From Pushkin to Kadyrov: How Russian Culture Supports Military Aggression
On March 25, 2022, at the outbreak of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin accused the West of “canceling” Russian culture. He complained that the works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were being removed from the world’s repertoire while books by Russian authors were banned. Paradoxically, not only Russians but also a significant number of Western intellectuals agree with him on this point. They say that it is not worth neglecting the great heritage of Russian culture, which has nothing in common with Putin’s regime.
However, this position is possible only with a complete lack of critical perspective on what the world knows as “Russian culture.” Its supposed greatness and richness became possible thanks to several wars and the appropriation of dozens of cultures, including that of Ukraine. Moreover, recognized Russian classics tolerated and normalized Russian imperialism in their works. Below we will look into three types of appropriation which contributed to Russian culture.
Appropriation of territory: literature and ballet as mouthpieces of war
The full-scale invasion of Northern Caucasia by the Russian Empire began in 1817. The bloody, disastrous war lasted 47 years and was accompanied by genocide against the Circassian, Avar and Chechen peoples.
The Russo-Caucasian War also provided data for famous Russian literary works: The Prisoner of the Caucasus by Alexander Pushkin and The Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. The reader won’t find any anti-war statements in these texts. On the contrary, they are full of romance, exoticism, and an attitude of righteousness towards Russian actions.
Literary scholar Ewa Thompson described this situation very accurately in her book Troubadours of the Empire: Russian Literature and Colonialism.
“Pushkin created an image of a silent and intellectually underdeveloped Caucasus, unreasonably good in their senseless struggle and mature enough to be ruled by Russia. For the Russian literary memory, Pushkin and Lermontov created the image of Russia as a strong and fair ruler of the region. In fact, Pushkin can be considered the author of the first fully successful artistic formulation of Russian imperial identity.” Like today’s Russian cultural elite, Pushkin and Lermontov occupied the privileged position of columnists deprived of sympathy for the sufferings inflicted by their army.
Another example of Pushkin’s point of view being entirely in tune with the Russian imperial policy was a ballet based on The Prisoner of the Caucasus, staged by the then St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theater. Even though ballet art at that time had not yet formed in the Russian Empire as the greatest cultural weapon for enhancing power, it was still focused mainly on the court audience. Despite its overfantasized plots and naive motives, ballet has become one of the most political forms of Russian art.
“Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro,” the ballet belonging to the “golden age” of the Russian ballet, is a later confirmation of the above thesis. The ballet director, Marius Petipa, is famous for staging “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” The ballet’s premiere took place in 1878, during the Russo-Turkish War. On the pretext of the liberation of Christians in the Balkans, the Russian army planned to take Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Contemporaries confirmed that it was to the march of composer Ludwig Minkus from the ballet “Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro” that the Russian troops besieged Plevna, a key event of the Russo-Turkish war. The ballet’s central character represents Montenegro, which should be “liberated” from Muslim oppression. The Montenegrins themselves were not considered by the Russian Empire or the ballet’s creators to be mature enough to decide their destiny. This is perfectly illustrated in the introduction to the ballet’s libretto: “The gloomy nature, the mystery of mountain gorges and inaccessibility of the rocks gave rise to many superstitions of the Montenegrins, which they have not forgotten even until now. They attribute many even simplest phenomena of nature to the actions of some supernatural forces and sometimes evil people who after their death take the image of vampires, red moths, werewolves, ghouls and others.” As the people of Caucasia, the Montenegrins are regarded by the Russians with the polite indulgent superiority of colonizers.
Time passes, and history repeats itself. While in the 19th century, the Russian troops played Minkus’ march approaching Plevna, in 2016, the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater gave a concert in Palmyra. The solemn event took place half a year after a Russian aircraft had bombed the city.
Appropriation of names: the evil of generalizations
In 2017, the MoMA, one of the world’s most respected museums, opened the exhibition “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde.” The exhibition contained works of more than 50 artists, including Ukrainians Volodymyr and David Burliuk, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Vasil Yermylov, Oleksandra Ekster, Kazymyr Malevych, Georgians Kyrylo Zdanievych, and Solomon Telingater, Latvian Gustav Klutsis (Gustavs Klucis), Pole Vladislav Strzeminski (Władysław Strzemiński) – all under the general label of “Russian avant-garde.”
