Canceling Russian artists plays into Putin’s hands

There are outspoken supporters of his regime, yes, but there are also artists who risk their livelihoods whether or not they denounce him.

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By Simon MorrisonSimon Morrison is a professor of music and Slavic languages at Princeton University.

March 11, 2022 at 12:51 p.m. EST

The Washington Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents the People's Artist of Russia award to opera singer Anna Netrebko in 2008 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently ousted Netrebko from performances when she refused to renounce Putin. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

With the invasion of Ukraine, everyone and everything associated with Russia, the aggressor, is newly measured by their position on the war. Western institutions are canceling Russian artists, sometimes for being too close to President Vladimir Putin — sometimes regardless. Music providers like Sony are suspending their Russian operations, laying off hundreds of employees. The Royal Opera House in London scrapped a summer season featuring the Bolshoi Ballet. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra just postponed three shows by 20-year-old pianist Alexander Malofeev, despite the fact that he has stated publicly, “Every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.” Long-dead artists, too, are under scrutiny. The Cardiff Philharmonic in Wales pulled the 19th-century liberal homosexual Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky — hardly a nationalist — from its repertoire.

What is the purpose of these cancellations, beyond signaling moral solidarity against Putin’s war? Some benefit presumably accrues to companies and cultural organizations that respond to popular sentiment and fashionable trends; participating in the antiwar movement by demanding anti-Putin statements from Russian artists can help bottom lines. Yet these acts of protest, symbolic and emotionally satisfying for us, deprive vulnerable artists of livelihoods, place them at risk and don’t otherwise accomplish much. What’s more, they play into Putin’s hands by treating artists not as individuals but as cultural ambassadors for his grandiose vision of Russia. This affirms his sense that Russians have been wronged by the world — that Europe and the United States are out to get them, as he has long argued — and therefore justifies further draconian clampdowns and stronger fortifications for Holy Rus.

As for the artists, there’s no easy way to navigate this treacherous terrain, whether they work outside or inside Russia, or consider themselves ambassadors of higher causes and blanch at the conflation of art and politics. Touring artists can make a lot of money, so many of them tend to choose silence to protect their personal brands even in the most compromised circumstances. But now they face pressure to speak out, which can cause trouble for them or their families back home, and in any case doesn’t inoculate them against cancellation.

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For Russian artists based at home, it’s even riskier. Protesting annuls their careers, ensures harassment and hastens the closing of the public sphere by the authorities. Ivan Velikanov, the music director of the Nizhny Novgorod State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, was one of the risk-takers. He was supposed to have conducted “The Marriage of Figaro” at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, but his appearances were axed after he gave a brief antiwar speech and led a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” according to the Russian magazine Music Life. The decision to remove Velikanov from the podium was made at the presidential level; the Bolshoi’s general director, Vladimir Urin, couldn’t do anything about it. Urin has personally come out against the war, but he won’t cross the red line of having his organization do so: “All Bolshoi artists in Russia are performing without being forced to express their political opinion,” he told me. The Bolshoi’s press officer, Katerina Novikova, added that it’s “tragic” to lose the genuine dialogue that cultural exchanges, such as music and sports competitions, have traditionally facilitated. In a mournful post on Facebook (a site Russia is now blocking access to), Velikanov shared his regret that he hadn’t told the singers in advance about his antiwar protest in Nizhny Novgorod and lamented the stress he had caused them: “The voice is a fragile thing.”

Some star Russian attractions have either been supportive of Putin or hesitant to explicitly distance themselves from him. The acclaimed conductor Valery Gergiev, who was fired from the Munich Philharmonic after the invasion, is a well-documented Putin backer. He himself has been an autocrat at the helm of the Mariinsky Theater, becoming fabulously well-to-do conducting the traditional imperial repertoire of 19th-century operas that dehumanize Russia’s enemies and ballets that tell us who’s in and who’s out from an ethnic nationalist standpoint. He is one of more than 500 artists, from all spheres, who signed a letter of support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The letter was an act of propaganda. Even inside Russia, there are many who would not lament the termination of his engagements.

Soprano Anna Netrebko, who has donated money to an opera house in the separatist region Donbas, has also been scorned for her pro-Putin sentiments. The Metropolitan Opera in New York severed ties with her recently after she failed to speak out against Putin. The eminent ballerina Svetlana Zakharova, who was born in Lutsk, Ukraine, identifies as a Russian artist and once held a seat in the Russian parliament as a member of Putin’s United Russia party. Zakharova’s politics cost her a connection to the ballet school in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where she trained.

For these artists seemingly complicit in the aggressive expansion of the Russian state at home and abroad, the horrors in Ukraine might prompt them to reconsider their allegiance. If past is precedent, however, it won’t. The Ukrainian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who had been working in Moscow before the war, isn’t shy about holding them in contempt. “It is because of the support of the most visible figures of Russian culture that Putin gained his unlimited power and is now using it against humanity in this bloody war that destroys my beautiful country,” he wrote to me.

Ratmansky is not wrong about their reach. Putin’s government has been calculatedly generous in supporting artists and artworks that reflect a conservative, imperialist, nationalist vision of Russia while suppressing iconoclasts. I attended a cultural forum in St. Petersburg a few years ago and heard Putin speak as a defender of “traditional values.” He was preceded onstage by actor and filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, who insisted that traditionalism didn’t amount to censorship. But it does: Exhibitions have been closed, poets silenced and rappers removed from the airwaves for challenging the rhetoric of the self-proclaimed protectors and purifiers of Russia.

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This has led some artists, particularly in Russia, to silence themselves rather than be silenced by the government. These artists refuse to perform, expressing resistance by rejecting the public sphere. “I can’t entertain you while rockets are falling on Ukraine,” the hip-hop artist Oxxxymiron informed his fans on Instagram. The rock band Mumiy Troll has also joined the silence, stating: “We have decided to cancel all our concerts. For more than two decades our task has been to write songs that unite listeners in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries. This music is ruined.”

Some artists who could protest don’t, because of cynical indifference and many decades of hardwiring. Older Russians, those reared as subjects of the state, express pride in the achievements of the Russian and Soviet empire and revulsion at its atrocities: “I’m so ashamed of my country” is a common refrain. Collective shame is different from collective responsibility, however, which younger Russians — those whose hopes for civil society vanished with the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov seven years ago — acutely feel. Taking to the streets, beaten by the police, they have their agency fully realized, activist Maryana Petyaskina told me — a shameful contrast with the artists who have been hectored into compromise and have profited as a result.

The Russian canon offers apocalypse in its literature and considerable tug-of-war between subhuman and superhuman impulses in its music and dance. Conformists are condemned, dissidents extolled. Tchaikovsky, among others, expressed fears about implacable fate and the violence of the state. Putin’s war in Ukraine represents a total moral collapse — a monstrously uncivilized act by the ruler of an outsize nation that has made an outsize contribution to culture. He dreams of restoring Catherine the Great’s empire with the policies of Czar Nicholas I and Stalinist-Nazi tactics. Protest is brave but costly, and silence is purgatory. Support is simply abhorrent. If artists reconcile themselves to a violation of the values they are supposed to represent, then they are not artists at all.

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