Despite how much certain states want to look at Russia pragmatically and search for dialogue opportunities, it continuously proves its inability to come to civilised solutions. In addition, the state-aggressor takes advantage of how its culture and lifestyle can be romanticised in the West, creating the image of “the other Russia”, which allegedly deserves respect, acceptance and help, regardless of aggression. Not trying hard to disguise it, Russia uses culture and art as a weapon in a hybrid war, as a tool to achieve its interests. In this context, Russian artists and their works cease being just artists and artworks and have to be considered by other states in terms of their national security.
However, even in the midst of the full-scale war and despite the emerging evidence of numerous war crimes against Ukrainians, representatives of the occupier state still get invited as special guests to international events, honoured with human rights awards on a par with Ukrainians, and, apparently, act as a mouthpiece for defending of other “ordinary Russians” from “awful sanctions”. In this material, we consider several prime examples of such invitations and explain why the culture of the aggressor state should not be tolerated.
In the case of Russia, the – cancel culture, i.e refusal to support a person, company, brand, etc. due to unacceptable behaviour, serves as a tool against imperialism and armed aggression. Russia itself does not disguise this, recognising that the Russian language and culture are inseparable components of the “Russian world” and reliable tools for its implementation. On September 5, Putin signed a decree approving the “Concept of Russian humanitarian policy abroad”. According to this concept, the Russian language has always been an important symbol of Russia, and it is the Russian “historical experience”, “rich cultural heritage”, and “spiritual potential” that have made Russia an important player on the international stage. The document is completely ridiculous. Russia is postulated as a unique state that does not interfere in the affairs of other states, and supports compatriots living abroad. Gradually, Russia will extend its “healing” influence over the countries of the East. Georgia and Moldova are indirectly mentioned in the opus. Ukraine is not mentioned, however, even without this decree, Ukrainians know very well what the “Russian world” entails.
Since the beginning of the full-scale war with Russia, Ukraine and the civilised world have managed to block many important aspects of the state-aggressor’s cultural influence. Thus, at the beginning of March, the Ukrainian Book Institute wrote an open letter with a call to stop the distribution of books by Russian authors, to cancel the participation of the Russian stand in all international book exhibitions and literary festivals, to stop providing grants for translations of books by contemporary Russian authors. Russia’s representatives were not invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair, or to the Book Fair in Bologna. In September, it was announced that in the conditions of the full-scale war, the Lviv BookForum International Literary Festival decided to change its format, and to live stream the event to the entire world (the event took place in October 2022). The main task of BookForum 2022 is to raise at the international level the issue of holding Russian propagandists accountable on an equal footing with war criminals and to support the idea of setting up an international tribunal for the prosecution of the instigators and perpetrators of the largest war in Europe since the Second World War.
In May 2022, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a law prohibiting the import and distribution of books from Russia and Belarus. The music industry of the aggressor state has been cold-shouldered as well when Russia got excluded from Eurovision 2022. In addition, a number of European countries cleared their philharmonic repertoires from concert programmes that included Tchaikovsky’s and Stravinsky’s works. Similar changes took place in the realm of cinema. All Russian-made films were removed from this year’s European Film Awards. Noticeable changes also occurred in the visual arts. Thus, this year not a single Russian piece was presented at the Venice Biennale. Hermitage Amsterdam (a branch museum of the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg) has cut off its ties with Russia and now exhibits only Dutch artists. Numerous exhibitions, festivals, organisations, publishing houses, and cultural initiatives continue their total boycott of Russia, because it is the cultural front that Russians use to promote their propaganda narratives.
While Ukrainians, as direct victims of Russian aggression, for the most part understand the radical opposition to the Russian cultural and socio-political space, for some states the issue of the connection between culture and politics is still ambivalent. What’s more, even individual Ukrainian media platforms are still looking for «good Russians» to refute the thesis about the imperialist consciousness of Russians.
