In Kyiv, I saw Ukrainians on the front lines of a veritable culture war | Charlotte Higgin

Athe National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv recently, I attended the performance of an opera by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lyssenko. The work, charming and comical and an escape from the gravity of Russian missile attacks, is called Natalka Poltavka, based on a play by Ivan Kotliarevsky, a pioneer of 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 view, despite the almost daily sirens of air raids. But there’s no Eugene Onegin in sight, no Queen of Spades, and not a whisper of those classic Tchaikovsky ballet staples, Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. Russian literature and music, Russian culture of all kinds, are not on the menu in wartime Ukraine. It’s almost a shock to return to the UK and blithely hear Russian music on Radio 3.

This absence, some would say erasure, can be difficult to grasp outside of Ukraine. When a symphony orchestra in Cardiff removed 1812 overture of a broadcast this spring, there was perplexity bordering on outcry: to excise Tchaikovsky was to give Vladimir Putin and his cronies the satisfaction of “owning” Russian culture – it was censorship, it was play Russia’s game. Tchaikovsky himself was not only long dead, but had been a foreigner and an internationalist – so the various arguments went. It took some painstaking explaining to make it clear that a piece of music glorifying Russian military achievements and involving real guns might be somewhere beyond bad taste as Russia was at that time bombarding Ukrainian cities – in especially when the families of the 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 played. Russian culture has not been “canceledas Putin claims, and Russian-born musicians and dancers with international careers continue to perform in the west — assuming they’ve offered minimal public disparagement of the murder and destruction in Ukraine. Only the most naive denounce the removal of Valery Gergiev international concert programs. The conductor, considered close to Putin, backed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea (unrecognized by most UN countries), refused to condemn the current large-scale invasion of the Ukraine and has always used its artistic profile. in the service of the Russian statesuch as conducting concerts in Russian-backed South Ossetia in 2008 following the Russo-Georgian war.

Inside Ukraine, however, things look very different. For many, the current war with Russia is considered a “war of decolonization”, as the Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuk put it – a time when Ukraine has the chance to free itself, finally, to be an object of Russian imperialism. This decolonization implies a “total rejection of Russian content and Russian culture”, as the writer writes Oleksandre Mykhed say it Lviv Book Forum recently. These are not pleasant words to hear – not if, like me, you spent your late teens immersed in the stories of Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s Chekhov; not if you 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 take a record of The Rite of Spring to your desert island.

However, it is necessary to understand the context of this rejection: the Ukrainians emerge from a history during which the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, actively and often violently repressed Ukrainian art. It worked in different ways. This has included the absorption of many Ukrainian artists and writers into the Russian center (such as Nikolai Gogol or Mykola Hohol in Ukrainian), and the misclassification of hundreds of artists as Russian when they could arguably be better described as Ukrainians (like the painter Kasimir Malevichwho was born in Kyiv but Russian, according to the Tate). This means that writing in Ukrainian has sometimes been banned – the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko, was banned from writing at all for a decade by Tsar Nicholas I. This silence encompassed the extermination of Ukrainian artists, such as the murder, under Stalin, of hundreds of writers in 1937, known as ” executed revival”. Behind all this hide horrible events, such as the Holodomorthe starvation of an estimated 4.5 million Ukrainians in 1932-33 in their forced effort to produce grain on Stalin’s orders.

This story puts Ukraine in a very different position to Russian culture than, say, Britain found itself to German and Austrian art during World War II, when Myra Hess programmed Mozart , Bach and Beethoven in his National Gallery Concerts during the Blitz. “We had a cultural occupation, a linguistic occupation, an artistic occupation and an occupation with arms. There is not much difference between them,” composer Igor Zavgorodniy tells me. In Soviet times, Ukrainian culture was allowed to be harmlessly folksy – and Ukrainians, portrayed as drunken thugs in Cossack pants, were often the butt of denigrating jokes. But Ukraine was not supposed or allowed to carry its own culture. At the same time, Russian artistic achievements were hailed as the very pinnacle of human greatness. “We were brought up with a certain piety towards Russian literature,” explains playwright Natalya Vorozhbit, who studied during the Soviet era. “There was no such piety towards any other literature.”

Putin himself effectively doubled all this by 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 a complement to its neighbour. Indeed, his claim of Russia’s cultural inseparability from Ukraine is one of his main justifications for the invasion. At the same time, the Russian instrumentalization of its artistic history is breathtaking. In occupied Kherson, billboards proclaiming it a “city of Russian history” feature an image of Pushkin, who visited the city in 1820. Ukrainian artists also object to how, more generally, the Projecting Russia as a great nation of artistic brilliance functions as a tool of soft power, a sort of ambient buzz of positivity that they would say softens the sheer brutality of today’s invasion. In Ukraine, there is a widespread cry of “bullshit” over the myth of “Russian soul”.

Some Ukrainians I talk to hope that one day, beyond the end of the war, there will be a way to consume Russian literature and music – but first the work of decolonization must be done, including the re-reading and rethinking of classical authors, unraveling how they reflected and, at times, projected the values ​​of the Russian Empire. In the meantime, “My child will grow up perfectly without Pushkin or Dostoyevsky,” says Vorozhbit. “I don’t feel sorry.”

For many Ukrainians I meet, the time for Russian literature will come again – when it can be critically understood as just another branch of world culture, and as a force neither unduly oppressive nor overwhelming. At the national Opera House, I ask choreographer Viktor Lytvynov when he thinks Tchaikovsky – a composer he loves – will be back on the program. “When will Russia stop being an aggressor,” he says. “When will Russia cease to be an evil empire.”

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