On Monday, I wrote a blog post in which I said that I’d be joining the boycott of Gergiev’s work until he states his unequivocal support for the equal rights of all, regardless of sexual orientation. Today he did exactly that, so I’m standing down from the campaign, although it is sure to continue without me. The statement he issued is classic PR-by-committee jargon, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. In fact, it signals an important change of position by Gergiev, and perhaps a small sophistication of his politics too.
The last time charges of homophobia were levelled against Gergiev was in September, when he opened the Met season with Onegin. Anna Netrebko, who sang Tatyana, is another high-profile Putin supporter and so was also in the firing line. She issued a statement ahead of the opening night:
“As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues—regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.”
At the time, I speculated that even this small step was further than Gergiev would ever go, as the acknowledgement of gay rights, however abstract, would distance him from Putin. But in fact, Gergiev has gone further. Like Netrebko’s, his statement is very carefully worded, but it’s more explicit:
“I am aware of the gay rights protest that took place at the Barbican last week prior to my concert with the LSO. I have said before that I do not discriminate against anyone, gay or otherwise, and never have done, and as head of the Mariinsky Theatre this is our policy. It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation and in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people. I am an artist and have for over three decades worked with tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries from all walks of life and many of them are indeed my friends. I collaborate with and support all my colleagues in the endeavour for music and art. This is my focus as a conductor, musician, artist and as Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.”
The crucial wording here is “I do not discriminate against anyone, gay or otherwise.” It is very difficult to imagine Vladimir Putin using this phrase (even at his most Orwellian), and so a small gap does indeed appear between the views of the two men.
It should also be noted that Gergiev doesn’t actually contradict any of his earlier statements. When he says “It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation”, it is worth bearing in mind that his previous comments on the contentious law were to deny that it was “about homosexuality”. Now, in light of his professed support for “equal rights for all people”, we can chalk the apparent contradiction up to political naivety rather than malice.
And the committee tone of this statement does indeed suggest that minions behind the scenes have been working hard to pull Gergiev’s foot out of his mouth. He usually doesn’t talk about politics, and it is easy to understand why. But the fact remains that supporting Putin is Gergiev’s main political principle. In fact it’s his only political principle. And he doesn’t support Putin because he wants to see a crackdown on gay rights in Russia, nor even because he wants to silence all political dissent there. He supports Putin because he believes in a strong Russia. Over here we might feel threatened by that, but in the end it boils down to a fairly generalised concept of nationalism, something we find here and everywhere else in the world. He’s got to take the rough with the smooth of course, but as the wording and spurious logic of his ill-advised statements on Pussy Riot and this recent anti-gay (let’s not forget – it is anti-gay) law demonstrate, he’d rather parrot arguments cooked up by Putin and his administration than come up with meaningful views of his own.
Protests against Gergiev will no doubt continue in London, but those demonstrating need to be clear of their goals. They’re not going to reduce Gergiev’s support for Putin, whatever horrors they attribute to the president. This really is fundamental to Gergiev, to the extent that protesting the point almost seems like a vendetta against him in person. So the only slogan that could have any possible meaning at tomorrow night’s demonstration would be “Gergiev go Home”.