On January 17, 2021, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny boarded a flight from Berlin to Moscow, where he was arrested immediately upon landing. The previous evening, in Munich, Valery Gergiev conducted a performance of Brahms’s Double Concerto and Symphony No. 3 in Munich. The following Saturday—while the concert streamed online—hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in over 100 Russian cities simultaneously took to the streets. It was the largest anti-regime protest in years.

Prominent Russian artists signaled their solidarity with the demonstrators and advocated for Navalny’s release. In a video message, singer Noize MC noted the risks of taking a public stance. “I’m often told, ‘Think of your children,’” he said. “And I do. Because I don’t want them to live in a country where a person can be murdered or shut up in prison for his political beliefs.” Actress Chulpan Khamatova, who had supported Putin in the 2012 elections, overlaid her Facebook profile picture with the Navalny team logo.

What does Gergiev think about all this? We will probably never know. In response to a request for comment, his agent wrote that “Mr. Gergiev does not speak on political subjects.” Through his assistant at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, he also declined to comment. Paul Müller, artistic director of the Munich Philharmonic, said that although he spoke regularly with Gergiev on a variety of topics, it was not part of his job “to communicate our chief conductor’s positions on political issues.”

Yet there are plenty of clues as to what Gergiev might think. His political positions, outlined in a 2015 interview with Der Spiegel, broadly align with official Russian state doctrine. Gergiev’s loyalty toward Putin’s politics and person—he considers the Russian president a personal friend—has frequently manifested in bizarre propaganda stunts. In 2016, Gergiev performed for Russian trips in conquered Palmyra, Syria. In March 2018, he canceled a performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried” at the Mariinsky in order to attend a Putin campaign event (“For a strong Russia”) at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.  

xyz • Photo © MICHAIL METZEL TASS
xyz • Photo © MICHAIL METZEL TASS

By arranging himself with the powers that be, Gergiev has maneuvered his way to a singular position in Russian cultural politics. On January 30, 2018, he led a performance at the Russian National Defense Control Centre, viewing with Putin the weapons systems deployed by Russian forces in Syria. “The President and the Maestro had a brief conversation and then listened to a piece from the Preobrazhensky Regiment March,” according to a Kremlin press release.

Beyond his loyalty to the regime, Gergiev has “talent for befriending people of influence,” as Liudmila Kotlyarova wrote in VAN. The co-chairs of the Valery Gergiev Charitable Foundation, which names one of its objectives as “increasing Russia’s cultural influence in the world,” include Sberbank boss Herman Gref and former Minister of Finance Aleksey Kudrin. Billionaires such as Gennady Timchenko and Alisher Usmanov are on the board of trustees. “With an average contribution of roughly $500,000 per year per board member, the foundation generates some $20 million per month,” Kotlyarova reported in VAN. “Belonging to the board is honorable, and politically useful: According to Kudrin, the board meets with Putin once a year.” Gergiev has been the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre since 1988, and under his leadership, it has grown into a theatrical empire: a second stage, Mariinsky-2; a new concert hall, Mariinsky-3; two independent theaters in Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz; and a new theater on the island of Sakhalin.

Gergiev’s dual role as chief conductor in Munich and state artist in Russia has created controversy for years in Germany. In November 2013, when Gergiev was still the chief conductor designate of the Munich Philharmonic, he told a Dutch newspaper he supported the anti-gay Federal Law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” A month later, the Munich city council held an emergency session to discuss the issue. Since then, the regular sparks of outrage have mostly been dampened, thanks to the rhetoric spread by Gergiev and his supporters in Munich: He is misunderstood, all he wants to talk about is music.

Not that this always works. In 2018, Gergiev signed an open letter from artists in support of the annexation of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, Munich Philharmonic artistic director Müller and former Ministry of Culture representative Hans-Georg Küppers met with Gergiev in Linz, Austria to “discuss the statements of his private political opinions and the resulting situation of the orchestra,” as the press release described it.

Russia’s most powerful, richest artist is also a prominent employee of Germany’s third-largest city. It’s an unprecedented situation, one with the potential to become a fascinating experiment. Except that both sides act as if it isn’t happening. Asked about these uncomfortable political gymnastics, Müller and current cultural official Anton Biebl told VAN that “the dialogue must never be cut off.” That sounds like a decent start. But official channels, such as the Russia-German Forum or the “Petersburg Dialogues,” founded in 2001 by Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with the goal of bringing the populations of the two countries closer, are dominated by a nomenklatura of business leaders and former ministers. The head of the Petersburg Dialogue steering committee, former prime minister Viktor Zubkov, has been accused by Spanish authorities of close connections with the mafia-like Tambov Gang. These are not venues where representatives of two civil societies can talk through their differences. Ideally, cultural exchange would work better, because it has potential for debate beyond mere mutual backslapping.

Valery Gergiev leads the Mariinsky Orchestra in a concert for Russian troops among the ruins of Palmyra, Syria.
Valery Gergiev leads the Mariinsky Orchestra in a concert for Russian troops among the ruins of Palmyra, Syria.

But both Gergiev and the responsible officials in Munich seem to have a caricatured sense of what “dialogue” entails. When pressed for further details about the dialogue between Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic, Müller said, “First off, I think of a conflict-free dialogue between conductor and orchestra on music and the further development of the orchestra—and then of a dialogue within the orchestra.” Biebl understands dialogue only in terms of artistic matters, and only between chief conductor and ensemble: “The cooperation between Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic is an example for constructive dialogue,” he said. “When 120 musicians of all different origins encounter one another, that requires constant discussion about artistic aspects.”

Gergiev rarely gives interviews. In Munich, he doesn’t appear on panels or take part in audience discussions. In 2013, in response to Gergiev’s statements on the so-called “anti-gay law,” city council member Thomas Niederbühl proposed terminating Gergiev’s contract. They’ve never spoken one-on-one. “A dialogue was sought, but then always postponed,” Niederbühl said. It is obvious Gergiev has no interest in “taking a clear position” on political issues, as Niederbühl put it in a 2013 council meeting. The battle lines have been drawn for so long that any unambiguous position becomes an affront to one side or another. Why should Gergiev endanger his position in Russia to appease German sensitivities, or vice versa?

Few classical musicians are quite as caught up in geopolitics as Gergiev. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Munich is so scrupulous in construing the word “dialogue” as a purely artistic term that anything outside the musical remit leaves people walking on eggshells. In May 2014, Gergiev wrote to the subscribers and donors of the Munich Philharmonic that he could not ignore how Russian society functions on fundamentally different principles. “I value and respect the maxims which mean so much to people in Russia,” he wrote. “That includes holding on to taboos which no longer apply in the Western countries, but which took many attempts and lots of time to dissolve.” In fact, that would be an interesting place for a dialogue to start. But it would require us to tolerate difference, even outside of our moral comfort zone. Would Munich be ready to test the threshold of this comfort zone in the case of its most expensive employee?

Instead, the industry attempts to wrap itself in the silken rhetoric of music’s “power to bring people together.” It is not a coincidence that this terminology is especially prevalent in Gergiev’s orbit. “We’ve never discussed political topics with him,” said Tatjana Rexroth, the founder of the Russian-German Music Academy, an organization helmed by Gergiev since 2013. “We have short, intensive rehearsal periods, where so much is at stake. We are dealing with monumental, existential works, which require so much from each musician. There’s no space to talk about anything else.” In one of the Music Academy’s brochures, Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, an umbrella organization for Berlin museums, wrote that classical music is unique because it helps “people find each other, people find a way of being with each other.” Müller told VAN that culture must not become a political pawn: “We play to connect people, not to separate them.” These platitudes are irresistible to Gergiev’s European sponsors. Classical music is an ideal advertising tool for companies such as Gazprom: It’s both prestigious and sheltered from prying questions. A lot like soccer, when you think about it.

Two years ago, Gergiev’s chief conductor contract with the Munich Philharmonic was extended until 2025. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Gergiev made his participation contingent on more funding for the ensemble, acoustic renovations for its hall, and adequate interim space while construction is ongoing. One member of the orchestra told VAN, “We haven’t had a boss who advocated so strongly on our behalf with the city since Celibidache.”

On February 21, 2018, the Munich city council held a vote on Gergiev’s contract extension. The Greens voted against, citing Gergiev’s “continuing political propaganda for Vladimir Putin and his policies, which violate human rights.” Council member Niederbühl, who represents the LGBTQIA-advocacy party the Pink List, said at the time: “Let’s wish for the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic to represent the cosmopolitan openness of this city with his artistic contributions, but at the very least not openly contradict it.” Now, Niederbühl told VAN, “He is sticking with our agreement not to make negative statements. That’s all one can do.” But it’s unlikely that this stalemate will hold, especially if a new protest movement is forming in Russia. That will only make Gergiev’s political gymnastics trickier.

After Gergiev agreed to stay on in Munich, the Philharmonic’s artistic director, Paul Müller, said that the contract extension was “artistically necessary for us to maintain our international presence at the highest level and develop this in connection with comprehensive media coverage.” This “international presence” presumably refers to Gergiev’s popularity in Asia, especially China, where many European orchestras see their audience in the future. Whether this strategy is reasonable considering climate change and COVID-19 fallout is another matter.

Gergiev straddles two vastly different political and social arenas. That could be an opportunity—but only if confronted honestly. Many have decided it is none of their business. That has the side effect of putting a sort of scarlet letter on the orchestra. “I tune out the political stuff,” said one performer. “But it would be nice if it could be discussed more openly. As it is, you have this feeling in the back of your head that you’ll be called on to explain yourself.”

Meanwhile, Munich officialdom’s approach to Gergiev is reminiscent of Ivan Krylov’s 1814 fable, “The Curious Man.” Two friends meet; one has just spent three hours in a museum of natural history. He tells his counterpart of the wonderful things he saw there: Butterflies, birds, insects, “some smaller than a pinhead!” “And did you see the elephant?” his friend asks. “Was an elephant really there?” “Yes.” “Well, brother, I confess: I did not see the elephant.” ¶