On May 2, 2023, Valery Gergiev turned 70. One week later, Russia celebrated Victory Day—a Soviet holdover holiday commemorating the country’s 1945 victory over National Socialism. Gergiev spent that day leading the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, closing out the 22nd annual Moscow Easter Festival—a marathon of concerts (often two in one day) that runs for over three weeks across dozens of Russian cities. In previous years, he would balance these performances out with concerts in Munich, New York, and London. Now, besides his concerts in St. Petersburg and Moscow, he leads orchestras at venues like the Kamaz truck and bus factory in Tatarstan, or in the small village of Chorny Otrog, the Ural foothills hometown of late prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. He did recently return to China, where he is nicknamed “brother-in-law” (the pronunciation of his name and the Chinese word for “brother-in-law” are similar), for the first time since the start of the pandemic. That tour, however, was not without incident: According to CNN, audiences at Gergiev’s concerts in Beijing faced heightened security, with “books and paper, especially those with notes or that could be written on,” examined thoroughly to ward off any surprise protests.
Most other countries remain closed to Gergiev. He’s never made his personal and ideological affinity to Vladimir Putin a secret, but after he refused to speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, his contracts and guest appearances in Europe, the United States, and Japan were terminated. One of the most sought-after and best paid conductors in the world suddenly found himself in forced isolation. It’s no wonder that, since then, he’s poured even more attention into the Mariinsky Theater, which he has led for 35 years (beginning as music director in 1988 and as Artistic and General Director since 1996). Sources close to him report that Gergiev—who, before the war, would drop by the theater three or four times a month—now spends most of his time in St. Petersburg. Given that it’s one of the largest theaters in the world and an employer to roughly 5,000 people (3,000 full-time and another 2,000 independent contractors), and given the significance placed on the cultural sector in Russia, this is the attention a house like the Mariinsky should be receiving. Gergiev’s sudden “cancellation” should only have benefited the theater. However, his personality doesn’t always contribute to the venue running smoothly: On the one hand, according to a former employee of the theater (who spoke to VAN on the condition of anonymity), he has a thirst for control and doesn’t trust others. On the other hand, he constantly puts off important decisions, leading to many issues going unresolved for years.
His management style is certainly similar to that of his good friend, Vladimir Putin, whose brand of rigid dictatorship has been adapted by Gergiev to fit the cultural sphere. In St. Petersburg, everyone from the orchestra musicians and guest soloists to the audience members are familiar with his legendary lateness to rehearsals and concerts (foreign colleagues report this is less common outside of Russia). He is also well-known for his love of money: It’s for this, and not the love of the music alone, that he conducts so much and so often, according to former colleagues. According to one, Gergiev is paid a handsome honorarium for his time on the podium, on top of his generous annual salary. Another indicator of Gergiev’s net worth can be found in his namesake foundation, which Alexei Navalny’s investigative team reported on last spring.
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It’s unlikely that Gergiev has taken much of a financial hit in the last year. With its three houses in St. Petersburg (in addition to the main house, there’s the Mariinsky-2, which opened ten years ago, and the Concert Hall, which opened in 2006), along with satellite houses in Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz, the institution he leads is still supported by the state through the Ministry of Culture. Its numerous sponsors include some of Russia’s largest companies: VTB Bank (which is majority state-owned), diamond mining empire Alrosa, oil and gas conglomerate Surgutneftegas, the multisector Renova Group, and the steel company Severstal.
But with the exception of the French petroleum company TotalEnergies and Canadian jet manufacturer Bombardier, many foreign companies have withdrawn their sponsorships of the Mariinsky. Likewise, foreign artists have disappeared from the roster. The Brazilian dancer Victor Caixeta is now a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet; Xander Parish, the Mariinsky’s first British soloist, has settled in Oslo; American-born Misha Barkidjija left to join the Australian Ballet. Initially, the Japanese soloist May Nagahisa also left the country, but she made an unexpected return to St. Petersburg last fall, citing a love for the city and the theater.
One of the most high-profile dissents came last February, when the Russian-Ukrainian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky spoke out against the war and requested that both the Mariinsky and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet suspend performances of his works. In response, both companies continued to perform them, but scrubbed Ratmansky’s name from the programs, posters, and websites. Ratmansky reports that the Mariinsky illegally used some of his choreography in a recent production of “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” one that Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, had been working on before the war. (In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ratmansky said the Mariinsky also sent him and Tatiana a letter telling them to reimburse the company for the expenses the company incurred while they were living in St. Petersburg and working on the ballet, including hotels and overseas flights.)
