Culture Can Help in the Fight Against Putin – We Must Not Limit It
Katie Dancey-Downs, assistant editor at Index on Censorship, reflects on a decision by the Ukrainian Parliament to ban music created by Russian citizens
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What is at stake, when you cancel the culture of an entire nation? Propaganda is pushed underground, muffled to the rest of the world. But along with this, important work is buried too. The voice of opposition is silenced.
Last month, Ukraine’s Parliament made an extraordinary decision. It voted to ban music created or performed by people who have been Russian citizens since 1991. Books face a similar fate, with works written by Russian citizens no longer allowed across the border, apart from those already available in the country. If an artist condemns the war in Ukraine, however, they can apply for an exemption.
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will still accompany ballerinas and Rachmaninov will still fill concert halls. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin will still line bookshelves. But living and breathing artists are stopped at the gates.
The decision is designed to “minimise the risks of possible hostile propaganda through music in Ukraine and increase the volume of national music products in the cultural space”.
Ukrainian voices have been silenced throughout history and are still being silenced today, through another invasion. More space for them is desperately needed. But cancelling Russian culture also silences Russians who stand against Vladimir Putin’s war.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, many other countries have engaged in their own boycotts of Russian culture.
The Royal Opera House pulled a tour by the Bolshoi Ballet, the European Film Awards banned Russian entries, and so too did the Eurovision Song Contest. Some might remember how the 2021 Russian Eurovision entry by Manizha, ‘Russian Woman’, challenged gender stereotypes in the country.
The global show of solidarity with Ukraine makes a clear stand against Russia’s invasion, but what is the cost?
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Putting together the latest issue of Index on Censorship’s magazine, the topic of Russian culture has been at the forefront of our minds. The special report in this issue gives space to artists, dissidents and journalists to respond to the war in Ukraine.
We hear from Alla Gutnikova, a Russian journalist who was sentenced to correctional labour for her role in the student publication, Doxa. She used her court statement to speak out, no matter the cost to her personal safety. “Even if you are silenced by your government, you still have to write,” she said.
We revisit the words of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who warned the world about Putin. And we hear from Russophone poets speaking out against the war.
The incredible Kopilka Project brings together work from more than 100 poets around the world, standing against the war and brandishing their pens as weapons. Their work, including the poem by Yulia Fridman published in Index on Censorship, is extraordinary, important and necessary.
These voices are part of the resistance against the war. We must not silence them.
The difficult issue of cancelling Russian culture, too, is addressed by the writers Marina Pesenti and Maria Sorenson.
“Russia has used culture for the purposes of aggressive political propaganda internationally,” Pesenti observes. “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.” Amid this, Ukraine is denied agency.
“Does Russia and Russian culture mean Putin?” Sorenson asks. She poses an important question: should artists only be allowed to perform if they vocalise their opposition to Putin and the war? And what of those who cannot speak freely? Those who are dead or at risk of reprisal? Can we really judge people by their passports alone?
The pages in our magazine, both in this issue and countless pieces in our archive, show that culture flourishes in times of censorship. One example is the Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s short story, The Ampitheatre, an exclusive for the latest edition. After being threatened, he left his home country and writes from outside it. Writing fiction, Halfon says, allows him to speak the truth.
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Culture can play an integral role in challenging authority.
Take the idea of samizdat – secretly published literature banned by the USSR, often highly critical of the state. Readers passed these underground publications between each other, made copies, and snuck them across borders. Works were hidden and shared in ingenious ways.
The collaboration of networks like these, as in the Kopilka Project, strengthens dissident voices. Their influential ideas are given oxygen in both the places in which they face censorship and the rest of the world.
There are yet more lessons from history.
Vaclav Havel, a dissident and playwright, became the first President of the Czech Republic following the collapse of Soviet rule. By allowing culture to flourish, real change can happen.
Vladimir Putin may use culture to extend his reach, but if we silence Russian voices indiscriminately, what important works and ideas are we suppressing? There is some expectation that artists should use their platforms to speak out against injustices. But with those platforms removed, the opportunity is snatched away.
One thing is clear: culture is a weapon of war. And censorship cannot be fought with censorship.
The latest edition of Index on Censorship, ‘The Battle for Ukraine: Artists, Journalists and Dissidents Respond’, is available to buy now