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Suffering for art: What Mikhail Baryshnikov gets wrong about being punished for a nation’s sins

The Creative Arts have always been a bridge in times of trauma. They can inspire a population struggling with the daily impact of trauma, and teach lessons to later generations who were not alive during such times. Music and dance have also helped bridge cultural divides, and were some of the most productive cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union during the long Cold War. But with Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and an international backlash to all things Russian, the dynamics of neutrality for the Arts has changed.

The sins of a government are not an indictment of the entire population. Many people opposed Trump’s regime in the United States, but all Americans were held responsible for his actions. That has been historically true, especially with Germans after World War II who felt a collective cultural shame.

We talk about the Arts and sports, like the Olympics, as spaces where politics can be set aside. Nations together to exchange cultures or compete. But such events are completely political, as the recent Olympic Winter Games in Beijing illustrated.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the top Russian classical dancer of the late Cold War era from the 1970s and 1980s, recently said that he was against Russia’s invasion. But he also made the statement that Russian artists and athletes should not be punished for the war.

“An open exchange in the arts is always a good thing. I don’t think it’s right to put the weight of a country’s political decisions on the backs of artists, or athletes, who may have vulnerable family members in their home country. For people in those exposed positions, neutrality is a powerful statement. And if you want me to be specific, Daniil Medvedev should play Wimbledon.” – Mikhail Baryshnikov, Russian Classical Dancer

That view is based on his experience with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., after the weight of the country’s political decisions affected artists and athletes. He said that by protecting the Creative Arts, Russian youth had a goal to strive for against the implosion of opportunities that have resulted from the international boycotts of Russia. In short, he believed that keeping the Arts neutral offered young Russians hope.

It is an inconvenient truth that children are be punished for the actions of their parents. Or citizens of a nation can be ostracized for the misguided actions of their leaders. That is the sad structure of world we live in. Job loss for a parent means that there will be an economic impact on their family, and children may have less access to opportunities for their future. Businesses face the backlash of anger, as seen in the Republican co-opted “Cancel Culture.” Regarding Russia, even Ukrainian owned restaurants in New York have been vandalized for having the country as a word in their name.

It is easy to have empathy for Russian artists who only work to entertain and inspire. However, it is hard to have sympathy for their situation.

Headlines each morning share the disturbing news of the autocracies committed by Russian forces. Theaters specifically targeted by artillery, schools hit with missiles, public places where innocent families shelter for safety are flattened. These people, the ones who the Russian military says they are there to protect, are being slaughtered.

Maybe Russian artists do not deserve to be punished for Putin’s folly. But Ukrainian people certainly should not deserve to be massacred for it either.

“The hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones, and even their lives are bearing the full brunt of the blow. But all of us who speak Russian and belong to the Russian cultural world feel the blow too. The very word “Russian” has become toxic. Most of us are far away from the conflict, and from Russia. We may be powerless to stop this nightmare, but we do not have the right to remain idle. The number of refugees will keep rising. The humanitarian situation will worsen. The very least we can do is help the people fleeing from the horror that Putin has started in Russia’s name. The real Russia is bigger, stronger, and more durable than Putin. This Russia lives and will outlive him. The dictator is fighting a war not only with Ukraine, but against the better part of his own country. He is smothering Russia’s future. Let us prove to the rest of the world that Putin does not speak and act for all Russians. And let us prove to ourselves that we are capable of real concrete action, not just words. Let us help our Ukrainian friends. Please donate to help Ukrainian refugees. Russians of the world, unite against war!” – Sergei Guriev, Russian Economist

Russian artists face persecution from Putin, so there is a great amount of fear for their personal safety. But fear of the Russian government has been embedded in the national psyche for generations. Only the Russian people have the power to stop the war, if they have the courage to do so.

Art has always been political, whether stirring national pride with music, or inspiring patriotism with paintings. Art cannot be silent in war, and expect to be detached from the consequences of it.

When German forces invaded Ukraine in World War II, Ukrainian opera singers were force to sing in German. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, artisans were required to produce works, from plays to posters to songs to pins, that exalted their leader.

The average Russian person who just wants to care for their family, wants no part in a war, and seeks friendship with others in the international community is suffering. It is tragic. But Ukrainian people did not ask for their country to be obliterated, their neighbors killed, or their future erased.

A month ago, the very families who shared a family meal together in cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Mariupol, Lviv, Kherson, Sumy, Irpin, and others now find themselves torn apart, refugees fleeing for safety or staying behind to fight for their homeland.

The average Ukrainian person had plans too, about ways to enjoy their life. As Putin brags about shooting hypersonic missiles fired from Russia, most Ukrainians simply plan how to survive for the next hour. Maybe Russian artists and athletes should not be punished, but the people of Ukraine should be able to keep their independent nation and not live in terror of being hunted.

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Sеrgі Mykhаlchuk and Kаzuо Оtа

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