Russian Cultural Elites Want to Call This Putin’s War. But They, Too, Bear Responsibility for the Atrocities in Ukraine
How the long-running political passivity of many Russian intellectuals paved the way to the current war with Ukraine.
On March 1, Russia shot ballistic missiles at a TV tower in Kyiv, located next to Babyn Yar, a site of one of the largest mass shootings of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The acclaimed Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan posted an archival photo of the massacre site with the caption “Russia bombed Babyn Yar today.”
A famous Russian art historian and curator, Ekaterina Degot, commented on the post: “Not Russia. Putin did.”
Degot’s comment drew fierce reactions from Ukrainian cultural workers, many of whom felt insulted that she had the temerity to challenge her colleague given the circumstances. But the seemingly trivial disagreement struck a nerve because it is also emblematic of a deeper rift between Russian and Ukrainian perspectives on culture, politics, and war.
Degot’s stance, although typical of many liberal Russian intellectuals, is problematic for multiple reasons. First, it shows their underlying tendency to distance themselves from their government, denying any personal responsibility for Russia’s aggressive (and often criminal) domestic and foreign policy.
Second, it demonstrates Degot’s inability to recognize her privilege as representative of imperial power—a reality that is acutely painful for Ukrainians.
Since the war started on February 24, the responses from Russian intellectuals revealed their inability to understand how the ongoing war is in large part a result of their political passivity. For years, modern Russia has cultivated complex narratives that separated culture from politics while using that same culture to distract the West from Russia’s wars, human rights violations, censorship, and persecution of political dissidents.
At the same time, Russian culture received wide representation in Europe and the U.S., supported both by Russian oligarchs’ oil and gas money and international nonprofits aimed at giving a platform to voices of dissent. Paradoxically, all these vastly varying currents have established the same axiom: culture cannot change real politics.
Things took a different turn in Ukraine. In 2013-14, Ukrainians staged massive protests demanding then-president Viktor Yanukovych to sign an association agreement with the E.U. What began as peaceful demonstrations soon turned into the Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan, which forced Yanukovych out of the country. The revolution gave an unprecedented boost to cultural initiatives, spawning new state institutions and grassroots organizations alike. One of the takeaways of Maidan for Ukrainian society was that culture is capable of and must be a catalyst for social and political change.
Euromaidan also resulted in the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and war in the Donbas. All of these events contributed to the Ukrainians’ increased engagement in the political process. Unsurprisingly, these same events were perceived by many Russian (and Russian-speaking Belarusian) intellectuals as a disaster. Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, in her address to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka during the 2020 protests, said that “nobody wants Maidan, nobody wants blood.”
For the most socially active segment of Ukrainians, including art professionals, the main outcome of Euromaidan, despite the victims and loss of territories, has been an increased political agency. It is this newly acquired agency that fuels Ukrainians’ current resistance to the Russian invasion. That is why Ukrainians cannot forgive elite Russians’ passivity, which reads as complicity.
The present attempts of Russian intellectuals to portray themselves as innocent victims of the new wave of isolationism are fundamentally hypocritical. For many years now, Russian art professionals have been getting a lot of attention from the international community. Russian institutions have been working on projects of all scales imaginable with European and American partners: “Red: Art and Utopia in the Land of Soviets” at the Grand Palais in 2019; Filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s “DAU” in Paris and Berlin; “Diversity United,” a show planned in collaboration between Germany, France, and Russia last year; and the programs at Moscow’s Strelka Institute, to name just a few—all of which helped reinforce and modernize a perennial trope of “the Great Russian culture.”
Hundreds of projects such as these did nothing to prevent the wars Russia has led in the meantime. Quite the contrary, they have been successfully distracting the world’s attention from these crimes.
Any attention now toward Russian culture equals fewer opportunities for representation of the “minor” cultures that have historically suffered from Russian imperialism: Belarusians, Georgians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and so many others. For independent Ukraine in the last eight years, the reappropriation of its cultural heritage has become part of the painstaking process of decolonization.
As the successor of the USSR, Russia inherited not only all the economic benefits of the Soviet energy export system but also took over the cultural legacy of the former republics. As a result, Russian artists and cultural workers, living in Russia and in the West, have far more economic and infrastructural opportunities than Ukrainians, while also benefiting from significantly richer cultural heritage. Yet they rarely seem to acknowledge it.
Today, Ukrainian artists are finally gaining some traction abroad… while hiding in bomb shelters under the shelling of the Russian army. But even now, it’s the Russian artists who are demanding compassion, drawing attention away from war crimes being committed in Ukraine as we speak. That is why the international community must finally realize the moral problem with turning the spotlight on Russians, no matter how progressive, during the current situation in Ukraine. Any support you provide to Russian culture right now is support taken away from Ukrainians.
To truly support Ukraine requires a complete boycott of Russia and a severing of international cultural collaboration. That is why we support the demands issued by the Ukrainian Institute, one of the post-Maidan cultural institutions, in an open letter. Read it below.
Dear friends, allies, colleagues,
On 24 February 2022, at 5 a.m. the armed forces of the Russian Federation attacked Ukraine, launching a full-scale invasion on our country. It is a completely unjustified attack that, as of February 28, killed 352 civilians, including 14 children, wounded 1,684, and caused great destruction of civil infrastructure. Explosions, bombings, and air raids have hit all major Ukrainian cities. The aggressor’s tanks and heavy artillery crossed the Ukrainian border from the north, the south, and the east. On February 27, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This is a war of a scale unseen in Europe since 1945, and the whole world is watching it happen.
We are grateful to our allies for imposing economic and political sanctions on the Russian Federation. However, the aggressor continues to use the metaphor of “the great Russian culture” to justify, downplay, and steer public attention away from its countless war crimes, acts of aggression, violation of human rights and international law.
For decades, cultural institutions and individuals affiliated with the Russian state were used as tools for imperialist propaganda, hybrid warfare, and beautification of Putin’s criminal regime. This has to stop now!
Therefore, on behalf of cultural organizations and institutions in Ukraine, we are asking for your solidarity and support. We call to boycott the Russian state now, until it completely withdraws from Ukraine and is held responsible for its war crimes:
- Suspend Russian participation in international cultural events such as festivals, biennials, exhibitions, art and literature fairs, including the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale;
- Boycott events organized by Russian institutions as well as international foundations that are directly and indirectly linked to or funded by Putin’s regime and Russian capital;
- Cancel any cooperation with Russian artists, no matter how great or famous, as long as they openly support Putin’s regime, silence its crimes, or do not publicly and directly oppose it;
- Remove representatives affiliated with the Russian state or Russian capital from supervisory and advisory boards of your organizations;
- Refuse any donations, funding or sponsorship from Russian organizations, their proxies, and affiliates based in other countries.
Today, the trope of “the great Russian culture” is dangerous. Based on colonial and imperial legacy, it promotes aggression, exclusion, intolerance, and crimes against humanity.
Please help Ukraine by stopping any cultural cooperation with the Russian Federation and communicate your decision publicly to encourage your peers to follow your example.
We have the power to stop the bloodshed and war. Let’s combine our efforts and end Russia’s war on freedom, democratic values, truth, and the whole civilized world.
Les Vynogradov is a translator, writer, and musician from Kyiv currently based in Chicago. In 2018-2021, he worked as the head of visual art at the Ukrainian Institute.
Lisa Korneichuk is an editor and writer from Kyiv currently based in Chicago. She is a Fulbright student in New Arts Journalism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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