Western propaganda media report daily on how artists like ballet star Olga Smirnova, who recently quit the Bolshoi theatre, are fleeing Russia denouncing Putin’s “invasion of the Ukraine”.
In the past, Western reactionaries have always been joyful when they succeeded in hooking certain representatives of Soviet intelligentsia, in particular ambitious artists. Every such case was blown up into an enormous anti-communist campaign, accompanied by heart-wrenching cries of anguish over the lack of “creative freedom” under “authoritarianism”. The reports of artists fleeing Putin’s “regime” are similar in belligerent tone and farcical scope of analysis.
Long before Smirnova, it was the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who defected in Paris in 1961 when there on tour with the Kirov Ballet, who was always put to use by the proponents of capitalism’s ideological warfare. Nureyev’s fans in the West have made a cult out of his unbridled vanity, egotism and individualism. Praises are sung to his narcissism, suggesting to callow young audiences and amateur ballet-lovers that Nureyev was an “unrecognized genius” in his native USSR and that only in the “free world” could he fully realize his “magical talent”. Any objective dance historian worth their salt would be by now fed up with the repeated cliches and the deceitful fabrications about the “oppression” which Soviet artists faced.
However, nobody talks about how Nureyev’s thoughts after the defection turned more and more to the homeland which he betrayed. At a press conference in Rome in 1964, he spoke of the superiority of Soviet over Western ballet and bitterly declared that “the best thing I could do for the West would be to acquaint it with some of the achievements of Soviet choreography.”
The truth is that Nureyev, and other defectors like him, would be nobodies had it not been for their Soviet education and their homeland that they needed, for their ascendance to the hall of fame, much more than their homeland needed them.
The reason why the West keeps regurgitating the myth of the “oppressed genius” is that it reveres individualism above all else and serves us Nureyev, and today Smirnova, as a lesson for the new generation of Narcissi who are convinced by birth they’re a cut above the rest.
In the current situation, we are witnessing the same cold-war discourse and Russophobia as well as the sad spectacle of Russian artists who, after benefitting from the superiority of the education they received in their homeland – a legacy of the soviet system that has been impossible to erase – opt to betray it and choose a career in imperialist countries.
“My country is my pocket”
A quick look at what the fifth column of Russian journalists and artists say, subordinating their patriotism to their careerism, is enough to demonstrate the deep anti-sovietism of these people and their curriculum vitae full of links with Yeltsin, the European Union, with the BBC and Washington. They all have sponsorship from the Western elites and lament the Russian elite’s demise. They are foaming at the mouth remembering how people showed support for the Soviet state in the past.
They are terrified at a revival of the spectre of communism. It is very amusing and revealing to read their current statements in social media. (“We have careers in the West”, “No to becoming a Chinese colony”, “We have hybrid identities” etc.). What they end up doing though, is to galvanise ordinary people behind Russia’s right to defend itself against Nato bullying. Their repulsion is the people’s delight, their terror is the people’s hope and dignity, motivating them to learn afresh from the illustrious past of the Soviet era.
People like Smirnova have always been around. Acclaimed representatives of the intellectual realm, devoted soul and body to their art, who, as transcendent entities, have always abstained from the humble and obsolete “politics” but that in times of crisis awaken to a “pure” conscience of “right and wrong” and heroically concoct dramatic escape plans which can later be sold to the media and turned into movies. They are “sensitive” and cannot bear the sight of blood. They feel a hard-to-digest “shame” for the “regime” and its shocking actions. Of course, this “shame” is a little selective, as they are never ashamed of the universal persecution unleashed by the other side against anything Russian. This “right” side seems to have every right to demonise everything that has links and references to their Russian homeland, from trade and economy to arts, science and culture. Perhaps these are considered as a necessary “sacrifice” on the altar of the battle for “democratisation”, a battle that forces one to surrender to the side of the enemy, that drags one either into “self-exile” or into “political asylum”, hopefully with paid accommodation and juicy bonus contracts – little treats to sugar the bitter sponge cake of exile.
