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On March 25, Vladimir Putin gave a speech to Russian writers and artists that was widely covered because he mentioned Western “cancel culture”–thereby demonstrating a familiarity with US talking points. His speech also reflected a widespread but problematic view of the relationship between nations (or peoples) and cultures. This theory is basic to various forms of nationalism that we would classify as right-wing, such as Hindutva in India, but it also permeates some left-wing discussions of indigenous cultures.
According to this theory, each artists or thinker belongs to one people, and each people can therefore claim a list of cultural figures as primarily its own. The great figures of any nation share definitive characteristics with each other and with their ordinary compatriots; these make them members of the same national culture. Foreigners can enjoy and benefit from the creations of any national culture–but only indirectly and imperfectly, for it is the birthright of the originating culture alone. On the other hand, all ordinary people gain refracted glory from the list of great figures of their own national history.
The world recognizes (or should recognize) cultural excellence, just as it recognizes success in athletics or business. One can therefore compare nations by ranking their great cultural figures. To do this, you don’t need to know much about the content of their thought.
Maya Asha McDonald, a Canadian art historian, dined with Putin in the Kremlin in 2019. “’The President would like to know about your study of Christian art,’” a woman to my left said with an icy smile. “’And what you think of Russia’s rich artistic history.’” Putin proceeded to list famous works in Russian museums. When McDonald ventured an informed remark, Putin acknowledged that she seemed to know “quite a bit for ‘someone from Canada.'” This turned out to be a compliment, because Putin “views North America as having a lesser artistic legacy.” He “fundamentally views the wonders of Russian museums as indisputable evidence of his nation’s superiority.”
In the speech last week, Putin said:
Russian culture has made an invaluable contribution to the development of world civilisation. For centuries, Russian masters of literature, music and fine arts have given humankind new aesthetic traditions and, more importantly, ideals and meanings that have become moral and spiritual guidelines for millions of people and entire generations.
Russian culture is human-centric. The best classical works are focused on the inner life, personal quests and emotional experiences of human beings. They ask relevant questions, help people to think, understand and draw conclusions.
It is not surprising that the Russian mentality is known for taking things to heart. We feel very strongly about other people’s pain and injustice. We are capable of feeling sincere joy about others’ success and helping those who truly need our help.
Russian culture always protected Russia’s national identity. While readily taking in all the best and constructive, it patently rejected anything false or momentary, anything that would disrupt the continuity of our spiritual values, moral principles, and historical memory.
This unique quality reliably protects the Russian people even today, when seemingly eternal concepts and norms are being eroded and undermined in different countries, history is being distorted, and the laws of nature itself are being violated. …
Friends, you belong to different generations and serve in different areas of Russian culture and education. Yet, you are equally loyal to them. You are striving to multiply their rich traditions and bring up new generations of thinking and spiritually rich people who are able to perceive and pass on traditional values, who know and respect the past and present of their homeland, who are the true citizens of Russia.(I quote Putin from the official English translation on the Kremlin.ru website.)
In my view, most artists (with interesting exceptions) belong uncomfortably to any given national tradition and take inspiration from diverse sources. There is no necessary correlation between the core values of specific artists and the dominant values of the nation at their time or later, nor do artists who are associated with the same nation typically agree with each other.
An individual gains little from just belonging to the same nation as a major thinker. For instance, I have learned virtually nothing from Herman Melville, since I have (unfortunately) not read Moby Dick. It would be foolish for me to feel pride that Melville was American; if anything, I should be mildly embarrassed that I have not read such a major novel. However, we can profit from any works with which we seriously wrestle. In my case, those include some works by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich, Nabokov, Akhmatova, and some other Russians.
In that sense, Putin is right that Russians have “given ideals and meanings” to people like me, who are far away. But I did not gain from these authors and composers a glimpse into some ineffable and indestructible Russian soul. I gained a whole range of divergent thoughts from diverse and unruly thinkers. As Putin says, these authors “ask relevant questions, help people to think, understand and draw conclusions.”
But there is no sign that Vladimir Putin has learned to think from the canon of Russian literature. He might align with Solzhenitsyn and with some aspects of Dostoyevsky, but many of the great Russians would hold him in the deepest contempt. Among those would be Shostakovich (a lifelong victim of the KGB), whom Putin mentions as a target of Western cancellations.
(Please pause to consider the irony that former KGB officer Putin is angry that Shostakovich might be “canceled,” when the Soviet state imprisoned and/or shot Shostakovich’s “patron Marshal Tukhachevsky; his brother-in-law, the distinguished physicist Vsevolod Frederiks; his great friend the musicologist Nikolai Zhilyayev; his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar; his uncle Maxim Kostrykin; and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky” and came within a hair’s breadth of purging the composer himself.)
Putin’s theory of culture is vary far from the worst thing about him. I would not claim that it explains or motivates his decision to invade Ukraine, which can be better explained in terms of raw power. But it is a bad theory that is widely shared. I would guess that many Americans–when told that Putin ranks Russian culture above theirs–would counter with the names of distinguished American thinkers whom they have never actually read, some of whom are deeply critical of the USA.
That is the wrong path. Culture is not the Olympic Games, with a medal count. Cultured people don’t brag about the number of their countrymen who have won global repute. Cultured people challenge themselves with uncomfortable ideas from diverse sources and treat all other human beings as their fellow citizens of the earth.
See also: for Irina; Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell; what is cultural appropriation?; the generational politics of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; a richer sense of cultural interchange; the ethical meanings of indigeneity; etc.