Should we be punishing those Russians who stay silent?

Should we be punishing those Russians who stay silent?


norman lebrecht

March 02, 2022

Comment of the Day from the Czech-German pianist Bela Hartmann:

As countless others all around the world I am anxiously following the news from the Ukraine, hoping the courageous resistance can hold back the Russian Goliath, hoping that a clearly brutal and unjustifiable attack can be repelled against the odds. My sympathies are fully with the Ukraine, even though my thin historical knowledge of the area is enough to grasp some of the complexities involved, to realise that the grievances on both sides are in many ways justified, that there is more to this than just a disagreement between two countries. The violence and scale of the invasion set all that aside for the moment – this is clearly not an acceptable way to solve a problem and can only lead to long term trauma for the whole region. Equally, it is gratifying to see that the international community can agree on action, that the solidarity many people feel can for once be reflected in real political action.

However, there are disturbing elements to this national and international response that prompt many questions, questions about hypocrisy, effectiveness, mendacity and not least wisdom; many of these questions are being discussed in the media, helping us realise that both individual first instincts and media campaigns are often more problematic than they might appear. I would like to highlight one of these elements, that of pressuring and blacklisting Russians in the field of the arts. I highlight this not because it is more important than other elements or more egregious – only because I myself am a musician and this field therefore lies close to my heart.

All over the world Russian artists, musicians and dancers are being replaced, events are being cancelled with seemingly little logic. At the same time, artists of Russian origin are being pressured to condemn the invasion and even blackmailed to do so at the risk of losing their jobs. Many artists have volunteered such statements, and I have the highest respect for anyone who is willing to condemn violence, especially if it is carried out in the name of their own country. That is a difficult thing to do emotionally, but also intellectually, because one is likely to know more than average about the context and therefore to see things in a more differentiated manner. I raise my hat to Yevgeny Kissin, Alexander Melnikov and the many others who have spoken out with clarity and unambiguity. I have possibly even higher respect for those living in Russia who have spoken out or demonstrated – they risk isolation and reprisals now and in the future.

Respect for those who speak out is not the same as punishment for those who do not. If we move from one to the other we cheapen the former – if everyone must distance themselves in order to continue working it is hardly heroic, merely a calculation on future employability. We will merely achieve what Pope Urban VIII did, forcing Galileo to pretend to a conviction he didn’t have. Such lip service is surely something we can do without.

The global shunning of all things Russian may be an attempt to protest or to apply pressure, but what exactly is being shunned? Russian music, musicians, culture? If the boycott is targeting the state behind the culture it has lost its orientation: Russian culture is not a function of government policy, it is the jewel of the Russian people, and no autocrat can change that. If we want to signal our disapproval of the actions of Russia’s government why punish something that belongs to its people? Whom are we then really blacklisting?

Besides, why would blacklisting artists achieve anything? Why would Putin care if Mikhail Pletnev can’t conduct in Switzerland next week? Why would the average Russian citizen watch the invasion with equanimity yet topple the government because Gergiev lost his job in Munich? Have we not learnt anything from years of sanctions against oppressive countries: populations tend to rally around the flag in the face of foreign pressure; the only people pleased with it are those who opposed the state anyway.

I have little warmth for someone who snuggles up to power to further their career, neither in Russia nor anywhere else. But in the gloriously capitalist world we live in it is our choice whom we admire and on what grounds – I prefer not to have my concert experience vetted on political grounds. Are these blacklisting efforts intended to persuade Putin to change his plans? Or to pressure the Russian people to topple him? Or perhaps to give us the feeling that we are superior and would never do such terrible things? All three notions are absurd, but in pursuing this course we are alienating and dehumanising the population of Russia, on whose friendship and goodwill the peace of Europe and the world depends.



  • Rudy says:

    I see your point, but many missed the opportunity to raise their voice and that could influence Putin, even a little.
    And I wonder how Pletnyev kept having contracts after his Thailand actions…..

    • A.L. says:

      Yep. Same thing with Domingo (oops). It only shows how rotten at its core the classical music business is at the very top. But it is all crumbling like a house of cards before our very eyes.

    • Malcolm James says:

      I am keeping an open mind on the Thailand allegations. Possibly he is guilty and got off due to his connections, but it is also possible that they were a smear and he was a victim of dirty tricks. Unless further evidence comes to light we shall never know and the bad smell will remain.

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      Si vergogni, Signor Rudy.

    • Music fan says:

      How is Pletnev still active after Thailand? Simple, the Russians paid off the Thai authorities. Putin only cares about the morality of artists and performers so much as if affects him and his perception of Russia’s image. For all the bashing the Russian government has done of LGBT people there, sky-high rates of child sex trafficking continue unabated – the vast majority of which is conducted by grown men against underage girls. If you have influence in Russia, the government looks the other way.

