In recent weeks, much of the world has rallied against Russian totalitarianism in a way not seen since the height of the Cold War. Russia has entered a costly unjust conflict and finds its economy throttled and population divided, all of which has been achieved without a single NATO boot treading on Ukrainian soil.
Despite our general unity on the abhorrence of Putin’s behaviour, the invasion of Ukraine has raised several existential dilemmas for liberals. To intervene or remain neutral? To sanction or not to sanction? And increasingly, to cancel or not to cancel?
Undoubtedly, the twin quandaries of sanctions and military intervention prompt legitimate concerns over individual property rights and self-determination. However, in answer to the question of whether we should exorcise our society of Russian culture, the answer, for liberals at least, should be a resounding no.
Logical conclusions aside, we have seen a series of unsettling efforts to boycott Russian culture. Last week, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra and its Dutch counterpart, the Harlaam Philharmonic, decided to remove Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture from upcoming performances. How brave. This closely followed the University of Milano-Bicocca’s cancellation of a course on Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Yes, the same Dostoyevsky who, for disseminating anti-Tsarist literature, found himself exiled to Siberia.
And now, sadly, the Royal Family’s first advance in this cultural crusade has taken place. Yesterday, the Guardian reported that 17th Century swords belonging to the Queen’s art collection, originally intended for exhibition at the Moscow Kremlin Museums, have been withheld. The now-postponed exhibition, ‘The Duel: from Trial by Combat to Noble Crime’, was to be co-ordinated with museums across Europe, including Madrid’s Prado and Paris’ Louvre. Such an exhibition could have demonstrated commonality during geopolitical division, but instead we have decided to further isolate the Russian people from Western history.
Superficially, the decision to restrict artistic co-operation between the UK and Russia may seem an unsurprising one. After all, in the age of binary moral distinctions, the foundations upon which cancel culture rests, to be seen associating with a supposed cultural enemy is tantamount to treason. However, the risk we run by pursuing this line is far greater than sacrificing our cultural sanctimony.
Continuing in this direction tempts the same unintended consequence of sanctions, as evidenced in Cuba, which is to alienate the population by punishing the state. Why then, would we wish to entrench the resentment felt by many Russians because of heavy sanctioning, by denying them access to Western culture and posthumously cancelling the greats of Russian history?
Moreover, cultural exchange has long proved a powerful tool for undermining tyranny. Had George Orwell, for example, not received a copy of Yevgeny Zamiatin’s critique of Russian totalitarianism, ‘We’, he may not have had the literary blueprint to write ‘1984’. Similarly, the works of Dostoyevsky, that latest locus of cancellation, Solzhenitsyn and many others, have provided the world with tragic and cautionary tales of the excesses of central power. Surely, it is the Roman Abramovich’s of the world, not dead cultural luminaries, who merit our cold shoulders?
To deny such cultural transactions is hardly becoming of a liberal democracy defined by openness and plurality. Through our universities, museums and galleries, Britain has a rich history of universal education. Even during the Cold War, when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest and Prague, our institutions would not have entertained the prospect of cancelling Russian authors and musicians. Rather, Russian studies continued to thrive, and students sought to bolster their understanding of Russian culture, as opposed to denying its existence in fits of McCarthyite self-aggrandisement.
Speaking at a Ukrainian benefit concert, Claudia Roth, German Culture Minister, exclaimed, ‘We will not stop listening to Tchaikovsky and reading Chekhov…I oppose anyone who tries to instrumentalise or boycott culture. It’s this culture that makes us human.’
Now, while I am under no illusion that Roth’s words will stop Putin in his tracks, she touches upon something fundamental. Part of totalitarianism’s inhumanity is the narrative monopoly it exacts on its victims, the way in which it weaponises aspects of history to justify its terror. For us to cancel Russian culture is to degrade the foundations of our democracy and lower ourselves to the cultural tactics of Putin. It is vital that we rally to celebrate the beauty of Russian culture, not to denigrate it.