Residents of Cambridge rally in Boston on March 6 against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Maxwell Reuter)

We call for accountability from institutions implicated in accepting significant funds from Russian oligarchs and promoting Putin-promoting artists.

As most readers know, in the early hours of Feb. 24, without cause or provocation, Russia began shelling peaceful Ukrainian cities and initiated a ground invasion from its own territory as well as from the territory of Belarus. Until then, few people in the United States have had a chance to consider how Russia’s autocratic government had long used cultural figures to carry the regime’s water in the West and at home. Few, too, heard or had to think about Russian oligarchs, the source of their wealth or their role in the workings of their home country or ours. Since then, some U.S. news coverage has discussed the specific case of one regime-supporting conductor who is finally facing the music; some has focused on the sanctions against specific Russian oligarchs. While cutting off the influence of these artists and freezing the assets and arresting the property of the oligarchs is a good start, we hope that Americans and residents of other Western countries will take a closer look at the malign influence these individuals have had in our societies and take action to urge affected cultural and academic institutions to redirect the funds they have received from these individuals. The money should go to projects that help Ukraine and Ukrainians, the people most immediately paying the price of the world not stopping Putin’s hybrid war earlier, using the specific expertise of each institution.

The illegal and internationally condemned occupation of Crimea began in 2014 by Russian “little green men” – a term for armed forces without identifying insignia – making for eight years of continuous war waged in the east of Ukraine. Now Russian rockets, cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons are being used on civilian infrastructure and killing and wounding untold numbers of Ukrainians, and Russian forces on the ground are committing war crimes against those civilians. All this time we at Arts Against Aggression (aka Music Lovers Against Aggression) have been educating U.S. audiences about the unsavory activities of the cowardly Russian artists who support Putin’s wars of aggression for domestic consumption while pretending to be “artists, not politicians” in the West. We have warned cultural institutions that lending their stages to Putin’s puppets risks significant reputational exposure.

In fact, our group was formed almost exactly eight years ago when, in the wake of Russian artists signing a shameful letter in support of Putin annexing Crimea, Harvard University decided to still allow two signatories of that letter – Vladimir Spivakov and Denis Matsuev – to perform on the stage of its historic Sanders Theater. Harvard went so far as to allow its ushers to act as instruments of suppressing protest by following the directive to take away blue and yellow flowers representative of the Ukrainian flag from audience members. Harvard Police arrested Roman Torgovitsky, a Harvard graduate, protesting peacefully inside the theater and later banned him from appearing on the university property for life despite all charges being dismissed.

A protest poses skeletons with photos of civilians killed, crippled and displaced by Russian military actions Oct. 29, 2916, at Jordan Hall in Boston as pro-Putin pianist Denis Matsuev performs. (Photo: Arts Against Aggression)

This is significant because when premier cultural institutions such as Carnegie Hall or academic institutions such as Harvard University allow their stages to be used by Putin’s boosters, whether by hosting these individuals directly or by renting spaces for performances by them, the institutions contribute to the reputational capital that these individuals use to give weight to their support of Putin at home. Not only is the fact of performing in these spaces recognized as a mark of success by Russian audiences, culturally and politically, but the very fact of having performed in the West is coded as understanding the motivations of everyday Americans and their leaders. The domestic deployment of these figures in support of Putin and his deadly policies remains obscured to Western audiences by the refusal of these individuals to answer questions about it from the press and civic organizations.

It is telling that many of Putin’s puppet artists are represented in the United States by the same organization: Maestro Artist Management, which gets direct financing from Russian Ministry of Culture.

Conductor Valery Gergiev recently – finally – lost a number of prestigious international positions over his refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but had been until then a frequent fixture at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. Both organizations now apparently belatedly recognize how toxic Gergiev is. But Gergiev has not changed in the past two weeks; he is the same conductor who chose to conduct a concert in the ruins of a country devastated by Russian military, not once but twice: first in Georgia in 2008, then in Syria in 2016. We and other civic organizations and individuals warned these and other venues that giving Gergiev a platform made the venues complicit in supporting war crimes, but our pleas had not succeeded in eliciting a change.

