Why are elite Russian musicians backing Putin?

17 April 2022

3:35 AM

17 April 2022

3:35 AM

A world away from the stupendous horror perpetrated by Russian forces in Bucha and Kramatorsk, a parallel conflict is being grittily fought in quite other theatres.

La Scala and The Metropolitan Opera are two of them.

Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Putin’s most favoured conductor, is at the heart of the crossfire. His overseas contracts went up in smoke at the start of the invasion after he failed to recant his long-standing admiration for the Russian president.

On one side of the lines are those who would support him, and who charge that Gergiev’s detractors are ‘cancelling’ Russian culture wholesale. Chief among such is Putin himself: ‘The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are being removed from playbills! Russian writers and their books are being banned!’ he told the viewers of Russian state television.

He’s far from alone in his trepidation. Another vocal supporter of Gergiev, though much less well-known, is Dasha, a woman I worked with at the BBC in Moscow. She was a locally-hired producer, and fun to hang out with, but Dasha eventually left to help set up Russia Today in London, back when nobody took such things seriously. Now she’s a fully paid-up member of the Russian elite, working in Rome for a Kremlin-backed cultural agency. (Her dad sits in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, and is sanctioned.)

The position presents her with lots of opportunities to schmooze and pose for the cameras – in fact, that’s her job. So far, so unsurprising. But I was astonished by an Instagram post Dasha published on the one-month anniversary of her country’s invasion of Ukraine.

It’s a photo of her embracing Gergiev at an earlier event at La Scala, prior to his recent defenestration from the opera house. She’s in a silky dress and fancy heels, and he – well, he looks a bit weird in a sort of kaftan. But both grin gamely for the selfie.

All of that is perhaps as it should be: wearing nice threads and taking the chance to photograph yourself with a celebrity — well who doesn’t, these days? But what for me was truly eye-catching about the post wasn’t the nice frock. It was Dasha’s choice of words.

She described Gergiev as a victim of a new modern curse: the unreasonable hatred of Russians. ‘This photo was taken when culture had yet to fall victim of those who’d score points by following the trend of Russophobic hysteria’ she wrote.

Let’s leave aside that fact that Gergiev cheerfully directs orchestras in Putin’s blood-soaked warzones — Palmyra in Syria, South Ossetia in Georgia, and other faraway places. And forget that the conductor featured in a television commercial backing his friend’s 2012 re-election. ‘They must fear you, or respect you: but let them reckon with you,’ intones the maestro, encouraging Russians to feel Putin’s majesty yet again.

All of which seems a pretty good reason to take with a pinch of salt Dasha’s plea that culture and politics ought to be kept separate. Gergiev’s career alone demonstrates amply that they are not. In the same way, KGB goons running the Russian Olympic doping effort gave the lie to chirping about the sanctity of sport. It’s not ‘Russophobic’ to say that such enterprises stink to high heaven.

And let’s also overlook the irony that Dasha, living comfortably in Europe, has full access to Zuckerberg’s box of social media tricks. The platforms where she posts her plangent observations – like Facebook and Instagram – have long been outlawed back home in Russia as ‘extremist’.

No, the thing that seemed to me thoroughly obnoxious was that while posturing online about alleged ‘Russophobia’, while Putin’s von Karajan grasps her shoulder, Dasha completely failed to mention the war.

One month in, and she didn’t have a word to offer about the bloodshed. Didn’t offer a sliver of pity at a time when Mariupol was being reduced to dust and ashes. The greater matter, she’d have us understand, is that we should be worried about the nefarious threat to Russian culture.

Of course, in the Kremlin playbook, some national cultures are far less valuable than others. Putin has gone out of his way in his speeches – and now with his weaponry – to erase Ukraine’s. A theatre in Mariupol was the dreadful yet emblematic location for hundreds of civilians hiding from shellfire to meet their deaths. This was a whole week before Dasha’s Instagram lament, and went unmentioned in it.

Some brave musicians still try to be heard: a classical concert in Moscow was broken up on Wednesday by police in riot gear. Rumours of a bomb threat, the supposed prompt for law enforcement action, were quickly discounted. It seems the real reason for the intrusion was that the programme – entitled ‘Songs Against the Times’ – included works by a dissident Ukrainian composer. The Russian pianist, Alexei Lyubimov, completed the piece he was playing, despite a barked order to stop the show. Hearteningly, he was rewarded with a standing ovation.

As for Gergiev, he has appeared in the sights of jailed corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny’s team. They have just released a 50-minute video investigation of the maestro’s landholdings in Italy and America, adding grace note allegations that Gergiev misuses his charitable foundation. The conductor dips into the funds, according to Navalny, to finance a style of life that he owes not only to his undeniable talent, but more generally to his craven subservience to Putin.

Nobody (apart from the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, of which Dasha is just a small squeaky cog) can credibly suggest that Russian cultural figures are being intentionally mistreated merely because of their nationality. Indeed, on the very evening that Putin declared Tchaikovsky had been ‘cancelled’, ‘Eugene Onegin’ opened at the Metropolitan Opera. (Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ is on there in the autumn, if you happen to find yourself in New York.)

The Russian president recently suggested that the newly-re-domiciled Gergiev could merge the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky Theatres. That’ll keep him busy, and likely help him grow richer yet. So Dasha need not fear on that score. Frankly, many couldn’t care less whether the maestro ever conducts again in the west. Terminating the contract of an enthusiastic battlefield musician in time of war seems perfectly reasonable to me.

In the eyes of Dasha, I suppose this would make me a philistine in the best case, and most likely a ‘Russophobe’ to boot. A counter argument might be that the true enemies of her country and its magnificent culture are those who sully Russia’s reputation by diverting attention from the country’s murderous leadership.

And as for Dasha herself, I simply thought she could at least have pretended to shed a tear on Instagram. Isn’t that what social media is for?

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