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Story Publication logo May 24, 2023

The Irony of President Vladimir Putin’s Culture War

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The road before the Russian Embassy in London. Image by Jordan Anderson. United Kingdom, 2023.

Notting Hill. Not the place, I’m sure, you thought we would begin.

Along enchanting lanes of white stone houses, fathers bring forth cotton-clothed carriages for a baby’s morning stroll, and dog owners stroll with their pets. Residential streets lead into those lined with shops filled with artisanal goods, fur coats, and film posters.

Not far from this picturesque place—where one could truly envision a dapper Hugh Grant walking about—is something quite unexpected.

Taking a stroll toward Kensington Gardens one morning leads you past a quiet white mansion. It’s a building that reflects the grandeur of the regency period, but lacks any of the delicate features. Hidden behind barbed wire, protest fences, and high brick walls stands London’s Russian Embassy. All windows are rendered useless by drawn curtains and iron bars, barriers extend into the sidewalk, and cameras face passing pedestrians. Embassies rarely look welcoming, but in February 2023, the Russian Embassy seems like the slumbering giant of Kensington Palace Gardens. 

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To venture east a few blocks one would find the Ukrainian Embassy. It is indistinguishable from the other homes along Holland Park, except for the Ukrainian flag flying and the plaque at the building’s entrance. No blinds are drawn nor fences lined up. One could only tell there was a war in Ukraine by the flowers and flags along the outside gate, offerings of support. 

By image alone, these embassies seem to tell two very different stories of the relationship both nations have with the United Kingdom, and with the West in general. 

On February 24, the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the streets before the Russian Embassy were painted blue and gold. Hundreds of protesters gathered along the road, marching against the Russian regime and the ongoing invasion. It was abundantly clear that the majority of the protesters were not in fact Ukrainian, but British.

Sign outside of the Ukrainian Institute in Notting Hill. Image by Jordan Anderson. United Kingdom, 2023.

In a world inundated in breaking news cycles and ever-changing world events, Russia’s war against Ukraine was the kind of international crisis that could be felt in the air. By late February 2022, it became a common sight in the United Kingdom to stop into a bookstore or coffee shop and hear two fellows chatting about the latest updates in Ukraine. The morning newspapers were decorated with stories of Ukraine’s fight against an invading Russian force. University students were quick to fly Ukrainian flags from the windows of their accommodations. School events were canceled, vigils held, and donation baskets handed around.

With such overwhelming support for Ukraine, it is no surprise that London’s Russian Embassy seems like some forlorn pariah of the city. However, if it is so apparent the sentiments of the populace towards the Russian state, how might many feel about the Russian citizens themselves? 

A week after Russia began its invasion into Ukraine, my Russian language tutor had stopped our tutorial to address the “elephant in the room.” Although with obvious sympathy for the lives lost, she wanted to impress upon her students a growing fear: her family’s future as ethnic Russians in and outside Russia. 

With such devastation being felt by the Ukrainian people, was this a valid fear? 

At the beginning of the conflict it was commonplace for many Russian artists and performers to face backlash. It was in the cancellation of Russian-born cellist Anastasia Kobekina’s performance that first caught my attention to this trend. She was meant to play a festival in Switzerland in March, however, at the last minute, the venue cancelled. Kobekina’s publicity team took to Twitter to share the news with fans, citing the reason for the cancellation was “the Russian nationality of the artist, but not the young musician herself.” 

This action came after Kobekina had openly condemned the war in February. Her managing director, Anna Dzhishkariani, noted that the festival has since apologized for the cancellation and reported no further discrimination towards the artist. However, she is not the only Russian artist to face such prejudices. 

Russian filmmaker Lado Kvataniya was blacklisted from the Glasgow Festival in early March. On the day the war broke out, Kvataniya was quick to post on his social media a message: “I’m against war/I did not choose this president/I did not choose this war!” 

That same month, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra canceled Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev’s shows. In a statement on Facebook following the decision, he wrote: “The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decisions that none of us could influence and predict.” All three artists had openly denounced the war in Ukraine.

The conflict has placed some Russians in the public eye in a difficult position: openly denounce the Russian government or face limitations elsewhere. Malofeev writes: “I am contacted by journalists now who want me to make statements. I feel very uncomfortable about this and also think that it can affect my family in Russia…the only thing I can do now is to pray and cry.”

