Valery Gergiev is famous for two things. First, according to music critics who supposedly know about such things, he’s a world-class symphony conductor. Second, he’s a close buddy (for some three decades now) of Vladimir Putin, whose 2014 annexation of Crimea and February 21 recognition of Donetsk “independence” he lustily applauded. In 2013, in recognition of Gergiev’s loyalty, Putin named him a “Hero of Labor of the Russian Federation” (a revived Stalin-era distinction). Over the years, like many another Putin intimate, Gergiev has miraculously acquired a fortune far too gigantic to explain even by world-class symphony-conductor standards.
Until recently, Gergiev’s enthusiasm for Putin didn’t seem to harm his international reputation in the slightest. He was able to supplement his position as director of the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg with regular appearances at such venues as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, as well as with the steady post (since 2015) of conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. (Previously, he was conductor of the London Symphony.) It was typical of his jet-set performance schedule that on February 23 he conducted Tchaikovsky’s opera Queen of Spades at La Scala in Milan — the opening night of a gig that was intended to last until March 15 — and was slated to spend the next four nights conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, apparently the beginning of an extensive tour.
Firing just any Russian off the street would be anti-Russian hysteria. Firing a celebrity conductor and longtime Putin apologist who’s miraculously accumulated the fortune of an oligarch — that’s something else.
But then it happened. Gergiev’s Kremlin chum invaded Ukraine. And in the events that followed, one man, it appears, made all the difference. As the New Yorker’s music columnist, Alex Ross, reported, “Beppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, declared that Gergiev’s engagement [at La Scala] would be cut short unless he denounced the assault on Ukraine.” When Gergiev refused, he not only lost La Scala; he was also cut loose from the Vienna Philharmonic tour, was dismissed from the presidency of the Edinburgh International Festival, was fired as regular guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (when you’re a top-flight international conductor, you have more gigs than you can competently handle, while countless less fortunate conductors are sitting at home using their batons as back-scratchers), and kissed goodbye a long list of future international paydays. Oh, and he lost his steady Munich job. “Gergiev’s career outside Russia,” pronounced Ross, “was effectively over.”
And Brendan O’Neill of Spiked Online, with whom I often find myself in agreement, found it all terribly unfair. Yes, O’Neill admitted, Gergiev “likes Putin,” which, he acknowledged, “seems very odd.” But should he be punished for it? After all, contended O’Neill, Gergiev isn’t just a peachy conductor; he’s also been described by his managers (yes, his managers) as “an extraordinary human being with a profound sense of decency.” Are we now, demanded O’Neill, “expected to check the ideology of every conductor, creator and performer before engaging with their work?” First of all: cheering an unprovoked invasion, complete with the mass destruction of residential neighborhoods and the wholesale murder of civilians, including children, isn’t an “ideology.” Even so, O’Neill’s is an odd question, because, as he’s well aware, we already live in a world of stringent ideological tests.
In the academy, even the most qualified conservatives, moderates, and classical liberals face an uphill battle in the quest for jobs. If, by some fluke, a non-progressive thinker is invited to speak at a university, he’s likely to be shouted down by students who’ve been trained to be Maoist attack dogs. For criticizing Islam, Canadians Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant have been dragged before provincial Human Rights Commissions, and Europeans like Geert Wilders and Eric Zemmour have been hauled into court. With the recent rise of wokism, an increasingly broad range of departures from lockstep leftism have been punished. The musical Hamilton, not long ago cherished by progressives, is now toxic because it celebrates slave owners. Meanwhile, writers who reject trans ideology or Critical Race Theory can forget about book contracts.