Yuri Fateev, the longtime acting director of the Mariinsky Ballet, built the current company with international stars. But according to a dance critic who asked to remain anonymous, these artists, along with many of the company’s Russian performers (including corps de ballet members) have left. While little has changed with the company for the Mariinsky Opera, the Mariinsky Ballet has lost roughly 30 artists in total, despite all—including foreign nationals—being assured that they were completely safe.
At least the Mariinsky hasn’t had to perform in the newly-occupied Ukrainian territories yet (unlike smaller-tier cultural institutions like Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theater or St. Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theater). Apparently, it also hasn’t faced any prominent performance cancellations. Last summer, Gergiev conducted “The Twelve,” an overhaul by choreographer Alexander Sergeev and designer Leonid Alexeev of a 1970s ballet with music by Boris Tischenko and a plot based on Alexander Blok’s eponymous poem. While no outright statements were made about Ukraine with the work, its criticism of war and—in Sergeev’s words—”the fact that people periodically destroy the world with their own hands” was significant. Despite poor ticket sales, another war-related piece by Tischenko, “Yaroslavna: The Eclipse” (based on the plot of “Prince Igor” and choreographed by Vladimir Varnava) still runs from time to time.
As the journalist Maria Babalova notes in her article, “The Theater of Repeated Opera,” now isn’t the time for the “deep authorial statements” of “director-philosophers” like Robert Carsen, David Pountney, and Dmitri Tcherniakov, all of whom have worked with the Mariinsky in the past. Additionally, performance licenses for dance productions are only valid for so long and, as many Russian houses are now finding, many first-class choreographers are not willing to extend them. (“Jewels,” the only George Balanchine ballet remaining in the Mariinsky repertoire and one that the company has performed for the last 25 years, expires in 2025.) This leaves Gergiev with no other option except to hire little-known Russian specialists and exhume old productions from the mothballs of the Mariinsky archives. The results of this can be puzzling. For example, the Mariinsky website now lists two versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh”: Tcherniakov’s well-known 2001 production, which has been shown around the world but largely abandoned by the director himself, and the more recent “premiere” by Alexei Stepanyuk—a revision of his 1994 staging.
Even Gergiev’s most steadfast music critic supporters—who, naturally, cannot openly denounce him—have to admit that he seems stuck in the no-man’s-land of revivals. Whether intentionally or not, he’s turned his focus to warhorses and banal works, seemingly designed to distract the public from dwelling on the hardships of war (Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri,” Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges”). Perhaps these operas are intended to lure audiences back into the fairly-empty theater despite the lack of demand (tickets are still available for almost all performances on the theater’s website), or to appeal to foreign tourists, since ticket prices remain expensive by Russian standards (prices begin at 4,200 rubles for opera premieres and 9,000 rubles for ballet premieres). Reviews from the most recent season indicate that the quality of these productions is low in all areas except one: the conducting. At least in this department, Gergiev, who has been forced to give up everything for his country, still comes out on top.
The question is how long he’ll be able to stay there, without any serious competition, the rush of touring (before the war, Gergiev was a genuine leader in this area, conducting at least 300 performances a year around the world), and the variety of constant guest conducting. He seems to gain energy and strength from traveling; rumors of a merger between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi, which became public in the spring of 2022 when Putin invited Gergiev to consider a joint management of the two companies (a dream the conductor has held for years), have recently been rekindled among Russian theater professionals and audiences. The merger between the country’s two biggest theaters seemed all the more likely after Vladimir Urin, the 76-year-old director of the Bolshoi, was one of the many cultural figures who signed an open letter against the “special military operation.” His contract officially ends in 2027, but recent events in Russia show that even seemingly untouchable theater directors can easily be ousted from their posts. Andrey Moguchy of St. Petersburg’s Bolshoi Drama Theater, Maria Revyakina from the Theater of Nations, and Rimas Tuminas of the Vakhtangov have all, like Urin, made clear their lack of support for the “special military operation” in Ukraine. All have paid the price. Only Gergiev seems untouchable, like Putin himself. ¶
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Yuri Fateev as the director of the Mariinsky Ballet. He is the acting director of the company, a role he has held since 2008. VAN regrets the error.
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