Cultural boycotts won't help the fight for gay rights in Russia

This week, the Independent revealed that two senior ballet dancers of the UK’s Royal Ballet have decided to boycott the company’s upcoming visit to Russia, choosing not to perform with their colleagues at Russia’s prestigious Bolshoi Theatre. This cultural protest by the two ballet dancers, who have not been named, is part of the growing outrage at Vladimir Putin’s stance on gay issues – specifically a law passed in June 2013 that prohibits the spread of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors’.

Prior to this boycott, art critic and commentator Jonathan Jones called on artists to refuse to perform or exhibit their work in Russia, and ballet choreographer Matthew Bourne, who created the groundbreaking all-male production of Swan Lake, has also said he will not tour the production in Russia on account of the country’s anti-gay legislation.

As a freedom-loving individual, I am critical of the Russian state digging in its heels with this legislation, clinging to a rigid notion of ‘traditional values’ and doling out draconian punishments to those who protest against them. However, a cultural boycott will do nothing to overturn these laws; if anything, it might make it more difficult.

Art should not be part of a political tug-of-war. Artists should look to give as many people as possible the opportunity to experience the arts in all their myriad forms. Cultural boycotts merely salve the individual conscience of the artist doing the boycotting, and it is of little help to the people they claim to support. If artists and performers listened to Russia’s LBGT activists, they would realise that many of them are firmly against international boycotts as a means to furthering the cause for gay rights. For instance, many spoke out against the call to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, arguing that a boycott would do nothing to change legislation and would only help to further isolate the LGBT community.

If Western artists really want to show their solidarity with Russia’s LBGT people, they should uphold the ideals of freedom of expression, freedom of association and free movement. They should bring their art to the people, in defiance of authoritarian states.

However, this is a fight that needs to be fought at home as well as abroad. Russian ballet dancers travelling to Britain are subjected to some of the most illiberal and stifling immigration regulations this country has ever implemented. Visa restrictions recently forced a Swansea-based Russian ballet company to close. The English National Ballet’s artistic director, Tamara Rojo, has expressed great concern that London’s status as a world-leading cosmopolitan capital is under threat due to the UK’s absurd visa rules.

A show of artistic solidarity, defying borders and domestic politics, will make a much stronger case for freedom than any cultural boycott ever could.

Manick Govinda is convenor of the Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists and Academics Campaign.

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