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Are bans against Russian arts the right target?

Gaby Reucher
March 3, 2022

Across Europe, Russian artists, musicians and filmmakers are being excluded from events and competitions. But how far should the boycott go?

Large white building, Deutsches Theater, with banner that reads, We stay United, lit at night, silhouettes of people looking at it
A sign of solidarity in MunichImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Opera houses, Hollywood protest Russian invasion

Media reports about boycotts have been coming in fast as artists and cultural institutions in Europe increasingly show solidarity with Ukraine.

The Cannes International Film Festival announced that it would not receive Russian delegations this year in protest against the war in Ukraine. The organizers said, however, that they admire the courage of critical Russian filmmakers "who take the risk in Russia to protest against the invasion of Ukraine."

The European Film Academy also unequivocally condemned President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine — and excluded Russia from the European Film Awards.

Artists in Russia protest, too

Despite the threat of repression, the resistance of Russian artists in their own country is growing stronger, including by a group of children's book authors who urge Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

Stone monument and poster that reads, "No War" in Russian
Posters like the above, which reads 'No War,' quickly disappear again in RussiaImage: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/picture alliance

Bolshoi Theater artistic director Vladimir Urin, who is considered a Putin supporter and who even holds the honorary title of "People's Artist of Russia," was among the signatories of a petition addressing "all those on whom it depends, all parties to the conflict, to stop the hostilities, and to come to the negotiating table."

Senior culture workers have resigned, including the curator and artists for the Russian pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale. The artists have stopped working on the pavilion. "There is no place for art when civilians die under rocket fire, when citizens of Ukraine hide in shelters, when Russian protesters are silenced," Kirill Savchenkov, one of the artists, said in an Instagram post.

Meanwhile, the Biennale organizers have officially banned Russian delegations from participating. 

Lars Vogt won't perform in Russia

German pianist Lars Vogt doesn't mince words. "As long as this war criminal is in power, I won't go there anymore," he told DW, adding he is aware there are many anti-war protesters in Russia, but also many who unconditionally followed Russian propaganda in recent years.

"This kind of brainwashing has simply led to a complete poisoning of the people, and unfortunately few have stood up to it," argues Vogt, who is familiar with both the country and the Russian language.

Expat Russians, too, often rely solely on Russian media channels as a source of information. Lars Vogt is actually a big Russia fan; he enjoys the hospitality and humor of the Russian people. "I absolutely understand the argument for keeping the channels of communication open, especially to the civilian population," he says. 

Lars Vogt, man playing paino
German pianist Lars Vogt is not performing in Russia for the time beingImage: Hermann Wöstmann/dpa/picture-alliance

But he says he can't relate to people who openly position themselves in favor of Putin. "I don't know how to deal with them, and then I just don't want to make music with them either."

'Defiance and deep solidarity'

On February 28, the renowned Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi conducted a concert with the Russian Youth Orchestra in Moscow. Friends had urged him to cancel the concert and leave Russia.

"After thinking about this deeply I have come to the conclusion that this would be defeatist, dishonest and disloyal to the wonderful young musicians of the Russian Youth Orchestra, who feel confused, torn and shocked, and who are against this war as much as I am," he wrote on his website. "These young people should not and cannot be punished for the barbaric actions of their government," he said, all while condemning "the actions of Russian government and Putin."

The boycott of Russian institutions also affects artists who are actually critical of the regime, says Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa.

The call for a boycott of Russian films by the European Film Academy (EFA) goes too far, he says. "What is happening before our eyes if horrible, but I'm asking you to not fall into craziness. We must not judge people based on their passports. We can judge them on their acts," he said in an open to letter to the EFA, adding, "a passport is tied to the place we happen to be born, whereas an act is that a human being does willingly."

Sergei Loznitsa
'We must not judge people by their passports,' warns Sergei LoznitsaImage: Angel Navarrete/El Mundo/imago images

Star soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev were asked to distance themselves from Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine. Gergiev remained silent, so the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra parted ways with its chief conductor.

Julian Nida-Rümelin, a German philosopher and former senior government culture official, is opposed to examining artists' patriotic status, he told public broadcast radio Deutschlandfunk. "I think damaging the relationship with Russian artists and culture is wrong, because as a society, we have to be able to stand different opinions." He said he would not have fired Valery Gergiev and would not have asked him about his attitude in the first place.

Russian top conductor fired for Putin ties

Right to freedom of opinion

But is Gergiev's dismissal even legal? After all, freedom of expression is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the German constitution.

"An employer can't force a musician to say something political that he doesn't stand for," according to Christian Solmecke, a Cologne-based media lawyer. The right to freedom of expression allows Valery Gergiev to keep quiet about his stance or to express it only indirectly, he told DW. 

However, the lawyer added, an employee also has a so-called duty of allegiance towards his employer, and therefore cannot act in a way that would harm the employer's reputation.

"Such a duty of allegiance can ultimately extend to public positioning on a global political issue if the political stance is likely to damage the employer's reputation," he says — in which case it would be lawful to terminate employment.

"If a senior employee like Gergiev, as chief conductor, refuses to distance himself from Russia's war of aggression in public, such an extreme attitude may justify termination in exceptional cases," he says.

However, Gergiev remained silent and did not speak out at all, making it a matter to be resolved in court.

More than anything in Germany, condemning the war in Ukraine is a moral issue. As Russian-born pianist and political activist Igor Levit posted a clear stance on Twitter:

"Being a musician does not free you from being a citizen, from taking responsibility," he commented on his Instagram account, adding the #StandWithUkraine hashtag.

For him, speaking out for peace without condemning Putin's responsibility is also inadmissible: "Remaining vague when one man, especially the man who is the leader of your home country, starts a war against another country and by doing so also causes greatest suffering to your home country and your people is unacceptable."


This article has been translated from German.

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