Spreading ‘false’ information about Russia’s military, according to a law passed by the Kremlin last week, can put you in prison for fifteen years. For taking part in an unauthorised protest, you are likely to get fifteen days the first time; repeat offenders face up to five years behind bars. Many of the Russians taking to the streets in protest against the invasion of Ukraine have risked their freedom before. A decade ago, thousands were arrested at large-scale anti-government demonstrations. Some got two weeks; others, two years.
Are these people now to be punished by the West for having failed to subvert Vladimir Putin’s regime? It’s hard not to ask this question when you hear calls to boycott Russian culture en masse. In the UK, before the new ‘oligarch taskforce’ introduced long overdue economic sanctions, the government announced that ‘across sport, the arts and entertainment, we are ostracising Putin on the global stage’. Cutting ties with pro-Putin artists is a gesture of genuine support for Ukraine. But suggesting that ‘no republication of Dostoevsky should see the light of day’?
‘The situation is really wild, cruel and absurd,’ Ilya Leutin, a young filmmaker and writer, told me, speaking from a small town in Russia. Those of his friends who haven’t already left the country are regularly detained by the police for taking part in anti-war protests. One of them, Lida Kanashova, a screenwriter, goes out daily on her own with a placard saying ‘Let’s stop the war together’. ‘Some passers-by shout at her, “fascist scum”, some offer words of support, some just stop for a chat,’ Leutin said. ‘She talks to police every day. I think she is a real hero.’
On learning about his British publisher’s decision to postpone his short story collection (‘it’s not a good time to be publishing Russian books’), Leutin wrote back: ‘Russia deserves this isolation.’ I asked him to clarify. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that the events in Ukraine will make us, millennials and zoomers, feel ourselves inside the evil empire.’ He is currently making a feature film based on the stories of teenagers persecuted by the FSB for their social media activities. The movie has no chance of being released in Russia, and any hopes of showing it abroad appear to have been dashed too. ‘I can probably just watch it myself in my bedroom,’ Leutin said. ‘Anyway, it’s much better than watching bombs outside, like my Ukrainian relatives and friends do.’
Some independent media have been closed down entirely in Russia; others have suspended their websites and removed some of the content. Book publishing is still holding out. Petr Favorov, an editor at Alpina Nonfiction in Moscow, whose authors include Mary Beard, Steven Pinker and Carl Sagan, told me they intend to carry on as before: ‘We are certainly not going to stop translating English books.’ So far there have been no indications that their Western colleagues might pull out of any agreements, though Favorov wouldn’t be surprised if some followed the example of McDonald’s. ‘If cultural links were severed,’ he said, ‘that would be pure madness.’ And if people who didn’t respond with boycotts to the conflicts in Iraq, Palestine or Yemen were to change tack now, that would be ‘hypocritical madness, or perhaps mad hypocrisy’.
Ilya Kalinin, a cultural historian from St Petersburg and the editor of Versus, a liberal arts and humanities journal, talked to me about the effects of the war on the peoples of both Ukraine and Russia. ‘It’s precisely the part of society that has always been critical of the regime,’ he said, ‘that is facing total isolation, both internally and globally. The bitter irony about the consequences of such a boycott is that they will be in accord with the wishes of the very regime supposedly targeted by it.’
Cultural and academic contacts, Kalinin stressed, are key to understanding between nations. There are a lot of things the world is desperate to understand about Russia right now. Why did they invade Ukraine? Do they know what they want? Will they nuke us? A blanket ban on Russian culture won’t bring much light. It’s chilling to think that the only literature worth smuggling out of Russia might soon be samizdat; even worse to imagine a world with no Russian literature at all.