Banning Russian culture is wrong and unproductive (by E. Loprevite)

In recent weeks, we have witnessed a phenomenon that generates a heated and confused debate: is it right to marginalize Russian artists and athletes from Western cultural and sporting contexts? Is it right to obscure some of the most beautiful aspects of literature, visual arts and music because they belong to Russian history?

The well-known censorship of Professor Paolo Noris’ course on Dostoevsky at the University of Bicocca in Milan was the struggle that ignited the fire raging in television studios and newspapers. The greatest risk we run is to fall over trivial generalizations and dry attitudes, as if being an advocate of Russian artistic expression belonging to the world cultural background meant being a supporter of Putin’s war.

Personally, I want to turn the debate on how to identify and distinguish between what is a purely artistic content and what is an artistic content lent to the propaganda of a system of ideas. An artist’s creativity is clearly conditioned by the context in which it is expressed, but at the same time it is not firmly rooted in it. Otherwise, it would not really be art, but news or, at worst, propaganda. Art forms are amazing when universally recognized, beyond the confines of space and time. For this reason, they all belong! When censored, they primarily harm society, rather than the artist.

In this reflection, I am reminded of the cellist Gabriele Geminiani, first cello from the orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia and the Mozart Orchestra, and the pianist Monaldo Braconi, who this month will release their album, dedicated exclusively to works by two Russian composers: “Sonata in C major opera 119” by Sergei Prokofiev and “Sonata in D minor for cello and piano opera 40” by Dmitri Shostakovich. Interpreting what is today considered to be among the most beautiful aspects of chamber music is a very brave choice given the period, which triggers my desire to learn more about these two writers. Monaldo Braconi spent several years of his life in Russia and studied its music with great passion.

In the listening guide, which we find inside the record, the maestro explains that Prokofiev, defined as “Cossack Chopin” for his aggressive and athletic pianism, had a remarkable reputation abroad, especially in the United States. Shostakovich, considered the most ingenious exponent of Soviet music since the performance of his first symphony, written as a final exam at the conservatory in 1926, even won a mention as a pianist at the Warsaw International Prize in 1927. In 1936, however – speaking of censorship – a terrible spark radically changed this scenario: with an anonymous article in “Pravda”, Sostakovich’s work “Lady Machbet from the Mtsensk district”, written in 1934, was boasted. as “disorder instead of music […] raw naturalism instead of socialist realism […] dissonant and confused flow of sounds “.

The terrible Stalinist censorship of Minister of Culture Andrei Zhdanov was unleashed against many composers, accused of being enchanted by Western tendencies that distanced the art of music from the Marxist tradition and from the dogmas of socialist realism – an expression invented by Maksim Gorky. – which will become synonymous with apologies for power, with the exaltation of Stalin’s figure and the heroic efforts to build communism. Life under censorship was oppressive: some musical works were banned, others had to undergo humiliating investigations by regime composers, Shostakovich himself, and in the second phase of the repression, Prokofiev had to write apologies for not following the address of Fest, living in constant fear of seeing himself or a family member being taken away by the police. In this situation, both Shostakovich and later Prokofiev had to “reinvent” their own style of composition, while retaining their typical, distinctive musical personality.

In this situation, chamber music represented a privileged refuge for composers: in fact, compared to an opera or a large symphonic composition, which attracted large crowds of the public and was therefore more subject to control and criticism, especially for messages that he could convey, the chamber works lived in a more abstract, limited and intimate world, distant as they were from the enormous noise of a great theater or a great concert hall. Precisely for this reason, they could represent a kind of relief valve for the writers, who could write in a less distressed way, free to externalize their moods and their true personality.

Monaldo Braconi’s testimony teaches how important it is, especially during this period, to go deeper, to discover what lies behind the brand “Russian culture”. The release of the album dedicated to chamber music – specifically for sonatas for cello and piano – by Prokofiev and Shostakovich I consider it an artistic response to the confused debate I just described.

Today, in terms of the artistic and cultural heritage, it is wrong and unproductive to ban everything that comes next to Russia because it obliges us to censor knowledge, as in this case, about two writers who have slightly under the suppression of their creative expression on their own skin, and who driven by a need for freedom have reinvented their own style. Getting to know the same Russian writers is, on the one hand, a source of inspiration for creating a new way of responding to the cynical suffocation of individual freedom and thinking that Putin imposes with his policies; on the other hand, a stimulus for the West to create a more precise and in-depth cultural debate.

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