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OPINION

“Even a genius can’t justify supporting a dictator and a murderer” – pianist Evgeny Kissin on the need to denazify Russia’s cultural figures

Pianist Evgeny Kissin has been giving concerts in support of Ukraine at the world's leading venues and concert halls since March, in addition to his main tour. The Insider spoke to the musician about how his colleagues are both divided and united by the war, the responsibility of the West and Russian citizens, and why opponents of war need not leave Russia.

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- You must be in touch with many of your colleagues who remain in Russia. How do musicians with opposing views on the war get along in ensembles, for example in orchestras? How many of your acquaintances supported it?

- I still have friends in Russia, and all my friends hold the same views as I do. I can’t call people of other views friends in the real, true sense of the word. One of my friends plays in an orchestra, but did not share his impressions of his colleagues with me. A few days ago he and I exchanged text messages, and he sent me a voicemail saying that after the war began he had thoughts of leaving, but then he started thinking, “Why should I leave because of some madman? I'd rather he leave instead.” I know that this point of view is very common in Russia, and I support it.

I have a different story – one unrelated to the orchestra. A good acquaintance from Russia, not a musician, but connected with music in her line of work, wrote me a letter, a letter of despair. When I showed it to my wife, she said it was a document symbolic of the times. She wrote that she had agreed not to discuss politics at work, but sometimes it broke through. She wrote, “If only I knew who I was friends with.” Her despair was evident – at how many of her acquaintances want to continue bombing and conquering Ukraine, at the general atmosphere, at her disappointment in her friends.

- Do you still have relationships with Ukrainian musicians?

- Of course, I know a lot of Ukrainian musicians. For example, Oleksii Botvinov, the director of the Odesa Classics festival. I performed at the festival last year, and we became family friends. After the war began [his family] fled to Europe, we correspond all the time.

- The war could create tension in your relationship…

- There was no reason for that, what do you mean? On the contrary, we’d met a couple of months before. They came to Prague for my wife's birthday, and when the war began, he wrote me: “Yes, you were right when you said Putin would attack, and we didn't believe it.”

- Before the full-scale invasion, did you already think it would happen?

- I don't remember exactly, but when it happened, I wasn't surprised, because it was clear to me that Putin was capable of anything.

- What’s the perception of musicians of Russian origin in Europe? First some bloggers, then the Russian media, and then Putin started talking about “cancelling Russian culture”...

- You and I understand how to interpret everything Putin says. As he himself said once: “There are no former members of KGB.” And we know that KGB agents are professional liars – it’s an integral part of the profession. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, the West asked those Russian musicians who had recently been close to Putin and who at the same time were touring abroad to publicly condemn the war. Since they refused to do so, they were no longer invited to the West. At the same time, the attitude towards them hasn’t changed – everyone knew who they were before, they just considered it possible to invite them here, but after [the invasion on] February 24, it became unacceptable. And the same goes for all musicians. I don't know of a single case where the attitude has changed just on the basis of a Russian passport.

We know of one famous singer (Anna Netrebko – The Insider) who was not known for her closeness to Putin, but eight years ago she took a picture with a flag of the “Donetsk People's Republic” (the singer explained later that she brought humanitarian aid to Donetsk for the opera house, and didn’t plan on taking pictures with the flag – The Insider). She had problems, and so she first made some statements, then others, but in the end she chose the West.

Anna Netrebko and Oleg Tsaryov with the flag of Novorossiya – a confederation that included the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics
Anna Netrebko and Oleg Tsaryov with the flag of Novorossiya – a confederation that included the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics

Personally, none of the musicians with Russian passports have complained about [the alleged “cancellation” of Russian culture]. I know of one case, it was written about in the press – that of the pianist Alexander Malofeev, who condemned the war. His concert in Vancouver was canceled. The organizer both publicly and personally told me later that it wasn’t because of her attitude toward Malofeev, but because protests had begun in Vancouver against various Russian organizations. There were threats of protests if Malofeev came as well. She just felt sorry for him, because he's a young kid, why should he put up with it? I met him a couple of months later at a festival – we were sitting at dinner after the concert, and he didn’t complain to me about any of that.

