Letter: Russia’s Cultural War Against Ukraine – A Montreal Story

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Letter to the Editor by Nadia Demko

Congratulations to Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and the Montreal Ukrainian community for standing up for the oppressed in Ukraine. Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts said it best. “The real victims are in Ukraine, not on our stages.”

Although it may be “inconvenient” for the 20-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev to have his OSM shows cancelled, it does not compare to what Ukrainians are facing right now. What about the 20-year-old Ukrainians fighting in trenches right now to defend their lives and their homes? It is hard for Ukrainians to feel bad for a Russian pianist who can’t play in Montreal at this present time: we think of all the Ukrainians, artists included, who are dying, living in danger, and fleeing their homes. 

We think of the Kyiv ballet dancers who just joined the army to defend their country and at this time, cannot practice their art. We know of musicians, like well-known composer Valentin Silvestrov, who at the age of 84, had to escape from war-zone Kyiv to Berlin, but still found the resolve to compose and play this moving piece (https://www.facebook.com/alekseenok/videos/646196599805321). There’s also pianist Iryna Maniukina who played this Chopin piece, perhaps on her own piano for the last time, before fleeing her home which was savagely destroyed by Russian shelling (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDUdK5SYa7w). We think of all these Ukrainian visual artists, some of whose stories are beautifully curated here (https://lareviewofbooks.org/short-takes/a-suitcase-a-candle-and-a-hammer-ukrainian-artists-face-the-russian-invasion/).

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This war brings us to a point of reflection. Arts and culture have for many years been used to disseminate Russian propaganda, even here in Montreal. You don’t have to go too far back. 

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev and compatriot conductor Valery Gergiev both appeared with the OSM  multiple times between 2011 and 2020. Both had signed Putin’s infamous letter supporting the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Both musicians enjoy open support by the Putin regime including state promotion, awards, positions in government, and the list goes on. Malofeev, by the way, has collaborated with both of them in joint performances.

In December 2019, the Red Army Choir came to Place des Arts. People even approached me saying they were going to attend the concert with a casual, “I love Russian music and thought of you, your family’s from there, right?” You read that correctly. A choir named after the army of a murderous regime that killed millions in the 20th century, among them many Ukrainians, was allowed to tour here, in Montreal, well into the 21st century. And it was even socially appropriate to attend.

In December 2020, Montreal’s Ensemble Vocal Circa Terrae held a concert where they performed music by so-called “jewels of famous Russian composers…such as Bortiansky and Tchaikovsky.” Dmytro Bortniansky (1751-1825) was born in Hlukhiv, Ukraine to parents of Ukrainian origin and was known for utilizing Ukrainian elements in his musical pieces. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) had Ukrainian paternal ancestry, was inspired by his time in Ukraine, and he incorporated Ukrainian melodies into his works, including the Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Unfortunately, this concert is just one example of the pervasiveness of the Russia’s misappropriation of Ukrainian artists. Choeur Classique de Montréal similarly appropriated Bortniansky under their “Splendeurs de la Musique Russe” concert in 2011. Studio de Music Ancienne de Montréal held a “Russia Eternelle” concert, which included pieces by Ukrainian composers Maxim Berezovsky and Mykola Dyletsky to accompany an art exhibit by a Belarusian Jewish painter, Marc Chagall. All just lumped into the “Russian” bucket.

These Montreal examples largely reflect public ignorance of the identity and history of colonized nations such as Ukraine. This theme is all too pervasive in our history: an empire tries to subjugate a nation, its land, and its people, which includes destroying and stealing their cultural identity too. This can be likened to the historical subjugation and cultural silencing of the Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is the responsibility of those on the outside to educate themselves about colonized or formerly colonized nations and to listen when they are trying to speak out. Start by learning about Ukrainian composers and artists such as Vasyl Barvinsky who was imprisoned for expressing Ukrainian culture during the Soviet times; the “Golden three” Ukrainian composers of the 18th century, Artemy Vedel, Maksym Berezovsky and Dmytro Bortniansky; early 20th century composers like Mykola Leontovych who was murdered by a Russian agent, Mykola Lysenko, and Borys Lyatoshynsky; and more contemporary Ukrainian composers, among them Yevhen Stankovych, Svitlana Azarova, Dmytro Klebanov, Myroslav Skoryk and Valentin Silvestrov.

Moreover, when the Ukrainian community in Montreal speaks out, such as calls to cancel Matsuev and Gergiev, it is important to listen and not to turn a blind eye. When Soviet Union’s crimes such as the Ukrainian famine genocide, Holodomor, have been recognized in Canada since 2008 and Quebec since 2010, how are we still venerating Soviet culture by inviting the “Red Army Choir” to perform?

