Why is it necessary for the World to get rid of the Russian cultural myth?

Cancel greatness – with these headlines the article written by journalist Kateryna Shchotkina appeared on Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, a Ukrainian media outlet. 

The main argument of the article is that the myth of the “great Russian culture” needs to be dispelled and cancelled because it perpetuates the idea of the “greatness” of a culture that constantly produces monsters, which is exemplified by Putin’s regime in Russia. The author argues that culture and sports are not “out of politics,” but rather serve as a tool for the Kremlin to soft-rehabilitate Russia’s image in the eyes of the West. The article says that a new and equally “great Russia” can only emerge when the myth of the greatness of Russian culture is dispelled and a new culture is built on. 

Art: Andriy Yermolenko

After the International Olympic Committee came under fire for admitting athletes from Russia, a counter wave rose in the Western press against boycotts and cancellations. It is interesting that such defenders are not limited to the interests of athletes – very soon any conversation covers cultural figures and even the entire “great Russian culture” in general. Over the past month or two, western university professorships and opera establishments, retired stage stars and current political leaders have supported this opinion. All of them certainly condemn the illegal “Putin’s war” against Ukraine. However, purely according to Turgenev, they categorically refuse to believe that such a culture “was not given to a great people.”

In a word, as we put it, “their Russophobia is still not enough.” No, everything is even sadder: their Russophobia has not yet been fully formulated and realized.

Save Russia

The good news: the current rush to stand up for the “great culture and sports” is not just about saving the careers of individual shot putters or singers. Personal and social need have converged at a single point. The voices of defenders of the “great culture” – the Western and the Russian ones, liberals and putinists, paid agents and useful idiots – merge into a common refrain: we must/will have to preserve Russia.For political, geopolitical, humane, creative, reasons, for planetary security – underline any reason that is closer to you.

Well, at least someone already understands that Russia is facing real danger and is ready to proceed to the bargaining stage. The point from which the majority is ready to start bargaining about “another Russia,” “Russia without Putin” is culture. The “great culture” turns out to be both a cornerstone and, at the same time, a guarantor of the fact that a “good Russia” is in principle possible.

Nothing new for us: culture has always been an important resource of the Kremlin’s policy. In particular, as the main (if necessary, the final) proof of the “greatness of the people.” And this time, obviously, like all the previous ones, culture must play the role of indulgence for the society that nurtured cannibals. Undoubtedly, Putin is a ghoul. But we also have Tchaikovsky…

It is from the “great culture” that a new and equally so-called great Russia will emerge.

But here the defenders of the “great culture” get carried away and either blurt out too much, or don’t agree on something. How will the “new Russia without Putin” differ from all the previous reincarnations? From “new Russia without tsar,” “Russia without bourgeois,” “Russia without Stalin,” “… without Brezhnev,” “… without communism,” “Russia-that-got-up-from-its-knees”? Russia has always been “reviving” – here, unfortunately, there is no arguing. But there is nothing new in the Klyazma swamps: every revival of the “people bearing the great culture” ended up with another ghoul coming to power.

Does this mean that the very concept of “rebirth from a great culture” in this case works somehow wrong? Does this “seed” from which the “great nation” is reborn over and over again contain a deadly disease?

Recommendations for exorcism

No, this is not a call to “destruct culture.” It’s even a little ridiculous to mention. It is impossible to destroy culture (aren’t we the ones to know this?). To be more precise, is possible — but only together with all its carriers. But the “great Russian culture” is not even threatened by this idea, because it does not have, in the strict sense of the word, a specific nation-carrier. It is even impossible to “cancel” it effectively. And this, despite everything, is good news.

Art: Andriy Yermolenko

However, a culture that constantly produces monsters needs some kind of exorcism. It is necessary to “exorcise the devil” from it, i.e., to dispel the myth which this culture is infected and permeated with, the myth that poisons it and turns it into a poison spilled all over the world.

The myth about the “greatness.” About the “special way.” About the very existence of the “great culture of a great people,” where, as in a melting pot, everything is common, everything is one, everything and everyone is equally valuable, and there is no genius without villainy, and even villainy itself, if it turned out to be enough effective and achieved the “high goal.” The myth that “the greatness of a culture is determined by its highest achievements.” The myth that does not allow to separate the virus from the carrier and time and time again, keeping the carrier alive, gives the disease the opportunity to spread and sow death.

How this myth works can be seen precisely in the current controversy about whether it is possible or not to boycott Russian athletes and artists because of the Kremlin’s crimes in Ukraine.

