Exit Gergiev . . . for now

In 1931, Florence Reese, the wife of a mine workers’ union organizer, wrote a song whose refrain should be ringing in some influential ears:

Which side are on you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has forced that question on all sorts of people and entities: this country’s ex-president and his followers, energy and mining companies, financiers and fixers, purveyors of high-end properties and luxury goods, icons of highbrow culture in Russia and their promoters in the West.

Russia’s classical musicians and ballet dancers – who since tsarist times have rivaled vodka and caviar among the country’s most desired exports – must be dismayed by the international ostracizing of the conductor Valery Gergiev, one of Putin’s most high-profile supporters in the Russian cultural elite.

Their association dates back to the 1990s, when Gergiev was restoring the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg to world stature, with support from Putin, then a key apparatchik in the city government. After Putin rose to national power, Gergiev was there for him, again and again.

In 2008, when Russia carved South Ossetia out of Georgia, Gergiev, a son of Ossetians who spent much of his youth in the region, led a concert in tribute to dead secessionists. In 2012, he appeared in a television ad for Putin’s presidential campaign. A year later, he offered a clumsy rationale for homophobic legislation enacted by Putin. In 2014, he signed a letter by cultural figures calling for the Russian annexation of Crimea. In 2016, he led his Mariinsky Orchestra in a concert in the ruins of ancient Palmyra in Syria, celebrating the Russian forces fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Along the way, Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theatre was treated to a lavish expansion of its physical plant in St. Petersburg, establishment of satellite venues in Russia’s Far East, and employment of the company as a premier cultural representative of the Russian state. The conductor received a number of official awards, among them designation as a “hero of labor” – fitting, as he’s certainly gotten his hands dirty.

On the Putinesque scale of friendship-with-benefits, Gergiev qualifies at least as an honorary oligarch. Now, he’s one of the first of Putin’s favorites to take a serious hit from Western sanctions.

The Vienna Philharmonic, which has engaged Gergiev regularly as a guest conductor, dropped him from tour performances in New York and Florida. (Also disinvited from the concerts was pianist Denis Matsuev, another Russian artist in the Putin orbit.) Carnegie Hall in New York has canceled concerts by Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra that had been scheduled in the spring. Gergiev has been dismissed from his post as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. His German talent agent has bailed on him. La Scala in Milan, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, the Riga Jurmala Festival in Latvia, the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus and the Edinburgh Festival are severing their relationships with Gergiev for his failure to denounce the invasion.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to speak out. Crossing Putin could cost him his Mariinsky empire. His silence may end his career outside Russia – except, perhaps, in China and a few Putin-friendly cultural backwaters. (That might be enough to keep him fully employed. China has become a lucrative destination for classical musicians.)

While Gergiev stays silent, some of his compatriots are struggling to thread the needle between patriotism and decency. Anna Netrebko, the star soprano (and the most famous Mariinsky alumna), came out against the Ukraine invasion, but added, “[F]orcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right. . . . I am not a political person.” She subsequently canceled all her performances in the near future.

Netrebko’s statement might be a template for other semi-disclaimers to come from prominent Russian artists who aren’t ready to leave the country or to become non-persons at home.

How should the civilized world deal with cultural figures from rogue states? It’s a question we keep having to ask.

After World War II, the victorious powers and their cultural establishments assessed the culpability of artists who worked in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and under collaborationist regimes in occupied countries. During the Cold War, suspicions abounded about officially favored artists from the Soviet Union and its satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. In recent years, we’ve wondered how to treat artists who are on good terms with China’s authoritarian regime.

Viewing artists through a political lens may be unfair: Most are either disinterested or naïve when it comes to politics, and few cultural figures exert any meaningful political influence on dictators.

The moral view is less cloudy: Actively promoting a repressive or warmongering regime ought to disqualify an artist – or anyone else – from participating in civilized cultural discourse.

Historically, though, drawing the line has been a selective exercise. Nearly 80 years after the destruction of the Nazi regime, and more than 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the cultural figures who benefitted from the dictators’ favor have been dead long enough for their unsavory links to be overlooked or explained away. The rehabilitation of some of them began when the ink had barely dried on their party cards.

It’s too soon to even guess how long artists associated with Putin will be shunned in free societies. Some who’ve taken their leave from Gergiev seem to be hedging their bets – his now-former talent agent called him “one of the greatest conductors of all time” and “a visionary artist.” Considering the musical establishment’s years-long willingness to overlook Gergiev’s ties to the dictator, no one should be surprised to see him restored to classical music’s first tier when the smoke clears and the bodies are buried.

The apolitical and the amoral all too often go hand in hand.

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