Opinion. Olga Birzul, film curator and cultural manager, former programmer of Docudays UA, former Head of Film at the Ukrainian Institute.
Photo: View of the Russian pavilion at the Giardini/ Art in America
Art beyond politics? That’s absurd! There are a good bunch of facts to confirm this delusion. Let’s take five facts for starters to get a short historical perspective and evident proof of the propagandist nature of russian culture.
The phenomenon of soviet nostalgia has become the basis for the russian culture, ideology and putin’s regime. Modern russia is deeply rooted in the past superpower status of the winner of World War II. The patriotic films, art, music and literature impose this narrative on the russian society and promote a culture of violence and cruelty against imaginary enemies (mainly those who are not russian). Now let’s recall who is the russian hero among other historical figures. According to statistics, it is Stalin, the soviet chief, who was one of the main despots of the 20th century. Despite all the evidence of Stalin’s crimes against Ukrainians and the wide international recognition of Holodomor (The Great Famine of 1932-33) as an act of genocide, modern russia constantly camouflages the extent of the Ukrainian Famine (near 7 million victims) as just a tragedy of the soviet people as a whole.
For example: George Orwell, the famous British author of the dystopian novel 1984 and the satirical novella Animal Farm, was critical of those who sympathized with the Soviet Union. Specifically, he wrote, ‘huge events like the Ukrainian Famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles’. Do you know any relevant russian film or book about the Ukrainian Famine? I don’t.
Russia has had a long-term imperialism complex from the middle ages until its violent invasion of Ukraine. Putin is convinced that russia’s status as a global power depended on its expansive empire. In the early 2000s, popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan—known as Color Revolutions—demonstrated these countries’ spirit of independence and, thereby, the limits of russia’s control of the region. Today putin spends vast sums of money and the lives of young russian soldiers to maintain imperial glory. But, let’s be honest, it’s not only his point of view. Paternalistic approach to Ukraine is quite popular even among the russian cultural elite. The russian intellectuals have been “on the needle” of their arrogance for centuries. No one forbids them to specify the nationalities of the artists in their projects and research about soviet period. Somehow, they always use the term ‘soviet russian’ neglecting the national identity of other republics.
For example: All the exhibitions for the international audiences about russia’s revolutionary art known as russian avant-garde constantly demonstrate this imperialistic policy. It is impossible to find in the annotations or any mentions of Ukrainian, Jewish, Georgian and Belarusian origins of such great modernist painters like Chagall, Malevich, Zdanevich and others. The russian curators are stone-deaf to artists’ national identity and it has a huge influence on the global art scene. Now imagine the curators of the exhibition of British modernist art not mentioning the origin of artists from Scotland, Wales, Ireland or distant colonies and call it simply ‘English Modernist Art’? The international critics would be outraged, I’m sure.
The kremlin has always realized the power of cultural diplomacy. It never skimps on creating the grand myth of russian potency for the international audience while its own society suffers from extreme economical and intellectual poverty. As we see on the videos made during the current war in Ukraine, the russian soldiers are poorly equipped and stoop so low as to steal lingerie from occupied Ukrainian homes. Nevertheless, the russian ballet, theater, classical music and literature is a part of the compulsory diet for educated Europeans who can’t believe that russian culture is a shiny shield to divert the world’s attention from the crimes against humanity and wars initiated by russians.
For example: The russian films are always presented at the International film festivals with aplomb. Their directors constantly make critical films about russian autocracy or the ‘mysterious russian soul’, by the way, with the financial support of russian government. It helps russia to create the illusion of democracy and freedom in the state. Meanwhile, russian ministry of culture finances and aggressively spreads among the national audience the films with the opposite message. As usual, these films present a distorted version of reality and history like the drama ‘Crimea’. It is the pure propagandist interpretation of the Revolution of Dignity and Crimea annexation. For local use only.
Through the culture russians deliberately push the narrative of ‘good russians’. It instills the idea that only putin and the political class are responsible for the aggression, general society has nothing to do with that, therefore sanctions and embargoes are bad.
For example: russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was a main kremlin prisoner till the russian invasion. A few days after russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he was released. Now he is considered an opposition director and sheltered in France. For what? Yes, to play the role of a ‘good russian’. If Serebrennikov was a real good russian he would revoke his film from the Festival de Cannes Programme until his Motherland completely withdraws from Ukraine and is held responsible for its war crimes—killing civilians and raping Ukrainian women and children. It would be a strong gesture of a concerned artist, who is actually in safety now.
The false peacemaker. The main russian goal is to present the current war in Ukraine as a military conflict like in Transnistria, Abkhazia, Chechnya or Syria. The message is the same: russians strive for peace. According to russian legend, its army invaded Ukraine to protect russian-speaking population. But there is one crucial detail. According to United States Government report*, since 2014 the russian-controlled disinformation services began to accuse anyone, who questioned russia’s invasion, of being xenophobic russophobes. Apparently, tolerant Ukraine made a huge mistake by underestimating the fatal consequences of russian propaganda machine. As we see now, the international peacemakers don’t realize the danger of their tolerance, which gives russians the feeling of complete impunity.
For example: One of the most obvious cases of this tolerance is letting russian artists to tour with the concerts. Only in 2017, the Ukrainian Government started to ban russian artists who supported Crimean annexation and/or visited the territory of self-proclaimed LDPRs from entering Ukraine. On April 12, a musical-patriotic marathon ‘For Russia (Za Россию)’ – notice the latin letter Z in the cyrillic name – launched ‘in support of the military participating in a special operation (still no mention of war!) in Ukraine. Now russian cultural ‘peacemakers’ officially collect money to provide russian army with missiles and bombs to kill Ukrainians. There are nearly 30 russian cities in this bloody tour. By the way, all the russian musicians participating in the marathon are still welcomed to tour in Europe and USA.