For years she stood proudly on a plinth in the center of Odessa: Catherine the Great. Until today. The imposing statue of the eighteenth-century Russian tsarina has to go. It is taken to a museum.
It may seem like a small decision of local politics in the southern Ukrainian city, but it is one of great symbolic value. Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the country has struggled with how to deal with the country’s many references to Russian culture. Listening to Tchaikovsky’s music or reading Dostoevsky’s work is no longer a matter of course for Ukrainians. It raises the question: should Russian art become cancelled?
Yes, is the answer of the Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkashenko. He calls it “an act of solidarity with Ukraine” if operas temporarily stop performing works by Russian composers. “Promoting Russian culture worldwide is also part of the ‘special operation’, or war in Ukraine. They know very well that Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky represent that Russian culture worldwide.”
We have no moral right to perform music from the country that takes the lives of our children and young men.
Simply removing all references to Russia from the street scene is easier said than done. Especially in Odessa. The face of poet Pushkin is depicted in front of the town hall. And a street has been named after Tchaikovsky, although that street name sign has recently been defaced.
This also applies to the statue of Catherine the Great that has been removed today. The perpetrator was taken to the police station. “But I got the lowest possible sentence,” he says News hour.
Historian Artak Hryhorjan understands that Odessa has decided to remove the statue. “It’s beautiful and it fits perfectly into the picture of the square. But with everything that’s going on we can’t keep it anymore.”
That Catherine has great symbolic value is evident from the fact that Putin regularly mentions her name in speeches. He says that the Tsarina, who lived from 1729 to 1796, founded Odessa. Thus he suggests that the city belongs to Russia. But historian Hryhorjan contradicts that. “Catherine had virtually no ties to Odessa. She never even visited the city.”
Opera cancels performances
A little further on in the opera house, the programming has changed considerably since the Russian invasion. The management decided not to perform works by Russian composers anymore. The ballet pieces The Nutcracker and Swan Lake have therefore been deleted. “The only right decision,” says director Tamara Forsiuk. “We have no moral right to perform music from the country that is taking the lives of our children and young men.”
In the meantime she is busy with other pieces that are still acceptable, so without Russian influences. Much to the delight of operagoers. “It’s an escape from reality,” says one. Another: “In the darkest times, art and culture must stay alive. Otherwise we forget what we are fighting for and what the war is all about.”
Incidentally, the imposing opera hall of Odessa is not nearly full. The bomb shelter is not large enough to protect a full room. And the management of the opera takes into account that Russian bombs can fall at any moment. “So we don’t sell more tickets than there are places in the shelter,” says director Forsiuk.
The question of Russian art cancelled should be, causes discussion in Odessa. Because where is the limit? “Art stands on its own and should not be associated with the war,” says a visitor to the opera. “I would like Tchaikovsky’s work to return to the theater after the war,” says another.
Not everyone is pleased with the removal of the statue of Catherine the Great either. “It’s part of our city’s history,” says a man on the street. But a woman who walks by a little later says: “For me this is a logical story. We have to remove everything that refers to the Russian occupier in our country.”
The local government in Odessa conducted an online survey about Catherine’s statue last month. The result reflects the division well: 50.2 percent of the people voted for decommissioning.
Historian Artak Hryhorjan understands the struggle among his compatriots. “We look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “To what extent someone is related to Odessa and to what extent that person held a negative view of Ukraine.”
‘The Netherlands must also boycott Russian art’
For some, the boycott of Russian culture cannot go far enough. Like for Minister Tkashenko. As for him cancels not only Ukraine Russian artists and composers. According to the minister, all EU countries should do this.
The Netherlands does not intend to comply with this, says State Secretary Gunay Uslu of Culture and Media. “As a government, we are not responsible for the programming of concert halls, operas and orchestras. They are completely free to play the music they want to play.”