Russia: Kremlin loyalist appointed head of Bolshoi

The rumour has been circulating for a month, it's been official since Friday, December 1st: the government has appointed a supporter of Vladimir Putin, the conductor Valery Gergiev, as head of the Bolshoi. The previous director of the famous theater in the Russian capital is said to have left "of his own free will," according to Russian media.

The new director of the Bolshoi Valery Gergiev in St. Petersburg on November 17, 2023. AP - Mikhail Metzel

By: Anissa El Jabri Follow


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From our correspondent in Moscow,

His departure from this prestigious position was only a matter of time, in the midst of an accelerated repression of the cultural sector since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The departing man was not, however, a fierce critic of power. In February 2022, Vladimir Urin signed an open letter from artists calling on "all those on whom it depends to stop hostilities" in Ukraine. We have seen more direct condemnation.

Under his leadership for a year and a half, the Bolshoi had moved into what the Kremlin still calls "a special operation." A first decision had already caused a lot of noise: the withdrawal in the spring of 2022 of Kirill Srebrennikov's ballet on Nureyev, on the pretext that it had fallen under a tightening of the law banning LGBT+ "propaganda" in Russia.

The ballet was based on the life of classical dance genius Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), who had never made a secret of his homosexuality. The show was a great success when it premiered in Moscow in 2017.

Kirill Serebrennikov, himself an LGBT+ defender and opponent of the conflict in Ukraine, left Russia shortly after the launch of the offensive on 24 February 2022, like many other artists and intellectuals. This was followed by numerous deprogramming of artists critical of the conflict.

Putin's appointment

In mid-November, Forbes magazine reported that Vladimir Urin, whose term was due to expire in 2027, had written a letter of resignation "of his own free will" addressed to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin who had accepted it. Blogger Ksenia Sobchak said the decision to remove him and appoint Valery Gergiev had been taken personally by Vladimir Putin.

The new director of the Bolshoi has never said anything about the Russian president's decision to send his soldiers to Ukraine. His silence led to him being boycotted by Western orchestras. In March 2022, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra decided to fire him and several orchestras and festivals in Europe and the United States cancelled their engagements with the musician.

Valery Gergiev is a notorious close associate of the Kremlin and supports its choices. In 2014, he signed a letter from cultural figures supporting the annexation of Crimea. He has also participated in concerts in the South Ossetia region, a region of Georgia occupied by Russia since the 2008 blitzkrieg, and in 2016 he was the conductor of the orchestra that gave a concert in the ruins of Palmyra with the Syrian army.

NGOs denounce cultural cleansing

Already director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg since 1996, the city where Vladimir Putin made his political debut in the early 1990s, Valery Gergiev will now have to direct the country's two main stages. The Russian president had suggested in March 2022 to merge the management of the two prestigious theaters, as was the case before the 1917 revolution.

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

Others, such as the director Yevgenia Berkovich, the playwright Svetlana Petriichuk and Alexandra Skochilenko, who was sentenced in mid-November to seven years in prison for an anti-war action, have been thrown in prison. On the other hand, the government encourages, finances and promotes artists and cultural productions, supporting its offensive against Ukraine and its increasingly conservative discourse.

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