Ostracization of Russian Culture: Is Self-censorship being Normalized in Leiden University?

By Federico Arcuri 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a variety of reactions in the West. For instance, strong economic sanctions have been inflicted on Russia by Western countries in order to damage the legitimacy of Putin and his supporting oligarchy. Another reaction has been, in some cases, the ostracization of Russian artists and culture in general. Throughout different countries, cultural institutions decided to postpone or cancel exhibitions by Russian artists or events related to Russian culture in order to avoid a politically sensitive topic, or to show their stance against Putin. However, these decisions have been criticized for demonising Russian culture, which is wrongly equated with Putin’s regime. An evident example of this was the cancellation of a concert by Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev by the Vancouver Recital Society, whose director explained that they could not “present a concert by any russian artist at this moment in time unless they are prepared to speak out publicly against the war”. Another example of this phenomenon was the cancellation of a lecture series about Dostojevskij at Bicocca University, Milano, which would later be reinstated due to domestic and international criticism. In this context, I was surprised when I heard that a screening of the classic 1920s Soviet movie “Potemkin Battleship” organized by the Russia and Eurasia committee of the Bachelor Students association of International Studies (BASIS) had been suddenly postponed. I asked one of the students who had organized this event to elaborate on what happened.

What happened?

I interviewed Riccardo, the Internal Officer of the Russia and Eurasia Committee. He told me that, only one day before the movie night was supposed to take place (3rd of March), they received a message from the BASIS board informing them of the necessity to postpone the event: “Due to the current situation the board of BASIS thinks that is better to postpone the movie night”. According to him, the movie was not postponed because of its content: “We were supposed to have the movie night, and then a discussion and reflection about the film. The film touches on the theme of Soviet resistance against the Tzar’s regime, so the parallelism would be a similar struggle for freedom of Ukrainians against Putin. But you can potentially find political meanings and comparisons everywhere.” The real reason behind postponing the movie was another: “They didn’t go into details. I just assume that they were referring to the fact that it is a Russian Soviet movie, so they just thought it would cause problems related to its sensitivity.”

Whereas he maintains that their case is relatively insignificant, and the Committee was not too bothered by it, Riccardo thinks that this event has wider implications, and may be part of a wider phenomenon: “What happened to us is just a small event, part of a larger trend. And this trend affects Russian people in a negative way.” For this reason, he contacted the Italian writer Paolo Nori, the professor who had his lectures about Dostoevskij cancelled by Bicocca University, to express his support, and to inform him that something similar had happened in Leiden. In response, the Italian professor and author publicly expressed support for Riccardo and the other member of the Russia committee through a quite critical instagram post, which I translated here:

A student of Leiden University in the Netherlands, a member of the Russia and Eurasia committee of the three-year course of International Studies, informs me that the university has asked to postpone the planned screening of the “Potëmkin Battleship”, a masterpiece by Sergej Eizenštein, to avoid controversy related to the situation in Ukraine. Tiziana Della Rocca reports that in Spain the projection of Solaris, by Tarkovskij has been banned, and that in Lithuania they have banned the projection of a documentary on Velimir Chlebnikov, may God bless him, the Russian poet who wrote “The Rejection”, which goes like this: «For me it is much more pleasant / To look at the stars / Than to sing up a prisoner. / For me it is much more pleasant / To listen to the voice of flowers, / Whispering “It’s he” / Bending their heads, / As I walk through the garden, / Than to see the black rifles/ of the guard / Killing those who want / to kill me. / That’s why I will never, / No, never, become the Governor!. ” When I was a boy and I did something bad, which made my mum feel bad, she would tell me “Paolo, what have you become?”. Now, I feel like asking “Guys, what are we becoming?”.

Drawing on Paolo Nori’s words, Riccardo believes that postponing the screening of the movie was wrong, as “we cannot repress a culture – if we don’t differentiate between a regime and a country, we risk essentializing Russia as one entity linked to Putin, which is completely wrong. We need, on the contrary, to delve deeper into Russian culture. Russian society can actually teach us more than we might think: its multiculturalism, its multi ethnicism,  its historical background. But ostracizing its culture might lead us to believe that Russian people are simply Putin’s followers.” 

The student association’s point of view

As I was curious about this whole issue, I interviewed a member of the student association’s board (whose name will be omitted for privacy reasons) to understand why they postponed the movie: “When we talked about it with the board, I felt bad because we already had to postpone it a few times because of other reasons. The reason why we had to cancel it was the timing. A couple members of the BASIS community that are close to the board are directly affected by what’s happening, and we didn’t want to put what is happening […] ‘in their face too much’. I know that it was planned way before [The Russian invasion of Ukraine], and the content in itself was not necessarily an issue, it was just the timing of it all that made it best to postpone. The movie was scheduled to be on Wednesday, and we already had a panel discussion on Monday about the conflict with our lecturers and tutors, so we just didn’t want to be overwhelming with this topic, especially to protect the people who are touched by it. I’m not saying that we should not talk about it or that we should not have events about it, it was just the timing of it. […] The movie in itself has value and meaning, and it can be a source of discussion, but since the original date was literally in the same week of the invasion, we felt like we didn’t know what was going to happen, we didn’t know if other countries were going to get involved.”

