07/02/2022, 09.00
RUSSIAN WORLD
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Cancelling Russia

by Stefano Caprio

Moscow today is complaining that its culture is being ostracised. Yet as early as during Kyivan Rus’, the Russians have removed any reference to the “Mother Church” in Byzantium, already victim of an ancient “cancel culture”. East and West, Russia, America and Europe, are all united by the self-destructive madness of “rewriting history”, and the ongoing war is nothing more than everyone punishing everyone else.

In a sensational interview, Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky defined war as a nation’s “self-assertion”, lashing out at cancel culture, which he claims is victimising Russia. This follows the decision to exclude Russia’s main museums from the Bizot Group, an international group of organisers of major exhibitions, which includes the directors of the Musée d’Orsay, the British Museum, the Prado, and several others.

Other institutions also said that they would no longer work with the Hermitage, Russia’s largest museum and one of the most important in the world.

On 25 March, Russia’s Cultural Worker’s Day, President Putin struck out against the attempt to “cancel” Russia, citing as examples the ostracism against Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, excluded from concerts in the West, as well as the censorship imposed on Russian books and writers, starting with Dostoevsky.

In Italy the attempt to block a course on Dostoevsky by writer Paolo Nori, who lectures at Milan’s Bicocca University, sparked a controversy that that raised the profile of his latest book.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and writer and Member of the Duma Zakhar Prilepin made similar accusations, as did Russia’s representatives at UNESCO who levelled a strongly worded attack, as reported in the Signal column of the Meduza website.

During the recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum, a conference was held on “Cancel culture: unprecedented challenges facing the media industry. National information policy in the era of post-truth”. In the West, “replacement culture” involves condemning public figures for their statements or actions, which part of society considers amoral or offensive. As a result of campaigns, certain people deemed beyond the pale are excluded from cultural debates and find themselves threatened with dismissal from their jobs and lawsuits.

For Russians, the problem is much broader and concerns, to quote Putin, “cancel culture” as the “public ostracism, boycotting and even complete silencing” of people who “do not fit into modern templates, no matter how absurd they really are”.

That said, Putin was not concerned about the fate of Pushkin and Tolstoy, but rather about the failure to acknowledge the heroic deeds of the Red Army in the fight against Nazism, and the “replacement” by American merits, i.e., “rewriting of history”.

Rewriting history is also one of Russia’s specialties, since olden times. As far back as in Kyivan Rus’ Prince Yaroslav the Wise had a local clergyman, Ilarion, appointed Metropolitan of Kyiv, thus bypassing Constantinople. He entrusted him with the Laudatio of his father, the baptiser, Vladimir the Great. Ilarion responded by delivering a wonderful Sermon on Law and Grace, one of the foundational texts on which the “self-determination” of the Russian people is based.

In the Sermon, Ilarion compared the founder of the Kyivan state to Constantine the great, the “equal-to-the-Apostles”, omitting however to tie him to the "new Rome" of Eastern Empire. Thus, Rus’ is put on the same level as the original Churches:

The country of Rome, with laudatory voices, praises Peter and Paul through whom it believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God; Asia, Ephesus and Patmos -- John the Theologian; India -- Thomas; Egypt -- Mark; every country, city and nation honours and praises its own teacher who taught it the Orthodox Faith and praises its own teacher who taught it the Orthodox Faith. [. . .] The faith of Grace is spreading and has come to our Rus’ (…) nation…and has covered the whole earth, and has flowed even to us.”

There is no mention of Byzantium as the “Mother Church", at that time already a victim of cancel culture, replaced by Russia. It is not surprising then if Moscow and Constantinople have cut ties over Kyiv, in an ecclesiastical dispute that has justified three years later the ongoing “special defensive operation”.

The apostolicity of the Byzantine Church was also used in one of the most symbolic fake news of ancient history, namely the story of the journey by Peter’s brother, St. Andrew the Protoclete, who, on the Asian coast, allegedly prophesied the birth of a future capital of the Christian world.

