WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of “trying to cancel our country” in a brief but pointed diatribe that revisited some of his favorite grievances. The remarks were made during a video summit with Russian cultural leaders and came as fighting continued in Ukraine.
“They’re now engaging in cancel culture,” Putin lamented on Friday. “Russian writers and books are canceled.” He also said that the works of the country’s most famous composers were being marginalized, in what appeared to be a reference to the recent decision by the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales to not include the music of Tchaikovsky in a performance.
Putin compared these efforts to the book burning and repression undertaken by the Nazi Party in Germany ahead of World War II.
“It is impossible to imagine such a thing in our country,” Putin said. In fact, Russian culture has fallen in line with the Kremlin, with dissent having become increasingly rare in recent years. “Cultural diversity is the pride of our society,” he added.
In fact, decisions like the one by the Cardiff Philharmonic have been widely criticized, with most elected officials and cultural leaders taking pains to differentiate between Russia’s current rulers and the richness — often transgressive and revolutionary — of its culture.
“Disavow some Russian artists. Don’t cancel Russian art,” a recent Economist commentary argued, distinguishing between cultural figures who have consistently benefited from Kremlin patronage and those, like Tchaikovsky, whose contributions to world culture predate Putin by decades or even centuries.
Such distinctions are not especially useful to Putin, who is desperate to marshal support for a faltering war that has always lacked coherent justification. Last week, he lambasted Russians who were seeking refuge in the West and its values, using rhetoric that some found disturbingly reminiscent of that deployed by the murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Putin has celebrated Stalin, in particular for his defeat of Hitler's forces. Russian society is deeply imbued with proud memories of World War II. Accordingly, among Putin’s complaints on Friday was that Hollywood depictions of that conflict “didn’t say anything about the Red Army,” which suffered much greater losses than did allied Western powers in vanquishing the Nazis.
“They just canceled the contribution of the Red Army,” Putin said, as its successor forces appear to be ground down in Ukraine, where some of the most ferocious battles of World War II were fought. Later conflicts, in Afghanistan and Chechnya, were much less auspicious for the Soviet and Russian military; those wars consequently receive much less emphasis in Russia today.
Putin has sought to rally Russians in support of his war in Ukraine with a confusing amalgam of history, geopolitics and cultural grievance — all of which were in evidence on Friday.
“In Japan, they don’t even mention who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “Or they say that it was done by some abstract allies. The fact that it was the United States that did such an awful slaughter at the end of the war — this fact is not even mentioned,” he complained.
“So they just canceled, cynically, this truth.”
Since invading its much smaller neighbor last month, Russia has faced increasing economic and, in some cases, cultural isolation. Artistic figures like the conductor Valery Gergiev, a Putin supporter, have lost work in the United States, while the Russian directors Kirill Sokolov and Lado Kvatinya had their latest films dropped by the Glasgow Film Festival.
For the most part, however, there is little evidence of Russophobia on the scale that Putin appears to be envisioning.
The appeal about the excesses of so-called cancel culture dovetails neatly — and seemingly with intention — with the charges made by conservatives in the West. For a Russian audience, cultural grievances are rooted in long-standing fears that despite Russia’s artistic and cultural contribution, it is not seen as a true peer to Western counterparts like the United States and Germany.
Earlier this month, Russia’s intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin said in an interview that the West “isn't simply trying to close off Russia behind a new iron curtain. This is about an attempt to ruin our government — to ‘cancel’ it, as they now say in ‘tolerant’ liberal-fascist circles.”
Some in the West have embraced Putin as a defender of whiteness and Christianity, as well as of traditional gender norms. Putin seemed to appeal to those defenders when, on Friday, he took to defending the "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling, who has come under criticism for her views on transgender rights.
She “didn't satisfy the demands of gender rights," Putin argued, his commentary having veered from the Eastern front to Hogwarts in mere moments.
Rowling was not pleased to have his support. “Critiques of Western cancel culture,” she wrote on Twitter, “are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance.”