- After the denazification of Germany, there were questions about musicians like Furtwängler and Karajan – the latter was even a member of the NSDAP. When it comes to the denazification of Russia, do you think that Russian musicians should also feel the consequences? Say, Matsuev, Spivakov, Gergiev, and Bashmet, all of whom signed a letter in support of the annexation of Crimea – should the denazification of Russia affect their careers?

- In answering such a question, first of all, I have to make a reservation about Spivakov, a man I’ve known well for very many years. I’ll say less than I’d like to as Vladimir Theodorovich lives in Russia and I don't want to hurt him in any way. First of all, let’s go through the well-known facts. Let us remember: at the very beginning of the current war, Spivakov signed an appeal of Russian cultural figures against the war. Recall also that in the mid-1990s, Vladimir Theodorovich protested against the war in Chechnya. There was a great variety of people among those who signed the letter in support of the annexation of Crimea, as well as among Russian cultural figures in general who once expressed some form of support for Putin. Both by the form and simply by the number of such statements from different people, it was always clear to me personally, as Gorbachev said, “who is who”: who really supports Putin and his policies, and who spoke out or signed simply because he was in charge of an orchestra, theater, museum, or charitable foundation that was dependent on state support. In short, in terms of his political views, Spivakov in no way deserves to be put on a par with the other musicians you mentioned, just as Chulpan Khamatova clearly does not deserve to be put on a par with, say, Tabakov.

By the way, musicians in Germany and Austria also behaved differently under Nazism. [Wilhelm] Furtwängler, for example, tried his best to oppose Nazi policies and helped the Jewish musicians in his orchestra. [Herbert von] Karajan was indeed a member of the NSDAP, but he didn’t make any statements in support of the regime. [Walter] Gieseking, for example, was proud to call himself a Nazi and give concerts in concentration camps; Böhm, when he got the post of chief conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic after the Anschluss of Austria, wrote a letter of thanks to Goebbels in which he promised to “clean up all the Jewish filth” – and he kept his promise; Kempf, while touring during World War II in Nazi Romania, where Jews were forbidden to attend some concerts, demanded that his concerts be forbidden to Jews...

So yes, I think musicians should feel the effects of denazification, and in a much harsher form than they did after World War II. And here's why. A Russian musician who doesn't own an orchestra or a charity foundation or anything like that wrote in a private Facebook chat a couple of years ago that he was pro-Putin, and, in response to a call by Navalny, who was in hospital in Germany at the time, not to let Gergiev into the West, said that even after the fall of Nazism and communism people had the sense not to persecute musicians associated with those regimes. And now I think: maybe that’s why this musician and others voluntarily and eagerly support Putin – because they believe that they won’t be punished for it? And I arrive at the following conclusion: neither Gieseking nor Mengelberg got enough [punishment] back in their day; it was wrong for them to be allowed to give concerts [after the end of the war]. No talent or even genius can justify voluntary support for a dictator and a mass murderer. So I’m convinced that, yes, all those who voluntarily and repeatedly supported Putin and continue to support him (they, not those who once signed one letter or allowed themselves one statement) – musicians and all others – should be severely punished so that others will refrain from acting similarly in the future.

- Can artists have any influence on the situation in the midst of a big war?

- They can give concerts to help Ukraine. I’ve given such concerts and taken part in them. I gave as much as I could. Not only people of art, but everyone who has the opportunity, have donated money.

- Money is understandable, but can art itself influence politics?

- Dictators and tyrants have used art for their own purposes. It happened in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and Putin has always tried to do it.

- What if it were the other way around? Can art prevent war?

- I don't know, honestly. Artists can and should protest in various forms, but to stop a war, art is obviously not enough. Force can only be stopped by force. Can artists contribute to that? I'm not sure; I don't have much faith in that, although I'm trying to do all I can myself, which is give interviews and use them to address Western politicians and ordinary citizens. Last summer I also wrote a trio for the violin, cello and piano dedicated to the war in Ukraine.

- Have you presented it to the public yet?

