Valery Gergiev looks set to walk into a perfect storm on 23 September, when he conducts a new production of Eugene Onegin at the Met. New York’s large and ever-vocal gay opera fanbase has taken issue with new homophobic laws in Russia, and this production seems the ideal occasion to voice their concerns. Not only is Gergiev one of Putin’s most ardent champions, but so is Anna Netrebko, who sings Tatyana. Combine that with the fact that the opera was written by a gay Russian (who suffered for his sexuality, to say the least), and the whole enterprise starts to look tailor-made for protest. A petition has been started to oblige the house to dedicate the first performance, presumably with Gergiev’s blessing, to LGTB people, thereby distancing all the Russians involved from their government’s new laws. But the project is doomed to failure, and not because of any opinions Gergiev might have for or against gay rights.
A cultural divide, as deep as during the Cold War, continues to separate Russia from America and most of Western Europe, and it is no more evident than in the cultural and ethical priorities that motivate the two sides. Various Russian defenders of the new legislation have amply demonstrated this in recent weeks. When Yelena Isinbayeva, a pole vaulter and a key figure in the 2014 Sochi Olympics said last week “We consider ourselves like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys ... it comes from the history,” it was in the full expectation that this would diffuse the row. It didn’t, obviously, and she later retracted her comments, but the idea that Western activists would be satisfied with this response shows how little understanding there is in Russia for the level and nature of sexual equality that now exists in the West, and that the West is increasingly demanding of the rest of the world.
A common view in Russia has it that the Western media is pursuing a vendetta, and that when words like ‘human rights’, ‘functional democracy’, or ‘Khodorkovsky’ are used, it is just to belittle the country on the world stage. Politicians in Russia, and even some of my friends on Facebook, often highlight similar issues in the West, so as to demonstrate the hypocrisy of criticising Russia. This week they will have had a field day. First came a high profile case of the British government brazenly and openly intimidating a journalist, drawing parallels with Putin’s similarly brutal repression of press freedoms. Then just the next day it was revealed that the very law that has caused all the controversy – against the “promotion of homosexuality” to minors - is official policy in dozens of British state-funded schools.
And accusations of homophobia are being thrown around with little sense of responsibility, or even logic, by some British commentators. Yesterday Louise Mensch wrote a piece for the Telegraph, a hatchet job on Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has been reporting on the Snowden revelations and whose partner was the subject of the harassment from the UK authorities. Most of the arguments were pretty thin, but one was particularly disingenuous: the implicit accusation that Edward Snowden endorses homophobia through his claiming asylum in Russia. When accusations of homophobia are being bandied about with such arbitrary abandon against anybody even remotely associated with the country, it is easy to see why Gergiev’s supporters so easily laugh them off.
So what does Gergiev himself think? One thing is clear: For him, Russia comes first, preferably the ‘strong’ Russia that Putin advocates. Gergiev himself doesn’t have much time for current affairs. Yesterday he announced that in the last year he gave 261 performances around the world. That suggests his primary source for information on current affairs is the magazines he reads on aeroplanes. His recent support for the jailing of members of Pussy Riot is instructive. The jist of his argument, such as it was, was that they were in it for the money (he compared them unfavourably with Netrebko, who, he said, had had to work for her fame rather than gaining it through stunts). Like Isinbayeva’s defence of the promotion of homosexuality law, the irrelevance of this response demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the objections in the West to the Russian government’s policies.
Anna Netrebko, or her PR team, have done a better job of assuaging Western concerns. Last week a post appeared on her Facebook page announcing her support for gay rights, but without mentioning Putin, Russia or the new laws (“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.”) Philip Kennicott yesterday wrote a blog post about the Met affair (to which this post is partly a response), in which he expressed satisfaction with Netrebko’s statement. For me, and I suspect for many in the West, it did not go far enough, especially given that the clear aim was for Netrebko to continue her support for Putin’s regime while brushing this issue under the carpet. Until she explicitly distances herself from the law in question, any talk of ‘never discriminating’ sounds very hollow.
But it is still further than Gergiev will ever go. Even an abstract statement about respect for all would implicitly distance him from the Kremlin, and that’s not going to happen. Gergiev has little interest in gay rights, and he probably shares the view of many of his compatriots that the scandal has been concocted by the Western media to discredit Putin.
So the petition in New York is doomed to fail. Gergiev is not homophobic, or he might be, but no evidence has been presented. He’s not against the petitioners’ cause, but then neither is he for it. Whatever interest he may have in gay rights is of very small concern to him compared with his loyalty to the Kremlin. That always comes first. And if that means he is seen by some as homophobic, or as an enemy of democracy, that’s a price he is willing to pay.
Or maybe I’ve misjudged him. Maybe the premiere of the Met’s Onegin will be preceded by a speech from the podium advocating equality and condemning Putin’s new laws.
Come on Valery, prove me wrong.