      • NN says:

        Pletnev is no FOP (Friend of Putin) and I cannot see why he would have gotten any support from Russia and/or Putin in that affair.

  • Gustavo says:

    If we want peace and freedom we need to embrace the Russian people and their culture just as warmly as we are embracing the Ukrainian people and their culture but unequivocally condemn any form of aggression directed towards innocent independent people.

    Peace can only be achieved together.

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      Grazie, Signor Gustavo.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      A noble sentiment but extremely naive. It’s almost always about who’s got the bigger guns, I’m afraid.

    • Nata says:

      It’s not the time to celebrate Russian Culture. Russian Culture will survive this war. Countless Ukrainians won’t – they are dying now (and countless ethnic Russian Ukrainian citizens are among them).
      People who have a megaphone and a following have to voice their humanity and thus affect their followers.
      I don’t listen to anything Gergiev since he openly supported Putin’s war in Georgia, my homeland. I just cannot enjoy his music: every time I see his face I remember him playing happy tunes on the ruins of South Ossetia.
      As an artistic director of a music festival, I was planning this year to have a weekend of Russian music, which I love. Won’t happen anytime soon. At least not until the open wounds are healed.
      By the way, I am partially Russian myself and my first language is Russian.

  • Bloom says:

    The present lynching of Russian artists is being caused by some old-school combination of stupidity, conformism, hypocrisy and hatred.

    • guest says:

      No one is lynching any Russian artists, gimme a break. Where did you get this vocabulary? Directly from Putin’s school for demagogy?

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Isn’t the word “demagoguery”?

      • David says:

        No, it isn’t actual lynching. But at one opera house in Poland they just fired all the Russian singers because they thought the audience might boo them. A friend of mine was flown in as one of the replacements. It serves nothing–these weren’t pro Putin singers. It’s pure mob mentality.

  • Anon says:

    Hear hear. Art needs freedom; as soon as we start to suppress freedom of thought and of opinion (whether we happen to like it or not), we diminish the very thing which we are trying to promote.

    Most artists stay well clear of politics for exactly this reason; be it Brexit, climate change, gender issues or global politics, a freely held dissenting opinion can led to the complete loss of a career. Have we learnt nothing from the supression composers and artists in recent history? Why decry Zhdanov/Shostakovich if we are all too willing to cancel Gergiev for failing to express the ‘right’ opinion?

    If we allow ourselves to censor musicians and composers for their opinion on Russia or Putin, we start to re-open the debate around Wagner, Strauss, and the others – whose works we are allowed to perform, which performers are permitted to interpret works, and all the rest, none of which enhances art or the artistic experience one jot. Let artists who wish to speak out, speak out; but if we believe the West’s freedoms and liberal values are worth fighting for, we must be careful not to destroy them in the process.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “If we allow ourselves to censor musicians and composers for their opinion on Russia or Putin, we start to re-open the debate around Wagner, Strauss, and the others”

      What a nice sentiment: Let’s ignore Putin’s shelling of civilians RIGHT NOW because the art needs freedom. Great.

      Your brain was killed in Kharkiv, I presume. My condolences.

  • Hugo Preuß says:

    Gergiev was financed by German tax money in Munich. I don’t want public money – “my money”! – to support a lackey of any dictator. It was wrong to hire him in the first place, since he was just as much of a Putin stooge back then. Gergiev has not become any worse since, but his Dark Lord has. To keep Gergiev on the German taxpayer’s payroll would be outrageous.

    If a private person wants to pay for an orchestra with Gergiev as its conductor – go right ahead. This is a free country, unlike Russia. But not on the tax payers’ dime.

    • guest says:

      Well said.
      As to any private person financing an orchestra for Gergiev, why, he is rolling in money himself, he could finance his own orchestra

  • M Le Balai says:

    I agree with Hartmann in that punishing those (Russians) who refuse to speak out is counter-productive. However, if music is to supposedly to bring peace and unite, how can we in the rest of the world, be seen to countenance those who say nothing, and in doing so, seem to therefore be allying themselves with such brutality?

    But the reverse of this also is I can’t pretend to imagine what it is to be a Russian artist working and living under a dictatorship; what it is like to fear to speak out – something we in western Europe take completely for granted. Does someone like Gergiev not speak out because he believes in what Putin is doing, or because he is afraid of the consequences for himself, his family and his employees at the Mariisnky Theatre if he does? Only he can answer that, but it is not a position I would want to be in.

