Translator’s note: This article was originally published on Colta.ru, a Russian website dedicated to sociocultural topics, on March 3rd—one week after Russia invaded Ukraine. The text collects responses to a Facebook status posted by the Colta editors. They asked friends and colleagues the following three questions:
1. Is it appropriate (and personally necessary, for you) for cultural projects (readings, concerts, exhibitions) to function in Moscow, Petersburg, Riazan, etc.—during “military operations” and military censorship? Should they be canceled, should they continue, should their format be changed?
2. If they are antiwar, does this change anything?
3. What is an antiwar cultural event? Something that provides a real benefit? In what way?
Because the responses below were written informally for social media, they are often elliptical, depend on cultural context or get minor facts or details wrong. I have added clarifying information in footnotes where I believe necessary, or taken small liberties with the text where a literal translation would be obscure.
What follows is only a small sampling of the responses they received; the editors had intended to publish a second installment. Two days later, however, Colta.ru announced it was ceasing publication in response to the law passed by the Council of the Russian Federation on March 4th, according to which publicly spreading “knowingly false” information about the Russian armed forces will be punished with fines of up to five million rubles and prison sentences of up to fifteen years. It is understood that the law is chiefly aimed to suppress the sharing and publication of anything that contradicts the state-endorsed narrative. As of today, the Colta.ru website has been blocked by the authorities in Russia.
It seems to me that anything where people speak with people, support each other and attempt in any way to have an influence on evil should remain and continue to function. Because otherwise there is nothing left to do but sit in despair and read Telegram. If I stop speaking with students, authors, and thinking about some kind of vital future, I will simply go numb and stop being human. In the camps they read lectures. They played music during the blockade [of Leningrad]. But all of this should begin and end with words about the war.
In my opinion, only antiwar [events]. And now, when horror for Ukraine consumes all our strength, and when, along with this, the greater part of the world hates Russia and doesn’t understand the difference between us and our government, it is very important to speak about the real state of affairs, as well as to gather together so we do not fall into total despair.
There are people who consider it out of place. I understand and accept this position. But there are some things that also save [people]. In Taking Sides, a movie by István Szabó about [Wilhelm] Furtwängler, a great film, an American judge (Harvey Keitel) tries to bring the conductor to justice [for his work under the Nazis] by making him the main criminal. But in his case this is not true. And a woman, the daughter of a deceased German anti-fascist, explains to the judge that Dr. F.’s concerts were perhaps the only thing that kept her alive. Music, in general, has a separate function, and music, of course, is the most important of the arts.
Antiwar projects are definitely appropriate, everything else depends on the circumstances. Like at a funeral: bright memories are welcome, while conversations on other topics can take place quietly, closer to the end.
I think it is a mistake to cancel them because you cannot turn them into a manifesto/open action against the war. I, of course, am in another position, but I am canceling everything that I can cancel with the condition that the stage or time be given to Ukrainian authors.
When we closed September First1 in 2014, one thing we wrote was, “Today we, as the publishers of this newspaper, cannot continue to publish ‘Children’s World,’ ‘School Business,’ ‘Education Policy,’ ‘Ideas. Fate. Time.’ It is extremely unfortunate that today, in our opinion, we need to do something which contradicts the very spirit of our newspaper: to admit that the worst part of humanity has the upper hand.
Other newspapers that are not tied so closely to elementary education and to children can transform themselves. Continue publishing as if nothing had happened. We cannot.
Today it is a very different September 1st, and a very different year.”
We cannot pretend that nothing is happening and continue holding events as normal. So it seems to me. Only if they are unique, against the war.
I think any cultural event can be “antiwar” if it is aimed toward a critical attitude to reality, if it has an existential dimension, prompts reflection. And also if it cuts against a shameless, jingoistic frenzy, against any totalitarian thinking. A general cultural strike across Russia might make sense: large-scale, one time, a kind of common “silence”—synchronized, symbolic, organized as an action. But not canceling events one at a time. If that’s the case, everyone will suffocate. We need a means to speak out and to protest, and some kind of new creative principles.
