Has the cultural boycott of Russia gone too far? Events at an Italian university this week, where writer Paolo Nori claimed that a course on Dostoevsky was suspended following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, suggests so.
'Dear professor, the vice rector for didactics has informed me of a decision taken...to postpone the course on Dostoevsky,' an email said, according to Nori's video. 'This is to avoid any controversy, especially internally, during a time of strong tensions.'
The college later backtracked, allowing Nori – author of 'It still bleeds. The Incredible Life of Foyodor Dostoevsky' – to continue teaching about the Russian author at the Bicocca University of Milan. But Nori was understandably upset. 'I realise what is happening in Ukraine is horrible, and I feel like crying just thinking about it. But what is happening in Italy is ridiculous,' he said. 'Not only is being a living Russian wrong in Italy today, but also being a dead Russian, who was sentenced to death in 1849 because he read a forbidden thing.'
The university has since released a statement insisting the course will go ahead and that it is 'open to dialogue and listening even in this very difficult period that sees us dismayed at the escalation of the conflict'. But this row illustrates how a rightful feeling of anger towards the Russian regime is spilling over into a mood of disgust towards all things Russian: be they innocent children of oligarchs attending schools in the UK, or just Russian people abroad in general. This notion that everything Russian is now problematic is summed up by a letter in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday: 'Why does Classic FM continue to play copious quantities of music by Russian composers while Ukraine and its citizens are being bombed? It shows a total lack of sympathy and sensitivity'.
This unease towards Russian culture is having tangible consequences. This week Valery Gergiev was sacked by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra this for failing to condemn Putin. The Bolshoi Ballet's run in the Royal Opera House here has also been cancelled.
The choice of Dostoevsky for censure is indeed ironic. He was sent to a Siberian labour camp for reading banned books that attacked the Tsarist regime. And while Dostoevsky was anti-European, he was no febrile Russian nationalist. He was a liberal Christian, far more concerned with morality than politics. The unspoken hero of The Brothers Karamazov (1880) is the Elder Zosima, the monk who exhorts:
'Love to bow down to the earth and kiss her. Kiss the earth and untiringly, insatiably, love, love all creatures, love all things, seek the ecstasy and this frenzy. Moisten the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears of yours.'
Zosima was an existential theist, much like Dostoevsky himself.
The literary critic Konstantin Leontiev concluded in 1880 that the monks are the real heroes of The Brothers Karamazov, to which the author bestows 'deep veneration'. The novel actually preached the doctrine of universal brotherly love. Even the troubled anti-hero of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) does so, speaking of 'my desire to embrace mankind', while also lamenting (appropriately, now): 'Man is stupid, phenomenally stupid'.
Dostoevsky was the opposite of Putin: a man worried about man's lust for power and appetite for cruelty, not a man who today is consumed by both. So was Dostoevsky's contemporary, Ivan Turgenev. He was a Germanophile who thought his country could be improved by European ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment. He also questioned and shocked the Russian establishment with Fathers and Sons (1862), a novel which depicted a world unshackling itself from age-old customs and conformities. Later came Leo Tolstoy, who preached aristocratic anarchism. Later still came Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a dissident who courageously wrote about the barbarism of the Soviet Union, an evil empire whose spirit Putin seeks to rekindle.
When it comes to classical composers, the likes of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov did write nationalist music, or at least compositions in the Russian folk tradition. Ban them? We have never even settled the Wagner question, of whether enjoying music with a dubious message written by a bad man is ever acceptable. Tchaikovsky was a gay, tolerant individualist who was little interested in nationalism, who even came to hate his 1812 overture. To censure him would be a calamity. And what of Maxim Berezovsky, who was born in Hlukhiv during the Russian Empire, a city now in Ukraine? His Symphony in C (1772) has been claimed as both the first Russian and the first Ukrainian symphony.
A cultural boycott ignores the heartfelt desire of modern-day Russian artists, 20,000 of whom, including composers, have signed a motion condemning the invasion. The Russian Congress of Intellectuals has written an open letter to its country's leadership. It declares:
'Russia does not need a war with Ukraine and the West. Such a war is devoid of legitimacy and has no moral basis.'
A ban on Russian culture is not only dehumanising and simplistic, grouping together great and humane artists with a warmonger, it is cruel, ignorant and will only alienate ordinary Russian people.