Indeed, it was not just Russian artists that faced setbacks. Last year the University of Milano-Bicocca suspended its courses on Dostoevsky, citing a need to “avoid any controversy” after Russia invaded Ukraine. Paolo Nori, professor of the course, took to social media to share the news. Outcry and complaints from students, as well as one of Italy’s former prime ministers, led to the university reversing its decision. 

Taking an even greater step, Tartu University in Estonia made the decision to ban all future Russian and Belarusian applicants for the incoming year. The decision seems to have been made in light of the war in Ukraine.

A public letter was soon sent to the rector and senate of the University of Tartu pleading to reconsider the decision. “Not only does this decision discriminate against students based on citizenship,” it reads, “but it also does not help fight Putin’s regime in any way and will likely assist Russian propaganda in its manipulations.” 

The letter then goes on to state the disadvantages many Russians face through a Russian education and the benefits of studying outside the country: “Studying in a European university is an invaluable opportunity to receive higher education in a free country for capable and motivated students opposing the regime. The Senate’s decision deprives them of such an opportunity.” 

According to the university, the decision was made by the Republic of Estonia. Indeed, the Estonian government implemented restrictions on Russian citizens in applying for temporary residence permits or visas for study within the country. An exception was made for students who were already studying within the country with a “legal basis for staying in Estonia.” Yet the decision stands, and many Russians (as well as Belarusians) had to face returning to an estranged nation. One they had perhaps left for greater freedom.

It is what some academics and activists are labeling as “Russophobia.” The Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies describes this phenomenon as a form of “humanitarian racism…in line with U.S. interests, European leaders have quickly imposed severe restrictions on Russia and Russians with the intention to isolate Vladimir Putin and create internal pressure on him.” According to the center, the phenomenon is nothing new, but a remnant of old Cold War stereotypes. 

What makes a movie villain if not his evil eye, black cat, and Russian accent? Who do the great heroes of British and American culture (James Bond and Rocky Balboa) face off against if not the Red Star champions of the Soviet Union? No doubt these images are an inevitable symptom of war, especially war in the 20th century: the propensity towards negative public images of opposing forces. Yet are these phantoms of Cold War propaganda really the reason for these cancellations?

Andrei Zorin, a professor at the University of Oxford, refrains from using terms like “Russophobia,” which “clearly belongs to the language of Putin propaganda.”

Zorin’s work spans much of Russian literature and culture in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as Soviet and Post-Soviet literature. He also specializes in Russia’s historical and cultural mythologies. These national narratives have played a significant role in instigating the war in Ukraine.

The relationship between Ukraine and Russia is what Zorin aptly describes as a “family feud.” Where both nations “have the same roots,” with a “common political and cultural heritage,” but their histories are “absolutely different.”

The Russian government views Ukraine as part of the same nation commandeered by a “neo-Nazi” regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s historical rhetoric is seeking to build national support for the invasion as well as the late USSR. This propaganda has become more and more dangerous in light of the events in Ukraine. 

According to Zorin, Ukrainian identity is cemented in its separation from Russia. The Russian government’s claim threatens Ukraine’s very existence. Thus Ukraine's identity leans away from its eastern neighbor and towards the West. This inclination seems to have only strengthened in light of the war.

The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain headquarters in London. Image by Jordan Anderson. United Kingdom, 2023.

From Putin’s address in February 2022, it is clear that “a significant part of Russian mythology is the West,” as Zorin points out. 

“The West,” which once referred exclusively to European nations, now has the United States as its “symbolic center.” Zorin describes a mentality in Russian popular consciousness of always looking at the West and in turn looking at how it perceives Russia. 

“You either want to imitate them or you hate them,” Zorin explains. Russian mythology in relation to the West is one that seesaws between showing how the two are different or how they are the same. “It’s a love-hate relationship.”

It is hard not to linger on Cold War memories and see Russia and Western democratic nations as anything but at odds. It’s a dance of missteps and malpractices, one where the partners rarely find the same rhythm. Zorin provides a brilliant metaphor for these relations: two lovers parted and one makes a journey over 5000 miles to tell the other “I don’t care about you.”

Despite such complex relations, there is great potential in the relationship between Russian culture and the West. The Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts was founded in the early 2000s by Gordon Langton. Both a businessman and frequent traveler, Langton brought back Russian icons from his times in Moscow. The museum was founded as a “place to celebrate Russian culture and Russian art in America.”

