In the week before Christmas Maryna Odolska took to the stage at Cork’s Everyman Palace. Famous in Ukraine, Odolska was part of a cross-cultural concert organised with Festival in a Van. Her set included the beautiful Ukrainian Carol of the Bells, but it was her version of Song for Ireland that brought the tissues out, and the house down. As she sang the lines, “Dreaming in the night / I saw a land where no one had to fight…”, the auditorium was in no doubt as to the emotional power of the arts.
At the same time, the Russian performance collective Pussy Riot was touring Europe. Speaking out against the regime of Vladimir Putin, they gained global recognition when, in 2012, three members were imprisoned for “hooliganism”. Masha Alyokhina was one of them. Like Odolska, she is now unable to return to her home country, in her case because of the threat of repeated imprisonment. “For me that was, and still is very important to have a position, and declare and stand up for my, and Pussy Riot’s, position against Putin as loud as we can,” Alyokhina says.
Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko recently called on Ukraine’s friends and allies to boycott Russian culture. “We’re not talking about cancelling Tchaikovsky, but rather about pausing performances of his works until Russia ceases its bloody invasion,” Tkachenko wrote in a Guardian column on December 7th, citing the reported looting and destruction of Ukrainian monuments, artworks, museums and historical buildings.
“This war is a civilizational battle over culture and history,” Tkachenko wrote. “The Kremlin made clear […] that culture was a tool and even a weapon in the hands of the government, and that it would actively use all the opportunities available to it, from promoting Russian ballet to protecting the rights of Russian speakers abroad, in order to advance its interests.”
The power of art and culture is recognised by governments around the world. Alongside big international cultural showcases and state-sponsored tours, it can also be wielded more covertly. While the arts can foster understanding and communication across cultures, they can also be used to embed ideas of cultural superiority. Authorities can promote culture and suppress art. Witness the CIA’s International Organisations Division and its promotion of Abstract Expressionism (most notably with Jackson Pollock) in the 1950s. On the other hand, and more recently, see it in the destruction of the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
It’s complicated. While there are plenty of people who will say “Hands off Tchaikovsky”, but possibly not miss his work from programmes for a year or so, banning Russian culture in its entirety would silence the voices and legacies of those such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote of his experiences of imprisonment in the Gulag, and Pussy Riot because they represent Russian culture too.
Choosing who to ban on the basis of their politics is a slippery slope, as anyone with memories of America’s McCarthy Era will acknowledge.
The question runs across the art forms. Annie Fletcher is Director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). IMMA’s collection includes works by Russian artists Dimitri Tsykalov, and Emilia and Ilya Kabakov. Fletcher says: “Of course we absolutely have to condemn the war and show solidarity. But, while supporting Ukraine, I wouldn’t want to penalise those fantastic artists from Russia, who are opposed to the invasion. So I hope things don’t get so essentialised around individual artists who need our support.”
Pussy Riot’s Alyokhina said: “I don’t think that I have a right to comment [on the] words of Ukrainian public figures and Ukrainians during the war, during the traumatising situation, which I cannot imagine, and which I never had.”
But Odolska agrees with the Ukrainian culture minister’s position. Having arrived in Ireland with her family in March, two weeks after the war broke out, she does not expect such a boycott to be enacted at legislative level in her home country. However, she says: “This idea has been borne by the people of Ukraine since the beginning of the war, and our minister of culture just voiced it at the highest level.” One of the growing numbers of Ukrainians in Ireland, the multi-award winning singer says she is grateful for the generosity of the Irish. While she dreams of returning home, she recognises the role of culture in the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian diaspora.
“I and everyone who considers himself a real Ukrainian (by heart, not by passport) are the bearers and keepers of Ukrainian culture here in Ireland,” says Odolska. “I also dream that in Ukraine they would speak Ukrainian, sing in Ukrainian, know Ukrainian writers and composers and be proud of them. The influence of Soviet culture and education has been displacing and replacing our language and culture in the minds and perceptions of several generations of the Ukrainian people for many years, replacing Ukrainian with Russian. I think that’s what our minister of culture wanted to convey,” she says.
So where does that leave productions such as the Estonian National Ballet’s Swan Lake (by Tchaikovsky), coming to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre next week? From New York’s Metropolitan Opera to closer to home, artists and companies appear to have been drafted in to replace their Russian counterparts, whether for ideological, commercial or logistical reasons. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre cancelled planned performances of Swan Lake by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, originally scheduled for March/April 2022.
In a statement the theatre’s general manager Stephen Faloon said: “Bord Gáis Energy Theatre stands firmly behind the people and nation of Ukraine and in February 2022 took the decision to cancel the performances of Swan Lake by St Petersburg Ballet Theatre which was scheduled to take place from 29 March to 03 April 2022.
