Aktuelles Krieg gegen die Ukraine

Could the “Great Russian Culture” Have Stopped the War?

by Tamara Caraus

In response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian art and culture faces cancellation in the West. Is this an overreaction? This article argues that today’s “great Russian culture” is complicit in creating the messianic zeal of Russia’s foreign policy.

During the first days of this nonsensical and atrocious war, all the concepts and theories I use on a daily basis fell apart, leaving me speechless and suspended over a brutal reality. After my initial confusion, I am starting to recover my theories and arguments (especially about a cosmopolitan understanding of the world), which are taking on added value and new significance. All I must do is to affirm them further. However, I also have a new, albeit vague impression that, as a scholar from the post-Soviet space, apart from my theoretical musings, I should also have developed a critical perspective on the empire and its culture under which I lived for the first 19 years of my life, until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Today, three weeks since the beginning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian culture has been cancelled worldwide. Films are no longer being shown at festivals, Russian composers have been removed from concert programs, Russian ballet recitals postponed indefinitely, artistic works withdrawn from art biennales, a course on Dostoevsky suspended at a university, to name but a few examples. Only some of these cancellations were due to the artist’s support of Putin’s regime—in most cases these cancellations were of Russian culture per se. The reactions in social media have been to condemn this “witch hunt,” claiming that depriving the world of access to Russian art and culture is an excessive gesture, and its failure to differentiate between Putin’s regime and the great classical Russian culture—which is part of Europe’s and the world’s cultural heritage—is shameful. Although this cancellation might indeed appear excessive, it also raises a legitimate and perplexing question: Why did this culture not prevent war?

A Question for Einstein and Freud

In 1932, following an initiative of the Permanent Committee for Literature and the Arts of the League of Nations, Einstein and Freud exchanged letters examining the question “Why War?”. Freud’s well-known answer is that aggressivity, as a death drive, is constitutive of the human psyche and that “there is no question of getting rid entirely of human aggressive inclinations.” Nevertheless, Freud asks why there are so many pacifists, including himself and Einstein, who rebel against war. Why do they not accept it as another of the many painful calamities of life? Freud’s answer is that “mankind has been passing through a process of evolution of culture” and that “we owe to that process the best of what we have become.” And this culture (or civilization, as Freud calls this process in other works, such as Civilization and Its Discontents) stands in fierce opposition to the psychic attitude toward war. If, as Freud argues, culture, born through a complicated work of life and death drives, is by its very functional mechanisms against the war, then why did the great Russian culture not prevent the current and previous wars initiated by Russia? Why does a “great culture” not make its alleged bearers and consumers pacifists? Of course, this war does not invalidate Freud’s insight, since he argued that culture and civilization have their discontents. Putin’s regime clearly causes discontent in what we call Western culture and civilization, and to the extent that Russian culture is part of Western culture, the regime may appear to be a discontent in its own culture as well. But then, what exactly is banned in these cultural cancellations?

When I first came across postcolonial authors during one of my early visits to a Western university, it was not entirely clear to me what was at issue in the work of these writers. Do they contest the West/Europe with the instruments of critique that the Western tradition of thinking provides? Do they interrogate and destabilize the Western/European macro-narratives of modernity in the languages of the West, primarily English? It turned out that in a post-colonial logic, the point of my being at this Western university (with a Soros Fellowship) was to colonize myself—fast track! I could not stop telling other scholars, whether postcolonial or not, that I could not resonate with postcolonial since, it turns out, I was officially aiming to colonize myself correctly, because I had been colonized by the wrong empire. The response of most of them was to exclaim: “Instead, you can read the great Russian literature in the original!”. This “consolation” was striking in its logic, as though all culture is the product of historical contingencies and power, with only the great Russian culture being beyond contingencies, the direct expression of mankind’s essence and pure humanity.

