Putin is fighting on a second front: Culture
Beyond Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is also waging cultural battles.
In a speech Friday from the nondescript beige-walled office in which he conducted much of his public business this month, Putin made no mention of Ukraine. Instead, he developed a personal obsession: “cancel culture”.
Western elites ‘cancelled’ author JK Rowling because she ‘didn’t appeal to fans of so-called gender freedoms’, Putin said in his nationally televised remarks, flanked by two Russian flags. Rowling was widely criticized in 2020 after expressing her support for a researcher whose views on transgender people had been condemned by a court.
Japan, he claimed, “cynically decided to ‘cancel'” the fact that it was the United States that dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And now, he said, the West is busy “cancelling” Russia, “an entire millennial country, our people.”
That the Russian president delivered a dissertation on Western public discourse on Friday may seem odd at a time when Russia is waging what some analysts consider its bloodiest war since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. it underscores how Putin is trying to channel cultural grievances and common stereotypes for political ends – while using language that also allows him to speak directly to possible allies in the West.
“It’s his cultural front,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He’s at war there too.”
Speaking at the start of a videoconference with Russian cultural figures, Putin said “the proverbial ‘cancel culture’ has become cancel culture”.
And, as seems inevitable in Putin’s speeches these days, the Nazis also intervened.
“The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are removed from the posters. Russian writers and their books are banned,” Putin said. “The last time such a mass campaign to destroy objectionable literature was waged by the Nazis in Germany was almost 90 years ago.”
For now, said Kolesnikov, Putin’s main audience when he denounces Western ‘cancellation culture’ is domestic, with the Kremlin intent on stoking grievances against the West that Putin draws much of. of his support. But casting Russia as a protector of traditional values in the grip of blind liberalism is also a message that finds sympathy around the world, including among right-wing American commentators like Tucker Carlson of Fox News, whose monologues are often broadcast on Russian state television.
“We have a constitutional right to a free press, but we don’t,” said Carlson, dubbed into Russian, in an excerpt from his show which aired in a news segment on Channel 1 controlled by state this week. “And it’s not Russian propaganda.”
On Friday, Putin defined “cancellation culture” as the “public ostracism, boycott and even complete silence” of people who “do not fit into modern models, no matter how absurd they really are.”
It was at least the third time in recent months that he had broached the subject, a subject that seemed to him to sum up the hypocrisy and superficiality of Western elites.
It’s also a particularly important message for Putin now, as he tries to convince Russians that they shouldn’t despair of their country becoming a pariah in the West, with corporations and cultural institutions cutting ties. Spotify, the music streaming giant, on Friday became the latest company to suspend operations in Russia, after showering Moscow with adverts when it entered the Russian market in 2020.
“National culture has protected Russia’s identity at all times,” Putin said. “He gladly accepted all that was best and creative, but rejected that which was deceptive and ephemeral, which destroyed the continuity of our spiritual values, our moral principles and our historical memory.”
Russia, Putin argues, is culturally superior because it respects history and traditional values. Now, he says, the West is betraying its cowardice and “Russophobia” by trying to “cancel” Russia itself, including its contributions to arts and history, especially the defeat of the Nazi Germany.
Indeed, the extent to which to punish Russian cultural figures in response to the war in Ukraine is a matter of debate around the world. Some have called for total Russian isolation, while others argue that blanket bans on all Russian entries to film festivals, for example, go too far.
Overall, however, relatively few Russian artists have been “cancelled”, as Putin claimed. Although there were scattered examples of arts organizations in the West canceling Russian works and performers following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the vast majority continued to highlight Russian culture.
The Metropolitan Opera opened a revival of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” on Friday with three Russian artists. The same evening, the New York Philharmonic performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony (next week the orchestra will play Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile, is in the midst of an all-Tchaikovsky concert series.
For Putin, however, the idea of the West rising up against anything Russian is a convenient foil. He invited conductor Valery Gergiev to take part in Friday’s videoconference, which was held to mark Russia’s Culture Workers’ Day and honored winners of a Kremlin art award.
Gergiev, a prominent Putin supporter, was removed from his post as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra this month after refusing to speak out against the invasion of Ukraine. On Friday, Putin dangled what appeared to be a reward for Gergiev’s loyalty: He asked the conductor if he was interested in “recreating a common direction” that would unite the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow with the Mariinsky Theater in Saint -Petersburg.
The Bolshoi is currently headed by Vladimir Urin, who last month signed a letter expressing his opposition to the war in Ukraine. Gergiev did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. The Bolshoi said no personnel changes had been announced.
“What is most important right now is to indoctrinate his supporters,” Kolesnikov, the analyst, said of Putin. The message: “Our cultural life does not end and we do not need anything from the West.
For Rowling, whose “Harry Potter” books are immensely popular in Russia, being championed by Putin as a victim of Western “cancel culture” apparently didn’t sit well.
“Criticisms of Western cancel culture are perhaps no better made by those currently massacring civilians for the crime of resistance, or imprisoning and poisoning their critics,” Rowling said on Twitter, in response to the remarks. of Putin.