Anyway, nobody needs to be told that we’re living in an era of cancel culture. The examples are countless. So it’s rather odd to see O’Neill acting as if, in the present climate, it’s unusual and shocking and just plain awful to see a multi-millionaire mate of Vladimir Putin lose work because the latter is bombing babies to smithereens. For O’Neill, Gergiev is nothing less than a victim of “anti-Russian hysteria.” No. Firing just any Russian off the street would be anti-Russian hysteria. Firing a celebrity conductor and longtime Putin apologist who’s miraculously accumulated the fortune of an oligarch — that’s something else. O’Neill also frets that Gergiev’s change in employment status “feel[s] like a blacklisting.” If he’s comparing Gergiev to the Hollywood Ten — Stalinists, all, sworn to stuff their movie scripts with Marxism and to do their best to destroy the careers of anti-Communist colleagues — well, fine: call it blacklisting.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that it took an invasion of Ukraine to awaken the consciences of Gergiev’s employers. Seeing them pile on all at once was unseemly. Still, I was impressed to see the Munich and Vienna orchestras singing “Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear” to the guy. These are two institutions that, as Brendan O’Neill may or may not be aware, have uniquely problematic histories at the crossroads of art and politics. Their moves against Gergiev would seem to indicate a salutary disinclination on their part to repeat the most inglorious chapter of their histories.
I’m referring, of course, to the Hitler Era, when both orchestras were a lot more than just makers of glorious music.
The Munich Orchestra was officially known as “the Orchestra of the Fascist Movement,” and as late as the 1990s its printed programs were still adorned with an insignia that featured a swastika. As for the Vienna Orchestra, during the war it bestowed its coveted “Ring of Honor” award upon the city’s Nazi governor, who was chiefly responsible for the deportation of its Jews. In 1942, at a time when fewer than a tenth of the subjects of the Third Reich were Nazi Party members, no fewer than 60 of the Vienna Orchestra’s 123 performers were card-carrying Nazis, and two were in the SS. When the time came, both orchestras removed music by Jewish composers from their repertoires and expelled Jewish musicians, several of whom perished in the Holocaust while their gentile ex-colleagues entertained at Nazi soirées. The orchestras themselves, dutifully rendered Judenfrei, were, as Terry Teachout put it in 2017, “treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.”
So call me a philistine, but if these orchestras, given their (shall we say) spotted histories, want to distance themselves from a conductor who defends the capricious slaughter of Ukrainian children by one of his closest friends, I’m not losing sleep over it. Nor are we talking about empty virtue signaling here. The cancellation of Gergiev is only a small part of a comprehensive effort to isolate Russia on every imaginable front — transport, communication, culture, sport, finance — and to drag its economy into the sewer. If we, as citizens of Western powers, can support our governments’ strategic destruction of the hard-earned savings of innocent Russian citizens, surely we can live with a career dip for Valery Gergiev, whose assets, most of which are apparently outside Russia, are very possibly untouchable.
To be sure, many of these anti-Russia sanctions have been criticized as well. Commentators have mocked the purported triviality of, for example, booting Russia out of Eurovision; the other day Norwegian TV featured a solemn debate about the decision to exclude Russians from this year’s Norway Cup, an international soccer tournament for kids. Apropos of the exclusion of Russians from the forthcoming Women’s Junior World Cup, a hockey event, O’Neill himself complained: “Preventing teenage Russian girls from playing sport? That isn’t anti-war — it’s just cruel.” No, it’s a disappointment. They can still play hockey at home. What’s cruel is the murder by Russian soldiers, acting in those girls’ names, of Ukrainian children who will never be able to play anything again. But O’Neill was adamant. This hockey ban, he asserted, “is censorious, authoritarian and borderline racist. Surely … the vast majority of Russians are good, normal people.”
Alas, it so happens that most of those “good, normal people” firmly support Putin and believe the lies of Russian state television. No, not everybody in Russia backs Putin. Younger Russians — who get most of their news from the Internet — tend to have no special fondness for Putin. Most of them frequent foreign websites and socialize online with foreigners, and hence feel a strong connection to the world beyond their country’s borders. By isolating Russia in scores of ways, big and small, the Western powers may well make a powerful — and useful — impact on both of these cohorts: the older Russians may finally be shaken out of their illusions about Putin, and the younger Russians may recognize that, far from being a macho little thug whom they hated but thought they could live with, he’s a terrifying warmonger and baby-killer who stands between them and a normal life in the world. Perhaps together, the old and young of Russia will somehow manage to push Putin out, or drag him out, or take him out — and thereby rescue not only themselves but, hallelujah, all of us.