How is this possible? Technically, the answer is straightforward: in the era of the avant-garde, at the beginning of the 20th century, the native lands of these artists belonged to the Russian Empire and later to the Soviet Union. Most of them studied in Moscow or St. Petersburg due to the lack of art education in their hometowns. But if you think deeper, there are many implied questions. Did all these artists identify themselves as Russians? Did the Russian metropole legally appropriate natives of the territories it conquered? Does modern Russia have the right to appropriate the entire cultural heritage of the Russian Empire and the USSR?
The question of the Russian, Ukrainian or Georgian avant-garde is debatable as the avant-garde itself was an international phenomenon and tried to erase the boundaries between the countries. However, this is not the only example of how Russian culture has benefited from the talents of representatives of conquered peoples. Thus, the icon of Russian art Ilya Repin was born in Chuhuiv near Kharkiv and constantly turned to Ukrainian history in his works. Marc Chagall, who is called an artist of Russian origin, was a Belarusian Jew. Armenian-Ukrainian director Sergei Parajanov, who is abstractly called Soviet, made the iconic Ukrainian film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” shown in 21 countries (unprecedented success in the iron curtain conditions). Rudolf Nureyev, who rocked the world with impressive “Russian” ballet technique, was a Tatar. And Russian classic Sergei Prokofiev would be horrified by the shelling pouring down on his native Ukrainian village of Sontsivka in the Donetsk region.
The list goes on. The last special prize goes to the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, who made a significant contribution to the development of the brand of Russian culture in the West. Productions that captivated the audience with an exotic and mysterious “Russian soul” would have been much poorer without the contribution of Kyivans Vatslav and Bronislava Nijinsky, Serge Lifar, and Georgian dancer Georgiy Balanchivadze, known under the name George Balanchine.
Appropriation of values: cultural looting
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was one of the oldest in Kyiv. Since 1113, it has preserved unique frescoes and mosaics of Kievan Rus times. In 1937, the Soviet authorities demolished the cathedral to build administrative buildings in its place.
Several fragments of the cathedral’s mosaics were saved, and some of them could be seen in Kyiv before the war. However, you would not find one of the greatest masterpieces of St. Michael’s Cathedral: a mosaic depicting Demetrius of Thessaloniki. That piece is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. One day it went there for an exhibition and never returned.
While the world’s largest museums are rethinking the colonial heritage of their collections and returning artifacts taken by force to their homeland, Russia has not even begun analyzing the origin of its museum treasures. This was clearly illustrated by the reaction of the Russian Hermitage to the first days of the war in Ukraine: a photo of Ukrainian embroidery on Instagram. Many people interpreted this as a gesture of support for Ukraine. But, as the Ukrainian cultural journalist Daria Badior has brilliantly demonstrated, this case becomes more ambiguous if you think about how this artifact got into the Russian collection.
It is impossible to ignore one of the most indicative examples of Russian cultural looting in recent years– the case of Scythian gold. The priceless collection of gold objects of the 4th century BC was found on the territory of the Crimean peninsula. In 2014, when the collection was on display in the Netherlands, Russia annexed Crimea – and began to claim the appropriation of valuables. As of 2022, the gold has not yet returned to Ukraine in full. Lawsuits against the occupation authorities of Crimea are ongoing.
Not only artifacts but also entire buildings become victims of Russian appropriation. One of them is the pavilion of the Venice Biennale, one of the most significant art events in the modern world. The elegant building was constructed in 1914 and financed by the famous Ukrainian philanthropist Bohdan Khanenko. Unfortunately, after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Soviet years, the pavilion became the property of Russia, while Ukraine does not yet have a permanent exhibition location at the Biennale.
Despite the expression “culture is beyond politics,” so often heard in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Russian aggression is a tragic product of Russian culture. The idea of the legitimacy of Russian military operations, which most Russians now support, has been engraved in literature, art, cinema, and many other cultural phenomena for centuries. The modern Russian intelligentsia that turns a blind eye to war crimes of the Russian army is part of a tradition that goes back to Pushkin. And finally, a concrete and painful consequence of Russian imperialism is the exploitation of manpower from conquered territories: Kadyrov’s Chechens, Belarusians, residents of the so-called DPR, and LPR on the Ukrainian front.