As war in Ukraine rages, activists put pressure on artists to denounce the invasion or face cancellation.
Concert appearances by Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who had been scheduled to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in three performances this weekend, are not taking place at Carnegie Hall as originally scheduled. The Manhattan venue’s announcement of Gergiev’s replacement, by Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director at the Metropolitan Opera, was followed by the replacement of Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. (Matsuev, who had been scheduled to perform under Gergiev, was replaced by pianist Seong-Jin Cho.) Both Gergiev and Matsuev had publicly endorsed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, signing an open letter after Russia’s Ministry of Culture called on artists and intellectuals to support the annexation.
The cancellations came amid a week of Russian attacks on Ukraine that have reached three major cities, including the capital city Kyiv, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. In an email, a Carnegie Hall spokesperson attributed the decision to “recent world events.” Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, said in an email that the change was “a joint decision” with Carnegie Hall. On Friday, Carnegie Hall also canceled two upcoming performances in May by Russia’s Mariinsky Orchestra, which were to have been led by Gergiev, again citing current events, as well as ongoing challenges of the pandemic.
The Russian invasion has created a ripple effect in the performing arts world, prompting responses from cultural figures and organizations.
The European Broadcasting Union also announced that it would ban Russian musical acts from participating in the annual Eurovision Song Contest. The Wolverhampton Grand Theatre in England canceled the Russian State Ballet’s tour stop there. And London’s Royal Opera House nixed upcoming appearances by the Bolshoi Ballet, which — along with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra — is one of the most storied Russian cultural organizations in a country that has long prized its performing arts heritage.
A member of the “Russia Tomorrow” association holds a sign during a protest of the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the entrance to the Auditori musical complex in Barcelona, where Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performed on Feb. 1. (Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images)
Gergiev has been friends with Putin since the 1990s, when he was the leader of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (then called the Kirov) and Putin was an official in St. Petersburg. In 2012, Gergiev even appeared in a video supporting Putin’s third presidential campaign. The conductor has not yet made any public statements about the attacks on Ukraine, but his long association with the Russian president has made him subject to protests at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and other venues in the past, including in 2013, after a Russian law was enacted, limiting discussion of “nontraditional sexual relationships.” The law was widely viewed as an attack on gay rights.
Gergiev is now facing intense international scrutiny: Already this week, he has been threatened with removal from his position as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, unless the 68-year-old conductor publicly announced, by Monday, that he does not support the invasion. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra joined the chorus, saying it would cancel Gergiev’s September appearance at a music festival there if he continues to support Putin. On Thursday, Milan’sTeatro alla Scala wrote to Gergiev requesting that he publicly call for a peaceful resolution in Ukraine or risk losing the opportunity to conduct Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” there as scheduled.
Earlier this week, Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, told the New York Times that he believed in judging musicians by their artistry, not their political views. Froschauer also noted that Gergiev was appearing as a musician, not a politician. But the intensifying crisis increased pressure on Carnegie Hall. Activists began to speak out on social media, using the hashtag #CancelGergiev to call attention to the crisis.
The efforts to cancel Gergiev’s performances were led by Signerbusters, a protest group formed in response to the 2014 pro-annexation letter, which was signed by 511 Russian cultural figures. Katia Shraga, a Ukrainian-born, New York-based philologist who has been involved with Signerbusters since its inception, says that the group has been protesting appearances by musicians who signed the letter for eight years. Until now, she says, they’ve had limited success.
“We were smashing our heads against a very strong wall,” she said. “If we got responses, they were like, ‘Don’t mix art with politics.’ Our argument is it’s not us mixing art with politics. They signed the letter as artists.”
Shraga, who spoke to The Post by phone from an anti-invasion rally in Times Square, says politics and art cannot be separated in Russia, where artists often also serve political roles. While the political allegiances of Russian musicians are often kept quiet, Signerbusters wants concertgoers to know exactly whom they are going to see perform. Pro-Putin musicians “present themselves here as the doves of peace,” Shraga said. “Actually they are a part of huge, very well organized — since Stalin’s era — propaganda machine. They are a tool of soft power.”
Karita Mattila, a Finnish soprano, praised Carnegie Hall’s decision on Twitter, calling it the “right thing to do.” She wrote that she had refused to perform with Gergiev at Carnegie Hall in 2014 because he supported the annexation of Crimea. “My action had lasting consequences: I received threats,” she wrote.
Along with their efforts to remove Gergiev from the Carnegie Hall performances, activists have also been pressuring the Metropolitan Opera to cancel performances by Anna Netrebko, a singer who has supported Putin in the past and who was photographed in 2014 posing with a Ukrainian separatist flag. Netrebko canceled a Friday night performance in Denmark, alluding in a statement to “significant concerns for the safety and security of all involved” in Ukraine. On Saturday, she criticized the pressure on artists to speak out against the invasion, writing on Instagram: “Forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right.”
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, more Russian artists and cultural organizations are reckoning with the decisions of the Kremlin. On Thursday, Elena Kovalskaya, director of Moscow’s State Theater and Cultural Center, resigned in protest of the invasion, writing on Facebookthat “it’s impossible to work for a murderer and collect a salary from him.” The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow announced on Saturday that it would stop working on exhibitions until “the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased,” adding that the institution “cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.”
This article was originally written by Kelsey Ables and published on The Washington Post.