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via Instagram / @madonna

Can pop culture actually help to end the Ukraine war?

When the people of Ukraine asked for solidarity, Sainsbury’s relabelling their Chicken Kiev to Chicken Kyiv probably wasn’t what they had in mind

The west’s response to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has been one of immediate and unequivocal condemnation. On an individual level, social media platforms are playing host to the usual slew of infographics, aggregated news and fundraiser links that are now par for the course whenever a global tragedy occurs. What has been less expected, however, is the sheer speed with which businesses, cultural institutions and pop culture figures have rushed to distance themselves from Russia.

Within days of the invasion, the Glasgow Film Festival pulled two Russian features on the bill, a joint statement from FIFA and UEFA announced that Russian teams would be suspended from participation until further notice, Live Nation released a statement confirming that it will not promote any shows in Russia, and the European Broadcast Union banned the country from entering this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Meanwhile, bar owners across the United States were filmed pouring bottles of Russian Standard into the street, as one landlady in Burton-On-Trent personally barred Putin from her pub, claiming the customers would “wreck him”. Even cats bred in Russia were disqualified from competing at the Fédération Internationale Féline.

Many of these boycotts were undertaken in an effort to sever direct ties to the Kremlin (the Glasgow Film Festival, for example, clarified that both features that were pulled had received state funding via the CF Cinema Fund, whose board of trustees includes current ministers of the Russian government and the Russian ministry of culture). However, there have also been some symbolic actions – Netflix shutting down its service in Russia, Comparethemarket pulling their long-running ‘meerkat’ ad campaign – that have been met with apprehension. Are these meaningful displays of solidarity from the international community, or another BLM ‘black square’ that comes with the added injury of fuelling a Cold War-like atmosphere of xenophobia?

Modern pop culture is often ill-equipped to deal with disaster, which is confusing when it’s how the vast majority of people make sense of things. Musicians, artists, actors and writers have all famously struggled to navigate their roles in the increasingly literal, verbal landscape of political awareness, often coming “under fire” when they do. Adjacently, the corporate hijacking of social justice language as a branding exercise – first through pop feminism, but particularly following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement – has left us jaded and cynical. As we attempt to process horrific news collectively in real-time, what pop culture has to offer feels insubstantial and petty; “thoughts and prayers” writ large. We’re frustrated that there are so many other atrocities deserving of a similar response that have been met with silence or resistance, and we’re exhausted by anyone with a Twitter handle being compelled to “weigh in” on every news update even though we created that expectation ourselves.

The era of social media as a utopian device to put communication – and, by extension, the truth – back in the hands of the people went out the window somewhere between the Arab Spring and Kony 2012. Since then, we’ve been caught in a cyclical limbo. Engage, react, debate. We’ve never been more aware of things, or less equipped to deal with them. Speed has become the definitive mode of response, which perpetuates a culture of over-saturation that is tone-deaf, narcissistic, and completely out of step with the gravity of what’s happening. What we want is to try to comprehend what’s going on and express despair, sympathy, support. What we get is Eden off of Nip/Tuck doing a poem about how none of this would be happening if she was Putin’s mother. Or Madonna reposting a fan-made remix of “Sorry” that splices footage of her writhing in a purple leotard with war photography and images of Hitler overlayed on Putin’s face. Or Succession’s Brian Cox highlighting the censorship of Russian performers and Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s background as a comic in a speech at the SAG Awards. Or the relentless hum of the terminally online bemoaning those things for being out of touch, which achieves even less.

A lot of what we’re seeing is rooted in a long history of strategised cultural and academic boycotts, which have always played a powerful geopolitical role – from the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa to the current Palestinian-led BDS movement. It’s in this spirit that prominent Ukrainian directors and producers have proposed a boycott of Russian cinema, which has been endorsed by the European Film Academy and, conditionally, the Cannes and Venice film festivals, who have banned those tied to the Russian government from attending but will still be showing Russian films. Because boycotts have come so swiftly across the board, though, these responses have gotten mixed up with the knee-jerk ones, like the cancellation of the animated meerkat family or the debate over what to do with a Soviet-era Engles statue in Manchester.

Ultimately, none of the dumb shit really matters. Ukrainian people will suffer, Russian people will suffer, and that will be the case regardless of whether or not Anastasia is available to stream on Disney+. Boycotts can be a way to make a statement right now, but the process of actually making sense of things can only happen with time. It’s not normal for us to be operating like this, at this pace, at this frequency. As the world watches the violence unfold, the world is also watching the response, which, like everything in our present era, is grotesquely individualised. We look to pop culture, and to each other, to figure out what to say, how to act and where to help – but what we find never feels right. How could it? Confronted with horrors we are fortunate enough to be physically distanced from but still emotionally affected by, people will do what comes naturally: try to communicate their point of view in a way that makes sense to them. Sometimes that will come through devastating lived experience, like Demna’s Balenciaga show. Sometimes that will come through writing a weird little poem. And sometimes, if you are on the ground in Ukraine for instance, that will come through making TikToks identifying all the things in your “bomb shelter” that “just make sense”. 

There is very little clarity in the midst of chaos, so there is no point in hoping to see it reflected in pop culture right now. When the people of Ukraine asked for solidarity, Sainsbury’s relabelling their Chicken Kiev to Chicken Kyiv probably wasn’t what they had in mind, but amid the vast litany of war crimes Russia is committing I don’t think anyone’s going to hold it against them.