Do cultural boycotts work? | Monocle

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The debate
It is a year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine caused global outrage – and rightly so. Sanctions were swiftly imposed on Russian banks, Russian companies, Russian energy and Russian individuals associated with the Russian regime. And fair enough: these were accessories to a state committing a monstrous crime.

A more ad-hoc regime of sanctions has been applied to Russian art and artists. Russian dancers, musicians, actors, painters and others have had overseas performances, exhibitions and tours cancelled. In some instances, it’s an easy case to make. The Bolshoi Ballet, for example, is widely understood to represent Russia. And it’s understandable that nobody wants to work with the likes of Valery Gergiev, a friend and fan of Vladimir Putin.

But some boycotts have seemed quixotic and counter-productive. The University of Milano-Bicocca ditched a course on Fyodor Dostoevsky, then backtracked when it was pointed out that the author had been condemned to death by an earlier Russian autocracy, as well as dead for 141 years. The present-day Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev and cellist Anastasia Kobekina have seen engagements cancelled despite speaking out against their country’s rampage in Ukraine.

So do cultural boycotts make a difference? Can they alter the behaviour of a state – especially one that seems indifferent to what anyone thinks? Or do they risk closing the space in which communication can occur? 

The panel

Peter Hain 
The campaigner
Raised in South Africa, Peter Hain became a prominent anti-apartheid activist in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s, where he led a campaign to disrupt rugby and cricket matches that featured South Africa’s national teams. He later held UK cabinet posts including secretary of state for Wales and secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and now sits in the House of Lords as Baron Hain of Neath.

Esther Solomon 
The editor
Originally from the UK, Esther Solomon has lived in Israel since 1998, where she is the editor in chief of the English-language print and online editions of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. She previously served as the paper’s opinion editor. 

Kateryna Iakovlenko 
The curator
Kateryna Iakovlenko is cultural editor of Suspilne, a Ukrainian public broadcaster. She is also a senior research fellow at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Born in Luhansk Oblast, she has been a reporter and deputy web editor for Ukrainian newspaper The Day and a curator of the Donbas Studies Research Project and at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv.

Kateryna, how do you respond when you hear reports of Russian art and artists being subject to boycotts and cancellations?

kateryna iakovlenko: It has to be done. This is a response to violence and tyranny. But I can understand why people are anxious about this. Of course, we cannot cancel Russian culture completely, because it is already embedded: you cannot pull all the books from the libraries. But the cancelling of Russian culture now is a consequence of Russian politics – not only of the Russian Federation but of the Soviet Union and the Tsars. If you look into the history, you can see how Russia has cancelled all other cultures around it – not only Ukrainian but Crimean and Tatar culture, for example.

peter hain: I’m on Kateryna’s side in principle in this argument. But you have to look at it not so much as cancelling or boycotting Russian culture; Russia has a rich history of wonderful artists. It’s not to attack Russian culture, it’s to try and take a stand against this brutal invasion of Ukraine. 


“This is the point of cultural boycotts: they reach people that are not reached by political boycotts”

Even if we accept that it’s reasonable to reject a country’s culture as a means of objecting to a country’s politics, does taking that stand work in terms of altering that country’s behaviour? The obvious test case being South Africa during the apartheid years.

ph: It was very effective in the case of South Africa. For example, there was a vigorous campaign, which I supported, to stop overseas popstars from playing at Sun City – an artificial whites-only tourist destination. This is the point of cultural boycotts: it reached people that are not reached by purely political boycotts. Most people at the time were not aware of what the reality of apartheid was. When we led a campaign to stop South Africa’s rugby and cricket teams playing, as we did, sports fans were confronted with why this happened. 

