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Ukraine is calling for a boycott of 'The Nutcracker.' Ballet companies aren't budging

Anna Dobrova, 19, rehearses for a production of <em>The Snow Queen</em> by the Kyiv National Ballet at the National Opera in Kyiv on Sunday. The medley will be performed without music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Prokofiev this year.
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Anna Dobrova, 19, rehearses for a production of The Snow Queen by the Kyiv National Ballet at the National Opera in Kyiv on Sunday. The medley will be performed without music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Prokofiev this year.

Ukraine's culture minister is calling on the nation's Western allies to temporarily boycott Russian artists and composers.

In a Wednesday opinion column for The Guardian, Oleksandr Tkachenko writes that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Russian culture as "a tool and even a weapon" to attack liberal values and advance his own agenda.

Tkachenko says Ukraine's allies can fight back by rejecting Russian artists — and not just those who confirm they support the totalitarian regime that's waged nearly 10 months of violence against its neighboring state.

"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."

The minister's piece represents the first time a Ukrainian official has called for a cultural boycott, though plenty of institutions have taken steps along this path since the war started.

Performers with the Kyiv National Ballet rehearse for a production of <em>The Snow Queen</em> at the National Opera in Kyiv on Sunday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Performers with the Kyiv National Ballet rehearse for a production of The Snow Queen at the National Opera in Kyiv on Sunday.

But pausing performances by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the composer behind the quintessential Christmas classic The Nutcracker, is a big ask — and a late ask — for a country like the U.S., where, the Christmas season (or at least the Christmas shopping season) kicks off before the Advent calendar does.

The Nutcracker's secure place as a seasonal tradition has made it into the crown jewel of every self-respecting troupe's repertoire — as well as its main moneymaker.

The Nutcracker, a seasonal staple for audiences, is a profit driver for production companies

Roughly 45% of annual ticket sales for the esteemed New York City Ballet come from its five-week run of The Nutcracker, Reuters reported last year.

NPR requested comment from the New York City Ballet — as well as top companies like the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet — but did not receive responses.

Internationally, ballet companies took a measured yet resolute tone, with many saying they wouldn't hire individuals associated with the Kremlin, but were stopping short of censoring composers.

"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," a spokesperson for London's Royal Ballet told NPR.

The English National Ballet told The Guardian it "stands in solidarity with all those affected by Russia's invasion" but it wouldn't change its program.

The Royal Ballet perform "The Nutcracker" in a cinema relay performance at the beginning of its festive run at The Royal Opera House in London on Monday.
/ Toby Melville/Reuters
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Toby Melville/Reuters
The Royal Ballet perform "The Nutcracker" in a cinema relay performance at the beginning of its festive run at The Royal Opera House in London on Monday.

Works of historical significance have been excluded from other Russia boycotts

Tchaikovsky isn't the only Russian artist whose legacy looks poised to withstand the war.

Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninoff all grace the winter events calendar of top institutions like the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The BSO said in statement that it would continue to perform works by Russian composers as it is "dedicated to honoring great musical works." NPR's requests for comment from the Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra went unanswered.

The works of visual artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall still hang in galleries at the Guggenheim and National Gallery. And Russian literature still sits on the shelves of major retailers.

Artists from the history books appear to be an exception to the overall erosion of the West's cultural exchange with Russia.

Following the initial invasion of Ukraine, modern arts institutions launched their own boycott offensives, not stopping to spare even Russian artists who spoke out against Putin.

The Metropolitan Opera canceled contracts with artists that support Putin. Eurovision banned Kremlin-backed artists from participating. The Cannes film festival disinvited Russian delegations.

Reaction to the moves was mixed, with academics and writers comparing the moment to McCarthy's red scare of the 1950s and predicting increased anti-Western rhetoric from Moscow in return.

"It is profoundly ironic that those who react to the war in Ukraine by aggressively or indiscriminately canceling or restricting artists and artistic works simply for being Russian are reflecting the same kind of nationalist thinking driving the Russian invasion in the first place," Kevin Platt, a professor of Russian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote for The New York Times.

There's little evidence to suggest the boycotts have inflicted any economic damage on Russia or shifted Putin's behavior.

But Tkachenko says the symbolism couldn't come at a more critical time: Ukraine's artistic heritage looks shaky.

Ukraine's cultural identity has been shaken by the violence

A sculpture of Ukrainian national hero and bard Taras Shevchenko sits near the ruins of the local Palace of Culture in Dergachi, Ukraine, on May 14. The building had most recently been used as a humanitarian aid distribution center for Ukrainian civilians before being destroyed by a missile strike on May 11.
/ John Moore/Getty Images
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John Moore/Getty Images
A sculpture of Ukrainian national hero and bard Taras Shevchenko sits near the ruins of the local Palace of Culture in Dergachi, Ukraine, on May 14. The building had most recently been used as a humanitarian aid distribution center for Ukrainian civilians before being destroyed by a missile strike on May 11.

"Our ministry of culture and information policy has recorded more than 800 cases of destruction: monuments and works of art, museums, valuable historical buildings," he writes in the column.

"This war is a civilisational battle over culture and history."

Destroyed buildings aside, Ukraine's cultural legacy hasn't been easy to untangle from Russian influence. About a third of Ukrainains name Russian as their mother tongue. Landmarks from the Soviet era still dot the streets in Kyiv.

For those in Western nations looking to swap one Russian classic with a Ukrainian one might consider starting with Carol of the Bells.

The tune, originally titled "Shchedryk," was composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych and brought to the U.S. in 1922 during a diplomatic mission designed to promote Ukraine's distinct identity (though it joined the Soviet Union the same year anyway).

This weekend, exactly a century after the song's North American debut, Ukrainian musicians again brought the song to Carnegie Hall's stage.

A children's choir from Kyiv sang "Shchedryk" with its original lyrics, which tell the story of a swallow who forecasts a bright and opulent spring — if one can only make it through the dark of winter.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Members of the Shchedryk Children's Choir from Kyiv perform at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.
/ Fadi Kheir/Carnegie Hall
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Fadi Kheir/Carnegie Hall
Members of the Shchedryk Children's Choir from Kyiv perform at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.

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Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.