Currently, Ukrainians are fighting on multiple fronts – military, political, economic, and, of course, cultural. Russians claim as “their own” the entire space where people read Tolstoy in the original and speak Russian. Meanwhile, in their own state they are limiting the rights of national communities (a striking example is that most of the invaders who are dying in the war in Ukraine, come from Buryatia, Tyva, North Ossetia, and other territories far from Moscow). They seek to mono-ethnicize the nation, hindering the development of the colonised countries’ cultures. These days Ukrainians are trying to permanently get rid of this influence and prove by their bitter example that the presence of Russian discourse is a threat to national security.
Cannes Festival and Russian “dissidents”
The Cannes Film Festival, held in mid-May 2022, i.e. in the third month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was not without scandals surrounding the participation of Russian directors. On the one hand, the president of Ukraine spoke online at the festival, the Ukrainian theme became central in the speeches of film artists, and the director Michel Hazanavicius changed the title of his film “Z” to “Final cut” to avoid associations with the symbol of Russian aggression.
film “Z”French remake of the Japanese zombie comedy film “One Cut of the Dead” (2017)
On the other hand, even before the beginning of the cultural event, filmmakers discussed the organisers’ controversial stance on the participation of the Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov with his film “Tchaikovsky’s Wife”. According to the organisers of the Cannes Film Festival, Serebrennikov belongs to Russian dissident artists, fighting the Putin regime (mainly because the director was accused of embezzling state subsidies and given a suspended sentence). The Cannes Festival recognises as guilty of war only those Russians who directly bomb Ukraine (we remind you that as of September 2022, the same 70% of Russia’s population support the war in Ukraine, as it was at the beginning of the full-scale invasion). And although there were no official Russian delegations in Cannes, Serebrennikov’s participation even at the preparation stage discredited the Festival’s organisers in the eyes of the conscious world community.
The director is in close contact with Vladislav Surkov, the Russian billionaire, writer and one of Putin’s main accomplices. It was Surkov who created the United Russia party and the concept of the “Russian world”, and also he established close contact not only with the Russian president, but also with Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Putin head of the Chechen Republic. During the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, Surkov secretly travelled to Ukraine to meet with the fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych. Since 2013 he had been responsible for promoting the interests of Russia in Ukraine, and in the spring of 2022, he may have been arrested due to the failure of Putin’s “special operation”. Surkov’s stance did not prevent the “dissident” Serebrennikov from staging a play based on one of his works in Moscow’s Oleg Tabakov Theater in 2011. By the way, the facade of this theater is now “decorated” with the letter Z, the main symbol of public support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It was to these facts that Viktoria Gulenko, the representative of the Ukrainian Embassy in France, appealed when she took part in the discussion about the cancellation of Russian culture “Cinema as an Instrument of Russian Propaganda and War” at the Cannes Film Market, where the dehumanisation and distortion of the image of Ukrainians in Russian-made films was discussed. Viktoria Gulenko expanded the boundaries of the discussion, emphasising the need for a complete boycott of Russia at all important public events.
Instead, at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Serebrennikov called on the world to refrain from boycotting Russian culture, naming this process “unbearable”. Besides, the “dissident” advocated for the cancellation of the sanctions against Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch, and emphasised the need to help Russian families who also suffered (!) from the war.
Why are the Cannes Film Festival and other cultural events of such importance during the war? It is public events of this scale that shape public opinion and broadcast important social messages. Like other forms of art, cinema takes on the role of a convenient propaganda tool. Adopting the experience of the Soviet Union, Russia uses cinematography to promote its imperial rhetoric. To understand this, it is enough to watch several Russian-made films in which Ukrainian characters are present (although we do not advise wasting time on this).
