Nothing is fair in art and war

October 14, 2022
by Samuel Shafiro

For Russian artists, nothing is fair in art and war

Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault.

While many musicians deal with the logistics of a return to in-person performances, Atlanta Balalaika Society music director David Cooper is grappling with a more fundamental issue: how should Russian culture be represented in the context of the war in Ukraine?

The Balalaika society is a folk music orchestra which performs music for the Russian Balalaika and other folk instruments of Eastern European origin. The group is rapidly preparing for their 40th-anniversary concert on Oct. 15. In addition to repertoire and logistics, Cooper, who conducts the orchestra, said he also had to decide how the orchestra will present themselves.

“There is some disagreement about our costumes,” Cooper said. “We perform in traditional Russian costumes normally. Several of our people decided that they would not wear Russian costumes.”

This issue is part of a global tension between Russian arts and the country’s politics. For Russian artists, that conflict has revolved around expressing themselves in an environment of increasing government control. In Euro-American circles, the question of how to best portray Russian art is more pressing.

Cooper said that in his case, he will allow individual performers to choose the costume they would like to wear, with some people wearing Ukrainian costumes and others in traditional Russian outfits.

“I don’t know anybody in the orchestra who supports what Putin’s doing, but some people feel that it should not penalize Russian culture for what Russian politicians are doing and I’m in support of that myself,” Cooper added. 

Nevertheless, Cooper said that his own outfit will be Ukrainian.

The Political Challenge Of Russian Art

Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature Mikhail Epstein noted the long tradition of politics influencing art in Russia, particularly between the 18th and 20th centuries. 

“Russian art and Russian literature functioned in a very oppressive social and political environment and resistance to this environment or conformity to this environment were hallmarks of Russian culture,” Epstein said. “It had to become political, anti-political, apolitical but a certain marked attitude to politics was inevitable, even for the so-called ‘pure art.’”

Epstein said that the collapse of the Soviet Union ended this tradition. 

“The situation dramatically changed because for twenty-five years approximately there was freedom of expression,” Epstein said. “Censorship is forbidden by the Russian constitution which is still active.” 

However, he observed a decline of that freedom after the initial 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine not only politically, but also ideologically. Interim Director of the Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies program Elena Glazov-Corrigan also identified a recent shift in the relationship between the government and artists in Russia. 

“In the last 20 to 25 years, something happened to Russian art,” Glazov-Corrigan said. “It became commercialized. It depended very much on the financial status in the country.” 

State control over arts funding has made politics relevant to creative work. Chief Conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra Vladimir Jurowski told The Washington Post that political pressure on artists increased dramatically after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Following the invasion, “the whole atmosphere became suddenly much less tolerant,” he said. 

Beyond funding, the government has gone to extreme lengths to ideologically police artists. In early March, Russia passed two new laws that heavily penalized speaking out against the war. Though not exclusively targeted at artists, the laws have been used against creatives who criticize the war. Russian rockstar Yuri Shevchuk, whom Epstein and Glazov-Corrigan identified as an important cultural figure, was fined 50,000 rubles for condemning the war during a concert.

Repression has only increased as the war continues. In late September, poet Artem Kamardin read anti-war poetry in a public square in Moscow. He was subsequently arrested, beaten and raped by state authorities, according to a Sept. 27 report from the Russian independent newspaper Meduza. Two other poets have also been remanded into custody by a Russian court and could face up to six years in prison.

The conflict looms even over artists who do not speak out against the war. Anatoliy Kharkhurin, a Russian poet, multimedia artist and academic, said that creatives must now be explicitly pro-government in their work.

“Some of my more close friends … told me in personal conversation that, if they want to curate an exhibition, they need to show their support of the governmental politics …and, if they do not want to, they do not receive any support, any grant money, nothing,” Kharkhurin said. 

He said that even art that is not political is under threat, and people now “sit in the countryside doing their own art” in isolation.

“Anything that can be considered by anyone who has power in Russia as critical of the current political activities can be prosecuted with long imprisonment,” Kharkhurin said.

One result of political pressure on artists is the return of an artistic underground. Epstein predicted a revival of “the condition of the underground that existed for many years under the Soviet regime.”

He noted that exhibitions that had already been planned to open in public spaces have been moved into private apartments, adding that there is still danger of persecution even in private spheres.

Another result of increasing political coercion is a mass exodus of artists from Russia. While relatively few left the country in 2014, the Russian government’s aggression in February was the tipping point for artists of both national and international prestige. Russian rapper Oxxxymiron, the world’s most viewed battle rapper, canceled his shows in Russia and chose instead to perform anti-war concerts abroad. Maxim Galkin, who Israeli newspaper Haaretz called “the comedy king of prime time on Russian state television,” fled to Israel. Other important Russian arts figures who have left include Andrei Makarevich, Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov.

Many have little choice but to escape, according to Russian-born cellist, Ian Maksin. 

“There is a culture of the Russian opposition: artists, writers, musicians, journalists who took a stand against the war both socially and through their art,” he wrote in an email to the Wheel. “Sadly, this Russian opposition, with few exceptions, can only operate safely only outside the Russian territory in exile.”

He contrasted dissident art abroad against art within Russia, which he said the country is using  as propaganda, “forcing or intimidating artists, musician[s] and other public figures to take part in the criminal fueling of hatred and justifying the war among the masses.” 

