No “Nutcracker”, no “Swan Lake”


Works by Russian artists had their place in the cultural life of Ukraine. That’s all gone since the Russian attack. Programs are changed, books shredded – the debate about this extends abroad.

It’s Christmas time – and that means it’s also the time for the great Russian composers, for Prokofiev, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky, here at the Kyiv Opera. Last year they gave their “Nutcracker” here.

But Russian composers are not on Anatoliy Solovinianenko’s repertoire for the time being. The artistic director of the Kyiv Opera House says he and his colleagues are now “very strict”.

When there is war, when our countrymen are killed and our cities are destroyed, it is not the right time for this kind of music.

Unmistakable distancing

His opera house has issued a sharp press release. It states that ballet ensembles from Kyiv that tour Europe with the “Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake” have nothing to do with the Kyiv Opera House.

Solovinianenko is therefore also annoyed that La Scala in Milan opened its season with a Russian opera for the first time in its history, with “Boris Godunov” by Modest Mussorgsky. This is happening in the motherland of opera, of all places, Solovinianenko notes and rhetorically asks what else he should say about it.

Italy's Prime Minister Meloni responds to questions from Russian television at La Scala in Milan |  AP

Prime Minister Meloni came to the performance at La Scala – and Russian television was there too. Image: AP

Protest in front of La Scala against a performance of "Boris Godunov" |  AFP

In front of the doors, however, there was a loud protest against the performance of “Boris Godunov” Image: AFP

The ballet also gets into the conflict

But just as the history of opera was written primarily in Italy, so is a ballet in Russia. That’s why it’s not easy for Vjatcheslav Kolomjietz at the moment. He directs the renowned ballet school Serge Lifar in Kyiv.

Russian works have always been part of the curriculum, he says. For now, they are banned from school. Almost everyone agrees that “at least in this critical phase of the war” people are separating themselves from Russian culture. “It represents our tears, our blood. What is happening at the front touches our hearts,” says Kolomjietz.

And “after the liberation of our country” it will probably have to be some time before people in Ukraine can again devote themselves to Russian culture – a culture “that has turned its back on us”.

Dancers from the National Opera of Ukraine rehearse for a performance of "Giselle" |  AFP

The ballet “Giselle”, on the other hand, is undisputed in Ukraine – here dancers from the National Opera in Kyiv are rehearsing for a performance. Image: AFP

language on the index

Ukraine is also turning away from Russia’s culture in purely legal terms. It has been illegal to speak Russian in public places since the summer. Almost all television now has to be spoken in Ukrainian – and books that have been published in Russia can only be sold in exceptional cases.

In the traditional Kyiv bookshop Sjaivo, such books were no longer on the shelves before the war. What’s more, in August she called on her customers to bring in Russian books to make waste paper out of them.

Saleswoman Irina says that after a few weeks things really got going: people packed their trunks full of books, handed them in at the bookstore, and took them to the paper processing department.

In a bookstore in Kyiv (Ukraine) Russian books are collected for waste paper.  |  AFP

It’s all a case of waste paper: Russian books that are to be recycled are stacked up in a bookshop in Kyiv. Image: AFP

The proceeds go to the military

Tons of books came together, says Irina. At times, a large truck came every three days to pick up the books.

The bookstore was able to use the proceeds to buy a car for the armed forces in Cherson. Now they collect here for the second car. Perhaps, says Irina, the books would “give a second life – and they’ll be made into Ukrainian books.”

An elderly man trudges with a few full bags into the basement of the bookstore where the books are collected. He bought the books when Ukraine still had good relations with Russia. “Many books were dear to me, but after everything that happened, I don’t want to have anything more to do with them.”

Marina also stopped by to put down a stack of books. But she also says that there are Russian books in her large library at home that are dear to her and that she doesn’t give away. “But we can’t read them now. It’s too painful to read Russian.”

However, not all Ukrainians are convinced of the bans. The Ukrainian writer and photo artist Yevgenia Belorusets told Deutschlandradio Kultur that it was “not a good decision,” but at the same time expressed understanding. Ukraine was tolerant “for a very long time,” but now it’s about the country being “virtually destroyed.”

Turning to the Ukrainian language

However, the defensive attitude toward Russian culture did not first arise as a result of the Russian war of aggression. It’s also about emancipation from Russia, according to the linguist and journalist Les Belek. In the USSR, Ukraine was “heavily Russified”.

The Russian language was considered “finer” at the time, and people switched from Ukrainian to Russian. In the 1980s, “completely Russian” was spoken in Kyiv.

The process changed after Ukraine became independent in 1991. Today only half of the people in Kyiv speak Russian. And the same process is also taking place in cities like Odesa, Kharkiv – and before 2014 also in the Donetsk region, which has since been illegally annexed by Russia.

Does Russia exploit authors?

But what do the Russian authors have to do with Putin’s war of aggression? Belej says: At least they would be exploited by Russia. He cites the Mariupol Theater as an example. The Russian army bombed it in March despite hundreds of people sheltering there, including children. The theater became a mass grave.

In the meantime, the Russian occupiers had put up a fence around the destroyed building. Printed on it: the portraits of Russian writers.


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