    • double standards says:

      ‘How can we in the rest of the world, be seen to countenance those who say nothing, and in doing so, seem to therefore be allying themselves with such brutality?’

      Did you apply such a standard to Brits and Americans after their equally illegal invasion of Iraq? Did you expect British and American musicians to all speak out? They could have done so much more easily of course.

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      Signor Bloom,
      Ho appena letto l’articolo della Stampa.

      “Beauty will save the world.”
      (Prince Mishkin, “Idiot”. Dostoïevsky)

    • guest says:

      Either you don’t understand Italian or you misread on purpose.

      • Micaela Bonetti says:

        Monsieur guest,
        Italian is my birthday language.

        Grazie per la Sua gentile comprensione.

        Io per lo meno, firmo con nome e cognome.

        • guest says:

          Signora Bonetti, my comment was in reply to Bloom. A reply is always indented from the comment it replies to. Your and my first reply are one below the other on the same “level”, meaning both are replies to Bloom. You will notice how your second reply is indented from the comment you replied to (mine), as it is this reply of mine indented from your comment beginning with the word “Monsieur”. Glad to be able to explain formatting to you.

      • Micaela Bonetti says:

        Sorry, automatic corrector!

  • Monsoon says:

    Let’s stop being so naive. Culture is highly political. Why do you think governments spend so much money on conservatories, building concert halls and museums, funding arts organizations, sponsoring tours, etc.

    And further, why do you think that authoritarian regimes are often the biggest spenders on culture? “Why would Putin care if Mikhail Pletnev can’t conduct in Switzerland next week?” Because he depends on those culture ambassadors to project a false image of Russia as civilized and enlightened. (And as another poster pointed out, Pletnev likely got some help from the Russian government when he was arrested in Thailand on charges of child molestation.)

    When you enter this system and accept the governments money and support, you become complicit. You’re part of its agenda, even if you’re not the dictator’s BFF. You’re taking their money, and are never truly independent. Your likeness is appearing in government propaganda. When you’re asked to perform at a nationalistic event/anniversary, you cannot opt out. When you go on tour, you may not know it, but the countries and cities picked are often influenced or decided by the government.

    And in fairness, this applies to musicians in the west (have members of American orchestras ever thought about why they do so many tours in China that are sponsored by the State Department and major corporations that have seemingly little interest in Beethoven and Mahler?)

  • Kenny says:

    This is spectacularly brilliant.

  • K. says:

    I would kindly remind people in this discussion, that currently there is a war in Europe that poses a threat to the entire free world. People are being killed today (it was actually just announced that 2000 civilians died since last Thursday). Yes, in times of peace, let’s cherish the plurality of opinions, but in times of war, everyone has to speak up against evil and human suffering. It’s no censorship to expect as much from any public figure. Sadly, yes, there will be some anger towards Russians and Russian culture that we have to unconditionally refuse, but the fact an opera house postponed a performance of Boris Godunov etc. is nothing else than acceptance that there will be better times to present an epic fresco based on Russian history. No other shunning is happening…Czech Philharmonic is out on an European tour a Russian conductor and some Rachmaninov, for Christ sake.

    • Monsoon says:


      There is something really wrong with people’s priorities when Ukraine civilians are being systematically targeted and killed by the Russian army, and they’re lamenting that some Russians are out of work.

      The whole point of sanctions is to inflict economic pain on every single Russian to anger the populous and compel the government to stop the invasion.

      This isn’t about about being punitive for the sake of it — it’s about trying to save lives.

      • David says:

        Some people can have more than one area of concern active and alive in them. I am both highly concerned about the casualties in Ukraine, and concerned for my Russian colleagues who have committed no crime but are being shunned and fired for no other reason than their nationality.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yet it’s terrifying to contemplate that ‘climate change’ is the greatest peril facing mankind; that is if you exclude all wars, tyrants and plunderers, disease, natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes). I submit it’s a 5th order issue, or even less.

      Right now Russia is the greatest single threat to planet Earth. Next to China and that zombie in North Korea. With so many vicious tyrants on the planet it’s strange that these aren’t seen as the biggest threat to life and limb.

  • Finally, some sanity.

  • James Weiss says:

    It’s a thoughtful statement but I think it misses the point. No one is suggesting boycotting Russian culture and artists en masse. What is being asked is that those – like Gergiev and Netrbko specifically – take a stand and denounce a dictator they have spent decades “snuggling” up to and who have enriched themselves by being supported by a state that has for more than 10 years invaded and occupied its weaker neighbors. I don’t think that’s asking too much of artists.

