Cartoon by Dutch artist Arend van Dam
The new century brought a tremendous amount of unity and connectedness to the artists worldwide. Many of the world’s famous artists are uniting their efforts against xenophobia, racism, hatred and bullying. However there are regrettable exceptions even to something as beneficent to humanity as fine arts.
Valentina Lisitsa is one such exception. She is propelled to the status of martyr for free speech by the media while she calls an ethnic and cultural group “dog feces” and “pigs” and promotes violence. She tweets that Ukrainians need “strong meds” next to images of Holocaust victims. Ms. Lisitsa has more than one idea on how to “cure” Ukrainians – she tweets: “Russia sent 1,000 men into Ukraine?.. why not send 100 times more and finish it in 3 days?” Since last summer she has published material that incites hatred and violence against Ukrainian people and spews insults against other ethnicities, Holocaust victims, people with disabilities and mental illness, and black Africans, among others.
After months of attempted mitigation, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) decided to dissociate themselves from Ms. Lisitsa for her hate-inciting and racist tweets. However, Ms. Lisitsa responded with a major PR campaign describing herself as a martyr for free speech while encouraging her fans to bully the TSO. Under tremendous pressure, the world famous pianist, Stewart Goodyear, who was supposed to replace Ms. Lisitsa during the TSO concert, had to withdraw from it. Obviously shaken by the ordeal, he shared:
“Her [Lisitsa’s] words offended many people who perceived her as pro-violence and anti-love. Her most recent “plea” to her fans and followers to attack the orchestra that released her of her performance schedule was unfortunate. Free speech has consequences, and one most own one’s position. Dragging other people who have nothing to do with her position does nothing constructive. Her attitude, and the mob-like behavior of her devotees, censored Rachmaninoff’s second concerto.”
Immediately, the Kremlin-controlled media went into a complete frenzy over Lisitsa with further promotion of war propaganda and vilification of the West. This rhetoric was also picked up by many in the mainstream media in Canada and UK portraying Lisitsa as a martyr of free speech and a victim of censorship, yet coverage in the United States focused on Lisitsa’s racist tweets. Some went as far as comparing Lisitsa to the victims of Charlie Hebdo – an immoral and rather inappropriate comparison given that she lost a contract while others lost their lives. Ms. Lisitsa continues tweeting and expressing her views in public. No one jails Lisitsa for her speech, while the Russian government jailed people for just holding “Je Suis Charlie” signs. How is her freedom of speech infringed on or limited in any way? The truth is Ms. Lisitsa simply refuses to take responsibility for her speech unlike all of us must do.
Few remember that in 2014, both Opera Australia and La Monnaie Opera in Brussels dismissed the Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri over her Facebook post where she referred to gay people as “fecal masses.” Ms. Iveri found very few supporters and there were no editorials defending such a vile position. Finally Ms. Iveri apologized for her remarks. Why didn’t the Canadian media portray Ms. Iveri as yet another martyr for freedom of speech as they did with Ms. Lisitsa? What about the right of businesses to disassociate from performers, contractors and employees who have a negative effect on their bottom line? Businesses have a right to care about their image, and fire those who hurt it and their profits – this is business, not censorship.
Important observation to note is that Ms. Lisitsa’s PR campaign coincides with disproportional injections of Kremlin propaganda rhetoric into mainstream press in Canada where the Lisitsa’s tweets are cherry-picked to transition into a political discussion, which boasts of propaganda material about events in Ukraine. Canada has a strong position of supporting Ukraine and it is something that Kremlin desperately wants to change. Also, some anti-government groups in Canada who care less about Ukraine are using propaganda language to score few points against the current Canadian government.
The Kremlin propaganda machine is spending billions on its overseas operations and is vigorously engaging Putin lobbyists and sympathizers across the globe, including in Canada. The Lisitsa debate provides an excuse and opportunity for activating those lobby groups and further developing platforms for distributing Kremlin propaganda in Canada. The purpose is to confuse the Canadian public about the real state of events in Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in them and doubt Canada’s official response. This dynamic is worrisome as the propaganda is aimed at inciting inter-ethnic hatred and promoting violence. It is already poisoning some in Russian speaking communities in Canada who bully and even post personal threats to those disagreeing with Putin’s lies. Is it the direction we want to see Canada taking?
Note: The authors gratefully acknowledge Arend van Dam for contributing his art to support this article and helping to debunk Kremlin propaganda.