I cannot agree with the idea that we do not have the moral right to take count of our bewildered, do what we can, and in doing this express our solidarity and our commonality. People in bomb shelters right now, clearly, feel this is a demonstration of our privilege to gather without fearing for our lives, to give free range to our feelings, to be depressed, to put it simply. This is understandable. And, most likely, when we find ourselves in the same position it’s logical that it will be the same for us, we can’t exclude the possibility that we will think in the same way. [But] to think that any reaction other than staying mute or physical struggle or an outrageous gesture beyond the limits of formalizable art—this does not measure up to reality. It’s possible that from this perspective our “antiwar something” (and yes, I am one of the organizers, because I feel there is something necessary in this “something”) can seem like nothing but self-soothing lullabies—I am not going to convince anyone of anything, it is not the place for that, and our task is not to wave from behind the front lines and make it clear that we are the good guys. It is self-soothing in the sense that, yes, we are here, are not sleeping, and can no longer watch soap operas. Really, it is a collective prayer.
For antiwar events, the answer is probably yes; for the rest, probably no. What should be considered antiwar is a complex question, closely tied to the content of the event. If it is not directly connected, there can be a direct conversation and information about what this event will be and that it took place. And that the goal of it was to announce an antiwar position.
I believe that everything is necessary. We must support each other and scratch against each other, like matches on a matchbox.
Of course they are appropriate! I think we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear.
Poet, translator, Literaturträger
Masha, the key word in the whole of your triple question is “when.” Today or tomorrow it will still be inappropriate. And no one knows at all what the situation will be like in one week, whether we will have a ceasefire or nuclear winter. But the situation we have right now cannot continue for long. It is worth just taking a break for a few days.
We need every kind and in every format. It holds us together, gives us strength, definition and support. In the concentration camps there were concerts and people organized improvised hair salons. In prison people performed plays. In burning houses people made love.
Philosopher, cultural historian
The format should be changed, but they should continue.
I think that everything against the war has a place, and everything that isn’t, doesn’t. Or is at least untimely.
I very much doubt that they are needed. Being antiwar takes the event outside of the bounds of art as such. And if yesterday I expected that tomorrow, March 1st, I would be compiling a LitGuide announcement2 (without generating any events of my own), today this seems like an ethically inappropriate activity. All the more so since I almost rushed into March in the middle of February (conferences and two or three evening events). These days I am closely following for cancellations, and the bottom line is that not everything has been canceled.
My opinion, one I have had for a long time that probably doesn’t matter or interest anyone here: if absolutely everything shuts down for at least a couple days—theaters, concerts, exhibits, really everything except direct antiwar protests—then it will be something people notice and feel. But any production of “normal life” through art, when people’s legs are being blown off live on TV, in my opinion, this is doing work for the authorities and maintaining a sense of normalcy for people stuck in their everyday lives.
They are absolutely necessary, and in all stripes. Like the orchestra on the “Titanic” (forgive me for the pretty image).
This is what I’ve decided for myself. I can’t just doom-scroll endlessly or I will go insane. The only thing that really saves me right now (besides my family) is work. Yes, of course, it is “cultural,” don’t get me wrong. A large part of what I do is educational, escapist, entertainment, and for the time being this will be work “for the drawer.”
Right now, and especially now, while people are hiding from bombs, and the world as we knew it is coming to an end, everything seems out of place, wrong and false. Of course, this is a subjective and, as Alexander Mesropian rightly noted above, “it is impossible to force the muses to be silent,” but personally I don’t understand at all how one could find the strength to write poetry and the right to write poetry about the war. We will all have to write about it. But to utter the horror means, first of all, to comprehend it, and that, I think, requires making the effort not to seize up in a panic to hold onto our habitual system of images and meanings, which no longer exists.
