Why Valentina Lisitsa was fired

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has become subject to divided opinions over its recent decision to fire American pianist Valentina Lisitsa, a prominent musical figure born in Soviet Ukraine of Russian descent who has since become known for her vitriolic online campaigns supporting the Russian war effort.

TSO president and CEO Jeff Melanson has responded on the controversy, saying that the decision was based on Lisitsa’s provocative comments overshadowing past performances. Lisitsa, for her part, has defined her rhetoric as “satire and hyperbole” that she uses to “combat lies.”

This issue has since devolved into a matter of freedom of speech, and whether the TSO was right to act.

While the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is free to hire and fire who they choose as a private entity, critics are slamming the move to disassociate from Lisitsa as a violation of “freedom of speech.” More problematic has been the media response, which has entirely missed the provocative nature of her political commentary.

Russian media is framing Lisitsa’s stance as being “anti-Kyiv,” while the National Post has headlined her commentary as simply “denouncing neo-Nazis,” with CTV and The Globe & Mail further muddying the issue to be over mere “political views” “against the current Ukrainian government.” Rabble.ca says the issue was with her “anti-war views” and the Globe also says she ‘opposes the civil war.’

The truth of the matter is radically different and justifies why so many people have been offended by her over the past year.

To understand the postings below, it’s important to note that her references to “Nazis” are meant to be pejorative, and not in political terms. Over 3 million Ukrainians were murdered during the Holocaust, and Nazi occupation spanned the entire country. Referring to them as “Nazis” is meant to be strictly offensive, and not related to actual Nazi leanings, current or historical.

Her public position has also been contradictory or hypocritical, saying she was proud of the “magnificent revolution” in Ukraine on her post-firing Facebook statement, but called it an ‘illegitimate’ “west-sponsored coup” days prior.

We won’t go over every objectionable tweet in this article (they are publicly viewable). Some iconize Russian terrorist leaders accused of summary executions mass graves, one trivializes the Germanwings crash, others threaten NATO & U.S. troops, and one even mocks Down Syndrome awareness.

She is a supporter of war denial, toeing the  Kremlin line that Russia never invaded Ukraine – an indisputable fact at this point. She has spread conspiracies of ‘Ukrainian concentration camps’, saying in one: “In a new European Ukraine, the camps will give the subhumans [ethnic Russians] condemned to the gas chambers an opportunity to offset their carbon footprint.” She insisted on a CBC radio interview that her statement was true, but naturally, it was an internet hoax.

In the past, Ms. Lisitsa has also come out in support of a controversial New York art exhibit sponsored by Russia’s far-right and connected to Alexander Prokhanov, a notorious anti-Semitic conspiracist.

Suffice it to say, her views are varied.

Be the judge

This is one of the more widely cited tweets because of its racist nature. Here she is mocking Ukrainians wearing traditional attire as “tribal” with a sarcastic jab implying that the practice of doing so is primitive.

 

In two other tweets Lisitsa (remember, she says she is ‘anti war’) says Ukrainians are infected and need to be “cured” with a Russian invasion (“folk medicine”). In a separate instance she wishes Ukrainians a “speedy recovery” and suggests ‘strong medication’ while posting a picture of Holocaust victims. It’s up for interpretation if she implied Ukrainians need a dose of Zyklon-B, or if picturing Buchenwald victims was a specific reference as many were subject to human experimentation; or if she was illustrating Russians as victims to Ukrainian aggression, trivializing the Holocaust. All interpretations are offensive.

 

This isn’t her sole invocation of the Holocaust. In June she criticized Jewish-Russian opposition leader Gary Kasparov by blaming “Western democracies” for the Holocaust itself.

 

Aside from the xenophobic jab below where she implies that Ukrainian isn’t a real language (‘pardon’), she attaches a picture calling Jewish Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky a kike. The actual Ukrainian translation of the shirt (which may also be a photoshop) is meant to be an ironic form of “Jewish enemy,” and in Russian is a re-appropriation of two anti-Semitic and anti-Ukrainian terms to play on Russian prejudices, and is explained in depth here and here. Her contempt extends to pro-Ukraine Israelis.