This is of course not only an issue in Montreal. Many songs on Spotify, even those distinctly Ukrainian such as Leontovych’s “Carol of the Bells” are still listed as “Russian” (https://open.spotify.com/track/1bjDLyRzyiU6fCO5PPbaWi). Beyond classical music, Ukrainian writer Mykola Hohol (Russified to Nikolai Gogol), many Ukrainian avant-garde artists, among them David Burliuk and Alexander Archipenko, and even Ukraine’s defining historical figures like Volodymyr the Great and Anne of Kyiv – have all been misappropriated as Russian. There are also countless examples of modern-day Ukrainian artists or performers visiting countries and being mistakenly categorized as Russian – among them Ukrainian electro-folk band Onuka and the National Opera and Ballet of Ukraine (https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/ukraine-s-stolen-history-stolen-culture/). A particularly ironic example is that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s former comedy troup Kvartal 95 being called a “Russian Comedy Show” in reference to scheduled performances in Germany.

Malofeev was supposed to play works by Sergei Prokofiev during his recently cancelled concert in Montreal. Was he going to explain that Prokofiev too had Ukrainian roots and was born in Donetsk, Ukraine – one of the regions that has endured Putin’s war for eight years now? Or was credit once again going to go to Russia, further upholding their propaganda of cultural superiority?

In response to his first cancellation by the Vancouver Recital Society, Malofeev had said that “the truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.” There are multiple issues with this statement. He portrays this war at “out of nowhere event” when there were many warning signs, the most obvious being that Russia’s war in Ukraine had already been ongoing for eight years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014. Russia also has a track record of invading countries or destabilizing its own regions, among them Georgia, Syria, and regions in the North Caucasus: the “could not predict” argument is a weak one. He is also clearly ignorant of the way in which Russian people have largely supported and propped up their dictator. He himself benefited from musical training, publicity, and support from this regime.

What took him so long to condemn this horrific phase of the war that started on February 24th? As far as I can tell, he only vaguely condemned the war once his Vancouver show was cancelled a week after. With the fame and profits that he has collected from the West, comes a great responsibility to be firm in his values. His inappropriate focus on “hatred going in all directions” reinforces his need to be cancelled at this present time.

This war is not a one-man human rights atrocity: there are at least 150,000 Russian soldiers committing genocidal acts right now in Ukraine as well as a nation that largely supports his “special military operation” in Ukraine. World-renowned conductor Dalia Stasevska pointed out in her speech at the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa recently that dictators do not grow in isolation. She reminded us of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s analysis about power belonging to a group, and not to an individual. The onus is on Russians all over the world to reflect on the way that their culture has oppressed their neighbours throughout history.

The present war that Putin started (in 2014) is foremost, a blood-shedding military one. The cultural one that Russia started against Ukraine has been going on for centuries. Suppression of Ukrainian language and culture was the norm in the Russian Empire and in the Soviet Union. Ukrainian writers, artists, musicians have always been silenced and told that their art does not exist. It was either banned or absorbed under the larger “Russian” culture. 

Thus, when people get “uncomfortable” or cite this as “cancel culture” or argue that “music should not be political,” I think it’s important to reflect on the way music and culture has not only disseminated Russian propaganda but has also attempted to erase Ukrainian cultural history. 

It is now 2022. The global community is no longer standing for it. It may have taken a literal, physical war to realize the more abstract, cultural one, but it’s time to call it what it is: Russia is waging a cultural war against Ukraine. It is time to stop enabling the myth of Russian cultural superiority which has been propagated for so long and at the cost of its colonized neighbours such as Ukraine.

I congratulate the musical organizations that have taken a stand during this phase of the war: Wiener Philharmoniker, Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Philharmonics in Munich and Vienna, La Scala in Italy, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Vancouver Recital Society, among others. A special thank you goes to the Orchestre Classique de Montréal, who organized a concert dedicated to Ukraine in early February 2022 prior to the launch of the full-scale war, entitled “Echoes of the Steppes”, featuring Ukrainian-Canadian composers and artists.

Now, in addition to becoming educated about Ukrainian cultural history and listening to Ukrainian representation, I also call on the arts community in Montreal to further advocate against Russian colonialism and aggression in their respective organizations and communities. It is time to organize more concerts, film screenings, festivals, and exhibits showcasing Ukrainian artists and culture, as well as those of other colonized nations. I invite you to contact me should you wish to get involved in helping to organize such events and provide the stage for Ukrainian voices to resonate further.

Nadia Demko is the Cultural Director of the Ukrainian National Federation – Montreal branch. She is also a physician based in Montreal.”


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