I would put these projects on hold. I understand that their intention is good, but for now (today, tomorrow and the next few days) this intention will simply be out of place, incomprehensible, and will be seen as something like, “You are reading some nice little poems over there in the land of the aggressor, while we are under fire.” The problem is precisely that these projects are organized by Russians and take place in Russia. It’s triggering. But the appeals which you constantly publish on Colta, appeals and letters of protest from various cultural figures, are important, it isn’t the same as “poeticizing from afar.” I canceled all the presentations of my Ukrainian book (and this, of course, is a completely different story, but the reason for the cancellation is similar) because I think all book presentations are out of place right now. It is more useful to give people in Ukraine right now the chance to speak. Allow them to speak and allow them to be heard.
Wars take place all the time all over the world and we continue to perform all the time. We are connected to other countries, even if they are far away, and this is something we can feel.
Of course, this war is on a different level for Russian citizens.
Many are apathetic and cannot do anything at all.
But we have to pull ourselves together and act, first and foremost by exercising our position as citizens (protest, helping the wounded and so on).
And everyone can take it in their own direction from there. Some people just might not be able to digest what is happening in any other way than through poetry, others will use music. It’s interesting that in the history of twentieth-century dance some of the most stunning and suggestive dances (like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop) appeared precisely in the 1940s. People cannot only read news during these times.
I think that it is a delicate moment, and personally I don’t have a desire to be entertained right now or attend cultural events, I just couldn’t right now, and I want to cancel whatever I have.
But others may need to be distracted and preserve their sanity.
Would the poetry of Mandelstam, Akhmatova be the same if it were written at another time?
And yet for some, there will not be any other moment…
I think that no events other than openly antiwar ones are possible.
Poet, philologist, translator
I don’t feel like doing public readings. But at the same time, I do want to hear, listen, etc.
Here, as they say, we need to discern between spirits. Some projects are unnecessary if it is just some nice chatter or an excuse to perform. But we need some projects. I have also been thinking about this. I understand the point of view that there is a time for poetry, etc. It completely depends on the person. Maybe there is no use for anything today at all. But on the other hand, one could only create difficult things. Not pretty little poems and pretty little songs, but words written in blood. Probably.
1. In my opinion, no cultural events are appropriate right now, even in Berlin/Germany.
2. All events should be antiwar. I don’t consider [literary] readings to be antiwar events. Even if what is read is “on topic.”
3. A real antiwar event is a demonstration or the public, effective formation of an antiwar movement in Russia. With slogans and actions. Maybe this is a fantasy. But I can’t imagine it any other way.
I would be only prepared to participate in small chamber gatherings, with readings, music, anything. But, for the time being, no “events” (with a stage, audience). It’s not just a question of whether they are against the war or not. The subject and the pain remain the same anyways, and, for this reason, should only be in a narrow circle.
We need them. They need to happen, I think. But how they turn out is up to God’s providence… (Especially if you can mark the event with yard-high letters reading “PAID” or “CHECKED: NO MINES,”3 and people can always interpret it and put up other labels, this will happen no matter what, because, as we said when we were younger, you can always dig your way to the truth).
I think that now is the time to howl, to write general appeals to mothers, fathers, God, break through to the masses, and not take an exit into ourselves. I don’t know, everything is moving at such a terrible speed, with a thirty-kilometer column of military equipment outside Kyiv all these words look strange, I just don’t understand how anyone could sit in a theater right now, but I am speaking as a person in safety.
Art historian, curator
Everything that is made for twenty people who agree with one another should be canceled, even if it is antiwar and progressive. Everything that can appeal to ordinary people, even if it is only cryptically and euphemistically antiwar, should continue and intensify. Change all forms. Change the audience. Change our language. Change our aesthetics. Change the meaning of our creative work. And I think this is not only true for Russia, by the way.