 

In opposition to her professed anti-war stance, Lisitsa took issue with U.S. troops showing solidarity in Estonia recently, and suggested that Russia would defeat them in war. She pairs this with pictures of Soviet soldiers marching Nazi (‘NATO’) POWs and tearing down NATO and Ukrainian flags.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 6.16.35 PM

Lisitsa also calls for Ukrainians to take up arms against ‘Rothschild debt collectors.’

 

In a now-deleted tweet, Lisitsa publishes in Ukrainian: “This is more correct: Dear [ethnic] Ukrainians! I will never get tired of reminding you that you are dog shit. Thank you for your attention.” To clarify my translation, the quote directly says “conscious Ukrainians” (‘svidomi’), commonly used as a slur by Russians who refer to Ukrainians as “svidomites.” The term disparages “self aware” Ukrainians, that is to say, those who identify as ethnic Ukrainian and not as a sub-group of Russians. Thus, she is both referring to Ukrainians as ‘defective‘ and, of course, ‘dog shit.’ To belabor this point, the person she is tweeting to, n_marmaleykina, posted a graphic featuring Gabonese tribesmen with the caption “conscious savages.”

And in one bizarre instance photoshopped a pro-Ukrainian user’s tweet to mislead her followers.

Final thoughts

Did objection to the above violate Lisitsa’s rights? Naturally, it’s difficult to say her right to express herself was violated since she is a pianist, and not a public speaker.

Barring the fact that Lisitsa is not a Canadian citizen, and nobody is prohibiting her from speaking in any capacity on her own time (her social media following has, if anything, grown), Canadian hate speech laws give a good example why sometimes limits are necessary. As Canadian lawyer David Butt points out, “our constitution protects not only free expression, but multiculturalism and equality as well. So to read the constitution holistically, we cannot permit one protected freedom to undermine other rights and freedoms enjoying equal status.” Secondly, “the Supreme Court recognized the insidious impact of propaganda campaigns that gain social traction and incrementally dull our rational faculties and empathy. Perhaps paternalistic, but the court is saying sometimes we need to be protected from our baser and stupider selves.”

And it is these types of hate-laced propaganda campaigns that Ms. Lisitsa participates in that the TSO simply doesn’t want to promote or be associated with – and that is their right.

Harper: Putin has to be opposed very strongly

In and interview with CP24’s Stephen Ledrew in Toronto, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated his and Canada’s position towards Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think not just to me but to the world, Mr. Putin has defied a pretty obvious principle and that is we do not redraw boundaries by military force. We have not been doing that since the Second World War — anywhere — so this is a very important principle he’s violated.”

I had reached conclusions about the nature of this man and the kind of place he was leading his country and ultimately leading the world

“I think I would tell you that, quite frankly, having grown up with many Ukrainian friends, understanding that experience probably alerts me even more to it. But also just the fact that I’ve dealt with Mr. Putin for a number of years and I don’t think it was any secret to other G7 leaders, or to this country, that I had reached conclusions about the nature of this man and the kind of place he was leading his country and ultimately leading the world, and I think he has to be opposed very strongly.”

When asked about his widely publicized encounter with Putin during the G20 Summit in Australia, Harper doubled down on his actions:

“I guess I don’t know what else I would have said to him. He and I, I guess we’re not the closest of friends, and he came over, we were in an awkward position where we had to shake hands and I have only one thing to say to him, and that is: get out of Ukraine. And frankly as long as he continues to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity I don’t have a lot else to say to the man.”

 

Why Canada stands with Ukraine and what it is doing to help

Economic and non-lethal military aid comprise Canada’s cautious approach — but that could soon change

From the start of the Ukraine crisis, Canada has been one of the country’s staunchest supporters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has condemned, in turn, the killing of protesters at Maidan, Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea, its move into eastern Ukraine, and its “slow motion” invasion which continues to this day.

Harper was thrust into the international spotlight in November for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Australia to “get out of Ukraine.” He also said it was important to keep the pressure on Russia, no matter how long it takes, until Crimea is returned to Ukrainians. Failing to do so, he added, would only whet Russia’s appetite for similar aggression. While he has vowed to “never accept the illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia,” Canada’s prime minister has been tight-lipped about whether Canada could give Ukraine weapons and other lethal military aid to fight Kremlin-backed insurgents in the Donbas and its surrounding area. This, however, could change, as Minsk-2 continues to unravel owing to infractions by Russia and the rebels it arms.

Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister says the country is preparing for a full-scale war against Russia and wants Canada to help by supplying lethal weapons and the training to use them. Vadym Prystaiko, who until last year was Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, says the world must not be afraid of joining Ukraine in a fight against a nuclear power.

In an interview Feb. 21 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Prystaiko said the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France is not holding. “We see that they are not stopping,” he said, suggesting the fight was heading south to the port of Mariupol. “They are taking more and more strategic points.”

Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Defence, said in response that Canada doesn’t have large stockpiles of weapons to give, though it could acquire some from other vendors and then supply Ukraine. The backrooms will be buzzing with contingencies and scenarios, while pollsters will soon be gauging public support for such action. At the same time, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council is appealing to the United Nations and European Union to deploy a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s southeast region. Given its strong reputation in peacekeeping, having pioneered the concept during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Canada could also assist in this way. When the United Kingdom, France and Israel invaded Egyptian territory, Lester Pearson, as Canada’s ambassador to the UN, suggested the creation of a UN Emergency Force to police that area, thus permitting the invading nations to withdraw with a minimum loss of face. For his efforts, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

But given Russia’s initial refusal to permit peacekeepers in the region, it appears the more likely course for the West is that of providing lethal defensive weaponry to help Ukraine repel rebel/Russian advances and increase the cost to Russia of continued aggression. In November, Canada provided $11 million in non-lethal aid including cold weather clothing, night vision goggles, and medical training, including a mobile field hospital, aid welcomed by soldiers on the front lines. Last fall, President Petro Poroshenko thanked Canadians while visiting Ottawa for their support, but also came seeking sophisticated surveillance aid for his army. This was declined.

The United States has also been declining Ukrainian requests for lethal military aid, providing last November $52 million in materials similar to those of Canada, and since then the total has risen to $120 million. Europe, likewise, has been reluctant to go the lethal aid route, focusing instead of diplomatic efforts, which now appear exhausted.

In “What the West Can And Should Do For Ukraine,” the European Leadership Network argues for a “broader effort” beyond military aid and sanctions, which have failed to deter the Russian decision-makers but hurt the Russian people and Europe. Further sanctions, it fears, could create a failed state with nuclear weapons. Also in need of attention and help, it says, are reforms, economic development and anti-corruption efforts.

This is consistent with Canada’s multi-pronged policy on Ukraine. Most recently, Canada’s Trade Minister Ed Fast on Jan. 26 in Kyiv announced plans to provide $52 million to support dairy and grain production. And talks about a free trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine continue. “We discussed the outlook for signing a free trade agreement between our countries,” said Ukrainian Economic and Development and Trade Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, an investment banker. “A few sensitive aspects remain. Signing this agreement would help to increase trade with Canada and help increase investment.” The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries increased sharply in 2014 over 2013. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, it amounted to $218.6 million USD, representing a 41 per cent surge in goods from Canada, while Ukraine sent 32 per cent more product to Canada in 2014 than in 2013.

In addition, Canada has been working on bilateral assistance to help Ukraine create a computerized land registry, both to assist the development of agriculture and to discourage illegal land transfers. This $1-million program is a skills and information transfer from professors at Vancouver Island University to those at the University of Kyiv and the Institute of Geography and the National Academy of Sciences. Staff there would then pass along the mapping techniques to the Ukrainian civil service. After nine years as prime minister, Harper is a respected member of the Group of Seven, while Canada is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which took part in the fight for Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya. Winston Churchill called Canada the “aerodrome of democracy” during the Second World War because of its network of training facilities for Allied pilots (one of whom was the author’s father, a Halifax bomber pilot who flew 34 operations over Nazi Germany and occupied France in 1944).

With a population of 35 million, only a tenth the size of the United States, Canada is a middle power, more known for its “honest broker” image than its military clout. But this similarity to Ukraine’s population of some 40 million, plus its vast plains, snowy winters and 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent, make it strongly similar to Ukraine in many key ways, and sympathetic to the struggles of Ukrainians.

Canada’s public life boasts many stars of Ukrainian heritage, such as musician Randy Bachman, astronaut Roberta Bondar, politicians Ray Hnatyshyn (former governor general) and Roy Romanow (former premier of Saskatchewan), TV show host Alex Trebek and hockey players Bill Barilko, Mike Bossy, Dale Hawerchuk and Wayne Gretzky.

