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The Last String of Russian Greatness Is About to Snap

A great classical music tradition might die because of the Ukraine invasion.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
An orchestra at the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia
An orchestra at the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia
The conductor's assistant guides the orchestra during a sound check at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on Oct. 31, 2011. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia likes to think of itself as a superpower, but there aren’t that many things it’s actually world-class in. The list today mostly comes down to oil and gas, sports, and classical music. That first is looking shaky, with the developed world scrambling to divest from Russian exports after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. As for the sporting success, well, Russia’s doping scandal has resulted in the country being banned from the Olympics.

Russia may be on its last gasp when it comes to classical music and other fine arts, too. Even during the Cold War, Soviet musicians dazzled the West during their guest appearances. To be sure, there were the odd, embarrassing defections, like those of the dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and the forced exile of husband-and-wife team Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. But Soviet state backing of the traditional fine arts helped maintain excellence, even as censorship and disdain for modern art and music cost the chance to develop new scenes. But even after the Soviet Union crumbled, Russia was able to keep up its classical strengths—and attract artists from all around the world.

But now its musicians are leaving, and Western ones have stopped arriving for guest performances. In 2011, Teodor Currentzis—a young star conductor from Greece—arrived in Perm, Russia. The Siberian hub of military manufacturing, one of the USSR’s closed cities, was trying to energize its opera house, and Currentzis was undoubtedly up for the task. With his unorthodox but compelling conducting—and dashing personal style—Currentzis turned the Perm opera house into an unlikely hub of top-flight music-making. His ensemble, MusicAeterna, which was funded by a Russian bank, was invited to perform all over the world. Russian classical music excellence, for generations a source of pride and excellence in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, now extended all the way to Siberia. Even when local Perm bureaucracy caused Currentzis to step down from the post in 2019, he kept performing in Russia; he’d even acquired Russian citizenship.

Russia likes to think of itself as a superpower, but there aren’t that many things it’s actually world-class in. The list today mostly comes down to oil and gas, sports, and classical music. That first is looking shaky, with the developed world scrambling to divest from Russian exports after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. As for the sporting success, well, Russia’s doping scandal has resulted in the country being banned from the Olympics.

Russia may be on its last gasp when it comes to classical music and other fine arts, too. Even during the Cold War, Soviet musicians dazzled the West during their guest appearances. To be sure, there were the odd, embarrassing defections, like those of the dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and the forced exile of husband-and-wife team Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. But Soviet state backing of the traditional fine arts helped maintain excellence, even as censorship and disdain for modern art and music cost the chance to develop new scenes. But even after the Soviet Union crumbled, Russia was able to keep up its classical strengths—and attract artists from all around the world.

But now its musicians are leaving, and Western ones have stopped arriving for guest performances. In 2011, Teodor Currentzis—a young star conductor from Greece—arrived in Perm, Russia. The Siberian hub of military manufacturing, one of the USSR’s closed cities, was trying to energize its opera house, and Currentzis was undoubtedly up for the task. With his unorthodox but compelling conducting—and dashing personal style—Currentzis turned the Perm opera house into an unlikely hub of top-flight music-making. His ensemble, MusicAeterna, which was funded by a Russian bank, was invited to perform all over the world. Russian classical music excellence, for generations a source of pride and excellence in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, now extended all the way to Siberia. Even when local Perm bureaucracy caused Currentzis to step down from the post in 2019, he kept performing in Russia; he’d even acquired Russian citizenship.

Now Currentzis has quietly launched a new orchestra—from a perch in Berlin. “The evasive Greek-Russian conductor thinks a name change can help his predicament with the Kremlin-funded MusicaEterna,” classical music’s preeminent information purveyor, Norman Lebrecht, reported on his blog last month.

And Currentzis is not the only leading classical musician quitting Russian positions. In early March, the famed Bolshoi Theatre’s music director, Tugan Sokhiev, resigned from both his Bolshoi post and his music directorship at France’s Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, explaining that “many people were waiting for me to express myself and to hear from me my position on what’s happening at the moment [the Ukraine war].” He said he was resigning from both posts after “being forced to face the impossible option of choosing between my beloved Russian and beloved French musicians.”

Vasily Petrenko, another leading Russian conductor, has left his post as artistic director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia and stopped performing in Russia. In Novosibirsk, artistic director Thomas Sanderling, the son of German conductor Kurt Sanderling but born in the Siberian capital, has likewise resigned from his post. “Following the recent aggression of Russia in Ukraine and especially the violent bombing of Ukrainian cities and growth of totalitarianism in Russia, I felt that I had to resign as chief conductor and artistic director of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra,” Sanderling explained in a statement. The Bolshoi, meanwhile, has just removed young stage director Alexander Molochnikov—who had criticized the war—from two upcoming opera productions.

