In supporting Ukrainians’ struggle, let’s not go crazy by canceling Russia’s rich culture

March 17, 2022 3:33 am

This photo of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was taken in the late 1880s. (New York Public Library)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Ron Smith is a fifth-generation Kansan, a native of Manhattan, an attorney practicing in Larned, a grandfather several times over, a Vietnam veteran and a civil war historian.

In 1969-70, I was a Navy disc jockey at the American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon. Weekdays I wrote copy for radio commercials, pithy stuff warning our guys in the jungle to avoid being bitten by poisonous snakes. Army corporal Pat Sajak was our resident snake voice, who mockingly suggested on tape that soldiers should not bite snakes, either.

The power of suggestion being what it was, that taped ad lib never made it into a commercial.

On the weekends at AFVN, I helped produce a show called “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Baby boomers will remember where the title comes from. I got to play a lot of classical music, mixed with great modern stuff like Three Dog Night and Genya Ravan and Ten Wheel Drive. 

Some of the classical music was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s. A Russian. At AFVN we played Tchaikovsky’s concertos for our guys in the field even though everyone knew — including the guys in the field — that the Russians and the Chinese were supporting the North Vietnamese military. We didn’t hold that against Tchaikovsky.

Times have changed. In light of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, stopping the sale of vodka is a silly but understandable bit of flag waving. Since the invasion, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and superstar soprano Anna Netrebko have been cashiered because of their comfy ties to Putin. We are scooping up and confiscating all the idle yachts of the Russian oligarchs anchored in western ports. No need for sympathy there.

Some things don’t make sense. Apparently now it is chic to cancel the music of long dead composers. The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra (in Wales) has removed music by Tchaikovsky from its all-Tchaikovsky summer concert, calling the program “inappropriate at this time.”

Given that Welch audiences will probably not include a lot of Russians and the concert could be used to raise money for the Ukrainians, the sanction makes no sense. 

I remember attending a Fourth of July concert in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s. The Boston Pops bounded through Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” complete with nearby cannons that filled the mall with booms, smoke, applause and cheers. Now we can’t do that because Tchaikovsky, who was dead long ago, had the temerity to be born in czarist Russia?

That’s right. Not Soviet Russia. Czarist Russia.

A sign in Topeka shows the city’s support for resident of Ukraine. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Tchaikovsky composed his music in the 1800s and died before the Russian revolution of 1917, before the Soviet Union produced such wicked people as Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and now Putin. Tchaikovsky composed music for the czar! The “1812 Overture” celebrates the czar’s victory over Napoleon at the battle of Borodino.

Changing how we react to the Russian invasion is appropriate. President Joe Biden has decided we won’t buy Russian oil. OK. Get ready for gasoline increases and inflation for many goods and services. Many westerners are understandably doing their level best to distance themselves from Putin and those loyal to him. But banning Tchaikovsky?

Americans and Europeans need to be careful how we react to the Russian invasion. Crazy things like not playing a Russian composer’s music are not the first time idiocy has prevailed over our collective national wisdom.

In World War I, German Americans numbered 10% of the total U.S. population of 93 million. By 1917, we were at war with Germany. Teaching German in universities was banned. Germans who spoke German but were not in our army were sometimes beaten, and a few were lynched. Towns named Berlin or Hamburg changed their names.

Small town concert halls, which provided much of American outdoor summer socialization, stopped playing the music of German composers.

But when things get bad, they can really get bad. German-language church services of the Amish and Mennonites were forbidden. Books by German authors were burned. Sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage.” German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers were slaughtered. The dogs did nothing wrong, except long ago their breeders were German.

Will we see legislation in Topeka requiring Moscow, Kansas, to change its name?

What about Liebenthal, whose wonderful church was built by Russian-Ukraine immigrants from the Volga region? Must Midwest farmers plow under the budding 2022 crop of Turkey Red wheat — which came over with Russian immigrants in the 19th century?

Let’s hope Americans and Europeans don’t get that stupid. But we didn’t think Americans would do to the Germans what they did in 1917, either.

Russian language programs in our colleges should continue. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” should not be banned. Serious students of literature should read them because they contain history as well as literature. The works of Solzhenitsyn, Chekhov or Dostoyevsky should not be banned.

Parts of Brooklyn and Brighton Beach (“Little Odessa”) in New York City have the largest Russian-speaking community in our country. I don’t think they are menaces to our future, do you?

And Siberian Huskies and the Borzois should not be lined up for special American vengeance.

If we want to root for Ukraine and back their efforts against Russia, that’s OK. But we don’t have to get crazy in the process.

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Ron Smith
Ron Smith

Ron Smith is a fifth-generation Kansan, a native of Manhattan, an attorney practicing in Larned, a grandfather several times over, a Vietnam veteran and a civil war historian. He has written a variety of historical articles about 19th century lawyers for the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association and a biography of Thomas Ewing Jr., the state’s first chief justice, published by the University of Missouri Press. His Civil War novel, “The Wastage” was released in 2018.