Why exactly culture and sports turned out to be so convenient for the soft rehabilitation of Russia, its return to a decent society? Of course, not because they are “out of politics.” This figure of speech is a polite cliché used instead of “stay away, don’t bother our counting the cash.” It’s a double standard that Russia has long learned to use in its own interests.

Culture and sports in the eyes of a Western person are the sphere of individual achievements. The fact that someone took a high grade or ran faster than others is not an “attainment of the state.” This is the result of the work and talent of a specific person. For a Western viewer or listener, there is no contradiction in reading Gone with the Wind and not rooting for America at the same time. And if in art and sports everyone is for themselves, then do we have the right to prohibit an artist or an athlete from realizing their skill just because they were born “in the wrong place”? If they are not cannibals themselves, but only neighbors of a cannibal?

This is the main talking point of all the defenders of the individual rights of artists and athletes. To a European ear, it sounds quite convincing. After all, art there never “belonged to the people,” the names of athletes were not merged into the “glory of Soviet sports,” which in some mystical way lost reference to a specific personality and became “everyone’s glory.” You see, the three Americans flew to the moon, but not some amorphous entity marked with the word “we.” There were, of course, all kinds of experiments on the collectivization of individual achievements in Europe. But they usually ended quickly and painfully.

Meanwhile, Russia’s internal view of its “great culture” is completely different – it is a collective heritage, a common field of great victories, where everyone becomes the beneficiary of every great achievement. It is exactly involvement in a collective body, created mostly by other people’s hands, nourished by someone else’s blood that constitutes the essence of the myth of the “great culture” that necessarily justifies everything, and of a “great people” that cannot be wrong.

The mythological consciousness of the “great culture” interestingly protects its bearers from the obvious flaws of this model. After all, if the achievements of individual geniuses are common, then the misdeeds of each individual scoundrel shall turn out to be common things. As in the popular joke, here you have to choose one thing. Either celebrate the myth of “joint victories” – and then bear responsibility for all the innocent blood spilled by “victors” and “god-bearers” for various reasons. Or agree that high achievements, as well as heinous crimes, have absolutely defined authors; and let the rest of the “representatives of the population” learn to wash their hands and greet each other when entering the premises – this actually determines the “greatness” of their culture.

How does Gergiev differ from von Karayan?

However, this simple idea will be very difficult to “extend” not only to the masses that “were the first to fly to space.” It is unlikely to be bought it in the West. Here, even those who are ready to accept (at least partially) the idea of decolonization of Russian culture, internally rebel against its demythologization.

It is explained very simply. “Russian culture” is an impeccable product from a marketing point of view. It’s quite exotic, but moderately exotic. Participating in the reproduction of the Russian cultural myth, Western platforms with consistent success sell to the public the unfading “Russian culture,” always seasoned with scandal, mystery, the smell of the smoke of a distant fire or sulfur. The public likes and buys it.

Why not? Wasn’t Herbert von Karajan a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and a favorite of Hitler? But he was never “cancelled,” as we “cancel” his colleague – Putin’s favorite Valery Gergiev.

Why? What is the difference?

This issue worries many, and also provides an opportunity for maneuver and speculation. Indeed, the Nazi past was forgiven von Karajan, he was “rehabilitated” (though not by all) along with all of Germany and German culture. But this happened only after Germany was defeated and Nazism was condemned. The “carrier of a great culture,” the German people, were severely punished (the word “justly” hardly fits into the context here). The cultural myth of Germany, inflated by Nazism, was deconstructed along with Nazism. And only after that it became “decent” to play Wagner and applaud Herbert von Karajan.

“Karaya” (a famous Ukrainian 2nd class pilot of a fighter jet)

The analogy is direct: when Karaya (a Ukrainian military serviceman, 2nd class pilot, Hero of Ukraine) or any of his comrades scratches with a piece of brick on the Kremlin wall “I’m satisfied with the ruins of Spasskaya Tower,” that’s when you can admire Gergiev’s skill, listen to Netrebko, Bashmet, Matsuev, even Petrosyan. If anyone wants to listen to them then. After all, many of them are interesting to the public only as representatives of the Russian cultural myth. Who will they become if (or rather, when) this myth is dispelled?

Dispelling it is not an easy task. But we need to do this and convince the world of this necessity: as long as the myth of the “great culture” is alive, the same ghoul will be endlessly reborn from it. Our decolonization efforts are already bearing fruit. But they may not be enough to overcome the myth to which many have become accustomed and which many  –both globally and even in our country – continue to love.

By the way, you can also look at the new article on The Telegraph that explains the economic issue and whythe West must prepare for the imminent collapse of Putin’s Russia“.

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