The plot of a recent Russian road movie What men talk about is simple: four members of a Russian theatre “Quartet I” (two Russians, two Ukrainians) travel to Odessa for a gig by a classic Russian rock group.
This film was released in 2010. Today, after two years of violent conflict, the idea of making this kind of film in 2016 is laughable. Or does it only seem so? What do we — in Ukraine, Russia, Europe — really know about the interaction of these two cultures?
We know that cultural exchange between Ukraine and Russia, whether it’s pop music or independent theatre, has been intensive since 1991, when both countries gained independence. We know that when Crimea was annexed in 2014, several hundred Russian cultural figures publicly came out in support of Putin’s “Ukraine policy”, and a few dozen came out against. We know that, in the aftermath, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has published a list of Russian artists who are banned from entering Ukraine.
We remember the disapproval of Russian viewers at Ukraine’s 2009 Eurovision entry, when the indomitable drag performer Verka Serdyuchka declared “Russia, goodbye!”, and we can see pro-Kremlin mass media’s disapproval at Ukraine’s entry for the competition in 2016: the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala, with her song “1944”.
We cannot allow ourselves to blindly follow the military and political side of the conflict — this would mean that we were ready to entrust its outcome to politicians and soldiers.
On both sides of the frontline, there’s plenty of evidence that these cultures moving apart. Though only the Russian authorities have made repression a part of cultural policy. (The fate of Crimea’s museums or the director of Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian literature spring to mind.)
The opinions of intellectuals and artists, no matter what side they’re on, meant something in the old days — when wars were declared officially. Now, in this stranger age of warfare, when one side pretends not to be fighting the other, culture is a far more complex beast than politics, and can speak about a lot more: the public’s expectations, the directions of intellectuals’ interests; what the new generation (whose voice isn’t represented in the mainstream) reads, what music they listen to; and finally, how effective the propaganda machine really is.
Of course, it’d be naive to assume that our countries’ cultural connections can stop the conflict. Governments, particularly Russia’s, don’t respond well to independent voices, as the cases against Nadiya Savchenko and Oleg Senstov demonstrate. And the majority of cultural figures, however dependent on the state they are, compete not in the market of artistic ideas or even audience demand, but in the market of loyalty.
But nevertheless, the state of cultural interaction between Russia and Ukraine cannot be reduced to servile letters, ministerial circulars, dictates of producers or protest actions.
We cannot allow ourselves to blindly follow the military and political side of the conflict — this would mean that we were ready to entrust its outcome to politicians and soldiers. We cannot talk of the future relationship between two countries and two peoples until we figure out the variety of complex and often unclear connections.
Today, some two years after the start of the conflict, oDR starts a new series dedicated to cultural interaction between Russia and Ukraine in the spring of 2016. Our authors, writing from Kyiv, Moscow, Crimea and Lviv, will tackle literature, cinema, theatre and music.
Kharkiv, Odessa, St Petersburg and other cities are missing (at least for the moment), but we do not claim to present a full picture. We want the cultural connections, obscured during this terrible conflict, to become part of the discussion again.
Check out the first part of this series here.
Standfirst image: Mikhail Kaluzhsky.