The latest front in the cancel-culture war


“Cancel-culture” campaigns to ostracize, silence or deny employment to those expressing views that the campaigners find repellent have been flashpoints in Western societies in recent years, sparking heated debates over suppression of free speech and scrambling alliances across the ideological spectrum.

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine opens a new front in the cultural battle, a thus-far uneven one in which Western businesses, social media, sports leagues, arts institutions and other entities have abruptly cut ties with Russia and with people aligned with its dictator or publicly ambivalent or silent about his actions.

On the other side of the battle line, cancellation – extending to the extremes of exile, imprisonment and murder – is an old story in Russia, long predating Putin’s suppression of internal dissent and recent moves to block information sources that he doesn’t control. Old Soviet-speak is making a comeback: It is now a crime in Russia to call the war a war, as opposed to its official designation as a military “special operation.”

It was already hazardous just to call for peace, as Ivan Velikanov, a French-born conductor of Russian descent now working in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, learned after he opened a Feb. 25 performance in the latter city’s opera house with a speech, after which he led the orchestra in the “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“I said that war is bad and peace is good. In my naïvete, I assumed there was nothing to argue about. And I said it because the war had just begun,” Velikanov told Anastassia Boutsko in an interview for Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcast service (now on Russia’s list of outlawed foreign media). “I think that today . . . we should call things by their names, as simply as possible.”

He was promptly suspended from the opera house.

“[A] cold civil war is raging in Russia,” dividing its society over “a forbidden topic, a topic that concerns absolutely everyone,” Velikanov said:


In the democratic world, meanwhile, cultural institutions and their constituents are wondering how far to go in the cancellation of Russian artists – how bold a line to draw between figures such as conductor Valery Gergiev, a prominent Putin ally, and the likes of soprano Anna Netrebko, who call themselves apolitical and decry the violence, but without denouncing its instigator.

“Classical music likes to think of itself [as] floating serenely above politics, in a realm of beauty and unity,” The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe observes.

He contrasts Netrebko’s ambivalence with a statement from the Russian-born German pianist Igor Levit: “Being a musician does not free you from being a citizen, from taking responsibility, from being a grown-up. . . . And never, never bring up music and your being a musician as an excuse. Do not insult art.”

Wolfe suggests a parallel between Gergiev and Wilhelm Furtwängler, who despite being frequently at odds with the Nazis remained in Germany during the Hitler regime and allowed himself to be made its “court conductor.”

He also wonders whether institutions such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Munich Philharmonic, which for years employed Gergiev and others in Putin’s favor, only to break with them quickly once Ukraine was invaded, are now fit to play the roles of outraged innocent parties.

“I understand the reluctance to step away from idyllic notions of exchange and collaboration, even amid conflict,” Woolfe writes; but those who don’t speak out against a dictator’s brutality “should not be surprised that there are consequences.”

I’m of two minds about this. I think it’s unjust to hold artists personally responsible for the behavior of warlords; but I also think that accepting the patronage of an evil regime rubs off, certainly on the artist as a person and not infrequently as an artist.

Conveniently, perhaps, I’ve never had much use for Gergiev. To my ears, his work (which I’ve heard live as well as recorded) is, at best, a sleek echo of the crudely muscular style common in Soviet-era orchestral performance, which does justice to very little music that’s worth hearing. Not being a connoisseur of verismo sopranos, I don’t feel qualified to assess Netrebko’s artistic merits; but I’m sure there are many fine singers to take her place.

I’m not purging my collection of recordings by Furtwängler, Karl Böhm, Willem Mengelberg, Walter Gieseking and others who were Nazis or Nazi-adjacent, or by Soviet-favored artists such as Evgeny Mravinsky and David Oistrakh. I don’t fault Western musicians who performed with the Czech Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Dresden when those orchestras were cultural jewels of communist regimes; and I don’t credit foreign musicians who’ve boycotted the US when they opposed a president or his policies.

I try not to judge artists by the environments in which they work; but I can’t help noticing that their comfort level in bad environments is quite often reflected in the art they produce. That is a revealing difference between a Dmitri Shostakovich and a Richard Strauss.

Also conveniently, I’m not a Russian music addict. Taking a break from it wouldn’t leave me feeling too gravely deprived. (Short- or medium-term, at least – I won’t forgo Mussorgsky forever.) If I crave Slavic accents, there are plenty of first-rate Czech and Polish composers.

Putin and his cronies and enablers vs. the civilized world is a battle that will – and should – continue for as long as he and his repressive mindset and brutal behavior continue to define Russian policy.

Presenters and consumers of classical music will be drawing moral lines and deciding to cancel some artists for some time.

UPDATE (March 6): Facing conflicting pressures to speak out on the Ukraine war, Tugan Sokhiev, the 44-year-old Russian who has been serving as principal conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and music director of France’s Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse, has resigned from both posts.

“Over the past few days, I have witnessed what I thought I would never see in my life,” Sokhiev told a Russian music website, his remarks quoted on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog. The conductor continues: “In Europe today I am being forced to make a choice and prefer one member of my musical family to another. . . . I cannot see my colleagues – conductors, actors, singers, dancers, directors – threatened, treated disrespectfully, and become victims of a ‘cancellation culture.’ ”

His full statement is worth pondering:

Breaking: Bolshoi chief conductor resigns in both Russia and France

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