As global condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine grows, cultural institutions across Europe and the United States face an uncomfortable conundrum: What to do about Russian artists, particularly those who have vocally supported Putin’s government? What to do about Russian art in general? It’s laudable and necessary for opera houses, orchestras, and festivals to distance themselves from artists who are undoubtedly complicit in Putin’s regime. But the pressure to take a tough stance against Russia as a culture risks playing directly into Putin’s hands. 

For two decades, Russian music has been used by Putin’s government as an element of an overarching narrative of cultural nostalgia. This narrative touches on mythologies promoted during the Soviet period, but its origins stretch back into the nationalist debates of the 19th century. This is the pernicious myth of the “Russian soul.” In this framing, Russian music is seen as a unique entity, inspired by “the folk” and culturally distinct, at once familiar and remote to Western ears. (Nationalist musical movements emerged in many other countries over the course of the 19th century.) In Russia’s case, the cultural politics of the Soviet Union further entrenched the mythology, inexorably entangling Russian music with the political history of the USSR. Under Putin, the idea of Russian cultural nationalism took on new significance, enabling the meteoric rise of Valery Gergiev and his status in the West as the gatekeeper of Russian musical tradition. 

This nostalgic nationalism is a politically-motivated lust for a “Russianness” that barely existed even in its own time. But it has been promoted over and over by generations of critics within and outside of Russia, and its durability is part of what has made it so attractive to Putin and his government, a neat wrapper for modern political agendas. Historical facts like Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality are brushed aside or outright denied, since they do not serve the regime’s right-wing values and are in fact illegal under the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda.” In the West, these tendencies lead to an opposing but equally damaging narrative–that Tchaikovsky must have suffered terribly on account of his sexuality, that his persecution during his life can be assumed because it would undoubtedly be so today. (Tchaikovsky did go through a period of deep depression at the time of his disastrous marriage to Antonina Miliukova, but he came to accept his sexuality, and by the time of his death was living as openly as possible for a man of his time and position.)

Such distortions damage every prominent composer affected by the overall propaganda. Perhaps none are as pertinent to the current geopolitical crisis as Sergei Rachmaninov, the émigré composer who denounced the Soviet Union but whose musical style and cultural image recalled the memory of the Russian Empire–even in his own lifetime. A political exile, Rachmaninov’s embodiment of a lost world has become ever more relevant under Putin’s government, which seeks to erase his émigré history and re-create the memory of the empire he represents.

Rachmaninov was, in many ways, a relic of another age. A young composition student and piano prodigy during the twilight of the 19th century, Rachmaninov was frequently asked to share stories of being mentored by Tchaikovsky and attending lecture-recitals given by Rubinstein. His strong disdain for the modernist school of composition marked him as a musical throwback, an image Rachmaninov himself promoted. 

In a sense, these “traditional” artistic values align neatly with the idea of Russian culture promoted by the modern Russian Federation. For the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth in 2023, Putin himself made an official proclamation establishing an organizing committee to run state-sponsored music festivals and concerts. There will be some 100 events around the country. The government also established a new Rachmaninov International Competition for piano, conducting, and composition, with combined prize money of $200,000. (Denis Matsuev, who has declined to distance himself from Putin’s government, will head the piano category. Gergiev will lead the conducting competition.) Alla Manilova, the Deputy Minister of Culture, said that “the country will know that the anniversary of another Russian genius is being celebrated in 2023.”

What Putin’s government ignores is the unease at the heart of Rachmaninov’s patriotism. He was a man constantly torn between his memories of a nation and the reality of what that nation had become under a totalitarian regime. 

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Rachmaninov was critical of the Soviet government throughout his life. In a letter to the New York Times from 1931, Rachmaninov and other leading émigré cultural figures criticized the Bengali polymath Rabindrath Tagore for comments they viewed as willful distortions of the reality of the Soviet state. “At no time, and in no country,” the letter read, “has there ever existed a government responsible for so many cruelties, wholesale murders and common-law crimes in general as those perpetrated by the Bolsheviki. Is it really possible that, with all his love for humanity, wisdom and philosophy, he could not find words of sympathy and pity for the Russian nation?” In this letter is the idea that the “Russian nation” was something distinct from the Bolshevik government, a distinction at the heart of Rachmaninov’s uneasy patriotism. But, with the crackdowns on anti-war protests, Putin’s ultimate goal is to eliminate that very distinction between his government and the Russian people. 

