Ukraine Calls for Boycott of ‘The Nutcracker’ and Other Russian Works

Critics argue that connecting Russia’s culture with its current leadership is counterproductive

The Nutcracker
South African ballet dancers in the Russian Ballet Ensemble perform The Nutcracker in Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 10. Ihsaan Haffejee / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine is calling on its Western allies to temporarily boycott Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer behind Christmas classic The Nutcracker, and other Russian works.

In an opinion piece published in the Guardian last week, Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, wrote that the Kremlin is using Russian culture as a “tool and even a weapon,” wielding it to “justify their terrible war.”

“We’re not talking about canceling Tchaikovsky, but rather about pausing performances of his works until Russia ceases its bloody invasion,” Tkachenko wrote. “Ukrainian cultural venues have already done this with him and other Russian composers. We’re calling on our allies to do the same.”

Boycotts of Russian culture were underway even before Tkachenko’s call. In the weeks after the war began in February, the Metropolitan Opera stopped working with artists who support Russian President Vladimir Putin, Eurovision banned Russia from entering its 2022 competition, and the Cannes Film Festival prohibited Russian delegations from attending this year. Restaurants have also taken Russian vodkas off their shelves, NPR’s Emma Bowman reports.

But not everyone is on board: Some heard echoes of the Red Scare and McCarthyism in calls to boycott Russian culture, per NPR’s Andrew Limbong.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, two Ukrainian artists based in New York, told Artnet’s Anna Sansom in February that they “don’t believe” in cultural sanctions. “Cultural connections are things that may bring people together when politicians fail, and dialogue is important as long as we are able to create it, especially through cultural exchange,” they said.

In April, Kevin M.F. Platt, an expert on Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a translator of contemporary Russian poetry, criticized cultural boycotts in a New York Times piece.

“That the world should be amplifying Ukrainian art and culture is clear. This is of the highest priority,” Platt wrote. “Yet support for Ukrainian culture does not entail canceling Russian culture. To adopt such a stance is to support a world of pernicious national antagonisms and closed borders. That is precisely the world that Mr. Putin seeks to create with his war.”

Tkachenko’s call for institutions to boycott Tchaikovsky arrived a week into December, when performances of The Nutcracker were already underway. For many ballet companies, the beloved Christmas show is an essential profit-generator. About 45 percent of the New York City Ballet’s annual ticket sales come from its five-week run of The Nutcracker, reported Reuters’ Ally J. Levine last year.

A spokesperson for the English National Ballet tells the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins that it “stands in solidarity with all those affected by Russia’s invasion” but that its production of The Nutcracker would proceed as planned.

Speaking with NPR’s Emily Olson, a spokesperson for London’s Royal Ballet says that “the presentation of great historic works such as The Nutcracker, performed by an international roster of dancers, should send a powerful statement that Tchaikovsky—himself of Ukrainian heritage—and his works speak to all humanity, in direct and powerful opposition to the narrow and nationalistic view of culture peddled by the Kremlin.”

Kathryn McDowell, chief executive of the London Symphony Orchestra, tells the Guardian that the orchestra will “continue to perform Russian music of the past” and work with Russian artists “who are not identifying with the current leadership.”

Individuals are also grappling with how—and whether—they should engage with Russian culture. 

“Last March, I stopped reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I had been spending evenings with on and off for months,” writes the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott. “I was immersed in the book and deeply moved by it. The war left me uneasy with the pleasure it inspired.”

Still, he adds, “[b]oycotting an entire culture is problematic because so much culture is inherently countercultural. No one indicts Russia more acutely than Russian writers and artists. Russian aggression may be resisted and defeated militarily, but the only real cure for it will arise from Russian shame, disgust and self-criticism. A boycott also leaves culture in the hands of Putin and his accessories, who will amplify the worst of it.”