Now Playing in China: Putin-Aligned Artists Shunned in the West
Russia is shoring up its image and rebuilding its soft power by strengthening cultural ties with friendly nations, including China.
The star Russian maestro Valery Gérgiev, who has been a friend and benefactor of President Vladimir V. Putin for many years, is now persona non-grata in America and Europe. Many cultural institutions have fired him because of his support of Putin.
This week, following a meeting between President Putin and the leader of China, Xi Jinping in Moscow, Gergiev was welcomed as a hero in Beijing. He appeared with the Mariinsky Orchestra on its first tour abroad since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Chinese fans greeted Mr. Gergiev by calling him 'brother in law', which is a play on his Chinese surname. The audience clapped for his Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and surprise rendition of the Chinese Communist classic 'Ode to the Red Flag'. State-run media celebrated the visit, claiming it was the start of a new cultural era between Russia and China.
During his tour, Mr. Gergiev called out his Western critics and promised to intensify his efforts to promote Russian Culture around the globe.
'It's not Russian music facing challenges', he said during a press conference at China's National Center for the Performing Arts. It is those who believe they can stop Russian Music.
The Ukraine War has severely damaged Russia's culture engine. Ballet dancers of the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, and opera singers such as Mr. Gergiev were once brought to world-class concert halls and theatres by Russia.
As artists who are perceived as too close with Mr. Putin in the West are shunned, Russia works to shore up its reputation and rebuild its soft-power elsewhere. It strengthens cultural alliances and partnerships with friendly nations, such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan, and with mixed results.
The Bolshoi Ballet is planning two tours to China in this year. State Hermitage Museum, an art institution in St. Petersburg is trying to establish a sister branch of its museum in Serbia after losing partners in the West due to the invasion. The St. Petersburg Ballet Company recently brought to Kazakhstan two works by Boris Eifman. 'Anna Karenina,' and The Pygmalion effect,' are both choreographed by Boris Eifman. Denis Matsuev and other Russian stars who used to perform regularly in New York, Berlin and elsewhere, such as the pianist who was regarded as being close to President Putin, now book engagements in Dubai, Istanbul, and Belgrade.
China has become a market of choice for Russian artists who are aligned to Mr. Putin, thanks to its large concertgoers, and skepticism towards Western ideals. The two countries have had cultural ties for many years -- Mr. Gergiev visits the country every decade -- but the timing of Mr. Gergiev's visit, coming a few days after Mr. Putin met Mr. Xi suggested that Russia and China wanted to show a new display of unity as they worked together to counter American dominance.
Simon Morrison is a Princeton University specialist in Russian Music. He said that Russia is always looking for cultural exchanges. "Putin wants to prove that Russia has friends."
Experts say that Russia's efforts to use culture as a way to soften its image abroad will face significant challenges even in friendly countries because of its continued attacks on Ukraine.
Vera Ageeva is a scholar of international relations at Sciences Po, France. She said that classical music, dance and theater were "some of the last links between Russia and Western culture." She said that the loss of these cultural exports is a 'huge and incalculable' loss to Russia's soft power. This cannot be compensated by simply expanding cultural ties.
After Russia invaded Ukraine cultural institutions in Europe and the United States cut ties to Russian artists and institutions that were aligned with Putin. This ended decades of cultural exchanges, which had endured during the Cold War.
Bolshoi and Mariinsky performances were cancelled in London, Madrid and New York. A popular Bolshoi broadcasting program that was to reach more than 1,700 cinemas in 70 different countries and territories has been suspended. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky were cancelled in London, Madrid, New York, and elsewhere; a popular program to broadcast Bolshoi performances into more than 1,700 movie theaters in 70 countries was suspended.
Despite Mr. Putin's repeated portrayal of Russia as the victim of an Western campaign to erase Russian cultural heritage and to cancel the great composers such as Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich from history, Russian music continues to be performed in America and Europe.
Mr. Gergiev was once one of the busiest conductors in the world. He has settled down in St. Petersburg and is leading a full schedule of performances, including Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ and Glinka’s ‘A Life for the Tsar’. Mr. Gergiev, who has been the Mariinsky's artistic and general director for many decades, has expanded the Mariinsky with the funding and support of Mr. Putin.
In a recent interview, he told a Russian media outlet that 'I do not find that my lives has taken a worse turn'. I find myself wanting to stay at home as often as possible.
The New York Times has not received any comment from Mr. Gergiev or the Mariinsky Theater.
The Bolshoi said in a press release to The Times that tours abroad were essential to maintaining its image and reputation.
The statement stated that it was saddening to learn that Westerners are denied the chance to watch Bolshoi dance classical ballet. "But we continue to tour and work in the places where people are waiting for us."
In Russia, since the beginning of the war, it has become more difficult for artists to perform because Mr. Putin has cracked down on freedom of speech and expression. In recent months, a 'cultural-front' movement spread to mobilize artists for the war.
Artists who publicly opposed the war were fired or forced to flee the country. Bolshoi Ballet removed the name of Alexei Ratmansky from its roster. He was a close collaborator, and former artistic director. After he criticised the war, and left Moscow just before he had been scheduled to premiere a work, he left. The company called in substitutes to finish his dance.
Russia has now turned to its allies for help in sustaining its cultural institutions. It also looks to China and others to compensate for the lost business that it suffered when its economy was suddenly cut off from the West.
The appearance of Mr. Gergiev in Beijing, including four sold-out shows, attracted wide attention.
State-run media celebrated the visit by referring to it as the "grand return" of the "toothpick conductor". (Mr. Gergiev is known for conducting with a toothbrush instead of a conductor's baton). Commentators used the opportunity to criticize the West for politicizing art and venting its sentiments towards innocent Russian people.
Gergiev felt like he was "coming home" in Beijing. He visited his old friends and toured the Forbidden city, where he felt he had been reminded of China’s cultural traditions.
Gergiev stated at the press conference that the recent meeting between Putin and Xi will open the doors to more frequent exchanges of culture between Russia and China. He talked about a patriotic Chinese musician who is a favourite of Mr. Xi - Xian Xinghai. Xian Xinghai was stranded during World War II in the Soviet Union and died in Moscow. Gergiev expressed his desire to one day lead a young orchestra of Russian and Chinese musicians.
"These concerts," he said, "mark the start of international cultural exchange."