territory in which Russians reside must therefore belong to the Russian Federation, and any Russian who rejects the “protection” of the Russian state is a national traitor. Ms. Netrebko herself is now being denounced as a traitor in the Russian Federation after making attempts to distance herself from Mr. Putin.
Yet a spirit of resistance pulses through the work of many artists throughout the global diaspora who are creating art, music, film, literature and dance and who have been fleeing the Russian Federation at an increasing pace since the invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014. They include the poet and publisher Dmitry Kuzmin, who begins one of his poems:
Recent data from a sociological survey:
88 percent of the population of my country — are fascists.
Mr. Kuzmin resettled in Latvia in 2015 in order to write Russian poetry at a safe distance from Mr. Putin and his state. His Russian culture is certainly not Mr. Putin’s. It is both more peaceful and humane.
The idea of discrete national cultures, conducted in distinct languages and associated with states and their “proper territories” — French culture in France, German culture in Germany — is associated with the rising tide of ethnic nationalist ideology of the 19th century. Even then, this idea didn’t correspond to reality. The forces of migration — as well as the more destructive means of war, conquest and colonialism — have insured the mingling of people, languages and cultures throughout history. Borders between territories associated with one or another language or ethnic group have shifted over and over again, and so have the cultures they created.
This is also true in terms of simple geography. The Russian diaspora includes large communities of people of Russian heritage in several countries across the globe — millions of them in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan; in the Baltic States, especially in Estonia and Latvia; in Israel, the United States, Canada, Germany, Brazil, Australia; and, of course, in Ukraine.
Movements like the voluntary migration of over one million Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s, for instance, and refugee crises like the current displacement of more than five million people from Ukraine, continue to blur these borders. Russian speakers in Israel create their own Russian culture. As do Russian speakers in the Baltic States, and in Ukraine.
Russia’s literary history is replete with examples of authors who have written powerful works of protest, at a far remove from “Russian national culture.” Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet of Jewish origins who defined his own brand of poetry, Acmeism, as a “yearning for world culture,” died in the Soviet penal camp system in 1938 as a result of an epigram caricaturing Stalin and his cruelty. He is only one of many.
Today, the poet Shamshad Abdullaev, an ethnic Uzbek from the city of Fergana in Uzbekistan, writes experimental poetry in Russian, rising out of Central Asian landscapes, but inspired by European avant-garde traditions, like this passage from his poem, “End of the Week: A Walk With a Friend”:
So we came out on the pockmarked square — so broad
the path traversed is clear, but the rough curve
of the clay-walled street with its sour-green moss cover
and the dirty windblast that overtakes us
from the blind alley, as always, from behind,
have silenced the epic scrim, like Paris,
seen by Rousseau for the first time
in its greasy, squawking grayness.
Abdullaev has won poetry prizes and fellowships in Russia, Germany, Italy, the United States and elsewhere. His work addresses audiences across the world. Both intensely local and emphatically global, his writing in Russian bears no relation to the Russian state or the territories it seeks to claim.
Or consider this passage from a poem written last month by Boris Khersonsky, a Jewish poet from Odesa who writes mainly in Russian. This poem, whose title I’ve translated as “As in a Game of Battleship, Their Victory Is on Paper,” was posted on Facebook:
You’ve shed our blood. Smeared yourself with blood.
You’d do better to keep count of your own brood.
Freely tossing men, like logs, in the conflagration.
You won’t wash the blood stains from your mad generation.
Khersonsky, of course, might best be described as a Ukrainian poet. Yet his poetry forms part of a distinctive Russian culture. That is the crux of the matter.
That the world should be amplifying Ukrainian art and culture is clear. This is of the highest priority. Yet support for Ukrainian culture does not entail canceling Russian culture. To adopt such a stance is to support a world of pernicious national antagonisms and closed borders. That is precisely the world that Mr. Putin seeks to create with his war. We, along with right-minded Russians, should be working to resist the reactive canceling of Russian artists and performances, rather than playing along.
Kevin M. F. Platt is a professor in the department of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He translates contemporary Russian poetry and is the author or editor of several books, including, most recently, “Global Russian Cultures.”
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Opinion | The Profound Irony of Canceling Everything Russian – The New York Times