‘War destroys everything’: Russian culture workers denounce the war in Ukraine

From prominent musicians to museum staff, thousands of art workers are taking a public stand against the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine. New Russian laws mean that speaking out puts their livelihoods, freedom and safety at greater risk.

As the war in Ukraine enters its second week, more than 17,000 workers in the Russian culture sector have signed an open letter calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces and describing the war as “meaningless and pointless”.

“The reason for the so-called“ special military operation ”is a building that was completely erected by representatives of the Russian state. “We are against this war that is taking place in our name,” they wrote.

Prominent Russian figures on the world art scene also denounced the Russian invasion.

On February 25, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Kirill Petrenko described Vladimir Putin’s actions as a “malicious attack on Ukraine”.

“A knife in the back of the entire peaceful world” – Statement by the Berlin Philharmonic and their chief commander Kirill Petrenko on the Russian invasion of Ukraine https://t.co/HvSVqT2LJr

– Berliner Philharmoniker (@BerlinPhil) February 25, 2022 Artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva withdrew from the Venice Biennale with a statement on Instagram: “There is no place for art when civilians die under rocket fire.”

Nearly 20 musicians made anti-war statements to the classic music magazine Fan. “How do I feel now? Pain, destruction and shame,” wrote pianist Polina Ossetinskaya.

Such open opposition to the decisions of the Russian president is rare and dangerous. According to independent monitoring group OVD, more than 8,000 people have been arrested for participating in anti-war protests in Russia as of March 4, nine days after Putin invaded Ukraine.

On March 4, the Russian parliament upped the ante by passing a new law with harsher penalties for public opposition. Russians who are seen as denigrating the armed forces, spreading “false information” or calling for unauthorized public action, can now face a variety of penalties including lengthy prison terms.

“The stakes are high, and the problems they might face shift from losing their job to administrative trial, but also to criminal prosecution, which now involves 15 years in prison in the worst case scenario,” Natalia Prilutskaya, Russia researcher at Amnesty International, told FRANCE 24. and heavy fines.

At the same time, the increasing restrictions on the media in Russia make it unlikely that counter-narratives about opponents of the regime will be able to emerge. Some high-profile opponents have already been the subject of online messages sharing their photo with words such as “traitor” or “enemy” written on them.

“It is not clear who is behind this, it may be only one person or the Telegram channel,” said Prilutskaya. “What’s really worrying is that there are groups in society that support war and we can expect actions to happen when some of these people want to attack those who speak up.”

Most of the 17,000 signatories to the letter are curators or art critics working in the culture sector, and they are not high-profile enough to be the subject of such letters. This does not mean that they are safe. “Ordinary people take a lot of risks, especially those who live in small towns. There are all kinds of risks that they face,” Prilotskaya said. “But nevertheless they found it necessary to talk about this.”

“War destroys everything.” Meanwhile, Western countries are quickly working to remove Russian culture from their tables.

In addition to preventing them from attending international events such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Cannes, Glasgow and Stockholm festivals have also announced a boycott of Russian delegations.

In New York and London, operas and classical music venues have canceled performances of Russian music and ballet. New York’s Metropolitan Opera added that it would not work with performers or institutions that support Putin’s policies.

In the Netherlands, Hermitage Amsterdam, a branch of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, severed ties with the Russian establishment. “War destroys everything. Even 30 years of cooperation,” she said in a statement on March 3.

Prilutskaya said that global rejection of Russian art and culture carries its own dangers. “If this continues, then there is a fear of these people [in Russia] Those who speak out and those who want their voice to be heard will be effectively imprisoned in their own country.”

“And the Russian publicists are also very clever about screwing up what’s going on, so they can say, ‘We’ve been telling you for a long time. The West against Russia as a whole. It is not against Putin, or against any of the oligarchy, it is against Russia.”

Some Russian artists have already found themselves caught between the demands of Western cultural institutions and the Russian authorities.

The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra sacked famed conductor Valery Gergiev on March 1 for refusing to denounce Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Gergiev has known the Russian president for three decades and has a long history of supporting him. He was also dismissed from his position as honorary conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Opera star Anna Netrebko has also lost her engagements in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States due to her ties to Putin. The sopranos celebrated its 50th birthday by singing in the Kremlin, and publicly supported the president’s 2014 election campaign.

She has since said in a Facebook post that she “opposes this war,” but declined to name Putin. She added, “I am not a politician. Forcing artists or any public figure to express their political opinions in public places and denouncing their country is not right.”

However, given her strong ties to Putin, New York’s Metropolitan Opera said it was “hard to imagine a scenario” in which she would ever perform at the venue again.

“One of the arguments is that art and politics should be separate, but not speaking out in this particular situation is about whether you support war and brutal, pointless murder,” Prilotskaya said.

“Some prominent artists have long enjoyed their closeness to the top leadership in Russia. It could be their position, that they are okay with what is going on. [in Ukraine]. Or is it an act of cowardice by people who may be in a better position than many of those 17,000 people who signed the open letter? ”

While the balance of power may be stacked against them, the culture workers who have denounced the war are not alone. Russian medical professionals began their open letter which collected 15,000 signatures by February 28. About 30,000 Russian IT workers and 600 scientists did the same.

In a country of 144 million people, these businesses are still what Prilutskaya calls “little shoots” of resistance that need support to get stronger. But, she added, “there is hope. The larger the anti-war movement, the greater the chance that Russian aggression will at least diminish.”

“And the scale of the protests and the presence of all these messages from different parts of the community is unprecedented.”

France Media Monde

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