The power and the poet

As I am writing the Russian Federation is about to vote in presidential elections that have had many Western observers wondering in the light of recent pro-democracy protests whether the nation might be on the verge of a ‘Russian Spring’ ushering in a new era of political pluralism. To the disappointment of many, it now seems fairly clear that the white ribbons of the opposition are about to lose out to the red, white and blue of Vladimir Putin, but one of the interesting subplots of a campaign that now lacks suspense is the way in which it has evidently divided the post-Soviet musical elite.

Netrebko-and-Putin-2004-300x200On one hand, much electronic ink has been spilled over the vocal support for the Russian Prime Minister recently offered by Anna Netrebko (which caused something of a cultural furore in Vienna where the diva resides). I will refrain from commenting on Netrebko’s er… extremely candid remarks of admiration for Putin in Newsweek out of a concern not to turn this into a tabloid blog, although any reader concerned about the incursion of trash-TV culture into classical music would find much food for thought in the soprano’s interview. La Netrebko can scarcely be looked to as a source of meaningful political comment, but what is more perplexing is the fact that Vladimir Putin’s YouTube channel has also just posted serious video endorsements from artists of the stature of Valery Gergiev and Yuri Bashmet, with the latter waxing lyrical about a future Putin presidential tenure as being comparable to Stradivarius’s ‘golden period’ in his career as a violin-maker.


One of the most impressive collaborations between Bashmet and Gergiev is arguably their Deutsche Grammophon release of Styx, a powerful Viola Concerto written by Giya Kancheli in 1999. And it is in considering the Kancheli-Gergiev relationship that the parting of the ways in the musical elite of the former Soviet Union becomes both obvious and poignant, reflecting the tragic dimension of events in the ex-USSR over the last decade or so. A long-term collaborator of Gergiev’s, Kancheli wrote a piece entitled ‘Ouarzon’ specially for the Ossetian maestro’s 50th birthday in 2003, with the following dedication (reproduced in the transcript of a 2008 Radio Free Europe conversation with Kancheli which can be read in an English version here or heard in the original Russian via this link).

“Dear Valery,

“Our creative and personal relationship, which has endured many years, has filled me with hope that the powerful energy you possess will travel the globe and return, like a boomerang, to the symbolic circle Bertolt Brecht called ‘the chalk circle of the Caucasus.’ This piece, which I have dedicated to you, I named an Ossetian word, ‘Ouarzon,’ which means ‘love.’ When I transcribed this word in Latin letters it turned out, to my surprise, that it sounds like ‘war zone.’ Unfortunately, this transcription reflects the reality of events transpiring in the Caucasus . It is commonly known that the difference between love and the creation of a ‘war zone’ is just one poorly thought-out step. The way back, on the other hand, is long and difficult.

“I embrace you,

“Giya Kancheli”

However, in the course of this emotionally-charged interview it rapidly becomes clear that after the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict in South Ossetia the relationship between two of the greatest post-Soviet musicians broke down, the cause of contention being Gergiev’s much-publicized concert in Tskhinvali with his Marinsky Theatre Orchestra in gratitude for the Russian intervention against what he (contrary to Kancheli) regarded as the naked aggression of the Georgian army. Tragically, where Gergiev would speak of the military action of Tbilisi as equivalent to a ‘9/11’ event, Kancheli would use precisely the same metaphor in reverse concerning the occupation of Georgian soil by Russian troops.


Giya Kancheli has since become associated with the musical opposition to the present Kremlin authorities, particularly in joining his voice to that of Arvo Pärt[1] and Gidon Kremer in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, about which I have already written on the pages of this blog. In July 2011, Kancheli’s ‘V & V’ for taped voice and violin was the opening item in the ‘Musica Liberat’ concert on behalf of Russia’s two most famous prisoners given by Kremerata Baltica in Strasbourg , with participating musical heavyweights including Pärt, Evgeny Kissin (in duo with Martha Argerich), Mischa Maisky and the former Lithuanian head of state, composer Vytautas Landsbergis, proceeds being donated to the Podmoskovny orphanage and boarding school in Koralovo founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 1994 and adminstered by his family. The programme, organized in collaboration with Amnesty International, ‘Memorial’ (founded by Andrei Sakharov) and Human Rights Watch, was preceded by a keynote speech by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. On the same day an article by Gidon Kremer highly critical of Putin’s treatment of Khodorkovsky appeared via CNN in which the violinist quoted Pushkin:

‘To answer Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s cynical pronouncement that “a thief must sit in jail,” I would like to offer lines from the great Pushkin:And to the nation long shall I be dear For having with my lyre evoked kind feelings, Exalted freedom in my cruel age And called for mercy toward the downfallen.

A familiar Russian theme — the power and the poet. It was always rare for the two to be found on the same podium.’


Mischa Maisky

It is perhaps no coincidence to see artistic opposition to the present Russian régime being led by musicians born in those countries who felt the full brunt of Soviet repression – Georgia (Kancheli) and the Baltic States: Estonia (Pärt), Latvia (Kremer, Maisky) and Lithuania (Landsbergis) -, who understand the workings of centralized Muscovite power only too well and who feel the responsibility to sound the alarm at signals of a repeat of authoritarian history in a new capitalist guise. These artists also all live outside Russian jurisdiction (including Evgeny Kissin who is based in Paris) and can therefore speak freely without the fear of government recriminations. An organized musical opposition within Russia itself seems not to exist at the moment, as Alex Ross has recently noted ; certainly its isolated voices lack the means to generate anything comparable to Putin’s list of 499 high-profile campaign ‘trustees’ such Netrebko and Gergiev. The more worrying long-term question for Russian democracy – to which hints of an answer, and not necessarily comforting ones, may be given tomorrow – is not whether such a opposition grouping does exist, but whether it can exist. As Gidon Kremer reminds us, Russian power has a long track record of using the podium for one-men shows.



[1] March 2nd saw the first British airing at the London Institute of Contemporary Art of Cyril Tuschi’s film ‘Khodorkhovsky’ first shown in Berlin in 2011 (almost having been derailed when Tuschi’s final cut was the object of what the director described as a highly ‘professional’ theft on the eve of its first screening), with Arvo Pärt’s Symphony n.4 – dedicated to Khodorkovsky, Lebedev ‘and all imprisoned without rights in Russia’ providing the soundtrack. A video statement by Arvo Pärt concerning the Khodorkovsky case (in Russian) can be viewed at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s