Putin Goes Into Battle on a Second Front: Culture

Beyond Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin is also fighting cultural battles.

In a speech on Friday from the nondescript, beige-walled office in which he has been conducting much of his public business this month, Mr. Putin made no mention of Ukraine. Instead, he expanded upon a personal obsession: “cancel culture.”

Western elites “canceled” the author J.K. Rowling because she “did not please fans of so-called gender freedoms,” Mr. Putin said in his nationally televised remarks, flanked by two Russian flags. Ms. Rowling was widely criticized in 2020 after voicing support for a researcher whose views on transgender people had been condemned by a court.

Japan, he claimed, “cynically decided to ‘cancel’” the fact that it was the United States that dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And now, he said, the West is busy “canceling” Russia, “an entire thousand-year-old country, our people.”

That the Russian president delivered a disquisition on Western public discourse on Friday may seem odd at a time when Russia is fighting what some analysts believe to be its bloodiest war since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. But it underscores how Mr. Putin tries to channel cultural grievances and common stereotypes for political gain — while using language that also allows him to speak directly to possible allies in the West.

“This is his cultural front,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He’s also at war there.”

Speaking at the beginning of a videoconference with Russian cultural figures, Mr. Putin said “proverbial ‘cancel culture’ has become the cancellation of culture.”

And, as seems inevitable in Mr. Putin’s speeches these days, the Nazis came up, too.

“The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are being removed from playbills. Russian writers and their books are being banned,” Mr. Putin said. “The last time such a mass campaign to destroy objectionable literature was carried out was by the Nazis in Germany almost 90 years ago.”

For the moment, Mr. Kolesnikov said, Mr. Putin’s main audience when railing against Western “cancel culture” is domestic, with the Kremlin intent on feeding the grievances against the West upon which Mr. Putin draws much of his support. But casting Russia as a protector of traditional values from the thrall of wanton liberalism is also a message that finds sympathy around the world — including among American right-wing commentators like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, whose monologues are often shown on Russian state television.

“We have a constitutional right to a free press but we don’t have it,” Mr. Carlson, dubbed into Russian, said in a clip from his show that was played in a news segment on state-controlled Channel 1 this week. “And that is not Russian propaganda.”

Mr. Putin on Friday defined “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.”

It was at least the third time in recent months that he spoke about the subject, one that appears to encapsulate for him the hypocrisy and shallowness of Western elites.

It is also a particularly important message to Mr. Putin now, as he tries to convince Russians that they need not despair that their country is turning into a pariah in the West, with companies and cultural institutions cutting ties. Spotify, the music streaming giant, on Friday became the latest company to suspend operations in Russia, after blanketing Moscow in advertisements when it entered the Russian market in 2020.

“Domestic culture at all times protected the identity of Russia,” Mr. Putin said. “It readily accepted all the best and creative, but rejected the deceitful and fleeting, that which destroyed continuity of our spiritual values, moral principles and historical memory.”

Russia, Mr. Putin’s argument goes, is culturally superior, because it respects history and traditional values. Now, he says, the West is betraying its cravenness and “Russophobia” by trying to “cancel” Russia itself, including its contributions to the arts and to history, particularly to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Indeed, how broadly to punish Russian cultural figures in response to the war in Ukraine is a topic of debate around the world. Some have called for Russia’s total isolation, while others argue that blanket bans on all Russian entries at film festivals, for example, go too far.

In the main, however, relatively few Russian artists have been “canceled,” as Mr. Putin would have it. While there have been scattered examples of arts organizations in the West canceling Russian works and performers in the aftermath of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the vast majority have continued to prominently feature Russian culture.

The Metropolitan Opera on Friday was opening a revival of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” featuring three Russian artists. That same night, the New York Philharmonic was performing Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony (next week, the orchestra will play Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev). The Chicago Symphony, meanwhile, is in the midst of a series of all-Tchaikovsky concerts.

To Mr. Putin, though, the idea that the West is rising up against all things Russian is a convenient foil. He had the conductor Valery Gergiev join him for Friday’s videoconference, which was held to mark Culture Workers’ Day in Russia and honored the winners of a Kremlin arts prize.

Mr. Gergiev, a prominent supporter of Mr. Putin, was removed from his post as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic this month after he refused to denounce the invasion of Ukraine. On Friday, Mr. Putin dangled what appeared to be a reward for Mr. Gergiev’s loyalty: He asked the conductor whether he was interested in “recreating a common directorate” that would unite the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow with the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

The Bolshoi is currently led by Vladimir Urin, who last month signed a letter expressing his opposition to the war in Ukraine. Mr. Gergiev did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. The Bolshoi said no personnel changes had been announced.

“What’s most important right now is to indoctrinate his supporters,” Mr. Kolesnikov, the analyst, said of Mr. Putin. The message: “Our cultural life is not ending, and we don’t need anything from the West.”

For Ms. Rowling, whose “Harry Potter” books are immensely popular in Russia, being defended by Mr. Putin as a victim of Western “cancel culture” apparently did not sit well.

“Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics,” Ms. Rowling posted on Twitter, in response to Mr. Putin’s remarks.

Anton Troianovski reported from Istanbul and Javier C. Hernandez from New York. Reporting contributed by Alina Lobzina and Ivan Nechepurenko in Istanbul.