Monday, July 22, 2024

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Roman Torgovitsky returns to his alma mater, Harvard, on Saturday, this time to leave flowers the color of the Ukrainian flag for Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust.

Roman Torgovitsky returns to his alma mater, Harvard, on Saturday, this time to leave flowers the color of the Ukrainian flag for Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust.

Russian violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra take to the stage right about now in New York’s Lincoln Center with a performance similar to what was seen at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre May 11 – down to the protesters out front who want Spivakov to know they’re unhappy he signed a letter approving of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

As you might imagine from people unhappy about the signing of a letter by an orchestra conductor, these protesters are passionate but polite. Here are scenes from the Cambridge protest, complete with children holding flowers and a performance by violinist Natasha Dukach:

And here’s how they prepared for Lincoln Center, including a semi-formal dress code and this gentle warning about the attitude to have throughout:

We are not there to insult Mr. Spivakov; he deserves respect for his music and charitable work. He is not a war criminal, he is also a victim of the regime. We want to show him that signing the letter was wrong and immoral and to inspire him to join our side.

This is why it was all the more dismaying that Harvard Police arrested a peaceful protester May 11 with a false report that seems like nothing more than overkill intended to portray aggression and a threat that didn’t exist. (Harvard Police still haven’t responded to a request for comment on the false report.)

Harvard overstepped its bounds in another, somewhat shocking way, according to protester accounts: At the apparent request of concert organizer Maestro Artist Management it barred yellow and blue flowers from entering Sanders Theatre because yellow and blue are the colors of the Ukrainian flag. (According to New York protest participant Kostya Tchourine, the plan there is not just to eschew dressing in blue and yellow as some did in Cambridge, but to abandon the flowers as well.)

Torgovitsky said he left flowers for Faust on Saturday.

Torgovitsky said he left flowers for Faust on Saturday.

You know you’re treading in tragically compromised territory when you have police at the door confiscating certain colors of flowers from paying concertgoers.

“We learned that organizers have instructed ushers and police to take away blue and yellow flowers from the members of the audience – a rather disturbing move which turned Spivakov’s concert into an anti-Ukrainian event,” Cambridge protest co-organizer Dmitry Smelyanskiy said last week. “Too bad Harvard University did this.”

The man arrested at Sanders on May 11, a Harvard grad named Roman Torgovitsky, 38, returned to his alma mater Saturday to leave some of the blue and yellow flowers for Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust with a letter expanding on his dismay:

At the entrance to Sanders Theatre, Harvard police were instructing people to surrender flower bouquets. I tried to inquire about the reason for such an unusual order, but when the police officer noticed a lone yellow flower – among dozens of other flowers of many colors – in my bouquet, he became even more persistent. As a Harvard alumni, I found this incident completely surreal – I could never have imagined that Harvard police would be stopping me from bringing flowers, of any color, to a concert hall. This would have been completely a matter of course in modern Russia, but in United States at Harvard?

Today, I am sending you bouquet of these beautiful yellow and blue flowers as a token of my appreciation for the great tradition of open discussion and inquiry that Harvard has been nurturing for years. I am also sending these flowers as reminder of how easy it is to lose the spirit of freedom and start turning into a police state – something that we can so clearly observe in modern Russia.

Harvard’s actions are sadly consistent with its approach to peaceable protest seen at least as far back as Occupy Harvard, when the university chose to close the gates to Harvard Yard in a successful attempt to turn its students against one another.

Here’s Torgovitsky’s complete letter:

Dear Dr. Faust,

Last Sunday famous Russian violinist and conductor, Vladimir Spivakov came to Harvard’s Sanders Theatre with a concert celebrating the 35th anniversary of Mr. Spivakov’s Moscow Virtuosi ensemble.

While Spivakov is well known not only for his musicianship, but also for his charity projects, he managed to stay away from actively participating in politics for most of his life. He kept his silence while Russian opposition leaders were jailed for political reasons, he kept his silence while Putin was closing down independent newspapers, he kept his silence while Russia’s TV was spewing complete lies about protests in Ukraine on Maidan square, calling the protesters fascists.

Yet, Mr. Spivakov finally broke his silence by signing a letter supporting President Putin’s policy against Ukraine. Together with other cultural icons who signed the letter, Mr. Spivakov thus gave Mr. Putin backing of Russia’s “intelligentsia” to occupy and later annex Crimea. Moreover, by signing the letter Mr. Spivakov supported media terror that President Putin and Russian government-controlled media unleashed first against Ukraine’s Maidan anti-corruption protesters and subsequently to the collapse of Yanukovich’s government and his escape to Russia, against Ukraine as a state.

President Putin’s pursuit of these policies, with Mr. Spivakov’s support, resulted in a number of deaths and has the unfortunate potential to lead to even more violence. This is because according to recent opinion polls, the majority of Russian population, brainwashed as they are by the government-controlled media into believing that Ukraine is now controlled by fascists, are ready to fight and kill Ukrainians.

I felt the horror of Russian media terror during my visits to Maidan in early February. On my second visit, I landed in Kiev early morning of Feb. 21, just hours after almost a hundred Maidan protesters were killed by sniper fire. As I was walking on Maidan, my feet were sticking to the ground saturated with the blood spilled mere hours before …

I interviewed physicians and nurses in whose hands mortally wounded Maidan protesters perished while whispering “Let me go, let me go back to Maidan, my friends need me there.”

I talked to many Russian journalists, who were in disbelief of what had happened within the previous three days and felt powerless because reports they were sending to their newspaper editors in Russia were edited to such a degree that the entire meaning was flipped.

I saw the consequences of the media war waged by Russia with my own eyes and felt it in my own heart.

So what do you do when a musician who you deeply respect, and who is indirectly responsible for deaths of so many people is coming to your backyard – to Harvard University?

I was aware that several people and organizations in the U.S. have tried to reach out to Spivakov to initiate a discussion. They reached out to Spivakov, they reached out to the Maestro Artist Management company, the organizer of the tour. They also reached out to you personally. Nobody seemed interested in talking.

As a Harvard alumni, I felt embarrassed by Harvard’s attitude and realized that the only way to reach out to Mr. Spivakov is to walk onto the stage at the end of the concert, thank him for his contribution to music, express dissatisfaction with the letter he signed and offer to set up a meeting to discuss the differences and hopefully come to a resolution.

I am not going to discuss all the details of what happened that Sunday evening, aside from one detail.

At the entrance to Sanders Theatre, Harvard police were instructing people to surrender flower bouquets. I tried to inquire about the reason for such an unusual order, but when the police officer noticed a lone yellow flower – among dozens of other flowers of many colors – in my bouquet, he became even more persistent. As a Harvard alumni, I found this incident completely surreal – I could never have imagined that Harvard police would be stopping me from bringing flowers, of any color, to a concert hall. This would have been completely a matter of course in modern Russia, but in United States at Harvard?

Today, I am sending you bouquet of these beautiful yellow and blue flowers as a token of my appreciation for the great tradition of open discussion and inquiry that Harvard has been nurturing for years. I am also sending these flowers as reminder of how easy it is to lose the spirit of freedom and start turning into a police state – something that we can so clearly observe in modern Russia.

With warmest wishes,

Roman Torgovitsky, Ph.D. ’08