Poet, translator, editor
It seems to me that the question is: how long should this “abstention” last? Right now the best decision would be a general strike. But if the war, God forbid, drags on, then will it be worth it to smash the last valuable thing you have before some new cultural revolutionaries do it for you?
And here I’ll say that poetry itself has a much stronger antiwar potential than as pragmatically applied “antiwar poetry.” I could mention here the historical example of the anthology Shirat Rusiya (“Poetry of Russia”), which was one of the most popular books in soldiers’ backpacks during (Israel’s) War of Independence. Silver Age poetry was particularly successful, according to contemporaries.
Music is best of all. There are no declarations. The fewer the declarations, the stronger the effect. The choice of program is on the conscience of the performers. All other types of activity are much more dubious. The main thing is: no words.
I think that right now is not the time to read our poetry but to comfort one another and help, for example through online performances, silent prayer, [public] actions that are short on words, everything that can help people regain balance and give them support.
And it would be even better if someone could work as a help center, collecting donations, running a chat room, a forum for people in desperate need and those who can help in any way—connecting people, directing concrete help to specific addresses, specific people. Somehow…
And the time for poems will come later, I hope.
I think we need gatherings to be as informal as possible (but how?) because [to use] the old formats would be as if nothing had happened. (It will be harder for institutions in this sense.) I don’t know how to know “when it’s time.” An inner voice will say “it’s time,” and you have to believe it, even though it may be talking nonsense. It has affected everyone, and it becomes difficult to separate an antiwar agenda from the urgent need for psychological self-help, protest subculture and useless twaddle (for me it’s a struggle). But it helps if you can cross off the feeling of ethical or aesthetic satisfaction ahead of time. Nothing will be “pretty,” there is nothing in which the soul can find peace.
It is very difficult to work in a cultural institution as if nothing is happening, it is nearly impossible, physically and morally.
Especially when, for example, there is a “plurality” of opinion on what is happening. But canceling absolutely everything would also be strange. Ideally we would change the formats according to the situation, and it seems that what we need more than anything right now are gatherings, lectures, discussions, workshops. Formats where one person talks to another and listens and then speaks again. Workshops related to working with this situation, including teaching people digital literacy and methods of analyzing information critically. Later, other forms of [education and cultural interaction] will be possible, but those will be the ones that help to reflect on what is happening and elicit reactions (but here we are on thin ice). But, for example, organizing exhibits on completely abstract topics would be very rough and most likely inappropriate, particularly right now. As someone said above, it might be possible at some point in the future.
I’d say it’s better to abstain.
This is a difficult question.
Today I woke up (opened my eyes) for the first time with the idea that I need a distraction.
But even so, I can’t imagine going to a play or a concert.
I think the problem is the closed format.
As if you are in your own private world, and this does not seem right.
To go to a theater and imagine, in an isolated space, that nothing is happening, and think about something else, it even seems physiologically unacceptable.
On the other hand, doing spontaneous exhibitions or street art that speaks about what is happening seems like a good direction to me.
I think that we need these performances at least because, as long as censorship allows, these performances are also an opportunity to express your opinion, declare your attitude to what is happening right now in Ukraine and in Russia. It is important for voices to speak. In some sense this is just as important as the brave people who go out to do one-person pickets.
But in a certain sense we can hope that performing on a stage provides the opportunity for a little more time in interacting with the audience. And, well, we can also hope that someone from the audience will see with new eyes thanks to the reading. And this is important, even if it takes place within the space of a statistical margin of error.
Poet, philologist, Literaturträger
Everything needs to change. We need new forms of living. Everything old has discredited itself and is ethically dubious. All these cultural forms are not aimed at enlightening people and not aimed at communicating with the public but at creating a semi-public milieu of insiders—elite, closed, growing like a snowball. This cannot continue anymore. We need other forms of living and acting.
We need to go on, but selectively. This is also resistance against death.
Image credit: Juliusz Lewandowski, At the Meeting (2016). 100cm x 90 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.