Image: KCMD, 2022
December 20, 2022
ON THE ROLE OF CULTURE IN TIMES OF WAR
Statement by Kyiv Contemporary Music Days
We at KCMD believe that culture can make a change. We share this belief with many cultural actors in Ukraine who actively participated in the Revolution of Dignity and have since proved more than once that cultural initiatives can indeed be a powerful transformative force in society.
Culture, the way we see it, is inherently political. It is true in peaceful times, but during a war against our country, we find the attempts to present culture as a neutral ground outside of politics short-sighted at best, and immoral at worst. That is why we believe it necessary to set a few facts straight:
The Russian Federation started an unprovoked war against Ukraine in 2014 by illegally occupying Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, all of which remain sovereign Ukrainian territories according to international law.
Emboldened by a lack of strong international reaction to its aggression, the Russian Federation attacked Ukraine again on February 24, 2022, with the intention to occupy the whole country and eliminate its sovereignty.
The Russian Federation was found responsible for inciting genocide and perpetrating atrocities that showed an intent to destroy the Ukrainian people by multiple independent international experts.
Culture is an essential part of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russian troops target not only vital infrastructure in Ukraine: since February 24, 2022, they have destroyed or heavily damaged over 500 objects of cultural heritage in Ukraine—museums, universities, theaters, churches, schools, libraries, cultural centers. Teachers are being sent from Russia to the occupied territories to teach children a version of history in which Ukraine and Ukrainian culture does not exist. Speaking the Ukrainian language under Russian occupation has become highly dangerous.
Horrendous as it is, this situation is not new for Ukrainians. Subjected to Russian rule for almost three hundred years, Ukraine was treated as a colony, its culture often appropriated by the metropolitan centers in Saint Petersburg and Moscow and labeled as Russian. Russia has been systematically repressing Ukrainian intelligentsia since at least the 19th century. Later, in Soviet times, Moscow led several waves of devastating purges, killing and imprisoning thousands of Ukrainian artists, writers, thinkers, and clergy, the last of which occurred as late as the 1980s.
Today, Russia is using culture as a weapon. In occupied cities of Ukraine, musicians are forced to play Russian music so that Ukrainian music stays silent. In the meantime, that same Russian music continues to be performed at the best venues around the world. The international prestige of Russian culture, built upon a history of imperialism and exploitation of other cultures, is being actively used by the Kremlin to entice the Western elites into thinking that events in Ukraine are not all that clear-cut.
The power of culture reinforced by a century-old tradition is weaponized by Moscow to maintain Russia’s reputation as a world power that has the right to claim other nations’ sovereign territories. At the same time, countless events are being organized across the globe promoting, wittingly or not, the idea that the war in Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s personal responsibility and somehow an aberration in an otherwise peaceful history of Russia’s coexistence with its neighbors. Not only are both these stances profoundly false—right now they are enabling genocide. And yet these ideas are being voiced by many people of culture in the West.
We at KCMD find this unacceptable. All musicians that publicly identify as Russian are currently instrumentalized by Russia in its hybrid warfare, whether they want it or not. While the Russian army, including the mobilized civilians with no military background, continues to kill Ukrainians, we consider cooperation with any Russian professional a security issue. For the same reason, we condemn any attempts, no matter how well-intentioned, by intellectuals and cultural professionals in the West to start a dialogue between Ukrainians and Russians, aimed at reconciling them through culture. Such dialogue is impossible unless Russians have acknowledged their own imperialism towards formerly colonized peoples, and it is certainly premature and insensitive while the war continues.
That’s why until Russian troops have completely withdrawn from Ukraine and an international tribunal has held Russia accountable for its war crimes, we at KCMD
refrain from cooperating with or endorsing any Russian musicians, composers, and other music professionals regardless of their political views;
call on music professionals around the world to put on hold any engagement with Russian culture, including performing the music of Russian composers, and instead to provide more opportunities and visibility to Ukrainian as well as many other cultures that have suffered from Russian dominance for centuries and are vitally endangered right now;
invite our colleagues in the West to apply the same decolonial optics to Russian culture that they have been applying to the rest of the Western canon.
Culture is not neutral. As long as Russian culture remains a warfare tool, we will do everything in our power to disarm it.
Culture has power. By discovering Ukrainian culture, enhancing Ukrainian voices, choosing to include Ukrainian music in your program, and collaborating with Ukrainian music professionals, you empower Ukraine and help save its intangible cultural heritage that belongs to the world.
Kyiv Contemporary Music Days
December 20, 2022
nurturing new music
communities in Ukraine
and the world