From Miami to Amsterdam, from Paris to Egypt, such “patriots” abound. Their only country is their own pocket and they do not hesitate to sell their homeland, their audience, their mother and their father (literally in this case) to end up in a cosy villa somewhere in the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been quick to find ways to minimise the damage caused by these types of “patriots”, and has recently invited the Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation Valery Gergiev to unify the Bolshoi Theatre and Mariinsky Theatre in a move that will strengthen and encourage the artists that show loyalty to their country.
In a press conference, Putin mentioned that “the Directorate of Imperial Theatres was under single governance under the Russian Empire from 1786 to 1917”. The famous conductor Gergiev responded, stating that “both the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky theatres represent one of the most powerful musical or musical-theatrical traditions on earth.” He recalled that new theatres are now being built, in particular in Kaliningrad, Sevastopol, and Vladivostok.” He added, “And I think that this tradition will be strengthened, and incredible young singers and dancers are now filling the stages of both theatres. Probably, the time has come to think about how to coordinate efforts.”
The conductor also noted, “We were just thinking about how young talents would get the opportunity to sing on famous stages even faster, now. We are talking about dozens of amazing singers, some of whom lost some contracts today.”
During the press conference, Putin also attacked discrimination against Russian culture in the West and compared it to censorship in Nazi Germany. Over the past months, Russian artists and athletes have been banned from the Western world. Concerts featuring Russian music have been cancelled while Russian restaurants have been vandalised and boycotted. Valery Gergiev was fired from all his Western engagements and is currently conducting in Moscow.
But let us remind ourselves of the lessons learned by Soviet history and study the standard of civilised behaviour of the Soviet people that stands in total contrast to the hatred and discrimination reigning in the capitalist West. For example, unlike what happened during the first world war when Austro-German music was officially dropped from the repertoires of Russian theatres and concert halls , the Soviet citizens, during the siege of Leningrad, were offered broadcasts of symphonies by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Schuman as a sign of the victory of true culture over obscurantism and barbarism.
As for the artists produced by the Soviet system? Nothing could be more remote from the sad parade of careerists we see today. Soviet ballerina Tatiana Vecheslova writes in her memoir about how artists were doubting their social usefulness in times of crisis, instead of professing their egocentrism and self-interest like today.
She writes: “Does anyone need our ballet? We thought, ‘Blood is being shed all around, one after another the towns of our motherland are being surrendered to the enemy, refugees are sitting at railway stations for weeks, and we will dance and try to prove that someone does need our art!’. The performers began to take on hospital duties. After performances, having barely removed their makeup, they would set out, half-starving, for the hospital and worked there until morning before going directly to rehearsals. Success and public admiration came to us more quickly than we expected. From one performance to the next interest in our theatre grew and grew.”
(Vecheslova T. I Am a Ballerina. Leningrad – Moscow. Iskusstvo, 1964, p 145-146)
Research of archival documents give an idea of the enormous influence that artists had on raising the patriotic mood and morale of the townspeople and the defenders of Leningrad. It was culture that during the Great Patriotic War proved to be the most in demand, it was a spiritual charge for mobilisation and heroic labour. From the very beginning of the war, the mainstay of of artists’ creative life, including that of ballet dancers, was military patronage. All the artists of the Leningrad theatres who remained in the city were formed into concert brigades, which gave over 56,000 concerts during the war years. From the first days of the war, the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, named after S.M. Kirov, reorganised its activities in a military way. The theatre documents tell us about it. In one of the numerous letters of gratitude of the military units of the Red Army and the Navy to the concert brigade of the theatre, we read: “Krasnoflot thanks the artists for their unbreakable friendship, for the collaboration of art workers with the Navy … The skill of the artists gave a great charge to the personnel for further struggle – until the complete defeat of the enemy. “Many brigades of the theatre headed by the leading ballet dancers often went to the front. Vecheslova, A.V. Lopukhov and others. These brigades served the sailors of the Baltic Fleet and the soldiers of the Leningrad, Volkhov, Stalingrad, Don and other fronts. The diaries of the front-line brigades, with the names of the participants, repertoire and other records, have been preserved in the Mariinsky theatre archives.
