The Festival of Stolen Culture

Recently, I have seen a poster of the so-called “Festival of Russian Culture in India” in the city where I live, organized by the local Russian consulate. There were three events on the list. The first one was the Dagestani dance performance. The second — the ensemble of the Cossack song “Krinitsa”. And last but not the least there was an ensemble playing in the “crossover” genre and that is also a perfect illustration to what I am about to say.

The musical genre “crossover” is by definition associated with cultural appropriation, using the distinctive qualities of different national music traditions to appeal to mass tastes. And cultural appropriation, let me kindly remind you with a Wikipedia quote, “is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.

The word “krinitsa” does not exist in a Russian language, it exists in Belarusian and Ukrainian ones. “Krinitsa” means “a well” rendered in Russian by all the dictionaries with totally different words with different roots.

As for the Dagestani dance performance, the word “Dagestan” is of Turkish or a Persian origin and means “the land of mountains”. It is located in the Caucasus mountain range and nowadays is Russia’s most heterogeneous republic with more than 40 different ethnicities most of whom speak either Caucasian or Turkic or Iranian languages. Not much to do with ethnic Russian culture, but this land just happened to end up under Russian rule.

Why would a Russian ensemble choose a Belarusian or Ukrainian name if they were representing an authentic Russian culture? Why do they think that a Dagestani dance can represent their culture? Why is cultural appropriation a core of Russian culture in general? Don’t they have their own? Or maybe they just built the myth of the “great” culture while absorbing all the best from the suppressed nations and presenting it like their own?

Let me confirm this statement with the two most known symbols of Russian culture: matryoshka dolls and borscht, both so much recognised around the world. Recently, UNESCO put borscht in its “Endangered Heritage List”, officially proving its Ukrainian origin and protecting this culinary heritage from being appropriated by the aggressor. And now, matryoshkas. Guess what, the concept was also stolen! Originally, they come from Japan known there as “kokeshi”. At the end of the 19th century, a Russian entrepreneur Savva Mamontow brought a set of such dolls, the figurines of the seven deities of happiness and had his painter put a peasant face of a Russian woman on it. Good luck googling that!

And so, why would you call a cultural festival with the name of the culture it does not represent?

Author: Iryna Vikyrchak, Ukrainian writer

Illustrator: Victoria Boyko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski