Is it right to fire Russian artists?

“Art should serve as a bridge rather than a weapon,” said Maximilian Maier, radio announcer at BR Klassik in Bavaria, after announcing the dismissal of star conductor and top-class Putin supporter Valery Gergiev from the Munich Philharmonic. The termination of Gergiev’s many other prestigious European posts quickly followed, paving the way for a concerted wave of cultural sanctions against Russian musicians, performers and artists.

There is remarkable unanimity among artists across the western world in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov puts it to me, “I haven’t seen that kind of unity in the way we perceive what’s going on since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Otherwise powerless, the art world is doing all it can to vent its outrage by focusing on the Russians in its midst. Many leading figures have resigned or been dismissed from their posts, and their performances, exhibitions or film screenings have been cancelled. Long-planned visits like that of the Bolshoi at London’s Royal Opera House have been canceled and prominent personalities of all nationalities have spoken out.

Within Russia itself there have been a number of significant resignations. Among them is Elena Kovalskaya, director of the state theater Meyerhold Center in Moscow, who explained her departure with unusual audacity on Facebook: “You cannot work for a murderer and be paid by him.”

Perhaps most notable is the resignation last week of Bolshoi music director Tugan Sokhiev, whose parallel position at France’s Orchester National du Capitole de Toulouse he said forced him into an “impossible” position when the latter asked him for clarification on his stance on the Ukrainian invasion. He left both posts instead of denouncing Putin’s actions; but the status of the Bolshoi, the beating heart of Russian culture love propremakes this a significant step.

So much for the ideal of art as a “bridge”. In fact, art has always been armed in one way or another. But can boycotting Russian artists, or forcing them to condemn the war, make any difference – especially to a Kremlin leadership that is downright insensitive to international shame?

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin with Putin and VAC Foundation Chairman Leonid Mikhelson last December at Moscow’s GES-2 House of Culture © Mikhail Metzel/Pool/Tass

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov is not optimistic. “I know how my country works,” he says. “When they’re pushed against the wall, the Russians just crowd in for the lead.” He describes any discrimination against Russians in art as “not positive, but strictly negative.” In Russia, he says, these actions are met with an anti-Western outcry, “See what you’re doing?” and pour fuel on the fire of anti-Western sentiment. He points out that after Gergiev returned to his homeland, he was hailed by the authorities as a patriot and hero.

Others questioning the value of current reactions in the art world include internationally acclaimed Ukrainian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – longtime New York residents – who say they don’t “believe” in cultural sanctions and rely on theirs Beliefs in the power of culture call connections when politicians fail.

Some seem less sure of the power of art in such situations. Retreating from the Russian pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale, artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva said on Instagram: “There is no place for art when civilians are dying under rocket fire.” And star soprano Anna Netrebko, who has supported Putin in the past and has canceled all her upcoming performances, said: “This is not the right time for me to perform and make music”.

Russian artist Kirill Savchenkov’s Instagram post

Melnikov and Bychkov both also point out that, as in any war, there is collateral damage. Demanding that individuals swear their allegiance one way or another on pain of losing their jobs has uncomfortable echoes of McCarthyism, and pointless targeting of innocent fictional characters is a growing concern – an example being 20-year-old pianist Alexander Malofeev, whose debut in Canada was canceled last week for no other reason than his nationality.

Bychkov, now 69, left the Soviet Union in 1975 and speaks eloquently about the mistakes that can be made, even with good intentions. “We [the arts community in the west] do everything we can – and we do certain things that we shouldn’t do.” As an example, he cites the Polish National Opera’s recent decision to cancel a Mussorgsky production Boris Godunov with the reason: “In times like these, the opera is silent”. That, says Bychkov, “sent shivers down my spine.” The whole point of this play, he explains, revolves around autocracy and the dangers of dictatorial rule – adding, in the great climax, comes the cry: “The people are silent”.

Bychkov conducts his orchestra in a black jacket and white tie

Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov in 2018 © Getty Images

Instead of canceling it, “they should perform this opera 10 times a day!” This sentence – “the people are silent” – has had a wide resonance. The terrible penalties inflicted in Russia for speaking up are well known, and Bychkov is among those who recognize the extraordinary courage of those who do. Among them is Lev Dodin of the Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg, now 77 and one of the world’s great dramaturges, whose moving open letter to Putin ends: “I beg you.”

Unfortunately, like in Toronto and Warsaw, cancellations are increasing every day. However, many leading institutions take a more balanced approach. At London’s Royal Opera House, CEO Alex Beard makes it clear that individuals are never targeted solely because of their nationality. “We have Russian and Ukrainian players sitting next to each other in the orchestra,” he says, “and we will definitely not discriminate against Russian nationals.”

But those who hold an official position in relation to the Russian government are another matter. “There’s no way you could morally – even if you could practically – host an official society,” says Beard, referring to his cancellation of the upcoming Bolshoi visit. The same applies to individual artists who support Putin’s actions. “As far as I know, almost all orchestras and promoters follow the same line,” he adds. “It is so important to emphasize that our problem is Putin’s politics, not the Russians.”

A similar impulse ignites much of the visual arts community. But there’s a difference here: quite a few international art institutions are Russian-owned, even if it’s not immediately obvious. Most of them have made cautious, carefully worded statements without actually condemning the regime’s actions.

The Cosmoscow art fair said, “The human and political tragedy that is happening affects absolutely everyone” — a floury statement that contains no specific criticism. After all, Russians have had centuries of practice in saying things that say nothing. Only Russian auction house Phillips, which is donating around £5.8million to the Ukrainian Red Cross, dared to make a stronger statement to “unequivocally condemn” the Putin regime.

A man and woman stand in an art gallery surrounded by framed pictures

Petr and Katarina Aven at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London in 2018

The war also revealed the deep penetration of Russian oligarchs into the art world across Europe – not only as collectors and buyers, but also as donors, patrons, and even in decision-making roles. London’s Royal Academy, for example, has parted ways with its donor and trustee Petr Aven – who is blacklisted by the EU but not the UK – and returned his donation to the current Francis Bacon exhibition.

The next major event on the international art merry-go-round is the Venice Biennale, long the playground of the oligarchs, and the art world will be watching closely to see who shows up. Roman Abramovich’s giant yacht is unlikely to dock at its usual berth, the Biennale has banned all Russians with any official ties, and the Russian Pavilion is canceled following the resignation of its artists and curator.

Meanwhile, life is dramatic for the organizers of the Ukrainian pavilion, co-curators Borys Filonenko, Lisaveta German and Maria Lanko. German, who is nine months pregnant, was finally waiting at her apartment in Kyiv for the arrival of her baby, while Lanko has managed to make it across western Ukraine from the capital with 72 cast bronze funnels, parts of a kinetic sculpture dubbed “The Source of exhaustion”. Acqua Alta” by Pavlo Makov, the artist of the pavilion. Makov had remained resolutely in Kharkiv until the last few days, when the Russian bombardment became too heavy.

Four figures from the art world, two male, two female, stand at a presentation in an art gallery

Borys Filonenko, Lisaveta German, Maria Lanko and Pavlo Makov present the project for the Ukraine Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale © Valentyn Kuzan/Courtesy of Katya Pavlevych

Amazingly, however, the organizers remain resolute and hopeful: their latest communiqué states: “Ukraine’s representation at the exhibition is more important than ever. When the very right of our culture to exist is being challenged by Russia, demonstrating our achievements to the world is crucial.”

Other Ukrainian figures have also struggled on the cultural barricades – particularly in the country’s thriving music scene. Olga Korolova, a successful international DJ, has been evicted from her destroyed home in Chernihiv but is working to use her social media reach to spread the truth about the situation, particularly among her Russian fans. “I’m shocked that Russians aren’t seeing the truth,” she told the BBC’s Mark Savage. “My fans in Russia send me messages saying, ‘That’s not true. It’s a lie. All your posts are a lie.’ They don’t want to see it.”

In the end, can any of these strongly felt reactions have an impact on the course or outcome of the war? Semyon Bychkov answers the question quite poetically: “If you throw a stone into the water,” he says, “the waves disappear, but the vibrations reach the other side. You can’t measure it, but it happens.” Meanwhile, Alex Beard believes that “acts of solidarity and regime sanctions are cumulative and systemic. The most important thing is to stand together. . . no action will make a difference, but over time there will be repercussions.”

Jan Dalley is the art editor of the FT

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