Aleksei Balabanov’s cult film “Brother 2” (“Brat 2” in Russian) for Russians, in which Danila Bagrov, the gangster hero of the 1990s, finds himself in the United States, is full of anti-Ukrainian messages. Its Ukrainophobia begins with addressing Ukrainians with an ethnic slur “khohkly” (derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians) and ends with the line “Bitches, you’ll answer me for Sevastopol!” (a hint of Crimea belonging to Russia). In “historical” films, the image of a Ukrainian is not only provincialised but also immediately labelled with treason. For example, “Liquidation”, the film about the struggle of the Soviet authorities with gangs in Odesa, depicts Ukrainians as Nazi stooges. In “The Match”, where Kyiv football players and Luftwaffe anti-aircraft fighters play against each other, all the positive characters speak Russian, while the Ukrainian-speaking protagonists are traitors. The choice of the main actors confirms the propaganda mission of Russian cinema.. Thus, “Liquidation” star Mikhail Porechenkov is an ardent Ukrainophobe who travelled to the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, where he filmed himself shooting Ukrainian soldiers. Sergey Bezrukov, who played in “The Match”, publicly supported Russia’s war against Ukraine and even performed a play for children from the occupied Ukrainian territories. And these are just a few of the many illustrations of how Russia uses its film production to demonise other nations.
LuftwaffeThe Nazi German Air Force
In addition to expressing a political standpoint, Cannes is also a platform where the premieres of long-awaited films take place, and therefore, the works of the “biggest players” are purchased by distributors for a lot of money. Every year, directors present their films at the Cannes Film Market in order to secure their financing or to sell already finished projects. Ukrainian cinematographers call for an end to the distribution of any Russian film production, because the profits of Russian directors, distributors and cinemas actually mean financing of the Russian army, which commits crimes against the civilian population of Ukraine.
Russians were not invited to the Venice Film Festival either. During the opening ceremony on August 31, 2022 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech, in which he called Russians murderers and terrorists, and called on the world not to forget about the war and not to put up with it. Although the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky and his wife, Julia Vysotskaya, arrived in Venice, it was only to say goodbye to the festival after many years of cooperation.
International awards to Russian propagandists
Another case aimed at showing the whole world that brave and oppositional to the regime Russians existed involved Marina Ovsyannikova, now a former employee of Channel One Russia. During a broadcast of the news programme Vremya in early March 2022, Ovsyannikova stood behind the back of a presenter and held a poster on which was written (in Russian) “No war! Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. You are being lied to here.” A fragment of the broadcast immediately spread across the network. Before this allegedly anti-propaganda action, Ovsyannikova recorded a video message in which she called on Russians and Ukrainians to reconcile, emphasising that her father is Ukrainian and her mother is Russian. According to the journalist, the culprit of the “fratricidal war” is solely Putin, who represents Russia as an aggressor country in the eyes of the world.
Rhetoric about “fraternal nations” that have never been at war is completely propagandistic and contradicts the historical context. Using Fake fraternity, Russia attempts to justify its long-standing claims to the territories that came under its colonial influence. Russians justify cultural appropriation, appropriation of historical legacy, famous artists, and even inventions of other nations, in particular Ukrainian, by the alleged common origin and by the shared cultural space.
Ovsyannikova’s pacifist action was aimed at “whitening” Russians’ reputation in the eyes of the world community. Further actions of the Russian propagandist indicated that the anti-regime performance had been artificially planned in advance. Soon after, Ovsyannikova called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia in one of her posts, yet again appealing to the innocence of “ordinary Russians”.
The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security of Ukraine emphasised that Ovsyannikova’s propaganda theses are actively used in Russia’s information and psychological operations to “smooth things over” in the issue of sanctions. In addition to the myth of “fraternal nations”, the propagandist promotes another narrative about the existence of the opposition in Russia. We will remind you that the oppositional rhetoric of Russian “dissidents” ends at the moment when it comes to Ukraine. The most famous Russian “fighter for justice”, Alexei Navalny, who became a symbol of the fight against Putin’s regime, confirmed this thesis, saying that the occupied Crimea is not “a ham sandwich or something that you can take and give back”.
