The interview

«To demonize Russian culture is a terrible mistake»

Russophobia is a term that has become a part of daily language following the attack on Ukraine - It describes the feeling of animosity towards the offending country and its culture - Some recent episodes of Russophobia, such as choices made by organizations and institutions to cancel or boycott activities related to Russia, have generated considerable debate - We spoke about this subject with Aldo Ferrari, one of the most important Italian scholars of Russian cultural history.
Dario Campione
04.04.2022 06:00

Professor Ferrari, what is Russophobia? Is this an existing problem or something that has been triggered by the war?

«We are confronted with a rather complex issue. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, for evident historical reasons, there was a whole population of Russophobes: I am referring to Baltic nations and Poles. However, in other countries this feeling has never existed. Italian culture, for example, has always been highly sympathetic towards Russia, possibly due to the presence of the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. Sadly, the war unleashed by Putin has given rise to forms of Russophobia, which have then extended to the cultural sphere».

Which concerns you the most?

«Even if the episodes are very limited, there is a debate about how deep these manifestations are. The case of Paolo Nori, who was censured by the University of Bicocca, in Milan, has raised controversy. Another university, the University of Trento, has decided to interrupt all academic collaboration with Russian institutions. In reality, what worries me the most is that everywhere, in Europe, a cultural and political narrative has been created that tends to demonize all of Russia. There have even been signs of historical falsification».

To what are you referring?

«I am thinking, for instance, of some of Paolo Mieli's podcasts who, by pivoting on the place of birth, has attributed some writers to the Ukraine who should instead be considered Russian: namely, Gogol or Bulgakov, who have only written in Russian, Vassily Grossman, who was Jewish and wrote in Russian, Joseph Roth, also Jewish but a German author, or Joseph Conrad, who was born in the Ukraine but is an English-speaking novelist. Mieli is neither ignorant nor stupid, but I wonder what was the objective of this work of aimed disinformation».

Did he provide a response?

«Obviously, as is right, the Ukrainians are being granted a lot of visibility and there is a very high uptake of their demands. However, I would hope that their demand to sever all cultural relations with Russia will not be granted. Many Russian intellectuals are against the war and the main purpose of culture is to unite people. To strike at culture is absurd».

In this regard, the voices of dissent in Russia seem to be few. Even among intellectuals.

«Actually, this is not the case. I could mention many names: Olga Sedakova, for example, the best known and most important surviving Russian poet; the sociologist Grigory Yudin; the artistic director of the Moscow State Theater Dmitry Volkostrelov, who was fired after writing a critical post on Facebook; or Ivan Velikanov, conductor of the Nizhny Novgorod Opera, who was suspended from his post because on the evening of February 25, before the performance of the program, he made a brief speech rejecting the war and had Beethoven's Ode to Joy performed. But to speak out against the war have also been the theater director Lev Dodin, the actress and television host Julia Menshova, the actor Anatoly Bely, the singer Sergey Lazarev, the actress Elizaveta Boyarskaya».

Yet polls, even independent ones, say Putin's popularity is at an all-time high.

«It's true. The majority of the population is with Putin because they are patriotic, they receive a patriotic education, they are kept informed only through state TV. Putin has been very skillful in whittling down all forms of political opposition. In the first days of the war we saw many arrests, then dissent expressed itself in other forms. Many young people are fleeing, opposition is made by abandoning the country: this is the real Russian catastrophe, Putin's inability to keep the best forces at home».

But what is Russia today, in your opinion?

«Despite everything, I still do not consider it a dictatorship; I studied in the Soviet Union, and that was a genuine totalitarian regime. What is certain is that Russia is becoming more and more authoritarian and autocratic, and the spaces of freedom are becoming much smaller. Both Russia and China are not moving towards democracy, they are undergoing opposite dynamics. It is up to us to decide what to do.»


«There are two types of attitude on the part of the West: not having relations and increasing the level of opposition; or recognizing the existence of different political paths, finding an acceptable modus vivendi».

How can the relationship between Russia and Europe be in the future? About «otherness and similarity» of the two contexts, you wrote that «Russia is not »totally other« than Europe, it is rather a special part of European culture». Putin, in his speeches, states the opposite, he claims a clear distance between Russian and European culture.

«Modern Russian culture following Peter the Great has been a European culture. For three centuries Russia has been a very large part of the European culture: in literature, in music, in painting. The 19th century Russian novel is the greatest ever, but then there are Chagall, Kandinsky, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky: we are talking about giants of European culture, and to simply forget about them under the influence of a war is wrong. The conflict, I hope as soon as possible, will end, and we will have to go back to creating culture with this country. To demonize it by hitting the easiest area is an unforgivable mistake. Even today in Russia there is an extremely lively culture, there are great writers and great artists. What we must not do is to confuse a war wanted by a political leadership with a country and a culture that have no responsibility in all this».

Regrettably, the position of the Orthodox Church is not helping to foster a path of peace or a rapprochement. Why?

«Because the Orthodox Church is very conservative and close to power, which has always characterized all Orthodox national churches. Even in Soviet times, when it regained some leeway after its early decades of violent repression, the Russian Church was fundamentally loyal to the regime. It may or may not be liked, but it is part of the specific character of Orthodoxy. There is another element that must be stressed: after the dissolution of the USSR, the cultural and Ideological vacuum left by the end of communism was filled with the harmony between Church and State. Putin has turned his loyalty to Orthodox and Christian values into a key element of his policy of values, pointing to the Russian system as the most morally sound, in contrast to the degenerate West».