Culture, battlefield between Moscow and kyiv

Russophobia can irreparably damage Odessa’s cosmopolitan character and prestige as a ‘multicultural capital’. Across Ukraine, municipal authorities are launching initiatives to ‘decolonize’ their cities by changing the names of streets, squares and metro stops that evoke the history of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union.

“Of us civilized, the barbarians only know our crimes.”

Anatole France, Le Genie Latin (1909)

For a nation at war and a city eager to regain any semblance of normality, the reopening of the Odessa Opera House on June 17, 115 days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was an especially emotional moment. Until a few days before, the palace, inaugurated in 1810, was covered with sandbags, as in 1942.

When presenting the program of the concert, its director, Ilona Trach, recommended to the public that filled the stalls and boxes that if the sirens sounded they should not leave the theater, a baroque building designed by Viennese architects and lavishly decorated with chandeliers, large mirrors and velvet tapestries. Despite fierce fighting in neighboring Mykolaiv, nothing happened, however. Vladimir Putin seems to have given express instructions not to damage the city, founded in 1794 by Catherine II and whose architectural style gives a Mediterranean air to one of the jewels of the tsarist crown.

In the repertoire of the reopening, the conductor of the orchestra, Vyacheslav Chernukho-Volich, included arias from rough Y Turandot, as well as works by the composer Kostiantyn Dankevych, born in Odessa. In 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and having lived in Moscow for several years, Chernukho-Volich returned to Ukraine. At that time, he commented to the New York Timesrealized “as in an epiphany” that the imperial idea was inherent in Russia and that any unscrupulous politician – like Putin – willing to exploit it for his own benefit would soon threaten peace.

a scenic art

In many ways, modern warfare is a performing art: the theater in which the exercise of power is represented in all its violence and crudeness but surrounded, as in Wagnerian operas, by epics, mythology, music and choreography designed to convey messages transcendent nationalists.

In fact, a decisive symbolic moment changed the course of the war on the Eastern front: the premiere, on August 9, 1942, of Symphony No. 7, Leningradwhich Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the midst of the German siege and was performed for the first time at the headquarters of the Philharmonic orchestra when dogs, cats and even rats had disappeared from the streets, devoured by their starving inhabitants.

“The Wehrmacht commanders wanted to silence the Odessa Philharmonic by bombing the theater, but they were unsuccessful. In the years that remained of the war, the 7th symphony became an anti-fascist anthem»

Some of the musicians of the symphony orchestra, decimated by hunger, died from the effort in the brief and first and only rehearsal of the work. The effect of the radio and loudspeaker transmission – which carried the notes to the German lines – was electrifying. The controls of the Wehrmacht they wanted to silence the philharmonic by bombing the theater, but they couldn’t. In the years that remained of the war, the 7th symphony became an anti-fascist anthem.

Civilization and barbarism

One of the factors that makes it so difficult to resolve the current war in Ukraine is its saturation of history, being waged on a floor with multiple layers of previous war episodes. Soldiers from both sides sometimes don’t even have to dig new trenches in the woods because the ones from old wars are still there. Putin and the silovoki They allege that Russia guards the legacy of Christian civilization, so its enemies –Islamists, Ukrainians, Westerners…– can only be barbarians, an attitude that comes from afar.

The only conditions that the tsars accepted were those that they imposed. In May 1876, Alexander II passed a decree – the ukase by ems, named after the German spa where it was signed – which prohibited publications, the performance of plays and the performance of songs in Ukrainian, which according to the Kremlin never existed and could not exist. The last Romanovs considered the Ukrainian language, culture and identity a threat as serious as Polish nationalism, which did not prevent the Verkhovna Rada from proclaiming independence in kyiv on January 22, 1918, which would be followed by those of 1939, 1941 and 1991.