    • In the name of Dog says:

      No, pay better attention, there are countries like Denmark, where somehow the majority of people think all Russians shall be boycotted now. I‘m not sure how they arrived there, but there they are. They just cancelled a Russian Ballet tour for them simply being Russian. Concert promoters there are asked by the government to clean their future programs from any Russian who seems suspicious (which is basically all but those already in exile, because how can you remain in Russia and not be an ‚Untermensch‘ now?)

      Bit ironic when you think about their national flag, the ‚Dannebrog’, they proudly pitch on any child’s birthday cake, which symbolizes blood shed for occupying territories abroad in bloody warfare against „pagan savages“.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Too late, lest they find themselves in Siberia composing in their favourite key, A Salt Miner.

  • MacroV says:

    The question is really about how close any artists is to the Putin regime. Gergiev is very close, and has actively helped celebrate previous glorious Russian incursions into Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. So he’s effectively the Leni Riefenstahl of the Putin Regime. For that reason he should no longer be able to move in polite company as long as he maintains that association.

    But I don’t expect anything of a Russian artist who has never had any public association with Putin or endorsing his actions. Other than not endorsing this one.

  • Richard Willmer says:

    The author seems to ignore the fact that Gergiev (and Matsueev and Netrebko) is not being pilored for being Russian (he is, by the way, NOT Russian, but Ossetian) but for having signed a letter in support for Putin’s policies in the Crimea, which is a whole different thing from just being “Russian”.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      I read it as the author criticizing the boycott of Russian artists who have NOT spoken out. He’s not writing about Gergiev and his fellow travelers.

  • Karl says:

    I would not blame anyone for being too scared to criticize Putin.

  • christopher storey says:

    Oh goody, I am so looking forward to the friendship and goodwill of Putin’s Russia. What a cretin !

  • Plush says:

    The possibility that Putin or the State may take revenge on those Russians who condemn him is real. The potential retaliation against the artist and against families is top of mind.
    Realize this when calling for blacklisting.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It’s a particular mindset borne of the notion that Germans followed the Nazi regime because they liked and admire them rather than were terrified for their own lives and those of their families – as was the actual situation. Listen to the BBC interview from the early 90s with Klaus Tennstedt.

  • guest says:

    Doesn’t the author think that “global shunning of all things Russian” is laying it on too thick?

    “All over the world Russian artists, musicians and dancers are being replaced, events are being cancelled with seemingly little logic. At the same time, artists of Russian origin are being pressured to condemn the invasion and even blackmailed to do so at the risk of losing their jobs.” How about examples? The author makes is sound like there are hundreds if not thousands of innocent Russian artists being replaced or blackmailed just because they are Russians. I am not asking for hundreds of examples to back up that mouthful of a statement “all over the world”, twenty examples would do for starters.

    • hmm says:

      It would have taken you less time to read the other headlines on Slipped Disc which cover exactly what you’re looking for, than write a paragraph to tell us you can’t be bothered to look it up for yourself.

      • guest says:

        It would have taken you less to provide a link to the list of names, if that list exists, or compile one yourself. But there is no such list, isn’t there? No, the other headlines don’t cover what I am looking for. I asked specifically for _many_ names of Russian artists all over the world being replaced _just because they are Russians_. If you can’t read, get lost.

        • V.Lind says:

          Try the Bolshoi Ballet, cancelled in London. The other ballet companies with tours abruptly cancelled. That enough artists, or are you only interested in celebrity names?

          Wonder where that Russian citizen Gérard Dépardieu is today, or Edward Snowden.

          • guest says:

            Don’t you read all replies before deciding to hit the “submit” button? Apparently not. Read my second comment (the “P.S.” comment, posted on same day, March 2nd, as the comment you are replying to.) Glad to be able to explain to you the difference between cultural sanctions applied against institutions, and freelancers blackmailed because of their nationality. What a lively imagination you, “hmm”, and Hartman have. Also glad to be able to explain to you that the East of the Europe is at war, and that sanctions are the only weapons that countries that do not use bombs have left to fight. But for some, their pet ideological nonsense is more important than civilians’ lives. After the war, if there is going to be an “after the war”, it’s back to business as usual, but the dead children, women and men won’t come back to life. What interesting priorities you keyboard warriors have. Your pet crusade and nothing else, people’s lives are secondary. It’s enough to make one loath all the classical music “industry”, it is seemingly populated only with narcissists and greedos.

      • guest says:

        P.S: I am talking specifically about individual artists, not tours of Russian arts institutions in the West. Those are gov sanctions. Sanctions are not to be confused with individual artists being replaced or blackmailed solely because of their nationality. If you don’t know the difference, I do, thank you very much.