We have other stories about these belated acknowledgments. Matsuev, for example, has for years toured U.S. and European venues with Gergiev and as a solo performer. His concert in Boston in 2016 was the occasion of one of our visually striking protests.

Unfortunately, until Feb. 24, no venue we and others contacted had any scruples about being associated with Matsuev. While we do not expect these institutions to have an inherent keen understanding of the mechanisms of hybrid warfare that Russia has inherited from the USSR, or of art being seen by Russian authorities as a legitimate front in that war, or to be able to monitor the Russian press and entertainment landscape. We had expected that flagship cultural institutions would want to sever ties when faced with a clear and unambiguous explanation of the role of these emissaries of aggression in supporting the corrupt and bloody regime.

We were wrong. With the exception of three jazz clubs (including Boston’s own RegattaBar) that closed their doors to Igor Butman, another vocal supporter of Putin and his aggressive policies and a member of the Supreme Council of Putin’s political party, United Russia, we are not aware of any venue big or small refusing to provide reputational cover for Russia’s despicable assault on sovereign nations and inhumane bombing of Syria. We do not know what was behind these choices by Harvard’s Sanders Theatre and, in Boston, Emerson Theater; the New England’s Conservatory’s Jordan Hall; and Center Makor of the Jewish Educational and Cultural Center.

Curiously, we learned that a number of prestigious institutions had received sizable contributions from a specific oligarch – Len Blavatnik – and other oligarchs shortly before making their decisions to continue engaging with these cultural figures. (Editor’s note from March 15, 2022: Publicists for Blavatnik say applying the term “oligarch” to him is “incorrect and highly defamatory … his personal and commercial activities are not involved with Putin, Russian politics or in the Russian government. It is incorrect for him to be referred to as such or featured in a story that implies that he is.”)

Here is a brief and entirely incomplete list of organizations and institutions of higher learning who have accepted money from just Blavatnik: Carnegie Hall, for $25 million; Harvard Medical School for $200 million and the business school for $60 million; Yale University for $35 million; the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts which took a $5 million gift from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation.

To date, none have severed their ties with Blavatnik or other oligarchs and have not offered to help displaced Ukrainian academics and students. We want to urge all Western-based cultural and academic institutions that have accepted the certainly ill-gotten money from Russian oligarchs to recognize that these actions have contributed to the sense of impunity with which the Russian regime has operated in the world and to now take steps to mediate the impact of these actions.

This is why we, along with the Anti-Corruption Action Center – a Ukrainian organization dedicated to combating corruption in the country – created a petition calling upon institutions that have accepted especially large sums of money to begin taking corrections actions.

As an organization, we also call upon all affected institution to redirect the money they have accepted from the oligarchs into the types of programs that direct their specific expertise toward helping Ukraine and Ukrainians.

Some suggestions:

  • Establish partnerships with Ukrainian universities to build innovative educational programs in Ukraine and the West
  • Fund treatments of Ukrainian war victims in specialty hospitals in the United States and European Union
  • Fund educational programs or fellowships for Ukrainian doctors and physical or occupational therapists in the United States and European Union
  • Create dedicated scholarships for Ukrainians to study at these universities
  • Partner with Ukrainian medical schools and hospitals to create internship programs in Ukraine to provide specialty training for graduating Ukrainian physicians
  • Partner with Ukrainian medical schools and hospitals to create a teaching oncology center, a teaching children’s hospital and a joint PTSD research and treatment program
  • Create selective online distance education programs toward earning bachelor’s or master’s degrees at these universities with free attendance for admitted Ukrainian citizens

Julia Khodor Beloborodov and Dmitry Smelansky are coordinators of Arts Against Aggression