Culture in times of war

No distance

Gergiev has never distanced himself from Putin in the past, quite the contrary. He supported the invasion of Crimea and anti-gay legislation, the bombing in Syria, Putin was guest of honor at the inauguration of the $500 million new Mariinsky II, Gergiev is part of the presidential advisory board for arts and culture etc. etc. etc. Shortly after the invasion, orchestras, festivals and concert halls tumbled over each other to demand that Gergiev distance himself from Putin and condemn the invasion. And because Gergiev was silent, within a few days he lost all his engagements in the West, including his chief conductor in Munich and his festivals in Rotterdam and Mikkeli.


I know Gergiev personally and was not surprised, but disappointed at his silence. I did not expect an anti-Putin statement, but not even a statement against war, nothing at all. Gergjev has been a UNESCO Artist for Peace since 2003! And yet? Can one demand a demonstrative distancing from someone whose center of life is in Russia, who directs the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, which is not only his life’s work but which now also employs 5,000 people? And why now and not before? Did we all sleep here, just like after the robbery in Crimea, or is this hindsight? Can we learn anything from the case of Willem Mengelberg, chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra for 50 years, who continued to conduct during the Second World War and had to pay for it in 1945 with a lifelong professional ban, which we now say after many years was too harsh a measure?


In short, perhaps it is all a little less black and white than many think. I console myself with the words of the Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin in NRC Handelsblad from March 3. “Putin will disappear, but the pain and hatred may remain in the hearts for a long time. Only art, literature, culture are able to help overcome this trauma. Sooner or later the vile, worthless life of the dictator will come to an end, while the culture lives on: it always was and it will be after Putin.”

Peter van Laarhoven is Vice-President of the Unesco Commission. He is writing this piece in a personal capacity.

Leave a Comment