  • Cathy says:

    As I have posted elsewhere:

    Up until last week, British classical music organisations generally avoided making official statements about any countries or people being invaded or oppressed. Sometimes they explicitly banned their staff from doing so. Even when their own government started the illegal and devastating war in Iraq, British classical music organisations were silent.

    Until Ukraine.

    Just days in we see the Ukrainian national anthem being played at the start of performances, the visits of Russian artists being cancelled, venues being lit up in the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

    Please, classical music organisations, explain why Ukraine is more deserving of you playing its national anthem than Afghanistan. Why you are cancelling Russians on the basis of belonging to a country fighting an illegal war, but didn’t say anything when your own country started a war just as illegal. Why you’ve never even mentioned the still-ongoing conflict in Yemen that has lasted seven years and counting, while you rush to make statements on a conflict that’s only a few days old. Why your venue is lit up for Ukraine but not for Syria. Why it’s not acceptable for a Russian ballet to perform here but it was fine for British orchestras to tour abroad during the Iraq war. Why your institution states its solidarity with Ukraine but suspended players for supporting Palestine. Why you publicly express your horror at the war in Ukraine but you stay silent as you tour countries oppressing their own people.

    Please continue these meaningful actions for Ukraine. But let’s be clear: to do this when you don’t for others is to send a signal that you only care when it’s a white majority country under attack.

    I would like to see the classical music industry express its solidarity with all countries and people facing invasion and oppression.

    • guest says:

      I was wondering when we were going to get back to the “white majority” -apparently woke doesn’t sleep, ever. Fiddle while Rome burns? Woke is about the last thing we need now, when Putin is threatening with nuclear weapons. Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq – these are false equivalencies.

    • MacroV says:

      The United States went into Afghanistan after the country was attacked on 9/11 by a terrorist organization, and Afghanistan was harboring that group. Ukraine did not attack nor pose any threat to Russia, other than that its emerging democracy was a threat to Putin, in that it showed Russians there was another way.

      I agree we should be paying as much attention to the Saudi war on Yemen.

      But as usual, some rather lame “whatabouts.”

  • Lausitzer says:

    Very well put, also his hints at the complexities, because some knowledge of them reveals the whole scale of this deeply disconcerting disaster.

    I observe the widespread alienating and dehumanising of all Russians (and I think this clearly not includes the sacking of Gergiev) with great concern. It even must be assumed that it is counterproductive, rather helping Putin to gain domestic support instead of promoting what must be the top priority now: His overthrow.

  • Freewheeler says:

    After the global musical purge is complete, no music by any composer, singer, musician, race or nationality that has ever done anything wrong (or said to have) will ever be heard again. Ah, the ennobling purity of silence!

    • guest says:

      Sarcasm for sarcasm. After the global –musical– purge is complete, hopefully the music “industry” with return to being performing arts instead of industry, dropping all the disgruntled narcissists for whom their pet crusades are more important than human lives. Ah, the ennobling purity of social media silence! (And I don’t know about you, but I have a 1 TB hard disc packed full with recordings of the last 120 years. I can listen to them when I want, where I want, as often as I want. Come to think of it, many of them are vastly preferable to the lackluster performances one gets today in concert halls and opera houses. Saves a buck too. To the poster who insists only live music is the real thing, I say meh, the industry is terrified the audiences will realize eventually what a scam this has become.)

  • Tiana says:

    Thank you very much for this article!!

  • David says:

    Funny how no one required Susan Graham and Denyce Graves to apologize or disavow having sung for Bush’s 2nd inauguration….at which time we knew about the torture memos, the lies that caused the invasion, and the horrendous civilian casualties. I guess it’s ok though because they were brown people.

  • Piano Lover says:

    “””Should we be punishing those Russians who stay silent?”””
    Of course not.
    WHy should everyone say tha the or she is against war.Every decent brain is against war-no need to state that fact everywhere to make you sound civilized!!!
    Furthermore in times of war some countries are neutral.

  • Pinkatronica says:

    How very naive and non committal.

    Mikhail Pletnev will be guess conducting Smetana’s Ma Vlast in Tokyo next week….if we are to draw the line anywhere, surely that’s where we should ( Please contact the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra to voice your concerns ( @tpo1911 ).

  • ELKE says:

    In response to ” Comment of the Day from the Czech-German pianist Bela Hartmann: Russian culture is not a function of government policy, it is the jewel of the Russian people, and no autocrat can change that. If we want to signal our disapproval of the actions of Russia’s government why punish something that belongs to its people? Whom are we then really blacklisting

  • Tom says:

    it’s the time you have to pick side… indifference does not count. we will survive without “russian world” (ruskij mir). see, sports without russians is doing great!