Putin punches the ‘cancel’ button

Vladimir Putin has taken time off from genocidal war-making to complain that the West is “canceling” Russian culture, and to tap his most high-profile cultural apparatchik, conductor Valery Gergiev, to take over a “common directorate” to operate the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev quit his post as musical director of the Bolshoi earlier this month, and the theater’s director general, Vladimir Urin, crossed the dictator when he signed a public letter opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Gergiev has run the Mariinsky since 1988.

In a video conference with artists and cultural administrators, Putin said that “proverbial ‘cancel culture’ has become the cancellation of culture. . . . The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are being removed from playbills. Russian writers and their books are being banned.”

In fact, most bans in the West have targeted artists such as Gergiev who have supported Putin or tried to rationalize refusals to denounce the invasion. Several ensembles called off performances of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” as inappropriate during a Russian-instigated war; and tour engagements of Russian orchestras and ballet troupes have been canceled, in line with other moves by democracies to economically isolate the country.

Evidence of bans of Russian music, literature and other art forms is sketchy to non-existent. The New York Times’ Anton Troianovski and Javier C. Hernández report that currently New York’s Metropolitan Opera is staging Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” while a number of US orchestras are presenting Russian programs and festivals. The 2022-23 seasons that have been announced to date show no significant reduction, let alone a boycott, of Russian repertory.

Individual acts of estrangement from things Russian can’t be quantified: We’ll never know how many liters of vodka have been poured down drains, or how many listeners decided today to listen to Debussy instead of Scriabin.

For Putin, “[w]hat’s most important right now is to indoctrinate his supporters,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “Our cultural life is not ending, and we don’t need anything from the West.”

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