For many in Ukraine, this is a war of ‘decolonisation’ – and that includes Russia’s celebrated artistic heritage
Nov 7, 2022
At the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv recently, I watched a performance of an opera by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. The work, charming and comic and an escape from the grimness of Russian missile attacks, is called Natalka Poltavka, based on a play by Ivan Kotliarevsky, who pioneered Ukrainian-language literature in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Operas by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart, and ballets such as Giselle and La Sylphide, are on the playbill, despite the almost daily air raid sirens. But there is no Eugene Onegin in sight, nor a Queen of Spades, and not a whisper of those Tchaikovsky staples of ballet, Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. Russian literature and music, Russian culture of all kinds, is off the menu in wartime Ukraine. It is almost a shock to return to the UK and hear Russian music blithely played on Radio 3.
This absence, some would say erasure, can be hard to comprehend outside Ukraine. When a symphony orchestra in Cardiff removed the 1812 Overture from a programme this spring, there was bafflement verging on an outcry: excising Tchaikovsky was allowing Vladimir Putin and his chums the satisfaction of “owning” Russian culture – it was censorship, it was playing into Russia’s hands. Tchaikovsky himself was not only long dead, but had been an outsider and an internationalist – so the various arguments went. It took some careful explanation to convey that a piece of music glorifying Russian military achievements, and involving actual cannons, might be somewhere beyond poor taste when Russia was at that moment shelling Ukrainian cities – particularly when the families of orchestra members were directly affected.
In fact, such moments have been rare in western Europe. Chekhov and Lermontov continue to be read and Mussorgsky to be performed. Russian culture has not been “cancelled” as Putin claims, and Russian-born musicians and dancers with international careers continue to perform in the west – assuming they have offered a minimum of public deprecation of the killing and destruction being visited on Ukraine. Only the most naive would decry the removal of Valery Gergiev from international concert programmes. The conductor, who is seen as close to Putin, backed the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (unrecognised by most UN countries), has declined to condemn the current full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and has a history of using his artistic profile in the service of the Russian state, such as conducting concerts in Russian-backed South Ossetia in 2008 in the wake of the Russo-Georgian war.
Inside Ukraine, though, things look very different. For many, the current war with Russia is being seen as a “war of decolonisation”, as Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuk has put it – a
moment in which Ukraine has the chance to free itself, at last, from being an object of Russian imperialism. This decolonisation involves a “total rejection of Russian content and Russian culture”, as the writer Oleksandr Mykhed told the Lviv BookForum recently. These are not words that are comfortable to hear – not if, like me, you spent your late teens immersed in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Chekhov stories; not if you have recently rekindled your love of Russian short fiction via George Saunders’ luminous book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain; not if you adore Stravinsky and would certainly be taking a disc of The Rite of Spring to your desert island.
The context for this rejection has to be understood, though: Ukrainians are emerging from a history in which the Russian empire, and then the Soviet Union, actively and often violently suppressed Ukrainian art. This has worked in a number of different ways. It has included the absorption of numerous Ukrainian artists and writers into the Russian centre (such as Nikolai Gogol, or Mykola Hohol in Ukrainian), and the misclassifying of hundreds of artists as Russian when they could arguably be better described as Ukrainian (such as the painter Kazimir Malevich, who was Kyiv-born but Russian, according to the Tate). It has meant that writing in Ukrainian has at times been proscribed – Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, was banned from writing at all for a decade by Tsar Nicholas I. This silencing has encompassed the extermination of Ukrainian artists, like the killing, under Stalin, of hundreds of writers in 1937, known as “the executed renaissance”. Behind all of this stand horrific events, such as the Holodomor, the starvation of about 4.5 million Ukrainians in 1932-33 in their forced effort to produce grain on Stalin’s orders.
This history places Ukraine in a very different position in relation to Russian culture than, say, Britain found itself in relation to German and Austrian art during the second world war, when Myra Hess programmed Mozart, Bach and Beethoven in her National Gallery concerts during the Blitz. “We have had cultural occupation, language occupation, art occupation and occupation with weapons. There’s not much difference between them,” the composer Igor Zavgorodniy tells me. In the Soviet period, Ukrainian culture was allowed to be harmlessly folksy – and Ukrainians, caricatured as drunken yokels dressed in Cossack trousers, were often the butt of belittling jokes. But Ukraine was not expected or allowed to carry a high culture of its own. At the same time, Russian artistic achievement was lauded as the very apex of human greatness. “We were raised in a certain piety towards the Russian literature,” explains the playwright Natalya Vorozhbit, who was educated in the Soviet period. “There wasn’t such piety towards any other literature.”
Putin himself has effectively doubled down on all this through his constant insistence, in his essays and often rambling speeches, that Ukraine has no separate existence from Russia – no identity, no culture at all, except as an adjunct of its neighbour. Indeed, his claim of Russia’s cultural inseparability from Ukraine is one of his key justifications for invasion. At the same time the Russian instrumentalisation of its artistic history is breathtakingly blatant. In occupied Kherson, billboards proclaiming it as a “city with Russian history”, show an image of Pushkin, who visited the city in 1820. Ukrainian artists also object to how, in a more general way, the projection of Russia as a great nation of artistic brilliance operates as a tool of soft power, a kind
of ambient hum of positivity that, they would argue, softens the true brutality of today’s invasion. In Ukraine, there is a generalised cry of “bullshit” in relation to the myth of the “Russian soul”.
Some Ukrainians I speak to hope that one day, beyond the end of the war, there will be a way of consuming Russian literature and music – but first the work of decolonisation must be done, including the rereading and rethinking of classic authors, unravelling how they reflected and, at times, projected the values of the Russian empire. In the meantime, “My child will be perfectly all right growing up without Pushkin or Dostoevsky,” says Vorozhbit. “I don’t feel sorry.”
For many Ukrainians I encounter, the time for Russian literature will come again – when it can be critically understood as simply another branch of world culture, and as neither an unduly oppressive, nor overwhelming, force. At the National Opera House, I ask the choreographer Viktor Lytvynov when he thinks Tchaikovsky – a composer he loves – will be back on the programme. “When Russia stops being an aggressor,” he says. “When Russia stops being an evil empire.”
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer