It is utter sacrilege for the Yale Russian Chorus to sing Ukrainian songs during Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This falsely indicates that Ukrainian culture can well be put under the Russian boot, that Ukrainians are just “small” Russians and that they deserve to be conquered by “their” Mother Russia. Has the Yale Russian Chorus not viewed the genocide that Russia has inflicted upon innocent Ukrainians in Bucha and Mariupol? By not acting, the Yale Russian Chorus is on the wrong side of this war.
The parallels between Russia’s propaganda and the messages the YRC spreads are striking. In mainstream Russian thought, Ukrainians are just malorossy — which means small Russians — an insignificant branch of the Russian nation. Ukrainians do not recognize these labels and call themselves Ukrainians — a recognition they are fighting for right now.
Cultural legacy, such as music, lies at the heart of this contention. By including the Ukrainian cultural legacy in the wider Russian heritage, Russians fuse the Ukrainian nation into Russia, casting the ongoing genocide of Ukrainians as a civil war between Russians and “lost” Russians.
A similar extreme appropriation of Ukrainian culture plays out in the Yale Russian Chorus. Despite performing at least five Ukrainian songs, the Yale Russian Chorus does not deem Ukrainian music different enough from Russian music to refrain from including it under their exclusively Russian name.
The Yale Russian Chorus’s disclaimers about the origin of a song do not help. Upon hearing a disclaimer, their audience would naturally ponder, “Why does the Russian Chorus perform Ukrainian and Georgian songs? It must be that these cultures are connected to Russia somehow.” This is precisely the effect Russia’s war propaganda is trying to achieve.
In a recent interview with the News, the Yale Russian Chorus hid behind the claim of “cultural understanding” to justify their extreme appropriation. The Yale Russian Chorus ignores the effects of their appropriation because the Russian society has been appropriating Ukrainian culture for 300 years. Any activity that even tangentially advances the fusion of Ukrainian and Russian cultures is an act of Russian imperialism, not “cultural understanding.”
There are legitimate examples of cultural appreciation, like the Yale Slavic Chorus or the Lithuanian Bel Canto Choir Vilnius, which perform the Ukrainian traditional song Shchedryk, also known as “Carol of The Bells.” American, Lithuanian and other non-Russian choirs may sing Ukrainian music. Unlike the Russian people, Americans and Lithuanians do not call for the colonization of Ukraine due to their alleged cultural connection with Ukrainians.
The Yale Russian Chorus refused to change its name even after I and other Ukrainian students outlined to them all the above grievances in a group meeting. Instead of renouncing their appropriation of Ukrainian culture, the Yale Russian Chorus will “include more Ukrainian songs,” now making the bulk of their setlist Ukrainian while still calling themselves Russian.At our meeting, the Yale Russian Chorus told us they fear bad press in Russia because Russian channels like Russia Today would immediately pick up the news about their name change. The Yale Russian Chorus’ trips to Russia would end because no Russian organization would want to work with them.
They also worry about how their alumni would react, as they receive large financial and career benefits from them. Yet, their alumni highlight how crucial it is for the chorus to sing “music from Russia, Central and Eastern Europe (including Ukraine)” while still being called the Russian Chorus.
As it is unwilling to embrace an inclusive name, the Yale Russian Chorus should stop performing the music of the countries Russia had previously colonized. I see no problem with singing Russian music, but the chorus should live up to its name of being exclusively Russian.
On our part, we should consider whether an organization tacitly supports wars and imperialism before interacting with them. We should also ensure no taxpayer’s money goes to such organizations. According to a recent Yale Russian Chorus’ interview with the News, the State Department planned to provide a grant to the chorus even though it advances Russian imperialist narratives during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the Yale community, we should ensure Connecticut representatives, such as Sen. Blumenthal and Rep. DeLauro, press the State Department to cut its ties with the Yale Russian Chorus and other organizations that ideologically align with Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Oleksii Antoniuk is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.