The widespread assumption that the great Russian culture is beyond critique (and also untouchable by critical theory within academia) is still the norm, and the production of this culture is supposed to be unconditionally “deep” and of an unmatched authenticity. To my knowledge, there is no field within academia that applies a postcolonial approach to the great Russian culture. Perhaps this was the unwritten task of scholars from the post-Soviet space, but we were too busy “colonizing” ourselves with “true” Western values. Moreover, given the lack of a tradition of critical thinking about Russian culture, our potential attempts always risked being seen as just an expression of Russophobia.

However, even a superficial look at Russian culture allows to see that it is not immune to being used for ideological purposes. For example, in November 2013 in Moscow, the Russian Literature Forum was held, with alleged descendants of the canonical Russian writers in attendance. Putin gave a speech about the didactic, aesthetic, and ethical value of Russia’s literary legacy and about the importance of Russian literature as “a powerful factor of the ideological influence of Russia in the world.” The “great Russian literature” has also been co-opted by the current revival of Russian messianism from the pre-revolutionary period, which serves as an ideological basis for the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. The postulate of the great Russian culture, strengthened by messianism, infiltrates not only Putin’s foreign policy, but shapes and legitimates attitudes, even those of the elites who are against Putin’s regime but still believe in that Russian culture has a special mission (I refer here to the production and consumption of current Russian “high” culture by the elite).

Academia is not free from this belief either. Along with young colleagues from Russia, I had several opportunities to benefit from the support of the Open Society Foundation. They were always the most numerous, given the ratio of fellowships to the size of the country. In my own encounters with these comrades in “self-colonization” with the “true” values of the West, I have noticed that even the most brilliant interlocutors displayed a more or less involuntary imperial attitude of belonging to a great culture, concomitantly part of the “canonical” Western culture but also somehow different. When, in 2015, the Open Society Foundation in Russia was declared to be an “undesirable” organization and thus closed by the Russian authorities, I asked myself if it was the feeling of belonging to a great culture that impeded the creation of the democratic and open society those fellowships aimed at…

The only ones to save life on this planet

Of course, now, in the midst of a deadly war with unknown consequences, it is time to act and stop that war, not to look for causes and explanations for how and why we arrived here. Nevertheless, we cannot help but ask ourselves what exactly is being banned with the “cultural cancellations” mentioned above, and the answer might be the following: What is being banned is the complicity of the great high Russian culture in the bizarre messianism of Russian foreign policy. Now, words such as freedom, democracy, and peace, which in ordinary times sound like a given or even (for some) like platitudes, became authentic, real, and desirable, since it has become evident that they cannot be taken for granted, and there is no guarantee that we will continue to enjoy them as long as Putin’s imperial idea exists. Dmitry Muratov, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta, called for Russians to rise up against the war, saying that: “Only the anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet.” Ironically, if Russian culture and its bearers perceive themselves as having a mission and hold the expectation of great destiny, then their time and their moment have come. They can stop the war and save life on this planet. However, this is not a mission to inaugurate an unprecedented new world, but a mission to save the “banal” things of the West, such as democracy and rights, the only conditions proven to allow people to live a life with dignity. 

About the author: Tamara Caraus, PhD, is a researcher at the Centre of Philosophy, University of Lisbon, Portugal. Her areas of research include continental philosophy, critical theory, and political theory of cosmopolitanism.

Beitragsbild: RIA Novosti archive, image #855359 / Boris Riabinin / CC-BY-SA 3.0, RIAN archive 855359 Scene from Mikhail Glinka’s opera “Ivan Susanin”, CC BY-SA 3.0

Dieser Beitrag erschien zuerst am 15.3.2022 im ostBLOG Spezial “Russlands Krieg gegen die Ukraine. Begriffe, Hintergründe, Kommentare”

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Redaktion ostBLOG (2022, 22. Mai). Could the “Great Russian Culture” Have Stopped the War? ostBLOG. Abgerufen am 28. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/slgi

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