Ovsyannikova’s stunt caused a planned public outcry, and soon after the former employee of the propagandistic Channel One was nominated for the “Media Freedom Award” from Weimer Media Group together with the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the leader of the Belarusian opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Organisers thought it was a good idea to grant the award confirming commitment to the ideas of freedom and democracy, to the representatives of three neighbouring states, since it would demonstrate the readiness for political dialogue to end the war. However, the Ukrainian public was outraged by the decision to present the German media award to a person who has long been a cog in the powerful propaganda machine of Russia. In the end, the organisers cancelled their previous decision giving the award only to Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Nevertheless, Ovsyannikova received the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum 2022, which once again confirms the effectiveness of Russian propaganda mechanisms.
Ovsyannikova even planned to come to Ukraine and hold a press conference at the Interfax-Ukraine news agency, but the event was cancelled due to the outrage of Ukrainians. On June 1, 2022, the Russian TV journalist was added to the Ukrainian database “Myrotvorets”, adding to the list of persons “whose actions have signs of crimes against the national security of Ukraine, peace, human security, and international law”.
Despite the obvious evidence of propaganda in the “pacifist” narratives of the Russian media, the mechanism of “pooling the wool over people’s eye” is still working to justify Russia’s war crimes. Ovsyannikova’s action, like all other public performances of the so-called oppositionists, shifts attention from urgent issues, such as the death of tens of thousands of Ukrainians, to whitewashing Russia’s reputation in the eyes of the world. In this way, Russia strengthens the means of hybrid war’s pressure, by actively using disinformation and manipulations.
War as a tool for self-promotion
Russian “dissident” Maxim Kats successfully mastered the tools of using global media space for promoting messages about “the other Russia”. He is a Russian politician, public activist, and the owner of a YouTube channel on historical and socio-political themes with over 1.4 million subscribers.
For several years in a row, Katz has been developing the thesis of a “common language” that “unites” “fraternal nations” in his social networks. During the protests in Belarus in 2020, Belarusians, as well as Ukrainians, did not like Katz’ thesis about a shared language environment. Belarusian blogger Misha Tsygankov, better known on Twitter as Gypsynkov, spoke strongly against Katz’ tweet, in which the latter emphasises the dominance of the Russian language in neighbouring countries as a historically justified fact:
Protests in BelarusA wave of demonstrations in Belarus against the Lukashenko regime in 2020-2021.
— Volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, asteroids from outer space — these things happened historically. The purposeful policy of one nation and state to destroy others is not something that happened historically. These are people, actions, and guilt that many do not want to forgive and forget, especially now.
Katz skilfully uses the geopolitical situation to amplify his audience: when Lukashenko repressed protesters in Belarus, the blogger switched to Russian affairs, and with the beginning of the full-scale war of Russia against Ukraine, in his numerous videos Katz analyses the reasons for the invasion, its agenda and consequences, giving recommendations to Russians on how to avoid participating in the war.
However, along with videos that have loud headlines such as “Ukraine is not Russia”, “When will Putinism end?”, “Zelenskyy. The President of the Future” that are seemingly oppositional to the Russian authoritarian regime, his channel is full of exculpatory videos that admit the guilt of only one person – Putin.
For example, in the episode “Putin destroys Russia. Don’t be a part of it.” Katz equates life in Russia with that in Ukraine, saying that even some Russian films were shot in Ukraine, because we have “same panel buildings, same shopping centres, people wearing the same clothes.” While comparing the daily life of residents of post-Soviet countries may be excused as a classic Russian argument, Katz’s further reflections are not so oppositional. Allegedly, Putin himself rather than the Russian army destroys Kharkiv or Mariupol because they are the most similar to the Russian world. Moreover, Katz points out the similarities of cultures that “are almost indistinguishable” from each other. But the apogee of cynicism in this video was the remark of Katz that the destruction of Mariupol for every Russian citizen who was raised in an industrial city is actually the destruction of their own home. The Russian public figure, who is a representative of oppositional opinions in the eyes of many people, blurs the borders between Russia and Ukraine without much veiling. He calls Ukrainian cities that were exposed to a forced Russification for many years “home for Russians as well”.
