Culture Wars: Can artists win? – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press   

Why do we now say Kyiv instead of Kiev? It’s because Kyiv is the Ukrainian pronunciation and Russia’s invasion is a culture war.  Their disputes are old-as-dirt and Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev tried to enable a Ukrainian revival with the transfer of Crimea from Russia. But, Soviet repression went beyond land and sovereignty.

With the USSR dissolution, Ukraine established a new government with its own national anthem in Ukrainian, not Russian. It’s no accident that Putin’s treaty demands include protection for the Russian language. It may seem trivial, but imagine if England suddenly tried to re-establish British control over America and insisted that we revert to British English. If England were like Putin, you might go to jail if you refused to spell “color” as “colour”, the original, British version. Or what about our patriotic song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”? That melody was originally an unofficial national anthem of England. We wouldn’t tolerate going back to its original title: “God Save the Queen”. We’d fight a new War of Independence.

Language counts! Putin has attempted a Russian cultural homogeneity by reinforcing the Soviet-era stereotype that Ukrainian is the “language of peasants”. Combatting Putin’s attempt at cultural homogeneity, Ukraine’s government mandated that all print media outlets must publish a Ukrainian-language version. Given that language and music are closely intertwined, Ukraine mandated that 35% of radio music must be performed in Ukrainian. 

Olga Smirnova of Russia’s famous Bolshoi Ballet, defected and joined the Dutch National Ballet. Her words were memorable: “… I never thought I would be ashamed of Russia, I have always been proud of talented Russian people, of our cultural and athletic achievements. But now I feel that a line has been drawn… We may not be at the epicentre of the military conflict, but we cannot remain indifferent to this global catastrophe.”

The impact of celebrity artists has led international competitions to protest against Putin by banning Russian artists. Last year, the annual songwriting contest of Eurovision, awarded 5th place to the first Eurovision performance sung entirely in Ukrainian. Now, Eurovision has banned Russia from competing in this year’s contest.

Another famous Russian dancer who defected, Mikhail Baryshnikov, objects to international competitions banning Russian artists and athletes. Why should they bear the burden of this war? I’m on the fence with that, but totally agree with Baryshnikov’s comparison of the current status of Russia to that of the time of Joseph Stalin. “… In simple terms, Russia is already back in Stalin’s time,” he said. “The arts are collateral damage and it’s impossible to speculate how that will play out.”

One member of the Russian art collective told the Art Newspaper that the Russian government has made it nearly impossible to protest “what is going on.” Meanwhile, Russian bombs are hitting Ukrainian art schools, theaters, and historic sites. 

Imagine how we’d feel if a military invasion targeted the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, the Hunter Museum or Rock City? Or maybe the World Trade Center in New York City. Oh, wait. That actually did get bombed on 9/11. And musicians went into high gear to express what so many of us could not: Eminem, Bo Diddley, Fleetwood Mac, Beastie Boys, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen.

Artists shape us, bringing the present and the past to life for future generations. We must support their expression of fear, pain and disgust, but also of determination and hope. Be inspired by Ukrainians and Russians performing music together on Youtube. Don’t let Putin succeed in suppressing them. And maybe we’ll learn something about culture, art and censorship in the process. 

Editor-in-Chief

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