By David Andelman
Throughout the Nazi era in Germany, while Hitler and his minions were in the process of enslaving much of Europe, Wilhelm Furtwaengler served as chief conductor of the renowned Berlin Philharmonic, bringing his baton and his fabulous ensemble into the service of the propaganda machine of the Third Reich.
Now, it seems, Valery Gergiev, longtime principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and now the London Symphony, is performing the same service for his masters in Moscow.
As the Associated Press reported Thursday morning in a dispatch from Georgia, “Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian, was to lead a requiem concert for the dead in the devastated central square [of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali] Thursday night, part of an effort to win international sympathy and support for Russia’s argument that its invasion of Georgia was justified.”
Okay, so Valery Abisalovich Gergiev is Ossetian. Wilhelm Furtwaengler was certainly German. Yet Furtwaengler had a far more compelling motive to sweep his baton into the services of Hitler and the Nazis than Gergiev does bringing his to bear in the service of Vladimir Putin. At the start of the Nazi era, with the Weimer Republic in the grip of a crushing economic meltdown, the once proud Berlin Philharmonic, had become, quite frankly, flat broke. The livelihood of Furtwaengler’s 80-plus musicians, indeed the survival of their families, some of them at the time Jewish, were at the mercy of the hyperinflation that was sweeping Germany at the height of the Great Depression. Without question, Furtwaengler sold out. And his reputation, eventually, indeed that of his great institution, suffered for decades as a result.
Should Gergiev pay no less a price? It is, after all, Putin who’s accusing the democratically elected government of Georgia of “ethnic cleansing.” It’s Russian tanks that have dug into hillsides and roadblocks across the borders of this tiny, independent nation—an action that should be no less abhorrent than Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland which then, weeks later, was to include all of Czechoslovakia.
Gergiev has certainly been in Putin’s hip pocket for much of his career. Each is godfather to the other’s children. Putin, at least indirectly, placed him at the helm of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, the pinnacle of the Russian musical establishment. Until now, this profoundly interlocking relationship could be ignored in the West. After all, Russia was all but an ally. Putin and President George W. Bush were great pals. They rode in the same golf cart together. No longer. Now, suddenly, the West is searching frantically for a means of sending a message to the Kremlin.
Before we get to that message, a moment of full disclosure. For years, my wife, Pamela Title, and I enjoyed listening with enormous pleasure on innumerable occasions as Gergiev brought to an adoring public at the Metropolitan Opera his brilliant renditions of War and Peace, Wagner’s Ring and other great classics he performed during his tenure as principal guest conductor. Today, he serves the same role at the London Symphony.
Kathryn McDowell, managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra told The Times of London before Gergiev’s outing in support of Russian soldiers’ pillaging and rape in the Caucuses: “We understand that Valery Gergiev feels passionately about the current situation in South Ossetia and Georgia and are aware that he has in the past created music as an ambassador for peace; we send our good wishes to him for a significant and successful concert.”
I have another message—make sure that he never again lifts his baton in the free world. Gergiev has made his choice. He has chosen a totalitarian democracy and has removed himself from his right to mount a podium in a part of the world where audiences value freedom and real democracy—the kind of freedom that allows individuals to produce wonderful music, for its own sake, not as a tool of propaganda in the service of violent, illicit purposes.
That’s one message we can send to Putin and the Russians. Perhaps this one will be heard through the Iron Curtain that appears again to be descending across Europe.
David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.