Whatever one feels were the geopolitical causes of Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, I’m not going out on a limb when I say that the Russian military’s actions in recent days and weeks have been nothing short of evil. The suffering we’re seeing on TV and online on a daily basis is absolutely heartbreaking. And it’s understandable that there would be various forms of backlash against Russia in response to it.
But that doesn’t excuse some of the insanity in the form of ‘canceling’ Russian culture that I’ve read about since the war began. The villains in the current circumstances are Vladimir Putin and those supporting and assisting him. Great Russian cultural figures of the past do not fall within that grouping. Yet there have been Western educational and cultural institutions that appear incapable of making such a common-sense distinction.
The first such instance I read about was an announcement by the University of Milano-Bicocca, in Milan, Italy, that it would cancel a class on the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 19th century Russian who was one of the greatest literary figures in history. Thankfully, there was enough of a backlash against the announcement for the school to recant and move forward with teaching Dostoevsky’s works, which include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
But what were they thinking in the first place? This would be akin to international universities refusing to teach the works of Mark Twain during the American invasion of Iraq. It’s completely nonsensical.
Then there is the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra of Wales, which announced last week that it would cancel a planned all-Tchaikovsky program and replace it with repertoire by non-Russian composers. The orchestra’s announcement indicated that it would be “inappropriate at this time” to proceed with the planned concert.
Why? What did Tchaikovsky have to do with the invasion of Ukraine? For all we know, he’d be outraged by it if he were around today.
There are circumstances under which I can understand current Russian artists being ‘canceled.’ Valery Gergiev is one of the best known and highly regarded orchestra conductors working today. He has also been a strong supporter and personal friend of Vladimir Putin for many years. I think it’s understandable that most non-Russian orchestras are refusing to work with him in light of his refusal to condemn his friend and the invasion of Ukraine.
But there is a huge difference between a living artist who is a friend and supporter of Putin and someone who died years before the Russian autocrat was born.
I applaud the overwhelming global reaction against Putin and his invasion. But let’s not throw all sense out the window. Russia has a literary tradition that is arguably second to none and has also produced many great composers and musicians. Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky and all of the other great Russian artists of the past, not to mention those currently alive who have condemned the invasion, have nothing to do with the suffering of the Ukrainians and shouldn’t be thrown into the same basket as he who is truly responsible.
I’m closing this out with a video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Please enjoy; and don’t associate it with anything Putin has done. Great Russian figures of the past should not fall victim to the cancel culture of the present.