I also asked BASIS to comment on Riccardo’s fear that “in the future more cultural events organized by the Russia and Eurasia committee would not be allowed to take place”. The member of the board disagreed: “I don’t think that that’s necessarily true, because we all agree that we cannot equate Putin to Russian people. I don’t think we will reject an event proposal, and if we do, it’s not single-handedly decided. A cancellation of an event outside of technical matters is thought through, and it’s discussed not only by us. We need to involve the program chair to ensure that the event can go on.” But this event was not preceded by such a procedure: “Because this was quite last minute, and it was a movie night, we took this decision as a board. And the decision was to postpone, not to cancel it.”

Is this a case of Self-censorship?

Intrigued by the opposite views expressed by BASIS and Riccardo regarding the postponing of the movie night, I asked Dr Boele, Senior University Lecturer with expertise on Contemporary Russian Literature and Cinema, to give his opinion about what happened. Firstly, he condemned the cancellation of the lectures about Dostoevskij in Milano: “The decision to cancel his lectures was wild. […] I am teaching Russian Culture in International Studies, and, obviously, I’ve been starting my lectures by mentioning what is happening in Ukraine, which is inevitable given the topic. But this does not mean that we should stop teaching our classes about Russian culture and history in general, that simply does not make sense.” Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the future: “People are and were very outraged, which led to these types of decisions. […] But I still think that with the passing of time, people will make more thoughtful decisions, and these things will happen less and less”

Interestingly, Dr. Boele expressed a very nuanced view of what happened with the postponement of the movie night. “I can see in a way how it can be seen as ‘self-censorship’, but the fact that it was the students themselves and not the International Studies Board to postpone it is a crucial difference: it was not imposed by the university, which is committed to ensuring academic freedom, and thus cannot cancel these events. Rather, it was postponed by the students themselves, who did not feel comfortable with screening a Russian movie while war is unfolding in Ukraine, and I can understand that. Again, I think that it is positive that students autonomously make a decision in this sense.” However, referring to the film’s theme of the struggle of the Russian people against the Tsarist regime, Dr. Boele explained that “the movie itself is actually quite revolutionary. This could have been explained to allow the screening to take place. What is important is to frame and explain the background of the movie.”

Our student associations’ decision-making needs to be more democratic

It is difficult to say that something is entirely right or wrong. After interviewing a member of the Russia and Eurasia committee, as well as a member of BASIS’ board, I understood that both sides had their own reasons, which need to be taken into consideration to understand what happened. In general, I completely agree with Riccardo when he says that “postponing the movie night was wrong”, as it conveyed an ambiguous message to International Studies students: the screening of a Russian movie is too controversial now, thus needs to be postponed, which implies a demonization of Russian culture, and an equation with Putin’s regime. Isn’t discussing Russian cinema with students who specialize in this specific  region a unique occasion for students who specialize in other regions? Isn’t this the whole idea behind International Studies? Personally, as a student of East Asian studies, I then ask myself: what if a comparable situation happens with China? Will I not be allowed to organize the screening of a Chinese movie, and discuss the film critically? 

However, I also understand BASIS’ board point of view. They know people directly affected by the crisis, and they didn’t want to overwhelm them with what is happening by organizing too many events related to Russia. Even if I find it curious that the screening of a 1920s classic Russian movie was postponed, instead of two panel discussions about the current conflict itself, I can still understand the reason behind the decision. I also agree with Dr. Boele’s opinion, that it might be positive that the decision of postponing the movie came from the students themselves, and was not imposed by the University.

In my opinion, the problem here is structural: our student associations, in this case BASIS, lack transparency and accountability in their decision-making. The fact that the Board of BASIS, a very small group of students, did not appeal to a general discussion within the student body regarding the possibility of allowing the screening of the movie, but rather unilaterally opted for its cancellation is in itself a political choice, which is quite ironical for an organization that insists to be apolitical – is that even possible? The fact that the BASIS board did not directly discuss the issue with the Russia Committee students who organized the screening is in itself in contradiction with the values of International studies and an insult for the members of the organizations, who spend 20 Euros per year to be somehow part of the student body. Ignoring the opinion of students of Russian and Eurasia studies, who arguably understand more about Russian cinema and its implication than the students on the board, shows that a more democratic and transparent decision-making system is needed. Ultimately, in the same way as we, students, need to constantly question critically and hold accountable people in positions of power in the government and in university, we also need to ensure that democracy is respected by our peers at the top of our student associations. If our student organizations are not transparent and democratic, I don’t think we can expect our government to be much different.

Edited by Uilson Jones, artwork by Maria Beckers