Esther, you join us from a country on the receiving end of a semi-organised cultural boycott. Does the activity of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and others have any impact in Israel – or is it just a way for people outside Israel who are invested in the Palestinian cause to feel like they’re doing something?

esther solomon: It has some impact, though perhaps not in the way that was intended. Among Jewish Israelis particularly, the effect has been to create more of a sense of siege in terms of the intentions – perceived as ill intentions – of the outside world. In terms of tangible impact on cultural life here, it has been minimal. From time to time you get spikes of great excitement when a popstar decides not to come or an author decides not to sell their books or have them translated into Hebrew but they’re pretty minor waves. The effect has mostly been to create an enormous platform for politicians here to stand on, as part of a narrative that the world is hostile.

It’s clearly the least of Ukraine’s concerns but won’t Vladimir Putin leverage boycotts as further proof that the whole world is against Russia?  

ki: Vladimir Putin is saying lots of different things. But it doesn’t mean that we have to listen to him. We should talk about the responsibility of all Russians, not only him. We also have to think about the problem of materiality – culture is also economy and Russia’s economy is very connected to Russia’s armed forces. 

There’s another respect in which cultural boycotts could be seen as too broad: when they’re directed against one particular country and not against others that are just as flawed. The BDS campaign, for example, does not seem notably exercised about how Palestinians are treated elsewhere, in Lebanon, Egypt or Syria.

es: It is curiously selective: there are plenty of other regimes in our immediate neighbourhood guilty of quite grotesque acts of political suppression as well. I mean, you have to weigh it up. Nobody is going to be a warrior for every cause around the world – people have the right to choose the cause that speaks to them and gives them something tangible to do, however ineffective or futile that might be. I would say, though, that the boycott movement has not been particularly glorified by some of its noisier proponents – people such as [former Pink Floyd member] Roger Waters, who absolutely embodies this bizarre selectiveness. He cries about the situation of the Palestinians but spouts conspiracy theories about the White Helmets in Syria, thinks that Ukraine should stop fighting back and that Taiwan should go back to China. 


“Because it’s such a broad brush, it creates a public defensiveness that smothers more targeted resistance to the occupation”

ph: I remember apartheid supporters attacking us because we weren’t protesting about repression in the Soviet Union or other parts of the world. But is that an excuse for apartheid? Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something.

es: Yes, otherwise it descends into what-aboutism. Part of the problem with how the bds movement is perceived in Israel is that it tends to be felt most by the more moderate and open parts of Israeli society, not least culture and academia. Because it’s such a broad brush, it creates a public defensiveness that smothers more targeted forms of resistance to the occupation or political moves by Israelis themselves. There is a small but solid boycott by Israelis of state-run academic and cultural institutions in the West Bank settlements. That’s a very targeted boycott that doesn’t collectivise guilt – but it’s made much easier to demonise by the political right because there is a larger bds campaign. It’s difficult for them to distinguish themselves in the public discourse. 

If we bring the South African example to bear on Russia, are there lessons to be learnt? Should there be a delineation between state-affiliated institutions such as the Bolshoi and regime-friendly individuals, versus Russian artists who are anti-Putin? Or must you accept that there will be collateral damage?


“This is also a long-term fight. We have to give a space for peripheries, for oppressed cultures, just to know them better”

ph: Once you start making exceptions, you diminish the whole movement. It can be quite brutal but that’s part of confronting a brutal situation and seeking to stop it. To defeat it, you have to get it across to ordinary Russians, who are subject to a massive propaganda suffocation, that they have entirely the wrong story. You have to make them feel the heat as well, to be quite frank. If suddenly they’re not participating in these global events, in global culture, it does affect them. And maybe they’ll start to ask themselves, is this Putin guy telling us the truth? 

ki: It’s a complex question. Let’s look at what Russian culture is. When you look at the so-called Russian avant garde, for example, you see how international it was. Kazimir Malevich was born in Kyiv. Alla Horska was born in Yalta to a Russian family but she moved to Kyiv and began researching Ukrainian culture – she opened a lot of interest in avant garde ideas and traditional Ukrainian art, and she was killed in 1970 by the kgb. This is also a long-term fight against appropriation of other cultures. We have to give a space for peripheries, for oppressed cultures, just to know them better.


