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Is it right to cancel Russian artists?

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

Across the western world, there’s remarkable unanimity among the arts community in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov puts it to me: “Not since the Berlin Wall fell have I seen this kind of unity in the way we perceive what is going on.”

Powerless in other ways, the arts world is doing all it can to express its outrage by focusing on the Russians in their midst. Scores of leading figures have resigned or been dismissed from their posts, and have seen their performances, exhibitions or film showings canceled. Long-planned visits such as that of the Bolshoi to London’s Royal Opera House have been scotched, and prominent figures of all nationalities have spoken out.

Within Russia itself, there has been a string of significant resignations. Among them is Elena Kovalskaya, director of Moscow’s state-run Meyerhold Center theater, who took to Facebook to explain her departure with unusual boldness: “You can’t work for a killer and get paid by him.”

Most prominent, perhaps, is the resignation last week of the Bolshoi’s music director Tugan Sokhiev, whose parallel position at France’s Orchestra national du Capitole de Toulouse forced him, he said, into an “impossible” position when the latter asked him to clarify his stance. on the Ukrainian invasion. He departed from both posts rather than denounce Putin’s actions; but the status of the Bolshoi, the very beating heart of Russian cultural amour propremakes this a significant move.

So much for the ideal of art as “a bridge”. In fact, art has always been weaponised, one way or another. But can boycotting Russian artists, or forcing them to express condemnation of the war, possibly have any effect – especially against a Kremlin leadership notedly impervious to international disgrace?

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

The Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov is not optimistic. “I know the way my country functions,” he says. “When pressed against the wall, the Russians only cluster more tightly around the leadership.” He describes any discrimination against Russians in the arts as “not positive, in fact strictly negative”. In Russia, he says, these actions are met with an anti-western cry of “See what they do?” and add fuel to the fire of anti-western feeling. He points to the fact that Gergiev, on his return to his homeland, was hailed by the authorities as a patriot and a hero.

Others who question the value of current reactions in the arts world are internationally lauded Ukrainian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – long based in New York – who say they “do not believe” in cultural sanctions, citing their belief in the power of cultural connections when politicians fail.

Some seem less sure about the power of art in such situations. Withdrawing 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 the fire of missiles”. And star soprano Anna Netrebko, who has in the past shown support for Putin and has canceled all her upcoming performances, said: “This is not the right time for me to be performing and making music”.

The Instagram post by Russian artist Kirill Savchenkov

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

Bychkov, now 69, left the Soviet Union in 1975, and he is eloquent about the mistakes that can be made even when intentions are good. “We [the arts community in the west] are doing everything we can possibly do – and we are doing certain things we shouldn’t be doing. ” He cites as an example Polish National Opera’s recent decision to cancel a production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov on the grounds that “At times like these, opera is silent”. This, Bychkov says, “sent shivers up my spine”. The whole point of that piece, he explains, is about autocracy and the perils of dictatorial rule – and, he adds, in the great climax comes the cry: “The people are silent”.

Wearing black jacket and white tie, Bychkov conducts his orchestra

Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov in 2018 © Getty Images

Instead of canceling it, “They should put this opera on 10 times a day!” That phrase – “the people are silent” – resonates widely. The terrible penalties within Russia for speaking out are well publicized, and Bychkov is among those who pay tribute to the extraordinary courage of those who do. Among them are Lev Dodin of St Petersburg’s Maly Drama Theater, now 77 and one of the world’s great dramaturgs, whose moving open letter to Putin ends: “I’m begging you.”

Unfortunately, cancellations such as those in Toronto and Warsaw are becoming more common every day. But many leading institutions are taking a more balanced approach. At London’s Royal Opera House, chief executive Alex Beard makes it clear that individuals are never targeted for their nationality alone. “We have Russian and Ukrainian players sitting next to each other in the orchestra,” he says, and “there’s no way we’re going to discriminate against Russian nationals.”

But those in an official position in relation to Russia’s government are a different matter. “There’s no way one could morally – even if one could practically – host an official company,” Beard says, referring to his cancellation of the upcoming visit by the Bolshoi. The same goes for individual artists who have gone on record in support of Putin’s actions. “As far as I know, almost all orchestras and promoters are taking the same line,” he adds. “It’s so important to stress that our issue is with Putin’s policies, not with Russians.”

A similar impulse ignites much of the visual arts community. But there’s a difference here: quite a few international arts bodies are under Russian ownership, even if that’s not immediately obvious. Most of these have produced cautious, carefully worded statements with no actual condemnation of the regime’s actions.

The Cosmoscow art fair said “the human and political tragedy that is happening concerns absolutely everyone” – a mealy-mouthed utterance that contains no specific criticism. Russians, after all, have centuries of practice at saying something that says nothing. Only the Russian-owned Phillips auction house, which is donating some £ 5.8mn to the Ukrainian Red Cross, ventured 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 Summer Exhibition of London’s Royal Academy in 2018

The war has also revealed the deep incursion of Russian oligarchs into the art world across Europe – not just as collectors and buyers but as donors, patrons, and even in decision-making roles. London’s Royal Academy, for instance, has parted company with its donor and trustee Petr Aven – who appears on the EU’s black list, though not on the UK’s – and returned his donation to the current Francis Bacon exhibition.

The next important event in the international art merry-go-round is the Venice Biennale, long the oligarchs’ playground, and the art world will be watching closely who will turn up. The immense yacht belonging to Roman Abramovich will presumably not be on its usual moorings, the Biennale has banned all Russians with any official ties, and the Russian pavilion is canceled after the resignation of its artists and its curator.

Meanwhile for the organizers of Ukraine’s pavilion, co-curators Borys Filonenko, Lisaveta German and Maria Lanko, life is dramatic. At last news, German, who is nine months pregnant, was still in her Kyiv apartment awaiting the arrival of her baby, while Lanko has contrived to get out of the capital through western Ukraine with 72 bronze-cast funnels, parts of a kinetic sculpture called “The Fountain of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta ”by Pavlo Makov, the pavilion’s artist. Makov had determinedly stayed in Kharkiv until the past few days, when the Russian bombardment became too fierce.

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 presenting the project for Ukraine’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale © Valentyn Kuzan / Courtesy of Katya Pavlevych

Yet, amazingly, the organizers remain determined and hopeful: their most recent communiqué says: “The representation of Ukraine at the exhibition is more important than ever. When the sheer right to existence for our culture is being challenged by Russia, it is crucial to demonstrate our achievements to the world ”.

Other Ukrainian figures have been fighting on the cultural barricades, too – especially those in the country thriving music scene. Olga Korolova, a successful international DJ, has been forced out of her destroyed home in Chernihiv but is working to use her social media reach to spread the truth about the situation, in particular to her Russian fans. “I’m in shock that Russian people are not seeing the truth,” she told the BBC’s Mark Savage. “My fans from Russia, they send me messages saying, ‘It’s not true. It’s a lie. All of your posts are a lie. ‘ They don’t want to see it. ”

In the end, can any of this powerfully feel response have an effect on the progress or outcome of the war? Semyon Bychkov answers the question rather poetically: “If you throw a stone into water,” he says, “the ripples disappear but the vibrations will reach the other side. You can’t measure that, but it happens. ” Meanwhile Alex Beard believes that “acts of solidarity and regime sanction are cumulative and systemic. The key thing is to stand together. . . no one act is going to make a difference, but over time there will be an impact. ”

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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