Ukrainian immigrants came by the thousands in the early years of the 20th century to clear and farm the rugged land in central Manitoba and Saskatchewan which today boasts proud and successful ethnic-Ukrainian communities such as Dauphin. Without such strong and skilled farmers, Canada would not be the prosperous and successful country it is today, since agriculture was a foundation stone of its early development and continues to be an important part of its economy, with the grandsons and granddaughters of those early settlers continuing, in many cases, to work the land.

The blood is thick, therefore, between Ukraine and Canada, as it is between the U.S. and Canada.

If the U.S. decides, as is possible and even likely, to follow the advice of Steven Pifer and other foreign policy experts to provide defensive weaponry to Ukraine, then Canada and some European states such as Poland are almost sure to follow. Such weapons as anti-tank and anti-mortar systems are not an offensive threat to Moscow but would be of assistance to the Ukrainian army in its bid to prevent the loss of further territory, following fall of Debaltseve in mid-February.

Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a former Ambassador to Ukraine, supports providing $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine this year and each of the next two. He, Strobe Talbott and six other security experts collaborated to produce the recent study Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do. “For the West,” Pifer wrote in the Washington Post, “the issue goes beyond Ukraine. Russia has torn up the rule book that maintained peace, stability and security for almost 70 years, and it has now used force to change borders. If the West does not push back, it could face challenges, even armed challenges, from Russia elsewhere that require far more costly responses,” referring to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, NATO’s Baltic states.

The danger is that such action could trigger an escalation on the Russian side as well. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and others warn of escalation and a possible nuclear war, if the West slides further into the conflict and confronts Russia directly. Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at Western Europe and the U.S., while the U.S. could devastate Russia with Trident II missiles from a few of its Ohio-class submarines. This stand-off called MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) kept heads cool during the Cold War; whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen.

Pifer is concerned that continued inaction carries more risks to the West in terms of conventional war than the measures he supports. He encourages the U.S. to approach fellow NATO member states about helping Ukraine, though this has almost certainly been done. It is in Canada’s military and political tradition to assist democratic states facing military invasion, as its roles in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War attest. Canada is currently active in fighting Islamic extremists, with jet fighters deployed to help combat ISIS, while Canadians fought and 158 died as part of the West’s long effort in Afghanistan. Boosting aid to Ukraine isn’t out of the question, and would fit into this foreign policy paradigm.

Prime Minister Harper was the first Group of Seven leader to visit Kyiv after the crisis began and only one to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration last June. As Harper told the Ukrainian president during his visit to Canada in September, “For Canadians, with our deep connections to the Ukrainian people, this is not to us just a matter of international law or political principle, this is a matter of kinship, this is a matter of family, this is personal and we will stand by you.”

Winnipeg 'Huylo Cake' incident explained

Russian media was abuzz recently over the story of a group of Ukrainians who presented a cake bearing an obscenity to a Russian children’s center in Winnipeg, Canada on June 20. Russian media outlets Pravda and RT described the group as “hooligans” in articles titled “Ukrainian nationalists in Canada bring children cake with swear word on it.” Video later circulated heavily under the provocative title “Ukrainian Nationalists stormed the Russian Children’s Center.”

“The Ukrainian nationalists stepped on the private territory illegally. Specifically, they entered the school, where children were staying. This suggests that the Ukrainian nationalists do not comply with the laws, nor do they care about the safety of children. A children’s school is not a place for political protests,” Russian activists wrote in an appeal of the incident.

Ukrainian activists displaying an anti-Putin poster during the protest
Ukrainian activists displaying an anti-Putin poster during the protest

The actual story, however, paints a clear picture of what would have otherwise been a bizarre form of protest.

According to the Ukrainian community activists, the group intended to protest Russian military aggression and the death of 49 servicemen in Luhansk by intercepting the representative of the Consulate General of Russia who, according to the Consulate’s website, was to be on location for passport renewals of Russian citizens. The Consulate’s website did not state that the venue, located at a public shopping mall, doubled as a Sunday school.

With the school year being over, no children were actually present at the location: only those adults waiting for passports.

Omitted from reports were also the group’s large “Bloody killer” poster displaying a graphic of Vladimir Putin, as well as photographs displaying Ukrainian victims killed servicemen of the ongoing war with Russia.

The full update and rest of the story can be read here.