Brussels’ iconic Royal Theatre of La Monnaie (de Munt) opera house has announced its next season of performances, with its decision shocking many within the capital and its growing Ukrainian community.
As part of what La Monnaie describes as its “anti-war” and “pro-peace” programme, the opera house’s 2022-2023 season will “prominently” feature Russian titles and artists. While the opera house has posted lengthy arguments for its choice, it has failed to convince much of Brussels’ Ukrainian community.
Activists from Belgian-Ukrainian NGO Promote Ukraine are set to picket the opera hall on 23 September, when La Monnaie inaugurates Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama (Queen of Spades), sung in the Russian language.
Tchaikovsky in the heart of Europe?
“We can imagine that in the current geopolitical climate this programming might surprise or even raise questions,” Peter de Caluwe, general director of the Royal Theatre of La Monnaie, said in a press release.
Russian cultural performances have been cut across Europe since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most cultural institutions severed their ties with Russian cultural centres, including the famous State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.
Russian composer Tchaikovsky has disproportionately borne the brunt of cultural censorship in Europe. In Wales, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra removed Tchaikovsky from its upcoming programmes for his militaristic symphonies, which may cause offence in Ukraine.
In Brussels, the Tchaikovsky Music School changed its name to the Brussels International Music Academy and broke ties with Russia.
Unlike many other cultural institutions, La Monnaie argues that Russian culture is ultimately part of Europe’s “shared heritage”, opposing the notion that the Russian repertoire should be banned.
Some Russians have already interpreted Europe’s censorship of Russian art and culture as evidence of “Russophobic sentiment.” Some say that this only reinforces the Kremlin’s narrative of persecution and disheartens ordinary Russians.
In May, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev explained that the motive behind cancelling Tolstoy, Chekov, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich was due to the West’s “hatred for Russia, for Russians, for all its inhabitants.”
“Though we cannot emphasise enough that we do not understand the motivations of the aggressors, we do believe that Russian culture is part of our shared heritage,” de Caluwe notes.
Some of Russia’s most celebrated artists, the opera house suggests, have also been subjected to oppression by Russian regimes.
Tchaikovsky was accused of “not being Russian enough” and Shostakovich suffered under communist repression. De Caluwe says that these artists “themselves suffered enough under the political conditions of their time” and “should not be banned once more just because a dictator has lost his senses.”
“European arts, literature, cinema, and music will always be connected to Russian culture, which has inspired some of the most eloquent works on our shared continent. We cannot erase history… the Russian repertoire should not be banned and that we must continue to perform it."
While the theatre seems determined to de-demonise Russian culture, the director establishes La Monnaie as distinctly anti-war, and anti-Putin.
De Caluwe said that “artists and institutions that openly support Vladimir Putin’s actions” would not be welcomed at the venue, though it admitted that it could not force artists to come out against the war for fear of reprisals at home. Both Russian and Ukrainian artists will collaborate on the new season at La Monnaie.
While the music plays, Ukrainians die
Ukrainian activists are less convinced by La Monnaie's explanations. In the eyes of Promote Ukraine, the choice to predominantly feature Russian artists and culture, while Russian forces carry out atrocities in Ukraine, is at best a mistake and at worse grossly inappropriate.
In an open letter penned by local Bert Gavel on behalf of Promote Ukraine, activists accuse the opera house of planning the Russian event for many years and state that the arguments made by La Monnaie are problematic against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
“What is happening in Ukraine now is the culmination of a decades-long campaign waged on the political and cultural front to negate Ukrainian nationhood… positing Russian culture as a Slavic standard… We now see how this campaign… has led to a campaign of cultural and physical genocide on the scale of which is unseen,” Promote Ukraine said in its letter to De Caluwe.
Ukrainians argue that while Russia wages a war against its people, committing war crimes and atrocities, promoting Russian culture is a painful and unnecessary reminder of the war. Within Ukraine, Russian music and books produced after 1991 are now partially banned, unless the author has explicitly condemned the war in Ukraine.
It is not only Ukrainians who have taken this approach. Several prominent Russian artists and musicians have decided to stop their work or remove it from public spaces in solidarity with Ukraine and in protests against the actions of their government.
At the Venice Biennale, artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov pulled out of the Russian Pavilion, stating that there could be “no place for art” when Russia was targeting Ukrainians and Russian protestors. Promote Ukraine puts the very same question to La Monnaie.
“‘Can there be poetry after Auschwitz?’ Have you considered the analogous discussion of ‘Can there be Pique Dame after Bucha or Mariupol?’” the group asked the opera house. The letter invites La Monnaie to reflect on how its activities “reinforce the message of the imperial aggressors.”
Divorcing politics from culture?
Promote Ukraine stresses that art cannot be divorced from politics. It accuses the opera house of overlooking the political aspect of art, especially in the context of La Monnaie’s pivotal position in Belgian history.
“The notion that art is somehow divorced from politics… This is odd to hear from an institution whose programming lit a spark that caused the Belgian revolution of 1830. And indeed, Russian culture has been aggressively pushed to demonstrate the political agenda of Russian culture being superior to the decayed moralities of the West with its emphasis on gender freedoms and the like,” the letter reads.
Russia has definitely attempted to leverage its cultural image for soft power in the past. Over the last few decades, Russia has relied on major sporting and cultural events to improve its reputation abroad, especially within the context of its illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian Grand Prix, and other events received massive investment from the Russian state to improve its image abroad and portray it as a normal nation, although much of this reputation has now been destroyed.
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At times, Russian culture has been effectively weaponised. Russian cultural centres have acted as fronts for accused Russian spy rings, language textbooks regularly promote Russian propaganda, and Russian media fuels extreme-right movements in Europe through a so-called “traditionalist” counter-culture.
“Cancelling” Russian culture abroad equally sets a precedent to other countries that their own cultural presence risks disappearing if they break international law.
With the opera having no plans to go back on its decision, the ongoing debate raises interesting questions about the fate of Russian culture in Europe following the war in Ukraine.
Can Tchaikovsky and Chekov maintain their cultural significance outside of the spectre of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or are they symbols of a long-rejected world? Can Russian art and music be appreciated without giving validation to the cultural rhetoric of the Kremlin?
Activists from Promote Ukraine will certainly attempt to make attendees of Pikovaya Dama rethink their patronage, but it appears that the call of Tchaikovsky and other Russian artists still appeals to many Europeans.