- Of course, the public responded beautifully. There was a premiere in Amsterdam in October and afterwards we performed it with the Gropius Quartet in Weimar. On November 17, the Kaufman Trio performed it near Milan, and on December 5, I and the concertmasters of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra bands performed it in Prague. Could that make a difference? I don't know, but I certainly hope so. Of course, music in principle has enormous emotional power and can influence people. But in this case, how can music influence and inspire listeners to help Ukraine financially or demand that politicians act accordingly? I only try to do what I can, according to the Nekrasov principle – “Let not every warrior harm the enemy, but everyone go into battle!” My age doesn’t allow me to go into battle, and I’m also not qualified.

- There’s a popular opinion that classical music in itself can keep people from becoming violent.

- It stems from an ignorance of history. Didn't Hitler and Stalin go to concerts and listen to good music.

- The Soviets in general had a long history of friendship with cultural figures.

- It was always different. I never heard of Khrushchev being distinguished by his love of music and inviting musicians to visit him. On the contrary, Khrushchev, who had to take foreign guests to “Swan Lake” at the Bolshoi Theater, complained: “The ballet is wonderful, but how much is enough?” Stalin, on the other hand, loved and invited musicians to visit him and his associates. Hitler, as we know, himself began as an artist. Stalin wrote poetry in his youth and so did Mao.

Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev and Emilio Aragonés Navarro in the central box of the Bolshoi Theater
Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev and Emilio Aragonés Navarro in the central box of the Bolshoi Theater

As for talented artists, suddenly found themselves on the side of evil, then Huberman has a verse that goes: “His soul is dark, and poor, but his playing beams with light. God's gift is as unexpected as a pimple – it can pop up on your ass.”

- After [the invasion in] February, there was a widespread self-loathing among Russian intellectuals: “It's all our fault, we didn’t do anything to stop it, we haven't done anything good.”

- I think this also applies to Western politicians. Because of their tolerance of the Soviet Union, because of the policy that the West decided to pursue in the late 1960s, millions of people died across the world. Archival documents made public by Vladimir Bukovsky in the mid-1990s prove that the Soviet Union supported terrorism throughout the world – including in Africa and Latin America. After the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the West, instead of pursuing the same policy toward Russia that it had toward Germany after the Nazis, forgave Yeltsin everything – Abkhazia, Chechnya, and support for [Slobodan] Milosevic. Then Putin came – the invasion of Georgia, the de facto annexation of South Ossetia, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas – and nothing either, some toothless sanctions. Western politicians have done what we are now calling all sorts of bad words.

- We criticize the West now, but inside Russia we couldn't stop Putin either.

- This is true, but objectively, the West has much more power than people in Russia. Not many people wanted to prevent him, and there were reasons for that: Yeltsin's policies, which discredited both Western ideals and the West in general in the eyes of many people, which Putin took advantage of. On the other hand, he was helped by the situation on the oil market in the early 2000s.

- Let's remember the year 2008, when close to 500 people came to [Moscow’s] Pushkin Square to protest the invasion of Georgia, and at that time it was relatively safe. At the same time, theaters and music halls were full and people were buying books. People were busy with other things and they didn't care.

- I spoke to a very small number of people at the time. Of course they didn't support it, but they didn't protest it either. I remember that one of my old friends said that everyone was lying – both the Russians and the Georgians and the Ossetians. He was against Putin from the very beginning and at that time he didn’t support the war. He was an elderly man and a few years later he went to say goodbye to [murdered opposition leader Boris] Nemtsov.

- People are led to believe that there is no truth at all.

- Of course, this leads to indifference. As Bruno Jasensky said: “Do not fear your enemies - they can only kill; do not fear your friends – they can only betray; fear the indifferent, for with their silent consent betrayals and murders are committed.”

- Do you think that Western politicians and society's attitudes have changed this year? Have they woken up?

- Of course it’s changed, thanks to the Ukrainians. On the first day of the war, Biden offered asylum to Zelensky, who told him he needed ammunition, not a ride. It was thanks to the heroism of the Ukrainians that Western politicians understood what had to be done – but after having already made themselves oil and gas dependent on Russia decades ago, and the West paying millions for gas daily, even today their options are limited.