Manipulative messages about “common culture and history”, “one language” and “Putin’s sole guilt” run through all of Katz’ videos. However, unfortunately, the Russian propagandist is not limited to the YouTube space, but sneaks into the airwaves of the Ukrainian media. Thus, in a conversation with the Ukrainian TV channel ICTV, Katz talked about the innocence of Russians and their inability to fight against the authoritarian government. According to the politician, only those Russians who directly take up arms or give military orders should be held accountable for crimes against Ukrainians, all the others are victims of the regime, and apperently they are subject to unjustified pressure from Ukrainians.
Sometimes this narrative of Katz, aimed at cultivating the myth about “good Russians”, gets out of his control, transforming into accusations of Ukrainians. According to Katz it appears that Ukrainians demotivate the conscious part of the Russian population, those who are against the war and capable of counteraction. According to Katz, Ukrainians should take on the mission of encouraging Russians to rallies and protests. As a typical Russian propagandist, Katz calls on the victim to enter into a dialogue with the executioner and the coloniser. Ukrainian public activist Serhii Sternenko comments on the speeches of the “oppositionist”, saying that the latter recognises the shame and the bloodshed of this war, but puts the blame for war crimes on Ukraine.
The news from Channel 24 about the planned stream with Katz, which was supposed to take place on May 26, caused a great stir. The stream was cancelled due to the outrage from Ukrainian viewers. Soon after, the channel reported that the conversation with the Russian figure was to debunk the myth of the existence of “good Russians” and demonstrate the chauvinistic views of the so-called Russian liberals. Channel 24 presenter Oleksiy Pechiy, who was supposed to have a conversation with Katz, noted:
— During this stream that was supposed to take place, my goal was to bring Maxim Katz to the same chauvinistic theses, which he quite successfully disguises under the image of a so-called intellectual. To remind him that his model of the “good Russian world” is the result of the murder of the Ukrainian elite, which we know as the “Executed Renaissance” (remark: the term used to describe the generation of Ukrainian poets, writers, and artists who were persecuted, denied work, imprisoned and shot during the Great Terror).
After the popular Ukrainian film reviewer Vitaliy Hordienko made a video debunking Katz’ pro-Ukrainian views and giving examples of political manipulation in his YouTube videos, Katz challenged Hordienko to a debate. In response, Vitaliy Hordienko published another video in which he pointed out that Ukrainians will have no debates with Russians until the withdrawal of troops from the territory of Ukraine.
Does it make sense to reconcile the former metropole with the state that was under its colonialist oppression for a long time? The fake reconciliation of victim and executioner devalues the scale of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is a genocide of Ukrainians. Russian culture in the hands of its authoritarian regime is a tool of propaganda and information manipulation. The imperialist model of thinking, firmly rooted in the minds of Russians who were raised on Russian textbooks, books and films, comes to light even in the rhetoric of those Russian figures who take responsibility for calling themselves oppositionists. Historical myths about “common culture”, “one language”, “brotherhood of peoples” have long been transformed into clichés, helping “good Russians” to whitewash their reputation. Currently, Russian media personalities have adopted the thesis of Putin’s individual guilt before the people of Ukraine, removing responsibility from themselves. By inviting Russians to cultural events of an international scale, nominating them for awards that affirm the struggle for freedom and democracy, by continuing to tolerate them in the cultural space, the world shifts the focus from real crimes against humanity to justifying the representatives of the state that commits them.
These days it is important for Ukrainians to focus on supporting their own country, which suffers from enemy attacks every day. In the conditions of war, the occupiers should be opposed at all levels, including the cultural one. Today, we have a chance to assert our own identity and clean up our cultural space from the imperialist ambitions of Russia. While fighting on the military, diplomatic, economic, and psychological levels, it is worth remembering that the cancellation of Russian culture is another important step towards victory.
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