Simon Mundy pleads for a more favorable approach to Russian musicians, as many do not support the invasion of Ukraine.
As Putin’s war on Ukraine enters its second gruesome month, it’s worth bearing in mind that Russian artists didn’t choose this invasion, and many don’t support it. There are divisions in all societies, even among musicians, composers and artistic directors, and Russia is no exception. As well as being fed an ever-narrowing diet of false justifications and incomplete information, their ability to speak out becomes as truncated as it was in the Brezhnev years that Putin so clearly dreams of. In many cases, if these artists find a way to make their opposition clear, they will put not only themselves at risk but also their families, friends and colleagues. Putin’s secret police have yet to begin mass purges, but we are quickly learning not to rule anything out. At the very least, Russia is getting as quiet as China.
This means we have to be very careful about how we treat those Russians caught up in the current battles of opinion. The reflexes of “cancel culture” and lawsuits by social networks are never pretty, but they are particularly unnecessary now. They have their precursors; the way anyone with a Germanic name or connection – like Elgar’s boss Sir Edward Speyer – was treated at the start of the First World War should make us reluctant to lump it all together. During World War II, those fleeing the terror of Anchluss Vienna, such as members of the Amadeus Quartet, found themselves interned when they reached Britain.
Long-time Putin apologists, as conductor Valery Gergiev, fully deserve the opprobrium they receive – even if the music world should have challenged him and others at least 15 years ago. Pianist Boris Berezovsky’s recent comments on Russian television, advocating cutting off the water in kyiv, probably assured that he was unlikely to play in Western Europe again for very long, if ever. His position is made particularly sad by his history with Britain, having received much help to come to the UK in the 1990s. Similarly, those who voluntarily appear in public at events organized to celebrate the actions of Putin should understand that supporting Russian imperialism is no longer acceptable. Peter I and Catherine II would no longer be qualified as Great.
On the other hand, there will be many Russian musicians who will feel trapped, angry and desperate. We should help them out and be welcoming when they do. Remember how Vladimir Ashkenazy managed to escape in the 1960s, Maxim Shostakovich in the late 1970s or Victoria Mullova several years later. We have returned to the time of defections and perilous escapes. We need to ensure that the roads they traveled are open and that their counterparts today do not see their families held hostage by the regime while performing abroad. I learned as a young arts correspondent not to ask country musicians in the Warsaw Pact what they thought of communism because they couldn’t answer freely. The same goes for Russian musicians and their opinions of Putin today.
Many of these Ukrainian composers receive more airtime on Radio 3 than ever before in their careers had to live in the Soviet shadow and were largely ignored in the West. We must be careful not to react too zealously to close our ears. In fact, Russian musicians can best demonstrate their adherence to civilized values by playing works that are clearly not associated with nationalism or Soviet-era Politburo-sanctioned composers. Yes to Denisov, but no thank you Khrennikov.
We should worry most, not about established names, but about young musicians whose careers have suddenly been stalled: the young men in Ukraine who have to stay home and fight, the students and emerging professionals in Russia who can to see their hopes of international recognition vanish in the smoke of Putin’s artillery. The western world will need their talent and commitment to peace through music in the years to come and we need to find ways to get our message of democratic freedom across to Russia as well. In conflict, the voices of peace have to work even harder to be heard.