The attitudes of Western politicians and society have changed, thanks to Ukrainians

- Why did you leave Russia back then?

- I left at the end of 1991, it was a very worrying and uncertain time. There had been a coup attempt shortly before that, but who knew then that maybe this time it would fail, but another time it would succeed, and the old Soviet times would return. I am a Jew, anti-Semitism was in full bloom in Russia, so I left. I lived in the United States, Britain, France and now in the Czech Republic.

- Despite all the talk about the “cancellation” of Russian culture, you have constant tours and concert halls are packed.

- Yes, the halls are full both at regular concerts and at concerts in support of Ukraine. The first concert in support of Ukraine, which I participated in, took place at the end of March in the Presidential Palace in Berlin. It featured the small Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, composer Valentin Silvestrov, who had fled Kyiv to Berlin a couple of days earlier, Ruben Pogosov, and myself. The president of Germany (Frank-Walter Steinmeier – The Insider) and his wife were supposed to be there, but they were sick with Covid-19. Before the concert began, the president's address was shown on the screen, and after the concert he wished to speak to me on the phone. I decided this was my chance to influence something and told him, “I beg you, help Ukraine as much as you can and can’t, send it as many weapons as you can,” to which he then replied, “Yes, we recently made the decision to supply weapons to Ukraine. It wasn't easy, but we made that decision.” Only later I learned that Steinmeier had previously pursued a largely pro-Putin policy, tried to be friends with both Putin and the Chinese and the Turks, and when the war started, he found himself in a very bad position and tried in every way to fix it, which is why he organized such a concert.

To help Ukraine, there was also a concert at the Boston Conservatory, playing my quartet, then there was a talk with me right on stage, and then I performed Chopin's 2nd Scherzo and A-Flat Major Polonaise. Then there was a big gala concert at Carnegie Hall in support of Ukraine, hosted by Richard Gere, and, among other things, I played a melody from the movie “Schindler's List” with Itzhak Perlman. I played the same Chopin Polonaise in A flat major, which has become a symbol of Polish pride, and I play it often now.


And there was an unusual experience at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. Have you read a story by the American writer Kressmann Taylor called “Address Unknown”? It was written in 1938, based on true stories from that time. The story displays the correspondence of two friends, a Jew and a German, who become enemies after Hitler came to power. The parallels with our times are incredible, and my wife's sister Marianne Arzumanova, an actress and director, staged a play based on this story in her theater and then staged a slightly modified version of it for the Verbier Festival. The famous singer, Thomas Hampson, played the part of the German, I played the part of the Jew and my wife played the parts of the three women who are mentioned in the story but who are not actors. Immediately after the concert we received offers to repeat the play at the Jewish Community Center in London, in Geneva and at the Castle Elmau near Munich. A similar rift is happening today between many people in Russia. Or between people who stayed in Russia and those who left.

I recall an argument I had a long time ago with Alexander Olbik, a Russian publicist who lived in Latvia and was absolutely pro-Putin. One day on vacation in Jurmala, a stranger asked me for an interview and gave me his book, a collection of interviews with various people, including Yeltsin, [Evgeny] Yevtushenko, [Mikhail] Tal and others. I gave him the interview, but it soon turned out that our views were opposite. In his very first letter to me, in which he explained why he supported Putin, Olbik wrote almost exactly the same thing as the German hero of the story written in 1938.

This hero, Martin, shortly after Hitler came to power, wrote to his Jewish friend who had remained in America that liberals like to sit and talk about freedom but do nothing, and when a vigorous figure appears, they immediately oppose him. And Olbik wrote to me that liberals like to read books and talk about human rights, but are incapable of running not only the government, but even a public toilet. Then it turned out that Olbik had written a whole novel about Putin...

- The finale of your trio is dedicated to the victory of Ukraine. Are you as sure of a Ukrainian victory as you were that Putin would attack?

- It's not that I was sure that Putin would attack, I just accepted that possibility. As for the victory of Ukraine, I not only believe in it, but believe that it must happen, because it will be a victory for humanity. If Ukraine, God forbid, is defeated, it will be the defeat of all mankind.

Interview by Oleg Pshenichny

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