Russophobia: Symptoms and treatment


A few weeks ago, I wrote that taking a break from Russian music while Vladimir Putin makes war on Ukraine wouldn’t leave me feeling culturally malnourished. I might have added that there aren’t too many living Russian performers whose temporary absence from the stage would leave too gaping a void in classical music.

I was of two minds on the question then. I’m down now to about one and an eighth.

Since Putin launched his onslaught, orchestras in Wales and Japan have dropped Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” from concert programs; several presenters in Canada canceled dates with a young Russian pianist; a Polish opera house scrapped a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov;” several Russian conductors have quit or been ousted from orchestras and opera companies, both in the West and at home.

Everybody’s wearing lapel ribbons in blue and yellow, the Ukrainian national colors, and every ensemble in the civilized world that can find the score and learn the words is performing the country’s national anthem.

All gestures, most no doubt heartfelt. Some are appropriate: This is a really bad time to play Tchaikovsky’s paean to Russian military triumph. Some other gestures – treating a 20-year-old pianist as if he’s a surrogate for a genocidal tyrant – are not just silly but gratuitously self-righteous.

Over the weekend, the Berlin Philharmonic staged a concert “for peace and freedom.” The program included works by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (currently a refugee in Berlin), along with music by Chopin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany did not attend, protesting that the concert’s featured soloists were “only Russians. No Ukrainians. An affront. . . . [W]e Ukrainians don’t fancy ‘great Russian culture’ while Russian bombs are falling on cities and thousands of civilians are being murdered . . . ”

An understandable sentiment; but the ambassador overlooked the fact that Russian artists were performing in support of Ukraine. And he lent credence to Putin’s bogus assertion that the West is “canceling” Russian culture.

Cultural Russophobia stumbles over history. Putin is grossly opportunistic but not entirely wrong to claim that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wouldn’t say that; but he could, just as credibly. The two nations are family – cousins, not siblings – and were kin long before either began to resemble a modern state.

Since Ukraine was absorbed by tsarist, and then Soviet, Russia, its people have been scattered all over Eurasia. Ukrainians moved to Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities for education, employment, favor and advancement under the ruling regime. In the 1930s, after killing millions of Ukrainians in an engineered famine, Josef Stalin exiled hundreds of thousands of the survivors to Central Asia and Siberia.

Millions of Ukrainians and Russians are blood relatives, and have been for generations. Ethnically “pure” Russians and Ukrainians are as scarce as purely Anglo-Saxon Americans.

Can kindred people form separate nations? Ask the French and Germans, descendants of Frankish cousins in the early Middle Ages. (While you’re at it, ask them about the consequences of invasion and rewards of peaceful coexistence.)

As to Russian music, take a cursory look at the greats commonly identified as Russian: Tchaikovsky was of partly Ukrainian ancestry. Prokofiev was born in the Donetsk oblast, one of the eastern Ukrainian regions seized by Putin in 2014 and now used as a pretext for this war. Violinists David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein, pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, came from Odessa, Ukraine’s Black Sea port city. The list could go on and on.

And it probably will grow. Right now, I’ll bet, a lot of Russian artists hoping for future work in the West are scouring family trees to find ancestors in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, Kazakhstan – wherever – hoping to shield themselves from the stench of Putin’s Russia.

Music can do many things to the human soul and psyche. It can summon us to battle. It can salve our wounds. It can comfort or enrapture or horrify. It’s complicated.

Russian music is especially complicated: How we hear it depends on what we’re listening for, on how closely we listen, and – remembering this land’s tumultuous history – on the circumstances under which the music was composed.

We should judge this music – and the musicians who perform it – without haste, preferably with some discernment.

We can easily discard the likes of Valery Gergiev, the conductor and high-profile Putin crony. (Keep a horselaugh in reserve in case he tries to resuscitate his career in the West by claiming to be Ossetian.)

Like Cold-War Kremlinologists, we can observe what’s said or not, who’s seen or not, when we consider Russian artists in Russia, remembering that they could face imprisonment or worse if they speak out against Putin and his war. The same for Russians in the West who aren’t ready to become émigrés, potential targets of Putin’s thugs.

We can dispense with overtly aggressive or ideologically driven Russian music. Most of it is trash.

Some of it, however, is unexpectedly untrashy. The Richmond Symphony audience was reminded of that a few days after Putin started his war, when the orchestra played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Interpretations of this work by many Soviet-era musicians gave it a branding of Stalinist triumphalism; but the music itself, beneath its bombastic episodes, is dark and somber, at times achingly tragic. It’s Russian music that deserves to be heard, even now – especially now.

Identifiably Russian classical music (other than Orthodox liturgical music) was born in the early 19th century. Some of that century’s best Russian composers were schooled sketchily, at best, in the forms and affects of European classical style. The European music of their time was romantic, more about feeling than form. Not surprisingly, we hear more heart and gut than brain in a lot of 19th-century Russian music.

Over the past century, Russian music has become more brainy and abstract (the Stalinists called it “formalist”); but much of it still comes from the heart and gut.

A great deal of it is deeply introspective, some of it otherworldly, the work of artists trying to find a safe, or at least less fraught, space in an oppressive real world. (That also may explain why so many Russian pianists excel in Bach.)

Like many other composers from Northern Europe, Russians have delighted in the warmth, color, exoticism and energy of warmer climes – the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia. Much of the best Russian music, from Glinka’s “Jota Aragonesa” and Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances,” evokes places far from home.

Then there are the Russian composers who left the country and settled in the West. They russified the sound and style of music in Western Europe and America; in time, their music also was influenced by those Western cultures. Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances are works by composers born in Russia; but they were, lingering old-country accents notwithstanding, products of mid-20th century America.

There’s Russian music that speaks explicitly of Russia, affectionately or not. There’s music by Russians abroad who are audibly homesick. There’s music by widely traveled Russians who embraced and enriched other cultures. And there’s music by Russians who don’t believe that music should be hemmed in by national origin.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Some of the most potent musical repudiations of Putin, and the corruption, repression and violence that he embodies, are the work of Russians.

Another Shostakovich symphony, his Tenth, is as powerful an indictment of this war criminal as any words that may be spoken at a tribunal. And estranged Russians, at home and abroad, may turn out be the most eloquent musical advocates for the resurrection of Ukraine and redemption of Russia.

Don’t ban Russian music or righteous Russian musicians. Turn them on the enemy.

UPDATE (April 4): The news, with ghastly images, of murders committed by Russian troops in towns they occupied near Kyiv tempts me to conclude that Russian “culture” should be confined to a tightly lidded Petri dish. In my parents’ time, people wondered how Germany could produce Bach and Goethe, and then elevate Hitler. Today, civilized people wonder: How can Russia, homeland of Tolstoy and Shostakovich, tolerate – even celebrate – Putin? The bloodstain is spreading; washing it out will take generations.

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