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Opinion Two questions to ask before joining the culture war on Russia

A sign in the vodka area of a Pennsylvania Fine Wine and Good Spirits on Feb. 28 store reflects the state's decision to withdraw Russian-made products for sale. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
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Pity the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra.

Earlier this week, the well-regarded assembly of nonprofessional musicians based in Wales announced it was canceling a concert of works by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The reason? A sense that the program was “inappropriate at this time” because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Internet promptly reached for its smelling salts.

Inspired by a piece from BBC Music Magazine — which unhelpfully implied that the long-dead Tchaikovsky was being “canceled” along with contemporary figures, such as Putinist conductor Valery Gergiev — critics denounced the Welsh musicians as everything from “plain racist” to emblematic of “the stupidest and most dangerous moral panic ... ever witnessed.”

It’s a shame these moralists didn’t bother to ask the orchestra to explain its reasoning. If they had, the participants in this tizzy might have realized that the Cardiff Philharmonic is doing exactly what cultural institutions everywhere should: making hard decisions about global events with nuance and grace.

As the orchestra’s director, Martin May, explained to me in an email, the philharmonic weighed several factors in deciding to cancel the concert. One was that “a member of the orchestra has family directly involved in the Ukraine situation.” A second was whether it felt right to play “Marche Slave” and the “1812 Overture” — both celebrations of Russian military prowess — as Russia ravages Ukraine. And the musicians didn’t want to offend Ukrainians by playing Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” symphony, given that the term has come to be associated with efforts to deny Ukraine a distinct national identity.

That list doesn’t make for a snappy headline, but it does demonstrate good sense — a quality that’s been in short supply as people and institutions rush to make gestures in support of Ukraine and in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s war.

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When it comes to fighting this culture war, it’s worth distinguishing between acting for the sake of acting and making a real contribution to the cause of Ukrainian freedom. The international cultural crackdown on Russia would be more effective if people would first pause to ask two simple questions before plunging into the fray or judging someone else’s efforts:

First, does the gesture affect the people and institution it’s intended to target? The governors who tried to get Russian vodka out of state liquor stores and the bar owners emptying bottles relied more on stereotypes than on the state of the booze business. Shunning Stolichnaya vodka, for example, hits Latvian distillers and a Luxembourg-based conglomerate that owns the brand, not Russian industry.

It’s more encouraging to see bars stocking up on Ukrainian beers and liquors and customers turning out to restaurants such as New York City’s Veselka. At minimum, such efforts help Ukraine feel more tangible and specific to Americans who started paying attention to the country only after Russia attacked it. And in the most hopeful scenario, if Ukraine remains independent and if Americans come away from the war appreciating the country’s food and drink, those new enthusiasms could power a future tourism industry or provide a boost to rebuilding efforts.

Second, does a decision distinguish between the Russian government and Russian people who oppose Putin and his invasion? The Ukrainian Film Academy has called for an international boycott of Russian films, with Ukrainian director Nariman Aliev going so far as to say that such an effort “is an attempt to cleanse the world of the propaganda of a terrorist state.”

I sympathize with the anguish of Ukrainian filmmakers who have seen their homes, and in some cases their work, destroyed. But even some filmmakers who accept Russian government funding manage to produce tough, independent movies. It makes more sense to blacklist Russian officials involved with the film industry, as the Cannes and Venice film festivals have done, than deny dissident filmmakers a platform.

Similarly, Netflix was correct to pull out of Russia rather than be forced to carry government television networks. This was a welcome rediscovery of backbone for an industry that all too often appears invertebrate before authoritarian regimes. Braver still would be for Netflix to commit some of the $19 billion it’s projected to spend on content in 2022 to terrific, independent Russian-language projects — even if that content might reach ordinary Russians only by illegal torrents, a kind of samizdat for the streaming era.

A culture war is a long game, and winning it requires more than showboating. Denying Russians a new Pixar movie won’t make them rise up against Putinism. Dumping out a handle of Smirnoff will do more for your liver than for the people of Ukraine. But culture can keep alive the idea that there is more to Russia than Putin, and that Ukraine is worth fighting for.

As for the Cardiff Philharmonic, it’s not giving up on Russian music. “We have no plans to change our summer and autumn programmes,” May wrote, “which contain pieces by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakof.” Thank goodness for that.


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