Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the star Russian maestro Valery Gergiev has been persona non grata in the United States and Europe, fired by many cultural institutions because of his long record of support for President Vladimir V. Putin, his friend and benefactor.
But this week, on the heels of a summit between Mr. Putin and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in Moscow, Mr. Gergiev received a hero’s welcome in Beijing, where he appeared with the Mariinsky Orchestra for the ensemble’s first foreign tour since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Chinese fans showered Mr. Gergiev with cards and bouquets, calling him by his nickname in China, “brother-in-law,” a play on the Chinese version of his surname. Audiences cheered his Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, as well as a surprise rendition of a Chinese Communist classic, “Ode to the Red Flag.” The state-run news media hailed the visit as the beginning of a new era of Russia-China cultural ties.
During the tour Mr. Gergiev rebuked his Western critics and vowed to redouble his efforts to promote Russian culture around the world.
“It is not Russian music that is facing challenges,” he said at a news conference at China’s National Center for the Performing Arts. “It is the people who think they can stop Russian music.”
The Ukraine war has badly damaged Russia’s cultural engine, which once sent ballet dancers from the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky to the world’s leading stages and brought Russian soloists, opera singers and conductors like Mr. Gergiev to leading concert halls and theaters in the United States and Europe.
Now, with artists who are seen as too close to Mr. Putin being shunned in the West, Russia is working to shore up its image and rebuild its soft power elsewhere, strengthening cultural alliances with friendly nations and neighbors, including China, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and Serbia, with mixed results.
The Bolshoi Ballet, the storied company whose name is synonymous with ballet, is considering two tours of China this year. The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, an art institution, is working to open a sister branch in Serbia, after losing partnerships in the West because of the invasion. A St. Petersburg ballet company recently brought two works by the Russian choreographer Boris Eifman, “Anna Karenina” and “The Pygmalion Effect,” to Kazakhstan. Star Russian musicians who were once regulars in New York and Berlin, including the pianist Denis Matsuev, who was seen as close to Mr. Putin, are booking engagements instead in Dubai, Istanbul and Belgrade, Serbia, among other cities.
China, with its legions of concertgoers and skepticism of Western ideals, has emerged as an attractive market for Russian artists aligned with Mr. Putin. While the two countries have long had cultural ties — Mr. Gergiev has been visiting the country for decades — the timing of his visit, coming a week after the meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi, suggested Russia and China were eager for a fresh display of camaraderie as they work to counter American dominance.
“Russia is looking for cultural exchanges wherever it can get them, just as it is looking for allies in technology, energy and the military,” Simon Morrison, a specialist in Russian music at Princeton University, said. “Putin is desperate to show that Russia still has friends.”
Russia’s attempts to use culture to soften its image abroad face significant challenges, even in friendly countries, experts say, because of its continuing attacks on Ukraine.
Classical music, dance, theater and visual art were “some of the last bridges between Russia and the West,” said Vera Ageeva, an international relations scholar at Sciences Po in France. But the disappearance of these cultural exports presents a “huge, incalculable loss for Russia and its soft power,” she said, which cannot be offset simply by expanding cultural ties with allies.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, cultural institutions in the United States and Europe rushed to cut ties with Russian artists and institutions aligned with Mr. Putin, upending decades of cultural exchange that had endured even during the depths of the Cold War.
The Bolshoi and Mariinsky faced cancellations in London, Madrid, New York and elsewhere; a popular program to broadcast Bolshoi performances into more than 1,700 movie theaters in 70 countries and territories was suspended. And several Russian stars with ties to Mr. Putin lost work in the West, including the soprano Anna Netrebko, Mr. Matsuev and Mr. Gergiev, who was fired as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic.
While Mr. Putin has repeatedly portrayed Russia as a victim of a Western campaign to erase Russian culture and cancel great composers like Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Russian works continue to be played throughout the United States and Europe.
Mr. Gergiev, once one of the world’s busiest international conductors, has hunkered down in St. Petersburg, leading a packed schedule of performances at the Mariinsky, including classics like Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar.” Mr. Gergiev is the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky, which has been his base for decades, and which has expanded with funding and support from Mr. Putin.
“I don’t find that my life has taken a turn for the worse,” he said in a recent interview with a Russian news outlet. “I find myself ready to be at home as much as possible.”
Mr. Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater did not respond to requests for comment from The New York Times.
The Bolshoi, in a statement to The Times, said that overseas tours were necessary to maintain its image and reputation.
“The fact that the Western world has been forced to deprive itself of the opportunity to see classical ballet the way Bolshoi is dancing saddens us,” the statement said. “But we ourselves continue to work actively and tour in those places where they are waiting for us.”
Since the start of the war, performing has also become increasingly difficult for artists and institutions inside Russia because of a broad crackdown on free speech and expression by Mr. Putin. A “cultural front” movement has spread in recent months with the aim of mobilizing artists in support of the war.
Several artists who have publicly expressed opposition to the war have been fired or forced to leave the country. The Bolshoi Ballet scrubbed the name of the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, once a close collaborator and a former artistic director, from its roster after he criticized the war and left Moscow shortly before he was to premiere a new work; the company recently called in replacements to help finish one of his dances.
Russia is now looking to its allies to help prop up its flagship cultural institutions, just as it has turned to China and other countries to make up for lost business since its economy was abruptly severed from the West’s.
Mr. Gergiev’s appearance in Beijing, which included four sold-out concerts, drew wide attention.
The state-run news media hailed the visit as the “grand return” of the “toothpick conductor” (Mr. Gergiev has been known to conduct with a toothpick instead of a baton). Commentators seized the occasion to rail against the West for “politicizing art and venting their sentiment toward innocent people from Russia.”
In Beijing, Mr. Gergiev said he felt he was “coming home.” He toured the Forbidden City, where he said he was reminded of China’s enduring cultural traditions, and visited old friends.
At the news conference, Mr. Gergiev said the recent meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi would open the door to more frequent cultural exchange between Russia and China. He spoke about a patriotic Chinese composer who is a favorite of Mr. Xi — Xian Xinghai, who was stranded in the Soviet Union during World War II and died in Moscow. Mr. Gergiev said he hoped one day to lead an orchestra of young Russian and Chinese musicians.
“These concerts,” he said of his appearance in Beijing, “mark the restart of international cultural exchange.”
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