Street musicians singing Russian songs in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv could soon face problems. Likewise, bars and restaurants playing Russian background music may end up getting in trouble.
The reason is that Kyiv city council has issued a temporary ban on performing or showcasing Russian-language art and culture — such as books, music, plays and concerts — in public. This ban also encompasses cultural and educational programs. The restriction not only applies to works by Russian authors and creators, but to all cultural products publicly presented in or translated into Russian.
Ukrainian MPs said the move was designed to protect Ukraine from Russian influence. “Russia is the language of the aggressor and it has no place in the heart of our capital,” said Vadym Vasylchuk, the deputy chairman of the Standing Committee on Education and Science, Youth and Sports.
The move is backed by Ukraine’s Vidsich (Defense) movement, which began calling for a ban on the Russian language and Russian goods, films and music in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea. “A ban on Russian-language cultural products is necessary,” Vidsich activist Kateryna Chepura told DW. “This is an additional lever for activists working to boycott everything Russian, so we can say: shut it down, remove Russian from public life.”
The Kyiv city council ban, however, is temporary, lending it a symbolic quality only. A permanent, legally binding ban would require support from Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.
As a result, Chepura calls Kyiv’s temporary ban “an ineffective instrument, because you cannot be held accountable for disregarding it.” She regards it as a “moral factor encouraging people who do not want to continue tolerating Russian music on the streets or in theater.”
In fact, certain Russian-language cultural products are already prohibited in Ukraine. The bans date back to September 2019, when the first restrictions were imposed in the region of Lviv. Subsequently, other cities like Ternopil and Zhytomyr in the Volhynia region, followed suit.
Cause for controversy
Human rights activist Volodymyr Yavorskyy of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, however, said such bans are discriminatory and unconstitutional. “These are illegal decisions, because local authorities have no right to regulate such issues and impose such bans,” Yavorskyy told DW. “That is why they have no legal consequences.” The judiciary, he added, had already deemed such local bans illegal.
A person violating the Kyiv city council moratorium on Russian cultural products cannot be held accountable, Yaworskyy said. “These bans issued by local authorities are nothing but political gestures — only the Ukrainian parliament can turn such bans into law.” Only then, he said, would they become legally binding and enforceable.
In June 2022, the Ukrainian parliament already banned publicly playing songs by Russian artists. The restriction does not, however, apply to Russian singers who condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine. Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also signed a law banning the import and distribution of Russian books. It was passed by parliament last year.
Regardless of whether or not local bans are in place, playing Russian music in public is bound to cause controversy. Take, for instance, a recent disagreement between a 17-year-old busker and Ukrainian MP Natalya Pipa. She complained when the teenager performed songs by Russian rock legend Viktor Tsoi on the street in Lviv, who in return insulted the woman, saying he was allowed to play whatever music he liked. Later, however, the busker published a video in which he apologized to the lawmaker.
Another altercation occurred in the village of Pohreby, in the Kyiv region. There, a young woman was thrown out of a cafe for complaining that the establishment was playing a song by Russian pop singer Grigory Leps supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Do not copy Russian aggression
Yevgenia Belorusets, a Ukrainian artist, translator and author who works in Ukrainian Russian and German, says the Russian-language ban is discriminatory. “These bans perpetuate the myth that Ukrainian culture is always being discriminated against,” she told DW. “This then supposedly gives it the right to discriminate against other forms of cultural expression.”
“Ukrainian-language culture knows too well how discrimination feels,” she added. “It should not try to overcome this trauma by inflicting similar pain on others.” The creator said Ukraine should not mirror Russian aggressors and refrain from “projecting Russia’s aggressive intentions onto Ukraine’s complex cultural situation.”
Belorusets said language bans could divide Ukrainian society, warning that “it’s getting harder and harder to talk about this in Ukraine, because doing so is immediately labeled as a hostile act.” Ukraine’s future as a democratic state, she said, depends on granting everyone their rights and accepting their own complicated past. “The challenge consists in accepting competing views within society.”
This article was translated from German.