«A genocide is according to Raphael Lemkin a crime with multiple dimensions, not just the mere mass murder of a people. It almost always entails the suppression of their history and their culture»

Between the fall of 1939 and June 1941, when the German invasion began, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, deported 1.2 million Ukrainian nationalists to Siberia. Two days before the invasion, Putin attributed Ukraine’s very existence to an arbitrary decision by Lenin.

as he writes Serhii Plokhy in The Gates of Europe (2015), of all the regimes that once controlled Ukrainian territories, only the Soviet authorities allowed the development of a Ukrainian national project. Among other things, he points out, because Nikita Khrushchev grew up from the age of 14 in Yuzivka, a mining area in southern Ukraine to which his Russian family had moved and where he began the political career that took him to the top of the regime. His successor, Leonidas Brezhnev, was also born to Russian parents in 1906 in Kamenske, a Ukrainian industrial city, which explains, according to Plokhy, why Moscow ceded Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

parallel wars

These profound –and deadly– disagreements explain why in the cities and towns far from the combat fronts another war is waged in which monuments are destroyed and languages ​​are banned. As he writes in foreign affairsDmytro KulebaUkrainian Foreign Minister, the Russian forces keep lists of Ukrainian language and history teachers, activists, authorities… who after their arrests are “deported, tortured and disappeared”.

A genocide it is according to the Jewish Belarusian jurist who coined the term, Raphael Lemkina crime with multiple dimensions, not just the mere mass murder of a people: it almost always entails the suppression of its history and culture, the destruction of its archives and sanctuaries, and the theft and looting of its artistic treasures.

According to Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, since the invasion began, the Russians have stolen thousands of unique historical objects. Since May 27 alone, his ministry has recorded 367 crimes against their cultural heritage, including the destruction of 29 museums, 133 churches, 66 theaters and libraries, and a Jewish cemetery in Hlukhiv, in the oblast by Sumipilgrimage site for ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, destroyed by two Russian missiles on May 8.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, denounces that the Russian destruction includes the memorials of the Nazi massacres of Babi Yar, near kyiv, and Drobytsky Yar, on the outskirts of Kharkov, where between 15,000 and 20,000 were killed in September 1941. Jews. The monastery of All Saints in Lavra, in the oblast from Donetskwas reduced to ashes after a bombardment in which three monks died.

On February 26, according to what they write Jade McGlynn and Fiona Greenland in Foreign Policy, Russian troops set fire in Ivankiv, a town northwest of kyiv, to the museum that housed the work of Maria Prymachenko, a Ukrainian artist and folklorist whose work in 1937 Pablo Picasso praised as an “artistic miracle.” In Kharkov, which is home to 42 higher education institutes, Russian bombs have damaged the National Opera Academy, the Ballet Theatre, the Philharmonic Society and the Korolenko scientific library, one of the largest in Europe.

The law of talion

The hate is reciprocal. The kyiv government has banned pro-Russian political parties, and the Rada, with support from across the political spectrum, has banned the distribution of Russian and Belarusian books. In the streets, avenues and boulevards of Ukrainian cities enemies are sometimes called Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov or Gorky. The mayor of Odessa, Gennadiy Trukhanov, has refused to remove the bust of Alexander Pushkinwho lived in the city in 1823, from the frontispiece of the opera and erase his name from city parks and squares.

Russophobia, he warns, can irreparably damage the cosmopolitan character and prestige of Odessa as the “multicultural capital” of Ukraine and where, among others, Sholem Aleichem, the greatest playwright in the Yiddish language, Chaim Najman Bialik, one of the fathers of the modern Hebrew poetry, and Lev Bronstein, Trotsky. The embers of xenophobia can burn again. In the Odessa region alone, occupied by the Romanians during the war, more than 200,000 Jews were massacred.

A lost battle?

Trukhanov’s battle seems lost. Across Ukraine, municipal authorities are launching initiatives to “decolonize” their cities by changing the names of streets, squares and metro stops that evoke the history of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union.

According to Andriy Moskalenko, deputy mayor of Lviv, Ukraine must get rid of everything that has to do with “the murderers”. Ukraine was the country in Eastern Europe that demolished the most statues of Lenin after the end of the Soviet Union. Lutsk, to the northwest, plans to rename more than 100 public roads. In kyiv, the city council wants to rename the Lev Tolstoy metro stop after Vasyl Stus, a little-known Ukrainian poet. The Minsk station could soon be called Warsaw.

Moskalenko assures that it is not a question of denying the value of anyone’s work, but of failing to pay tribute to some authors whose work has been used as an “instrument of colonization”. But in some cases, things are not so simple. Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s family roots were Ukrainian. Many musicologists believe that his works clearly show that the Russian master was inspired by Ukrainian folklore.

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