Friday, July 19, 2024

We write in regard to the performance of The Igor Butman Quintet scheduled to take place at the Regattabar Jazz Club on Feb. 12.

It is more than unfortunate that at a time the United States is providing military aid to Ukraine for the express purpose of enabling it to resist Russian military aggression, Regattabar is choosing to lend its stage to a prominent and vocal supporter of Russia’s criminal regime in general and of Russian President Vladimir Putin personally. In fact, Butman, despite being a U.S. citizen, is a member of the Supreme Council of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, and an official election surrogate for Putin, using his reputation as an artist repeatedly to promote Putin’s reelection efforts. For example, last year Butman was part of the official group that formally nominated Putin for another presidential term.

In March 2014, Butman was among the 511 Russian cultural figures who signed a letter in support of the policies of Putin on Ukraine and Crimea – policies of occupation and annexation that are illegal under international law and specifically condemned by the United States. (The letter is available, in Russian, on the website of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. An English translation is available here. Butman’s signature is No. 63).

These policies, still unequivocally supported by Butman, have since resulted in thousands of dead Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, hundreds of thousands injured, and millions displaced. These are the same policies that led directly to the murder of 298 passengers of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian BUK missile in July 2014. Despite international condemnation and mounting human and infrastructure costs to Ukraine and Russia, in the five and a half years since Butman signed the letter he has not taken any steps to repudiate the policy or withdraw his signature.

To the contrary, Butman continues to be a proud and devoted supporter of Putin and his policies, and continues to take actions to support and legitimize Russian aggression in Ukraine. For example, despite being warned by the U.S. State Department that as a U.S. citizen he should not attend a jazz festival in Russian-occupied Crimea (as that would be in violation of the U.S. and European Union sanctions), Butman went to Crimea as a self-proclaimed “messenger of peace,” hypocritically claiming that jazz is above politics. Butman also participates in more informal but no less significant events where he leverages his artistic reputation to support Russia’s authoritarian leader. For example, he participates regularly in staged hockey games with Putin, former Russian national team players and other celebrities. These spectacles are produced for one purpose only: to strengthen Putin’s domestic popularity.

Similar to many other cultural figures loyal to Putin, Butman seeks to have it both ways – he wants to use his artistic reputation to support the bloody regime for Russian domestic consumption, while presenting himself to his international audiences as an emissary of peace through culture. We call upon Regattabar to not enable this sick game by lending Butman your stage.

We would also like to highlight Butman’s cynical view of his U.S. citizenship. In 2015, as reported by RIA News (in Russian), Butman stated that he applied for American citizenship for the convenience that it offered him in traveling the world without the need for visas. This was in response to the Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader in Russia, who questioned Butman’s commitment to the United States by pointing out that the citizenship oath taken by Butman upon his naturalization contains a promise to take up arms to defend the homeland if necessary. Navalny noted rightfully that it was doubtful that a member of the Supreme Council of Putin’s party has any intention to defend the United States in any way.

Butman’s attitude is offensive to us as naturalized American citizens who cherish the rights and obligations of our citizenship. As people who took that same oath, we would note that it begins with an unequivocal renunciation of  “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which [the person taking the oath had] theretofore been a subject or citizen …” A seat on the Supreme Council of United Russia does not seem to be in keeping with this oath. It is noteworthy that United Russia is known internationally not only for being Putin’s party, but also for its endorsement of Russia’s anti-gay law, the law prohibiting international adoption of Russian children, the law decriminalizing domestic abuse and other laws contrary to International norms for human rights.

Regattabar is a well-known and respected venue. We find it profoundly incongruent that an on-the-record supporter of international war crimes is invited to play music that for close to a century has been a symbol of freedom of expression – and respectfully call on it to reconsider allowing Butman to perform.

Julia Khodor Beloborodov and Dmitry Smelansky, Arts Against Aggression