Even the Russian star soprano Anna Netrebko, who in 2014 made a donation to an opera house in rebel-held Donetsk and has maintained regular contact with the Kremlin, is now gone, though hardly of her own volition. Facing canceled performances in the West as a result of her failure to denounce the invasion of Ukraine, Netrebko did denounce it, which led to Russian concert halls canceling her performances. “Living in Europe and having the opportunity to perform in European concert halls appears to be more important [for her] than the fate of the homeland,” the organizers of the Novosibirsk Opera said after canceling a concert there.

The Operabase database, which lists all opera performers and performances, shows that Netrebko has no upcoming opera roles or recitals in Russia. Her last one, as Leonora in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore at St. Petersburg’s illustrious Mariinsky Theatre, ended in January this year.

Lots of other musicians have simply left Russia without any announcement—especially Russian ones, who don’t want risk harm being done to family members remaining behind. Most of the artists are moving to Berlin and Vienna. But Russia’s loss is not precisely a gain for these European capitals of music. “In the world of classical music, Berlin and Vienna are already crowded,” a leading artist manager told me. With more competition but the same amount of audience and funding, everyone loses out.

Global stars, meanwhile, have simply canceled their appearances in Russia. In April, the leading Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca withdrew from a gala performance in St. Petersburg, while the famous German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff canceled a jazz concert in Moscow. Operabase and individual opera houses’ and concert halls’ websites show only the rarest appearance by a Western artist. The overwhelmingly Russian casts feature mostly second- and third-tier performers.

“If as a Russian artist you’re not speaking out against the Russian state in the West, you’re seen as supporting it, but in Russia, if you’re not professing loyalty to the state, you’re seen as being against it,” said Laurie Bristow, Britain’s ambassador to Russia from 2016 to 2020. “And it’s going to get worse, not better.” During his Moscow tenure, Bristow conceived the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, which brought together British and Russian musicians at the start of their careers. “I was dealing with spies and poisonings, and I wanted to demonstrate what the U.K.-Russian relationship could look like,” he said. Now, the orchestra has suspended its operations.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, many Western concert halls have stopped inviting Russian orchestras, operas, and ballet companies for guest performances, though some have for legal reasons followed through on previously contracted engagements. (Individual Russian artists are still able to perform, often because it would be difficult to break the contract of individual musicians solely on the basis that they’ve failed to oppose the Ukraine war. Their pre-invasion contracts understandably contain no prevision obliging them to oppose a prospective war.) And no Western ensembles of any standing are going to Russia anymore. “I don’t think we’ll see Western orchestras perform in Russia again in my lifetime,” a top orchestral manager told me.

Everyone involved is reluctant to speak on the record given the extreme sensitivity of the subject. Having to navigate geopolitics is a new experience for classical musicians, much as it is for businesspeople, who had until now spent three decades without having to give it much thought.

Indeed, with its February invasion of Ukraine, Russia is managing to culturally isolate itself in a way that was unthinkable even during the Cold War. Back then, classical music was considered such an essential (and nonpolitical) form of exchange between the two blocs that it was allowed to pierce the Iron Curtain. “Especially after [Nikita] Khrushchev came to power, the Soviets put a great deal of effort into musical excellence and exchange with the West,” said René Nyberg, who served as Finland’s ambassador to Russia in the 2010s. “The Soviets suffered from all kinds of inferiority complexes, but they knew that in music they were world-class.” Soviet greats like Richter regularly performed in the West (here are Richter and Oistrakh playing Beethoven and Brahms in New York in 1970). “The Borodin Quartet were the best quartet of their time, and they regularly performed in the West,” Bristow observed. “They were also hard-currency earners for the Soviet state.” In 1958, the American pianist Van Cliburn won the USSR’s inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition.

The competition had been launched to demonstrate Soviet musical superiority, the pinnacle of the country’s extremely ambitious music education system. This ambition put Richter and the other judges in a bind when they decided that Cliburn had delivered the best performance. They nervously asked the Kremlin how to proceed and received word that it was fine to award him the top prize.

Today, such musical excellence and exchange are unthinkable. “Today, the situation is worse than during Soviet times,” the artist manager said. “The country isn’t just losing artists; it’s losing the entire musical exchange with the West. Today, Russia is like a hidden place. Nobody goes there, nothing comes out from there.” And the isolation is here to stay. “We won’t see a return to business as usual,” Nyberg said. “It would not be possible, because while the Cold War remained cold, we’ve now seen Russia launch a hot war in Europe.”

Officially, Russia’s classical music culture—so painstakingly built by generations of artists going back long before the Russian Revolution—still exists. Artists play the standard repertoire. Later this month, for example, an all-Russian cast will perform Handel’s “Messiah” at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. But Sanderling and many of the other top musicians will now apply their talent exclusively in the West.

The tremendous loss of one of Russia’s few remaining areas of excellence is made all the more tragic by the fact that it’s caused by an entirely preventable war. Sanderling’s departure is particularly poignant. He was born in Novosibirsk because his Jewish father had been forced to leave Nazi Germany. Kurt Sanderling instead applied his formidable skills to Soviet orchestras. As the Duma’s secretary, Shchelkalov, sings in Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov: “Right has been wronged in this country.”

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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