Putin's government, which knows how to weaponize classical music, is preparing a grand celebration for Rachmaninov's 150th in 2023. This entirely misses the point of Rachmaninov's partly-cloudy patriotism. @vanmusicmag  Click To Tweet

Rachmaninov also understood well the personal challenges of being seen as representative of a governing ideology instead of as an individual whose views may not align with that ideology. In 1943, he told Vogue magazine about an unsettling incident he experienced as a young exile in Paris: 

I was walking once on a street in Paris with my wife when a cab-driver, who heard me speaking to her in Russian, leaned out and spat at us, “Salles étrangers!” [“Filthy foreigners!”] “A cab-driver,” Rachmaninov growled, “to my wife and me!” He threw the paper-knife on the table with a clatter and leaned back. He watched me broodingly for a while, then he said, “Perhaps you don’t think that is important. It is the beginning and the end for me.” 

The refugee’s sense of displacement forever followed Rachmaninov.  “The whole world is open to me, and success awaits me everywhere,” he wrote for The Musical Times in 1930. “Only one place is closed to me, and that is my own country–Russia.” While he spoke warmly of finding a second home in the United States, Rachmaninov admitted that he never felt fully active in American life because, even after decades of residence, he still had difficulty with the English language. Like many others who left Russia during the dissolution of the Empire, Rachmaninov retained a strong sense of national identity separate from the new patriotism promoted by the Soviet government.

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The distinction between the Soviet Union as a political entity and the Russian people as a group with individual ideas and philosophies is essential to understanding Rachmaninov’s self-identity. It  is also essential to understanding why Rachmaninov donated money to the Soviet army during World War II: The suffering of the average Russian during the Nazi invasion undoubtedly overrode Rachmaninov’s personal distaste for the Soviet state. “However long the reign of terror of the Bolsheviks lasts,” he said in 1929, “it is nothing but a historical episode. The Bolsheviks will disappear, but Russia is eternal.” 

Ironically, this idea of an “eternal Russia” makes Rachmaninov attractive to Putin’s government. Rachmaninov’s status in the West as a hugely successful and enduringly popular Russian composer further endears him to Putin’s cultural politicians, but his émigré status still rankles with a government committed to rejecting the West. In 2015, Russian Cultural Minister Vladimir Medinskiy unsuccessfully demanded the composer’s body be exhumed from its resting place in Valhalla, New York to be reinterred in Russia.  

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with a Russian government-sanctioned celebration of a celebrated Russian composer. But nothing is superficial in Putin’s Russia. To uncritically hail Rachmaninov as an icon of Russian national culture erases the composer’s own complicated relationship with the land he left behind. It is desperately ironic that Rachmaninov’s experience–being held personally accountable for the actions of a government he despised–is being repeated with Russian artists who have no connection to their government, in the rush to condemn Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. 

Putin’s regime was always autocratic, but has now slipped across the fine line to totalitarianism. That makes it even more important to push against a political narrative motivated by imperial nostalgia. The more we seek to punish Putin by rejecting Russian culture in general, the more we do Putin’s dirty work for him by equating all of Russia with his neo-imperialist idea of Russkiy Mir, or the Russian world.  

What should Western musical institutions do? The answer is not to counter one crude narrative with another, as so frequently happens with regard to Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and Shostakovich’s personal politics. A comment Rachmaninov made in passing in 1919 offers one possible way forward: “The immense dimensions of [Russia] make it quite naturally a collection of diverse peoples–many of them totally and absolutely different from people in other parts of the land.” 

Why not counter Putin’s monolithic vision of a new Russian Empire with programming that celebrates the diversity of the historical Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the modern Russian Federation? Why not explore the myth of a monolithic “Russian soul” by illuminating the multicultural origins of that very idea? The knowledge and expertise to do so is readily available; many academics and musicians have long sought to elevate marginalized voices from Russia’s musical history. But it is a far more challenging task to dismantle a canon or re-write a comfortable narrative than it is to light the facade of a concert hall in blue and yellow–or to ask artists to risk their security so the far-away audience can feel virtuous for consuming their work. 

For Rachmaninov, the difference between Russia as a nation of individual people and Russia as the Soviet state was “the beginning and the end.” As Putin and his henchmen continue to tighten their grip on the Russian people, while destroying the lives and homes of the Ukrainian people, Western musical institutions would do well to keep that difference in mind. ¶

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Margaret Frainier

Margaret Frainier is a researcher based in Washington, D.C. She recently received a DPhil in Russian from the University of Oxford, specializing in 19th-century Russian music and culture.

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