Moral myopia. High time to put Serebrennikov’s status as ‘dissident’ under scrutiny

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Since February 24, 2022, Ukrainian culture professionals and organizations called on the international community to impose “cultural sanctions” on russia and suspend any cooperation with people and institutions directly or indirectly supported by the putin regime and the russian capital, writes Ukrainian Institute in a statement on Kirill Serebrennikov’s participation in Cannes Film Festival.

Many intellectuals in Europe reacted critically to this appeal, defending russian culture and its actors and arguing for a clear distinction to be drawn between arts and politics. 

russian film director Kirill Serebrennikov’s speech at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19 has shown that the concerns raised by the Ukrainian cultural community were in no way exaggerated. In his speech, the filmmaker pleaded for lifting sanctions off a russian oligarch close to putin; defended one of the kremlin’s key ideologists; and called for the support of russian soldiers along with Ukrainian victims of war.

Serebrennikov openly declared his support for the oligarch Roman Abramovich, presenting him as a patron of the arts and stating that “it’s thanks to him we have arthouse cinema [in russia].” This statement is indicative of moral myopia shared by many russian artists. Serebrennikov prefers to ignore Abramovich’s close ties with Vladimir putin who entrusted him to represent the russian side at the peace talks with Ukraine. While praising the billionaire’s philanthropy, Serebrennikov never questions the source of Abramovich’s wealth and influence. 

In a similar feat of moral acrobatics, Kirill Serebrennikov vouched for his long-time friend and collaborator Vladislav Surkov who he called a ‘civil servant.’ As the former deputy head of the presidential administration and assistant to the president on foreign affairs, Surkov was putin’s main political technologist for years and is considered the key architect of putinism. He was placed under executive sanctions in 2014 for being directly involved in staging a sham referendum in occupied Crimea and establishing self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in Ukrainian Donbas. None of this stopped Serebrennikov from staging a play based on Surkov’s book and receiving significant funds from kremlin’s gray cardinal. 

It is high time to put Serebrennikov’s status as a ‘dissident’ under scrutiny. His Cannes speech unequivocally betrays his apologetic attitude towards the enablers of russia’s war on Ukraine. In this context, the filmmaker’s remark on russian culture is particularly telling. Serebrennikov stated that ‘russian culture has always been anti-militaristic and anti-war.’ Such generalization is, of course, completely false: suffice it to mention Alexander Pushkin’s belligerence in To the Slanderers of russia or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s omnipresent irredentism. A great many russian cultural icons, from Dostoevsky to Brodsky, have been outspoken chauvinists, especially when it came to Ukraine. Kirill Serebrennikov himself is living proof that russian culture is, more often than not, pro-war and may be used quite effectively to whitewash russia’s aggressive expansionism. 

Serebrennikov’s uncritical reception of russian culture that conveniently ignores its imperialist leanings, is shared not only by russian intellectuals but also, sadly, by many respected cultural institutions in Europe. It would seem inconceivable that three months into russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine, the world’s major film festival may give the floor to a cultural figure openly endorsing its perpetrators. And yet, Serebrennikov declared in Cannes that ‘it’s important to help all the victims and to help those who are sent to fight and the families have no income anymore.’ Thus, in post-Bucha Europe, the Cannes Festival provided a platform for an artist who finds it acceptable to call on the international community to support russian soldiers committing war crimes in Ukraine.

On behalf of Ukraine’s arts community, the Ukrainian Institute expresses its indignation at Kirill Serebrennikov’s participation in the Cannes Film Festival. We condemn the festival’s management, in particular the General Delegate Thierry Frémaux, for their unscrupulousness in providing a stage for an unreserved advocate of russia’s imperialism. Culture is about values, and by giving voice to the likes of Kirill Serebrennikov, Festival de Cannes demonstrates an alarming level of moral flexibility. russian culture and its representatives such as Serebrennikov are toxic and their corrupting influence on the public discourse in Europe must be reduced to an absolute minimum.

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