In order not to miss anything, the ancient Russian texts expand the legend of Andrew, protector of the Church of the East, as well as the story of his journey, to the hills above the Dnieper, home of another prophecy, which some “Nordic” variants portended as far as the great lakes of the lands then colonised by the Varangians, where Novgorod, the “new city”, rose, a challenge to Kyiv’s primacy over ancient Rus’.

These dual capitals find an echo in modern times in Moscow and St Petersburg, with the latter serving as Russia’s “window to Europe”, with its sumptuous imperial palaces that rival those of Versailles, home to the Hermitage now repudiated by Europe itself.

Russia has always tried to bend events to its advantage and “erase” dissident voices within its own culture, which is what happened to Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and to many other writers and artists during its peak period.

Already at the end of the 15th century, an "ideologue" monk, Joseph of Volokolamsk, who still inspires visions of the moral superiority of Orthodox Russia, wrote an official cultural “manifesto” condemning heretics of his time, the “tonsurated” and “Judaisers” who introduced into holy Russia demonic temptations, starting in 1300, designed to reform the Church and rediscover the Jewish roots of European culture.

In his work, The Enlightener (Prosvetitel), Joseph called for vigilance, standing firm against the words of heretics even when they seem to agree with the true doctrine. “We must,” he wrote, “search in their soul and reveal their error" in order to properly punish them, which is what is happening today, not only to those who dare criticise the government and the army for its war in Ukraine, but even those who only show a hint of doubt in their faces, punishable for “passive support discrediting the Armed Forces”.

Joseph embodies the principle of the Russian Church as “instituting the state”, gosudarstvo-ustanovitelnaya, one of the favourite expressions of the current Patriarch of Moscow Kirill. Not surprisingly, The Enlightener is one of the most lavishly republished and circulated classical texts in the age of Putin and Kirill, along with many others that validate the historical bases of Russia’s salvific mission to the whole world.

Thus, it is not Western "malicious interpretations" of Russian culture, like in the current campaign of de-colonisation in Ukraine, which has led to the demolition of monuments and the purging of all references to the occupiers’ (Russian) culture, a process called Leninopad, “Leninfall”, starting with the destruction of the numerous statues of the revolutionary dictator still left in the country.

Ukrainians know well that even the most harmless writers and poets can be used as tools of “imperial” propaganda; Piotrovsky himself noted that art is a “lethal weapon” in Russia’s war around the world.

If this should be followed to its logical end, Ukrainians should also cancel the grotesque and impetuous genius of someone like Nikolai Gogol, son of the Ukrainian land whose soul he wanted to describe, but ended up exalting Russia’s unstoppable race towards its destiny, towards glory or ruin, like the hero Chichikov, in Dead Souls, who sought success in falsehood, finding no path to redemption.

The cultural history of Russia and all other countries is a field where one can continually rediscover the voices of the spirit, personal and collective, and recognise that so many of its main players may be subject to favour or repudiation, often during their own lifetime or after their death.

As much as one might try to cancel and reject Russia for so many reasons rooted in its past and present, this would be akin to amputating a part of oneself and cutting out a piece of one’s heart, just like Putin’s brutal armies are doing, bombing and destroying the land where Russia was born.

East and West, Russia, America and Europe are joined together by the self-destructive madness of contemporary cancel culture, and the ongoing war is nothing more than the great punishment of everyone against everyone.

In concluding, the Signal piece cites an episode from 1968, when the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra was playing to a full house in London on 21 August, its members dejected. Just the previous evening, the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the "Prague Spring”, a forerunner of today’s “special defensive operation”.

Yet, as soon as Mstislav Rostropovich started playing, the audience burst in a wild applause, taking in the entire cello concerto by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. With tears in his eyes, Rostropovich played all evening. He was not replaced.

 

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