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Should Russian Art Get Cancelled?


What should be done with Russian art?

According to Simon Morrison in a recent The Washington Post article, Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has prompted a huge global push to disavow all things Russian:

Music providers like Sony are suspending their Russian operations. … The Royal Opera House in London scrapped a summer season featuring the Bolshoi Ballet. … The Cardiff Philharmonic in Wales pulled the 19th-century ... composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Some of these measures are certainly warranted. For example, composer Valery Gergiev is an outspoken supporter of Putin, played victory concerts in Ossetia and Syria for Putin, and in 2014 publicly supported the occupation of Crimea. He was fired from his position as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic.

Other situations are less clear. As Morrison writes,

The Montreal Symphony Orchestra just postponed three shows by 20-year-old pianist Alexander Malofeev, despite the fact that he has stated publicly, “Every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.”

An unnerving number of Russians see nothing wrong with this rapacious war against their neighbor. Others have been taken in by Putin’s campaign of misinformation about Ukraine and its leaders. Others, however, have done nothing wrong. Some are even leading the internal resistance. As with economic sanctions, we must think carefully about how—or whether—everyday Russians should be punished for the sins of their government. War often makes such extreme measures necessary, but they should never be done thoughtlessly.

At the same time, canceling Russian artists is one thing: Canceling Russian art is another. Over years of its existence, the country has produced some of the greatest composers, painters, and authors of all time—not to mention dissidents, prophets, and counter-revolutionaries.

Leo Tolstoy is a perfect example. A seasoned military veteran who became a devout Christian and pacifist, his work Sevastopol Sketches vividly describes the horror of war in an age prone to glamorize it. Rather than elevate a character or cause, Tolstoy closes with one of his most famous lines: “The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty … is the truth.”

In War and Peace, Tolstoy elaborates on the idea of “greatness.” “When it is impossible to stretch the very elastic threads of historical ratiocination any farther,” he argues,

when actions are clearly contrary to all that humanity calls right or even just, the historians produce a saving conception of greatness… “Greatness,” it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong.

Deeply convicted by Christ’s teachings, Tolstoy reflected, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.”

The fact that Tolstoy’s works even survived—despite decades of Soviet censorship—is an act of God. Tolstoy’s Christian themes were overt, and his contributions both to and from Russian culture undeniable. Even today, “Russian school children are introduced to their country’s literary canon as early as the fifth grade,” writes journalist Tim Brinkhof. Even Putin has listed Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy among his favorite authors.

That hypocrisy is also an open door. Russia’s great artists have served as a kind of national conscience, a reminder of the immutable, God-given truths stamped on the heart of every person.

In the words of The Economist,

Shunning the country’s back catalogue means giving up a guide to the darkness, and out of it. Cancel Dostoyevsky … and you miss peerless insights into nihilism and violence. Blacklist Tchaikovsky—or Shostakovich—and you silence a beauty wrenched from the chokehold of repression. Turn away from Malevich’s paintings, and you forgo his urgent vision of a world cracked open. Banishing Tolstoy means losing a timeless prophet of peace.

Of course, the Soviet era had its share of propagandist art, none of which should be celebrated. 

Still, the problem with this art is not that it is Russian. It’s what it was for, what it said, and the motives of its creators. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago,

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. … and even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Publication date: May 19, 2022

Photo courtesy: Peter Lewicki/Unsplash

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

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