Cultural figures who flee can also struggle with their reception in host countries, especially in Europe and the U.S. Kharkhurin said that this reality has Russian artists “very worried because they are being systematically excluded” and cannot travel elsewhere because Eastern European countries have recently closed their Russian borders.

“They are isolated from the international artist community,” Kharkhurin said. “They are prevented from doing art within the country, inside the country.”

Christina E. Crawford, an associate professor of modern and contemporary architecture who has studied architecture in Russia and Ukraine, has seen relevant Russian scholars who stay in Russia excluded from deliberations over reconstruction in Ukraine. She called this a “shame.” 

The difficulties that western artists experience in organizing discussions around reconstruction demonstrate the impossible task of negotiating philosophical positions about Russian art and practical concerns. Crawford said that despite the frustration of leaving out valuable Russian voices, she supports bans on cooperation between Russian and Euro-American academics on an institutional level. 

“If there are non-militaristic ways to isolate Russia through economic means or policy means that makes it uncomfortable for the higher-ups in the Russian government, I think that’s totally appropriate,” Crawford said.

For Glazcov Corrigan, the current departure of artists from Russia is reminiscent of when she and her dissident father escaped the Soviet Union in the ’60s, during the Khrushchev years. She called the tendency of those most critical of the regime to leave and supporters to stay “negative selection” and explained the difficulty of representing her Russian culture from abroad.

“Because art — poetry, all of that — is so deeply connected to the language, in a certain way one neutralizes oneself by emigration,” Glazov-Corrigan said. “One saves one’s life, but one neutralizes oneself.”

The interview was briefly interrupted when Glazov-Corrigan received a text from her cousin informing her that he had successfully left Russia.

Representation Beyond Cancellation

Epstein, Glazov-Corrigan and Kharkhurin all said they were against the cancellation of Russian arts and culture. Other prominent U.S. scholars of Russia and Eastern Europe have also expressed their opposition, including Kevin M.F. Platt of the University of Pennsylvania and Simon Morris of Princeton, who have both spoken out against such cancellation. Russians-in-exile — such as writer Mikhail Shishkin, who is scheduled to give a talk at Emory in early April, similarly condemned forgoing Russian art because of Russian politics.

The precise reasons for continuing to embrace Russian art can be quite different and even contradictory. For Kharkhurin, the universal nature of art makes canceling Russian art senseless. 

“Art is something eternal,” Kharkhurin said. “Therefore, the temporal political issues that we have should not be the topic of eternal art. This current thing will be over maybe in a year or two, but the Russian culture will exist … it existed before, it exists during, and it will exist thereafter. How can you cancel it?”

Kharkhurin also argued against the idea that Russian art in the west carries a political message. 

“If you deliver something in certain cultural contexts, you do not deliver a regime, you do not deliver a propaganda,” he said. “It can be interpreted as propaganda. It can be used as propaganda …This is the major mistake that people make in the entire world, by associating Russians, without differentiating [from] the Russian government, especially Russian artists.”

For Epstein, on the other hand, it is precisely the political — and specifically dissident — nature of Russian art that should lead those in the west to continue to support it. 

“Much of what made Russian culture was inspiration for dissidents for protests for free creative development of humans,” Epstein said. “And, I should say that such prevailing manifestation of Russian culture, which was in opposition to government … should be valuable because this is how Russians inspired other Russians, their readers, their viewers, to be despondent, to be dissident.”

Maksin said that attitudes toward Russian culture owe a lot to context. Russia has historically subjugated the distinct cultures of other Eastern European nations and assimilated their people into the regionally hegemonic Russian culture, especially during the formation of the Soviet Union and its expansion under Stalin. As recently as a few weeks ago, the Polish government demanded that Russia return art that was stolen by Soviet forces during the Second World War (a demand which Russia has refused). 

“There are different types of western: those western countries that have been directly impacted by the Russian oppression historically, will have a different interaction from those who haven’t,” he said. “I do understand how people must feel in places like the Baltic States, Poland and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc: they were terrorized by the Soviet system for decades … if they currently identify Russian culture and anything related to it in anyway, as the aggressor culture, I can understand.” 

He said that it is ultimately “a matter of personal choice.”

The Department of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (REES) at Emory must also confront how it engages with Russian culture in light of the war. Glazov-Corrigan, who serves as interim director of the department, said that political events have previously affected the department. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a loss of interest in Russian and Eastern European studies, she explained. As a result, she said the department suffered cutbacks and consolidations.

Now, the REES department has been hosting speakers to provide insight into the current crisis in Ukraine. Last semester, they organized a talk by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, regarded as one of the most authoritative American commentators on the war. Next semester, Associate Professor of History Matthew Payne is teaching a class on Ukraine, which will be cross-listed between the History and REES departments.

“The question that we pose is how could the country with that kind of culture become silent at this particular junction in history?” Glazov-Corrigan said. “What processes of the culture lead to this catastrophe? Has literature and art actually reflected this?” 

The answer, she said, is a resounding yes. 

“You could look at all the Russian writers for the last two centuries and you can see an apocalyptic sense of some catastrophe about to happen and breaking their head for what is to be done, how the country can be saved,” Glazov-Corrigan said.

As for how enthusiasts of Russian art should respond to such a catastrophe, Glazov-Corrigan argued that these feelings exceed politics.

“You don’t start loving something different,” Glazov-Corrigan said. “You love what you love. You try to educate, but you love what you love.”

Graphic by Chau Anh Nguyen.