Cultural sanctions against Russia: move fast, break contracts, send a message

Events such as Eurovision aspire to swerve politics but politics has a way of gatecrashing

A little over 80 years ago, sheet music sales in Britain were topped by Russian Rose, a subdued song co-written by Hughie “We’ll Meet Again” Charles, in which a faraway love object, addressed with a wartime weight of sorrow, is said to be crying “where the river Volga flows”.

Russian Rose overlapped lyrically with Irving Berlin's older Russian Lullaby, and both songs, with their hopes for a free future, resonated during a grim winter when public fascination with Soviet culture was influenced by news from the eastern front. As Britain's Soviet allies held on, romanticised visions of Russia were in vogue.

Meanwhile, at the BBC, the work of German composer Richard Strauss and Hitler-favoured Wagner was very much not.

Now, as if dispatches from despotic rulers and maps of Europe overlain with arrows depicting military pincer movements weren't redolent enough of the second World War, a wave of sanctions across the cultural spectrum is here to remind us that the consequences of invasion can have deep and startling reach.

This time, of course, it is Russia, the aggressor, seeing its artistic representatives barred everywhere – from Irish opera houses to the multipurpose Turin arena that will stage the Eurovision Song Contest – while a seven-year-old Ukrainian comedy series resurfaces to become the television show of the moment.

All episodes of Servant of the People, the political satire created by Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which he plays a teacher unexpectedly elected Ukrainian president – made four years before the actor/comedian was unexpectedly elected Ukrainian president – can be found on YouTube with English subtitles.

To watch it now, mid-crisis, involves recognising that it is funny – though international viewers will not get all the jokes, including one about Putin – but not actually laughing. For it is impossible to forget that Zelenskiy’s life, notwithstanding the heartening resilience of the Ukrainian resistance, must still be at risk.

Delight at the absurd fact of his voice work on the Ukrainian dub of Paddington and gleeful reactions to real-life lines like “I need ammunition, not a ride” are symptoms of our nervousness about the delicacy of his situation, and by extension the shocking situation of all Ukrainians.

Cancelled ballet

It is the urge to do something – anything that can be done – to show solidarity with Ukraine, and not merely a desire to avoid being tainted by association, that has led to venues axing performances by several ballet companies, including those of the Royal Moscow Ballet in Ireland, and of the Russian State Ballet of Siberia and the Bolshoi Ballet in Britain.

It is reasonable to have mixed feelings about a ballet boycott given so many big-business links between Russia and the rest of the world are yet to be broken. Europe is still buying its usual quantity of gas from soon-to-be-former Uefa sponsor Gazprom, after all, and an oligarch, despite Roman Abramovich's "stewardship" distancing trick, is still in possession of Chelsea football club. Why are young dancers – artists of all nationalities – among the first to be punished for the sins of Putin?

But perhaps it is not an accident that these decisions were taken before the EU’s ratcheting up of economic sanctions – effectively, the weaponisation of money against the Kremlin – on Sunday. Perhaps it is our doubt that political leaders will do the right thing that strengthens our instincts to use what little power we do have.

The Irish statements outlining the reasons for the cancellation of the Royal Moscow Ballet’s Swan Lake were good at stressing it was not the members of the company they wished to censure.

Dublin City University noted its cast and crew comprised Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Uzbeks, Japanese, Irish and Polish, who have worked and lived together for years, before concluding it was crucial to "send an unambiguous message to the Russian government".

Cork Opera House’s board said it deeply regretted the impact on both the dancers, who had worked hard to make a beautiful show, and a promoter who was a long-standing and trusted colleague, before also highlighting a need to “stand together in solidarity with the people of Ukraine at this terrible time”.

Clearly, it is possible to agree with and welcome these choices and still feel sympathy for individual artists, sportspeople and other non-billionaires, such as employees of the exporters now obliged to cut trade ties, caught up in the fallout.

Eurovision eviction

The "apolitical" European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and Eurovision, its flagship "non-political cultural event", is a curious case of its own, though close in principle to the conversations that regularly engulf elite sport.

The EBU initially indicated Russia would be allowed to participate in this May’s song contest. But the alliance of public service broadcasters still proved it had more nimble footwork than the likes of Fifa and Uefa, announcing on Friday that it was kicking Russia out after all.

This douze-points suspension came after a call from Ukrainian broadcaster UA:PBC, which had been backed by several other members, including those from the Netherlands, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Estonia, which made their support public.

That the history of Ukraine and Russia’s Eurovision-centred skirmishes is too long and thorny to recount here should alone illustrate that, while it may be laudable to aspire to be “apolitical”, trying to keep politics out of your event won’t stop politics from gatecrashing it in national dress.

I’ve seen the “Putin will have to surrender now” sarcasm. But this war has already been notable for inspiring vocal protest from prominent celebrities in Russia, from social influencers and sportspeople to rappers and theatre directors. Cultural sanctions abroad endorse this bravery too. They could also help foment internal opposition to a level that even digital censorship and Putin’s police vans cannot completely crack down upon.

An optimist might even imagine the lights of a future Eurovision shining down on post-Putin Russia’s equivalent of Germany’s winning 1982 entry – A Little Peace.

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