Pro-Kremlin maestro Gergiev was appointed head of the Bolshoi Theatre

Considered one of the greatest of his generation, conductor Valery Gergiev has been declared persona non grata in many theaters and by his own agent. — © AFP

The Russian government on Friday appointed controversial maestro Valery Gergiev, who is an ally of President Vladimir Putin, to lead Moscow’s world-famous Bolshoi Theater.

The appointment brings one of Russia’s most influential institutions closer to the Kremlin at a time when Moscow is increasingly positioning culture as a battleground in its confrontation with the West.

“Mikhail Mishustin signed an order appointing Valery Gergiev as the general director of the Bolshoi Theater for a period of five years,” the Russian government announced in a statement on social media.

Gergiev supported Putin’s policies throughout the Russian leader’s 23-year rule and was shunned by Western institutions for failing to condemn Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine.

The musical giant has been the head of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater since 1988. Now he could head both of Russia’s main stages, following a merger proposed by Putin last year.

Putin proposed integrating the management of the theaters in March last year, saying that this is how they were run before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

The Kremlin has sought to control cultural institutions in recent years, and many high-profile artists left Russia after Moscow launched its offensive in February 2022.

Those who remain say they have been forced to censor their work and face arrest if they stray too far from the Kremlin’s official narrative.

– western resistance –

Gergiev has known Putin for decades and has held propaganda concerts in honor of Russian military victories in places like Syria and Georgia.

Since Putin sent troops into Ukraine last February, he has not made any public policy statements.

But his refusal to condemn the military attack led to his sacking last year from the Munich Philharmonic, where he had been chief conductor since 2015.

Other Western concert halls, from the Paris Philharmonic to New York’s Carnegie Hall, have also dropped his performances.

Gergiev, who is now persona non grata in the West, has mainly conducted concerts in Russia, but he also toured China earlier this year.

In one of his most criticized moves, Gergiev conducted a concert in the Syrian ruins of Palmyra following Moscow’s intervention in the country on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad.

He also conducted a triumphant concert in Georgia’s Tskhinvali region after the Russian invasion in 2008, just meters from the detention center where Georgian civilians were being held.

– “The names have disappeared” –

He replaces Vladimir Urin, who at the start of the Ukrainian offensive signed a public letter by artists calling on “all sides” to stop the fighting in Ukraine.

Urin, who has led the Bolshoi since 2013, has also frequently spoken out in support of the Kremlin, including when it annexed Crimea a year after his appointment.

Moscow’s far-reaching crackdown on dissent had a huge impact on the arts and also affected the Boshoi Theatre.

At the beginning of this autumn, Urin admitted that he had removed criticism of the Ukrainian campaign from the repertoire of playwrights.

“When some game creators made a very clear statement about a special military operation, then in those cases their names disappeared from the posters,” he told the government-run newspaper Rossijskaja gazeta in September.

According to him, the theater was going through “difficult times”. A government statement on Friday said Urin resigned voluntarily.

Earlier this year, the Bolshoi dropped a contemporary ballet about the life of Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, directed by acclaimed director Kirill Serebrennikov, who fled Russia and condemned the Ukrainian campaign.

Urin said the ballet was dropped because of new legislation against the spread of “propaganda of non-traditional values” because the play centers around a gay dancer.

Top Bolshoi ballerina Olga Smirnova is leaving the theater to protest last year’s Ukrainian offensive, part of a wider exodus of performers during the nearly two-year conflict.

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