Russian artists are becoming cultural pariahs as Vladimir Putin’s war continues to ostracise his countrymen.
It’s day 25 of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and tension across Europe remains tangibly high. Inside Ukraine and particularly cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, war has decimated most aspects of freedom, culture, and any sense of normality.
Outside Ukraine, a war of public opinion is raging. The West has united in disgust for Putin’s barbarous behaviour, and Russian artists, athletes and cultural figures have been unable to avoid being tarnished by the same brush.
The West is attempting to use every facet of soft power available to them, including cancel culture, to try and condemn the war and mount as much pressure as possible on the Russian leadership, and Russian high culture has become collateral damage.
The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra started a domino effect of cancellations recently when it decided to remove the work of Russian composer Tchaikovsky from the programme of an upcoming concert “in light of the recent Russian invasion”. This was followed by the Russian composer’s 1812 Overture being dropped from the Royal Albert Hall’s Classical Spectacular concerts, by Japan’s Chubu Philharmonic, by the Akashi Philharmonic and the Zagreb Philharmonic.
Switzerland’s Théâtre Bienne Soleure also moved to replace Tchaikovsky’s Ukraine-based romantic opera Mazeppa over concerns about its depiction of war, while the Polish National Opera cancelled a performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, about the downfall of a murderous tsar.
Elsewhere on the continent, two major piano competitions have withdrawn invitations to Russian pianists. During a normal year, the Honens International Piano Competition in Canada and the Dublin International Piano Competition in Ireland invite young pianists from around the world to compete for prizes and recording opportunities – but this year, neither will be open to Russian pianists.
And perhaps most famously, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra has parted ways with its chief conductor Valery Gergiev over his ties to Vladimir Putin, and the fact that he failed to condemn the war.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest Soviet-born ballet dancers of all time, spoke to the Guardian this week and said: “I don’t think it’s right to put the weight of a country’s political decisions on the backs of artists, or athletes, who may have vulnerable family members in their home country. For people in those exposed positions, neutrality is a powerful statement.”
He went on to say that it’s the “individual decision” of each artist whether they want to speak out.
74-year-old Baryshnikov was born in Latvia and defected from the USSR to Canada in 1974. Along with a handful of prominent artists who are critical of Putin’s war, he has set up True Russia, a GoFundMe campaign to spread a better understanding of Russian culture and to help raise money to help refugees.