“There is no more Swan Lake…Tchaikovsky is out”. Olesia Vorotnyk, a Ukrainian ballerina who took up an AK 47 to defend Ukraine
I came across this intriguing story in The Economist of July 2nd, 2022, of a dancer with Ukraine’s national ballet – 30 years old – and a professional dancer since 2009 who had lost her husband in a conflict east of Ukraine 3 years ago. When the “new war” began in February she had to do something, and she took up the gun; gave up her ballet and took a position at a checkpoint. The Economist quotes Ms. Vorotnyk as saying: “ There was this great myth of great Russia and its great army…we see the truth: they come here to steal our toilets…I wonder if those Russians read Pushkin”.
I have every respect for Ms. Vorotnyk ’s rationale and noble intent. Whether she intended to or not, she was adhering to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which says inter alia: “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.
But her mention of Pushkin got me first to think, and then to wonder about war, culture, and national dignity. Alexander Pushkin, widely acknowledged as the father of Russian literature, posited that there was a compelling need for Russian cultural, economic, and political development to blend harmoniously the thinking of “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers.” – who followed two schools of thought – the former being anchored on the unique national characteristics of Russia, and the latter being based on the global or Western approach. Pushkin thought that the two philosophies should be symbiotic and should form one and the same approach by the Russians.
Doubtless, some Russians, particularly those who initiated and carried out the invasion, might consider Pushkin “old hat” in the modern world of ideologues, populism, and autocracy which Gideon Rachman so eloquently elaborates in his book The Age of the Strongman. Some might even argue that it’s justified to think that Pushkin’s vision is archaic. What causes me amazement is that even some of us “Westernizers” in the Western world think and act so. Alarmingly, as a reprisal to the Russian invasion, some have eschewed all forms of Russian culture (particularly music, ballet, drama, and other fields of fine arts) cancelling pre-booked performers by Russian musicians, performers, and conductors in their countries.
Classic FM Digital Radio reported that “All Russian participants have been banned from Dublin Piano Competition, prompting one performer to exclaim “I’m just curious how this will help to stop the war!” In another case, 20-year-old prodigy Alexander Malofeev had his piano recital at Vancouver Recital Society cancelled.
Prominent figures have lost their jobs because they did not make public statements against the invasion. Conductor Valery Gergiev, chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, was fired for this reason as he refused to issue a statement condemning the invasion and ensuing consequences endured by Ukraine. Yet another luminary, Tugan Sokhiev —considered by some as Gergiev’s protege — left his post as music director of the Bolshoi Theater after feeling growing pressure to make a statement.
Thomas Sanderling, the conductor who headed the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra resigned his position in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, he has been vocal in protesting against a blanket boycott of Russian art and artists, saying he feels it’s unfair to impugn cultural figures who do not speak out against the Russian invasion when requested and that it is unjust to terminate their services ipso facto. Sanderling said: “It is important to have a position, but it can’t be demanded. I think it’s a matter of individual choice. I know that many artists in Russia are disturbed, that they are expected to absolutely take a stand. And I think it’s also part of our European culture to recognize the right of the individual to speak out on an issue or not.”
Asking a civilian and non-actor in a war to make a public statement under pain of termination of his services which is calculated to cause adverse effects to his career and livelihood is an asinine thing to do. It borders on incoherent buffoonery and counter-intuitive revenge and vindictiveness based on a complete misapprehension of what war is. The defining quality of intelligence is that it should make a point, and this attitude just doesn’t. War is a state of armed conflict between different States or different groups within a nation or State. War is not a state of armed conflict between nations – which are the people of a State. It is indeed regrettable that modern-day warfare targets civilians as well as States as a result of a perceived and purposely contrived misapprehension incapable of differentiating between the State and the Nation.
Such feckless thinking is the philosophical antithesis of democracy and a rules-based international order. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted for the people of the world – which commences its Preamble with the words “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, goes on to say in Article 2; “ Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.
Furthermore, the Declaration continues, no distinction must be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty”. While Article 6 of the Declaration gives everyone the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, Article 23 gives everyone the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
History records many instances where nations have helped nations in need – a phenomenon that can be seen around the world even at the present time. One of such moments that stands out in history is reflected in the speech made by J.R. Jayawardene, then Finance Minister of (then) Ceylon at the 1947 signing of the post-war San Francisco Treaty, who refused to accept compensation for harm caused by the Japanese, saying that Ceylon did not intend to accept compensation as the Ceylonese nation believed in the words of the Great Teacher [Buddha] whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that hatred ceases not by hatred but by love. He ended the speech by saying “We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that … her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity”.
It was clear that Minister Jayawardene had a sage understanding of the distinction between State and Nation. Perhaps we should too.