“We have since announced a performance of Swan Lake by Estonian National Ballet which is due to take place from 11-15 January 2023. In staging this historic work, Irish audiences will be introduced to this remarkable company for the first time in their 100-year history when they will make their Irish debut.
“Bord Gáis Energy Theatre will also be donating a contribution from the ticket sales to Ukrainian charities based in Ireland.”
There is surely a difference between giving employment to a Russian ballet company, and taking pleasure in Stravinsky as played by an Irish orchestra, or reading Tolstoy. But if Tkachenko’s call were to be followed to the letter, Russian content as well as the performers should be off the menu – for now.
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is an interesting illustrator of how knotty and vexed the deeper cultural question is. Recently the BBC reported on the United Ukrainian Ballet Company. Formed in response to the outbreak of the war, the company is made up of refugees, and is described as representing “Ukraine’s cultural frontline, aiming to protect, support and spread a culture […] threatened by this conflict.”
The inclusion of Swan Lake in the programme has been a sticking point for some members. Dancer Vladyslav Bondar is quoted as saying: “It’s important to block Russian dance in the world. […] I think we need a quarantine from it now. Maybe not forever but for me, personally, at this moment it’s not right.” Company manager Taras Onishchenko says that this is a matter of personal choice, but makes the point that “Tchaikovsky is a great composer that belongs to the world – not to Putin or Putin’s regime”.
In Russia Swan Lake has a subversive significance. During the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 State TV aired the ballet on a loop, interrupting scheduled programming, blocking out the news. As it and other Russian classics were routinely played when programming was paused after the death of Soviet leaders, it has become symbolic in unexpected ways. On March 1st, 2022, when Russia’s last remaining independent TV news station, TV Rain (Dozhd) ceased broadcasting in Russia, the staff left the studio en masse, live on air, switching the broadcast to that same, grainy footage of Swan Lake. In the process, they turned the ballet into a symbol of defiance.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe (which is funded by the US Congress) in April 2022, Russian playwright Mikhail Durnekov is quoted as saying that “the task of the artist is to fight against dehumanisation […] Today it is easy to find an enemy or a victim. It is a lot harder to look into the face of the enemy and understand why he is acting that way. What fear motivates him? How can we fight against that fear? No one but the artist can do this work.”
Alyokhina was attacked and beaten by police with her fellow Pussy Riot members at the time of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014, when she and the group said they were working to signal the actions of Putin’s regime. “We and a lot of other human rights defenders and organisations and activists were raising attention and shouted, actually, that they will not stop with Crimea.”
Pussy Riot’s latest music video, Mama, Don’t Watch TV, released on Christmas Eve, and available on YouTube, is described by Alyokhina as “our statement, our anti-war video”. It includes documentary footage of the war, alongside Russian anti-war protests and images of the burning of Russian army recruitment centres, for which people have been imprisoned. “We admire these gestures a lot. There are amazing brave people doing that,” she says. “Unfortunately they’re not so known in the West, so through our video, we remind that this resistance exists in our country.
“The story of Pussy Riot,” Alyokhina continues, “is helping people understand that, unfortunately, Russia is not a big exception. Russia just received a dictator. And it can happen anywhere if people start to fight for their rights: the opposite powers takes the presidency.” Their concerts are, she says, “a platform for our activism, and we call for full embargo to Russian resources such as gas, oil and actually all the resources, because this is the money they use now for [to] kill Ukrainians; but also always, all these years, they use this money to repress us, all of the people who are against current regime.”
A comment was sought from the Russian Embassy in Ireland.
Alyokhina says she is an advocate of those who seek to expose corruption, including the imprisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny. She also draws attention to the roster of Russian artists who have stood up against the regime and the war, such as Alla Pugacheva, “a legend for many people from the time of Soviet Union, and who decide to not serve this regime and this war, and loves the country and starts to support Ukraine, with fundraising and using their names to stand with Ukraine”.
“There is a big anger from the empire to them,” she says. “Because of course, they need cultural figures to serve to decorate their regime. Like any empire wants...”
She pauses. “The thing is that people usually feel this hypocrisy and know what is truth, and what is decoration.” Despite exile and the threat of imprisonment in her own country, Alyokhina says she finds the space for optimism in the strength of the responses to Pussy Riot’s work. “It gives me personally hope for people, and for the future to our country,” she says.
Culture, inevitably, is used as a tool on both sides of a conflict, whether promoting it, or seeking to negate it. Subtle, complex and at its heart, deeply human, culture keeps communication open, even at a time when some might wish their enemies were obliterated from the face of the Earth. Choices are personal and will change during conflicts, but it is in works of art that we may find the tools to build bridges that may currently seem either undesirable or unthinkable. The most important thing is to listen to, or watch, whatever it is we choose to with thought for the stories and lives of the people behind it.