“Coming here and speaking eye to eye is far more likely to touch somebody than shouting offstage”

Does a boycott hamper cultural exchange – and perhaps even effective protest? In Israel’s case, would a foreign artist who thinks that they have something to say about Palestine better serve their cause by turning up and saying it?

es: In terms of engaging with Israeli public opinion, there’s no doubt that coming here and actually speaking eye to eye has far more likelihood of touching somebody than shouting offstage. And it has happened: in the past few years, there have been various cultural figures who have said they’re not going to accept the cultural boycott but they were going to go and speak their mind. They were certainly interviewed by all the mainstream news sources here; they weren’t silenced. So their word did get out. But this does somewhat illustrate some of the quite major differences between what’s going on here and what’s going on in Ukraine and what happened in South Africa. And that’s why the analogy is a bit difficult.

Are cultural boycotts a better weapon against a tyranny, which you can’t engage with reasonably, than they are against a democracy, with which you can?

es: The question is whether the aim is to punish or persuade. With Israel, the aim should surely be persuading an electorate – which admittedly is turning rightwards. But the bds campaign has always had this idea of anti-normalisation, to cut off any ties with Israel, to forbid any kind of dialogue between Israelis and the outside world. This makes little sense if your aim is to persuade. There’s a difficult question with Russia and Ukraine about how to support whatever dissenting voices there are within Russia and whether a boycott is a nail in the coffin for them being able to express themselves or be amplified in any way. As editor of a independent, liberal, pro-two states, anti-occupation newspaper, the idea of mobilising for a just outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by saying that there can be no contact with Israelis who could be partners in that very endeavour seems nihilistic. 

ph: Fair enough.

So should exceptions be made for current Russian artists who are not pro-Putin or even historical Russian artists who created against that imperialist mindset we were discussing?

ki: Perhaps some artists are not pro-Putin but it doesn’t mean that they are not pro-war – and lots of people do not see this difference. If a Russian artist is against Putin, it doesn’t mean that they have no imperialistic view. I just can’t remember anything public created by Russian artists against the Ukrainian war. And it’s not because they can’t do this; they could – especially all the Russians who have already left the country. They could create a peaceful movement about the Ukrainian situation but they don’t. 


“Perhaps some artists are not pro-Putin but it doesn’t mean that they are not pro-war – and lots of people do not see this difference”

Should we think of artistic boycotts not as negative tools but positive ones – so, in this instance, not to make a thing of rejecting Russian art but instead of embracing Ukrainian art?

es: There’s one side that has a more constructive energy. The question is how effective it is and how it trickles back upwards in terms of policy. Can things really happen like that? In the intensity of Russia’s war on Ukraine, that seems like it doesn’t quite stand. It feels a bit too wishy-washy. As the war continues, it’s going to matter how much Western governments feel pressured by public opinion to keep on for the long haul. Talking about boycotts keeps it much more in a campaigning ethos that I think is crucial in terms of determining how Western policy is going to end up. 

ph: When I think back to the early days of the battle against apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s, we were vilified for trying to organise a boycott of Miss World, for example. We were treated as a minority of troublemakers and described in many worse terms but those were the beginnings of what became a mass movement. I don’t think that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is equivalent but, at the beginning, boycott movements are always on their own. It’s important that we all do what we can. Otherwise, we’re going along with the invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s barbarism. In the South African situation, grannies boycotted their oranges. Did that have an absolutely decisive effect? Who knows. But it was part of everybody seeking to make whatever contribution they could. Some of it was more effective; some of it was less effective. In the end, it’s about your stance on humanity.


“At the beginning, boycott movements are always on their own. It’s important that we all do what we can”

Cultural boycotts are not an exact science. They may end up punishing blameless individuals, even marginalising art and artists who are on your side. They may do more for the vanity of the people supporting them than they do for the cause in which they are waged. And they’re selective and inconsistent – there was no call, during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, to boycott rock’n’roll. Nevertheless, they can have an impact. They can make it clear to the targeted country that it has stepped beyond the pale – and they can, perhaps, get a country’s people wondering if the problem might be them.

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