The Leningrad Choreographic School was also evacuated to Perm, where children from different regions of the country studied and on the basis of which the Perm Choreographic Studio was born, which, by order of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR of April 2, 1945, was transformed into the Perm Choreographic School. Now the Perm Choreographic School is one of the leading schools in Russia, firmly standing on the traditions of classical ballet, passed on by Leningraders during the
Great Patriotic War. The tragic irony is that many of the ungrateful dancers who now flee Russia, were once educated in this school that was a product of the heroic patriotic effort of the Soviet nation.
Soviet cultural policy
We feel compelled here, to make one important remark on Putin’s initiative to unite the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theatres under a common directorate. Putin makes it sound as if a return to Imperial times is the only guarantor of effective and successful coordination. His class interests do not allow him to admit that what is needed is once again the central planning and democratic centralism of Soviet times. We must not forget that the Ministry of Culture of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, formed in 1936, was one of the most important government offices in the Soviet Union. Until 1946 it was known as the State Committee on the Arts, making it clear that Arts were an affair of the State, not to be left to mere directorial boards and petty bureaucracy. The Ministry was led by the Minister of Culture, a chairman, who was confirmed by the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet.
On December 16, 1935, a resolution of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks was adopted “On the organisation of the All-Union Committee for the Arts” to manage “all matters of the arts, with the subordination of theatres, film organisations, musical and art-painting, sculptural and other institutions”.
Under Soviet cultural policy, many important organisations were created, aimed at strengthening the arts and defending the soviet cultural inheritance. One of them was the All Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS), which functioned in Moscow from 1925 to 1957.The divisions of the art sector of VOKS included the Bureau of Music and Dance. Perhaps it is time for Putin, to study the successes of his Soviet predecessors and attribute credit where credit is due. Perhaps it is time for Russia to plan and organise again institutions similar to the VOKS, whose main task was to organise the participation of the USSR in international cultural life. With the beginning of the Second World War, many contacts of Soviet musicians with foreign countries were interrupted. Music at that time turned out to be an effective means of uniting people (suffice it to recall Dmitry Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony – “Leningrad”).
The importance of music for mutual understanding in wartime and for business relations in the postwar period was also recognized by many prominent musicians. In particular, the American singer Paul Robeson said: “… One of the fastest ways to achieve mutual understanding and friendship is music…”
Among the participants of the Bureau of Music were many prominent figures of Soviet musical culture: composers Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Reingold Gliere, conductor Nikolai Golovanov, musicologist and composer Boris Asafiev and others. The tasks of the musical section of VOKS included the promotion of Soviet musical culture in the international cultural space. The bureau was engaged in organising official trips abroad for individual musicians and entire delegations, receiving return visits, distributing the music of Soviet composers abroad, exchanging musical products with other countries, and so on. At the same time, the work went both in the “western direction” (these are the countries of Central Europe, Scandinavia, North America), and in the “eastern” direction (Iran, Mongolia, China).
In future, it will be essential for Russia to learn from its past, re-activate Soviet knowhow and coordinate such initiatives of dialogue in defence of Russian culture against Nato’s nazificationand to open exchanges with China and other allies in the East.
Finally, and as a message to all those who are allergic to past, present and future need for state intervention in the arts, let us remember the words of British conductor Sir Adrian Boult in his preface of the book “Realist Music” by Rena Moisenko, published in 1948 by Meridian: “State intervention is a bugbear which is to be met all over the world in these troubled times, and no one who lives in Great Britain nowadays can feel entitled to throw stones at any of our neighbours. Doubtless it is a great irritation to a composer to be told that a work he has finished is not acceptable to the State and must not be performed or published. But it is easy for us to forget that he is being fed and kept very comfortably at State expense, and if a benevolent government decides to pay the piper, rather than just let him starve as we do in Britain, it is perhaps natural that it should sometimes wish to call the tune, or to condemn it. The government has often inspired composers and helped them into a field of work which could only be healthily productive.”