pro-Kremlin maestro Valeri Guerguiev appointed director of the Bolshoi in a context of “cultural cleansing” denounced by NGOs

Boycotted by Western orchestras and fired by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra for not having denounced the offensive against kyiv, Valeri Guergiev is a long-time supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

France Télévisions – Culture Editorial



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Russian conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater Valery Guergiev performs during a gala concert dedicated to the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup on Red Square in Moscow on June 13, 2018. (SERGEI CHIRIKOV / POOL)

The Russian government on Friday appointed a supporter of President Vladimir Putin, conductor Valery Guergiev, to the post of director of the Bolshoi, in the midst of an accelerated pace of the cultural sector in Russia since the attack on Ukraine.

The Russian Prime Minister “Mikhail Mishustin signed the decision on the appointment of Valery Gergiev to the post of general director of the Bolshoi Theater for a period of five years”the government said on Telegram.

The 70-year-old maestro and longtime supporter of the Russian president was boycotted last year by Western orchestras for not denouncing the offensive against kyiv. Already director of the Mariïnsky Theater in Saint Petersburg since 1996, the city where Vladimir Putin made his political debut in the 1990s, Valeri Gerguiev will now direct the country’s two main stages, a first since 1917.

The Russian president suggested in March 2022 to merge the management of the two prestigious theaters, as was the case before the Russian revolution. Valery Gergiev’s proximity to the head of the Kremlin, notably during the annexation of Crimea, as well as his participation in concerts in the separatist region of South Ossetia and in Palmyra with the Syrian army, have already earned him controversies.

Cultural purification

In March 2022, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra decided to fire him because he had not denounced the attack on Ukraine. Several orchestras and festivals in Europe and the United States had canceled their engagements with the musician.

Until now, he has still not made any political statement on the conflict. He now performs mainly in Russia, although he toured China earlier this year.

Speaking to the Bolshoi troupe on Friday, the musician downplayed his status as persona non grata in Europe. “I’m thinking today about what to do in Russia, not because we aren’t invited anywhere, it’s the opposite, we spent a lot of time in China recently”did he declare. “But I need, and we need, to work together at home now.”he continued, proposing that troupes from both theaters perform shows on each other’s stage.

His appointment comes at a time when NGOs and media are denouncing a cultural purge in Russia with the demotion, dismissal or flight abroad of artists who have criticized the government and have not publicly supported it.

Others, like the director Evguénia Berkovitch, the playwright Svetlana Petriïtchouk and Alexandra Skotchilenko, sentenced in mid-November to seven years of imprisonment for anti-war action, were thrown in prison.

Conversely, the government encourages, finances and highlights artists and cultural productions supporting its offensive against neighboring Ukraine and its increasingly conservative discourse.

Escape of artists

Valeri Guergiev replaces Vladimir Ourin at the Bolshoi, who at the start of the February 2022 offensive signed an open letter from artists and cultural actors calling for “all parties” to stop the fighting in Ukraine.

Vladimir Ourin has headed the Moscow theater since 2013 and has publicly taken a stance in favor of the Kremlin on several occasions. In September, in an interview with the pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Vladimir Ourin admitted that the Bolshoi had “removed from poster” the names of “show creators” having criticized the conflict.

In the spring, the theater withdrew from its repertoire the ballet Nureyev by the artist Kirill Serebrennikov, on the pretext that it had fallen foul of a tightening of the law prohibiting in Russia the “propaganda” LGBT+. The ballet was based on the life of classical dance genius Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), who never made a secret of his homosexuality. The show was a great success during its premiere in Moscow in 2017.

Kirill Serebrennikov, himself a defender of LGBT+ and opposed to the conflict in Ukraine, left Russia shortly after the launch of the offensive on February 24, 2022, like many other artists and intellectuals. A Bolshoi star dancer, Olga Smirnova, also fled the country in 2022 to denounce the offensive in Ukraine.

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