The museum has faced small setbacks due to the war in Ukraine: small protests in the early months of the conflict and a decision to cancel an exhibition in good faith to the Ukrainian effort. However, its major drawbacks came not from those within the United States, but from Russia. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin has slowly started to reign in the global expansion of Russian arts, especially those donated to museums. This decision seems in line with Russia’s ideological mythology. However, there is little decision for imitation anymore. Instead, Putin wishes to draw the line further between Russia and the West. 

With a lack of “new” Russian iconography and a genuine desire to expand the collection to include “the whole orthodox world,” the Museum of Russian Icons is no longer exclusively “Russian.” Since the conflict, the museum has already made room for a Ukrainian exhibition to support Ukrainian artists doing the war. Simon Morsink, executive director of the Museum of Russian Icons, notes that getting rid of the word “Russian” from the museum’s title is not a result of the war but was a decision that was only further accelerated by the conflict.

When asked about the future of the cultural ties between the United States and Russia, Morsink remained hopeful. “Russian culture is one of the great world cultures.” Morsink believes it will take years to rebuild the relationship between both nations, but that there is a necessity for “Russians to face their past and face their history.”

Pushkin House, the United Kingdom's oldest independent Russian cultural center. Image by Jordan Anderson. 2023.

Exhibition at the British Museum. Image by Jordan Anderson. United Kingdom, 2023.

It is often in times of war that we speak of “cultural losses” as strictly a result of violence. The physical loss and destruction of museums, libraries, cinemas, and personal effects in the melee. Ukraine is no doubt facing this onslaught in full force as Russia increasingly targets Ukrainian cultural sites. There is no doubt among observers that Putin intends to destroy Ukrainian national culture to assert Russian dominance. This violence on such a scale is a catastrophe not only in Ukraine, but for world culture, and risks being forgotten in the midst of such brutal turmoil.

However, it is important to recognize that within this war, cultural losses are being felt on both sides, in entirely separate ways. Ukraine’s loss—the destruction of centuries of history, language, and art—is the heart of this tragedy. And within this is the essential paradox of Putin’s culture war. That is, he is inadvertently harming Russian culture, especially within Russia itself.

This cultural loss is what Morsink calls a “brain drain.” Many artists, activists, and intellectuals in Russia are choosing to flee the country due to the Kremlin’s controlling cultural narrative. 

Last summer, Moscow’s Gogol Center, a well known opposition theater founded by Kirill Serebrennikov, fell under new management. Serebrennikov took to social media to announce the center’s closure as well as its last performance: “I Am Not Taking Part in the War.” 

Serebrennikov cites the reason for the sudden closure as the regime’s disapproval of the theater’s “position”: “For being honest. For trying at freedom. For the fact that all the months that the war is going on, in the theater actors, protesting to war, do not go out to bow, ending each play with the image of a pigeon of peace.” 

The closing of the Gogol Center as well as several other theaters and performances in Moscow is a devastating blow to Russian theater. Serebrennikov has since left Russia. 

The increasing state repression is why some Russians have decided to study abroad, like many Russian students at the University of Tartu. It’s in the same vein as Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, who left the Soviet Union in 1984, never to return. “The Soviet authorities left me no other choice,” he stated after his films were banned in the USSR. In his mind, he had become “a dead soul, a zero.”

Perhaps this is the fate for many Russian artists and intellectuals within the country who feel dislocated from the Russian regime and its cultural policies, to become “dead souls” and “zeros.”

There is no doubt that remnants of Russian culture—from Pushkin to Tchaikovsky—will continue to be indulged and appreciated throughout the world. However, there is a danger for the continued development of Russian culture. What can come from a nation depriving itself of arts and expression?

Street art on Lambeth Road in London. Image by Jordan Anderson. United Kingdom, 2023.

Despite reactions in the West toward Russian students and artists in protest of the war, the real threat to Russian culture seems to be the Russian regime. Culture remains one of the great advocates of international communication and national identity. 

For Russian culture, Morsink reflects on the loss as a “significant downside.” “The cultural world is a very important world to work on relationships, to create an understanding of each other,” he says. It’s perhaps the last hope in rebuilding relations between Russia and the West in the aftermath of this devastating war. “That is the thing I think we are missing,” he says, “we do not talk anymore.”



war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict

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