Why Russian literature shouldn’t be cancelled

Russians must mobilise their own culture against Putin

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

Vladimir Putin makes no secret of his love for Russian culture, and Russian literature in particular – a body of work whose achievements, Dostoyevsky once claimed, justifies the existence of the entire Russian people. But if that same oeuvre now inspires a man instigating unprovoked war, doesn’t that raise urgent questions about its contemporary validity?

For some, these concerns are best expressed via cancellation. In Wales, the Cardiff Philharmonic recently pulled the plug on performances of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Marche Slave and Second Symphony, the ‘Little Russian’ (an old and patronising name for Ukraine). In Ireland, Trinity and University College orchestras have excised all Russian music from their repertoire, while in London the Royal Opera House has eliminated the Bolshoi’s summer season.

In Europe, Polish, Czech and Swiss theatres have withdrawn performances of operas by Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, alongside cancellations of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works in Italy and Croatia. Classical musicians like Alexander Malofeev and Anastasia Kobekina have had performances cut in Canada and Switzerland despite public denunciations of Putin’s war. Regarding Russian authors, what of Chekhov? Cancelled in Chile. Dostoyevsky? Invalidated in Italy. And Tolstoy? Liquidated in Los Gatos, CA, where Netflix has scrapped Anna K, a planned adaptation of Anna Karenina.

On a slightly less exalted plane, Russia has been excluded from the Eurovision Song Contest, while bartenders across the globe have filmed themselves pouring Russian vodka down the drain. Simultaneously, entertainment giants like Warner Bros and Sony have pulled cinema screenings and games releases in Russia, while tech platforms including Spotify have shut down services across Putin’s domain, raising a new, electronic Iron Curtain across old borders. An array of sporting exclusions has also occurred, ranging from Wimbledon’s controversial ban on Russian and Belarusian players to Russia’s loss of the Champions League men’s final and Formula 1’s Russian Grand Prix. Together with growing reports of undiscriminating social aggression towards expat Russians, it seems clear that some degree of Russophobia has found a foothold in western democracies.

This is not to claim – with Putin – that the West has set out en masse to cancel Russia and Russians, although such reactions may well increase in proportion to the length and hideousness of the conflict in Ukraine. For now, cancellers remain in the minority, no matter what the posters say on Moscow’s Novinsky Boulevard. Neither have all cancellations been undertaken on a simplistic, knee-jerk basis. Cancellation might reasonably occur, for instance, based on principled arguments about Russian culture itself.

Take Russian literature, for example, which – like most national literatures – undeniably displays some deeply troubling elements. There is the pan–Slavism, martial enthusiasm, and Russian exceptionalism evident in Dostoyevsky’s own works, the Pushkin poems written in praise of tsarist Polish repressions, or, more recently, the bizarre and unsettling utopia/dystopia laid out by Mikhail Yuriev in The Third Empire: Russia as it Ought to Be (2006), which some claim inspires Putin’s current military campaign. (Putin knew Yuriev, and the novel has been described as ‘the Kremlin’s favourite book’.)

More widely, there is a prominent and recurring strain within Russian literature that inculcates sympathy for perpetrators of crimes rather than their victims. This is exemplified by a tendency within Dostoyevsky to attend to feelings rather than reasoning, and even by Tolstoy’s statement, in the title of a late, incomplete short story, that there are ‘no guilty people in the world’. Almost the whole of Russian literature, wrote D.H. Lawrence, consists in ‘the phenomenal coruscations of the souls of quite commonplace people’. But what happens when those commonplace people are conscript soldiers raping and murdering their way through Ukrainian villages? For Nina Khrushcheva, Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Russians are ‘used to living in fiction rather than reality’. But if this is the kind of fiction they live in, maybe cancelling it isn’t just rationally defensible, but ethically necessary, too.

We could jettison Mikhail Yuriev’s work, which glowingly describes ‘Vladimir II the Restorer’ as instigating a new age of Russian hegemony, without much loss. But Russian culture boasts many vital and deeply humane qualities alongside its disquieting elements. Dostoyevsky may have said that ‘war rejuvenates men’, but he was also one of literature’s greatest opponents of ideological fervour and its frequently murderous consequences. As one of the characters in his novel Demons states: ‘From unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.’

Tolstoy, for his part, infused his works with spiritual pacifism and rustic communitarianism, and in Anna Kareninacreated Konstantin Levin, a deathless archetype of cross-class empathy and a fierce critic of Russian military adventuring. Written after the bloody upheavals of revolution, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem presents us with a portrait of life (or rather death) under Stalin’s regime, a harrowing yet salutary reminder of the suffering engendered by absolutism. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, undermined all forms of totalitarianism with his claim that the divide between good and evil runs not through states or classes but ‘right through every human heart’. And so on down the years, in an almost unrivalled body of work that both daunts and inspires in equal measure. It is no accident that sales of Russian classics soared in Europe following the invasion.

In the end, though, it is the Russian people themselves, and not western armchair warriors, who must mobilise their culture and language and send it into battle for humane ends. Perhaps more than any other nation, Russia lives in the shadows cast by its artists and can always turn to their great – if flawed – humanity to find inspiration for kindlier forms of rule. To support progress, Russians must engage with their own art – but so should the West in its support, despite (and indeed because of) Putin’s recklessness.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments