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Critic’s Notebook

Russian musicians’ support for Putin not playing well

The celebrated Russian pianist Denis Matsuev will take the stage of Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre for a solo piano recital. Pavel Antonov/Photo credit: Pavel Antonov

The celebrated Russian pianist Denis Matsuev comes to Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre Saturday evening for a solo recital. But audience members making their way to the hall should expect more than a serene stroll through Harvard Yard. A pro-Ukrainian group is planning its own cultural event called the Arts Against Aggression Street Festival, to take place before the recital. On Facebook, organizers urge audiences to “Come celebrate the creative power of arts and protest Denis Matsuev’s role in supporting Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.”

The side-by-side events are only the latest in a season that has seen music colliding with politics at an unusually heightened pitch. Last month, a man was arrested at another Sanders Theatre performance, this one by conductor Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi. The Boston-based group behind the street festival also organized protests of Spivakov’s concerts in six cities. Another Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, has been similarly embattled in New York and Munich.


What all of these musicians share is a place among the list of Russia’s cultural elite who signed a letter in March endorsing Putin’s policies in the Crimea.

“In the days when the fate of Crimea and our countrymen is being decided, Russia’s cultural figures cannot remain indifferent, cold-hearted observers,” a portion of the letter stated, in a translation published in the Moscow Times. “We want the commonality of our peoples and our cultures to have a strong future. This is why we firmly declare our support of the position of the President of the Russian Federation in regards to Ukraine and Crimea.”

Whether their endorsements flowed from sincere personal beliefs, from fear of the consequences of declining to sign, or from a more calculated desire to secure continued political favor at home, the pro-Putin stance of these musicians is now catching up with them as they perform outside the country. It is also prompting a larger debate, at home and abroad, about the meaning of such letters, the freedom these artists do or do not enjoy, and the ghosts of the Soviet past that some see hovering in the background.


Indeed, Spivakov is no stranger to guerrilla protest in the concert hall. As a young violinist in 1976, while he was in the middle of performing Bach’s towering D-minor Chaconne on the stage of Carnegie Hall, he was attacked with a paint bomb that landed close enough to splatter his white dress shirt with red. Yet in a display of preternatural cool-headedness, Spivakov on that occasion did not stop playing — or, according to a New York Times review, even miss a beat.

Spivakov showed less steely indifference when the protester took the stage last month during the applause at the end of the Cambridge performance. The demonstrator made a speech that drew the conductor into a brief but heated confrontation captured in a YouTube video that has since been viewed some 57,000 times.

In the video, Spivakov can be seen walking to center stage to confront the protester, and facing off only inches away from his opponent. A member of his orchestra steps between them as if to cool tempers. The protester is then hauled away by a Harvard police officer.

Meanwhile, in New York and abroad, Gergiev seems to be veering precariously toward a kind of political radioactivity. Russia’s most internationally prominent conductor and a longtime Putin ally, Gergiev was among the first to sign the March letter — an event that came after he had been protested at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall in the fall for declining to clearly denounce Russia’s anti-gay legislation.


After Gergiev’s current season of politicking, his long-planned appointment to the helm of the Munich Philharmonic apparently was sufficiently endangered that the conductor defended himself in a letter to the orchestra’s subscribers last month. Its text is a curious blend of candor and obfuscation.

“I cannot ignore the fact that parts of Russian society live according to fundamental principles that are different from those of Western societies,” Gergiev wrote. He also concedes that “circumstances of Realpolitik can suddenly infiltrate the common ground of our cultural work and cause harsh and jarring discord.” And yet his letter ends with a kind of deus-ex-machina solution, simply prescribing music itself as “the best bridge-builder!”

Spivakov did not respond to requests for comment for this article, and Matsuev’s Moscow-based manager conveyed a message through the tour presenter — which rented Sanders Theatre for both the Spivakov and Matsuev concerts — that the pianist’s schedule in recent days had not allowed him time to address e-mailed questions. This is a shame. Russian musicians who publicly engage in politics at home should not expect to sidestep the issues here.

People gathered at Sanders Theatre last month for a protest against Russian conductor Vladimir Spivakov.Daniel Smelansky

That said, some of their defenders have quietly wondered how free these musicians really were to reject the Kremlin’s call for endorsements. Gergiev, as artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and Spivakov, as director of two orchestras and president of the Moscow International Performing Arts Center, are both at the helm of large institutions that are heavily reliant on government funding. Matsuev too has his own music festival. With the Russian government so financially invested in artistic life, can mainstream Russian classical artists really be expected to oppose Putin?


Lurking behind all of this is also the question of just how far away the Soviet legacy resides today. When it comes to classical music, this legacy is both complex and double-edged. The regime ennobled this particular art form, placing it and its most prominent champions on a national pedestal, while also cynically harnessing music’s prestige for the purposes of the State.

In the Soviet era, that prestige was not requested, but demanded, of musicians, under threat of state violence. Stalin called Shostakovich personally in 1949 to ask him to travel to the Waldorf peace conference in New York, and there was only one real answer that could be given. But in the later
Soviet years, the terms of the cat-and-mouse game shifted. Today matters are even less clear cut, as the state wields its influence through different channels.

“I don’t believe anybody was forced to sign anything,” said the Moscow-based conductor Constantine Orbelian, in a recent Skype interview. “You can always just keep quiet.”

The pianist and conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who is a son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, voiced a similar opinion, in response to questions submitted by e-mail. “There is always a choice,” he wrote. “In this particular case, with overwhelming support among the Russian public for the Crimea policy, it stands to reason that many of the artists who signed were genuine in their feeling; but others would have felt a strong implicit pressure to sign.”


Yet Solzhenitsyn also cautioned against overdrawing comparisons between now and earlier eras of Soviet cultural life. “It’s an authoritarian system with certain echoes of the Soviet past, but also with basic freedoms and opportunities that Stalin’s terrorized intelligentsia could barely have imagined,” he wrote. “Any zigzags on Russia’s decidedly non-linear path toward freedom should never be confused with the crushing weight of the Bolshevik boot.”

Indeed, the Soviet legacy becomes necessary for understanding the situation of today’s Russian artists, but it is not sufficient. If anything, it reminds us chiefly of how deeply music and politics in Russia have long been intertwined. When today’s Russian artists are courted by the Kremlin precisely because of their cultural eminence, these musicians should not be surprised when the Kremlin’s actions then follow them, far away from home.

President Vladimir Putin (left) honored conductor Valery Gergiev with a Hero of Labour award during a ceremony in St. Petersburg.Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images/file 2013

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at