Last week, Dieter Reiter, the mayor of Munich, sent an open letter to Valery Gergiev, the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. Reiter told Gergiev he had until February 28 to distance himself from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If Gergiev declined, his contract with the orchestra would be terminated. Some commentators, on social media and in newspapers, reacted with outrage, calling Reiter’s ultimatum an assault on free speech.
Gergiev is no victim. It’s true that he is losing performance opportunities in New York and Vienna, and music director positions in Milan, Rotterdam, Lucerne, Verbier, and now Munich. But he is not a casualty of a culture of outrage or a with-us-or-against-us attitude. He is not a victim because he is not simply a musician. Gergiev has enjoyed the benefits of close cooperation with the Russian regime. He has profited personally from the government’s power. He has allowed himself to be instrumentalized. In 2016, he performed a bizarre concert for Russia troops after the conquest of Palmyra, Syria. In 2018, he participated in Putin’s reelection campaign at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. He has led concerts for the Russian Armed Forces Command. In Russia, Gergiev’s status is closer to that of Condoleeza Rice, the Bush administration official and Iraq War cheerleader who happens to be a virtuoso pianist, than it is to most musicians.
The Valery Gergiev Charitable Foundation considers one of its explicit goals to be “increasing Russia’s cultural influence in the world.” The oligarchs and Putin loyalists Gennady Timchenko and Alischer Usmanov are on the board of this foundation, both of whom are on the European Union sanction list as of this week.
Putin has repaid Gergev’s loyalty by making him the most influential Russian artist. Gergiev has led the Mariinsky Theater since 1988, and his connections to the regime have turned the institution into an empire with a second stage—the Mariinsky-2— a concert hall—the Mariinsky-3—two branches in Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz, and a new theater on the island of Sakhalin.
Most Russian artists should not be pressured to comment publicly on the invasion of Ukraine. Gergiev is not most Russian artists. He represents the cultural arm of Putin’s oligarchy.
The festivals, orchestras, and opera houses that have disinvited Gergiev or terminated their contracts with him did not mention all the details of his complicity with Putin’s system. That was negligent on their parts. Without this information, it is easier to construct a narrative that a musician is being made an example of just for being Russian, or that cultural institutions are forcing “apolitical” artists to take political stances.
Cultural institutions may have their reasons for avoiding the full extent of Gergiev’s friendship with Putin and his participation in the autocrat’s corrupt power structures. For a long time, classical music participated willingly in the fiction of Gergiev’s two-pronged career: a powerful politician and friend of Putin in Russia, a conductor like any other in the west. “Gergiev declines to comment on political issues” was the standard line when, to take just one example, opposition politician Alexei Navalny was arrested in 2021, and hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets–including many renowned artists. There were also canned platitudes about the “power of music to connect people.” Munich, the third-largest city in Germany, employed the richest and most powerful Russian artist; in 2021, by way of explanation, the artistic director of the Munich Philharmonic, Paul Müller, and the Munich cultural politician Anton Biebl, said that “the dialogue must never stop.”
The fact is that this dialogue never happened. Avoiding hard conversations was the only way of maintaining the pretense of exchange.
This allowed Gergiev to live his legendary jet-set lifestyle without concert promoters taking too hard a look at him. This tolerance continued in 2014, when he condoned the illegal annexation of Crimea. It took a Russian invasion, with the resulting public pressure and the fear embarrassment, for promoters to reconsider their relationship with Gergiev.
After Russian troops entered Ukraine, many politicians and experts realized they’d been wrong about Putin. They couldn’t believe that real actions would follow his ideologically confusing statements. It would have been better, they realized, to take him at his word: In 2021, Putin fantasized about the supposed “historic unity” of Russian and Ukraine.
The same is true of Gergiev. The conductor has never tried to hide his close relationship with Putin. “We’ve preserved our great art. I’m proud of our country, I’m proud of our president, Vladimir Putin,” Gergiev said in his speech supporting the leader’s reelection in March 2018. Gergiev never distanced himself from the dictatorship and its military expansionism. In 2008, he played a “victory concert” after the war in Georgia.
The only people who saw Gergiev criticizing Putin were those who wanted to see it. Some saw coded rebellion in the fact that Gergiev conducts music by Shostakovitch. Others believed that Gergiev’s silence on the invasion of Ukraine was a sign that he’d been backed into a corner and had no choice but to go along.
But there is no evidence that Gerviev is critical of Putin’s oligarchy or his invasion of Ukraine. In 2015, Gergiev gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he explained his political worldview. It was essentially the same as Putin’s alternate history, which has served to justify the invasion of Ukraine. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe; Putin is a source of stability, preventing bloodshed; the Euromaidan demonstrations in Kyiv were part of a conspiracy by Ukrainian Nazis, supported by the West, which tried to “claim a piece of the cake of Ukraine for itself.”
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This weekend, a group of Russian artists published an open letter calling for the end of the war–it was vaguely worded, without naming Putin or the Russian military as the aggressors. Vladimir Urin, the Putin loyalist and artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater, signed. Gergiev didn’t. Other prominent and influential figures in the Russian cultural scene have found ways of expressing dissent, including many Russian musicians. It’s unlikely that Gergiev wants to distance himself from Putin deep down, and is prevented from doing so by feelings of helplessness and fear. If that was the case, he would likely have done so, maybe by speaking with Munich’s Mayor Reiter or even to his (now former) agent, or asking for more time. The Rotterdam Philharmonic managed to reach Gergiev, where he has worked since 1988, but after the conversation, “insurmountable differences remained.” If he had denounced the invasion privately, the orchestra would have at least formulated its decision in another way.
It’s always possible to project complex moral dilemmas onto a figure who keeps his mouth shut. But sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one. We should take Gergiev at his word. “We strongly support the position of the president of the Russian Federation on Ukraine and Crimea,” read an open letter from Russian artists when the peninsula was annexed in 2014. Gergiev signed. There is nothing to imply that his views have changed. ¶
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