In the latest expression of the anti-Russian campaign following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine two months ago, the famed International Tchaikovsky Competition was banned by the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC). The Tchaikovsky Competition, inaugurated in 1958 with a competition in which the American pianist Van Cliburn won first prize, is among the most important affiliates of the 120 members of the WFIMC.
The Tchaikovsky Competition is named after the most famous Russian composer of the 19th century, whose name is synonymous with Romanticism and Russian music in general. Held every four years in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (Leningrad before the dissolution of the Soviet Union), its inaugural event 64 years ago made international headlines with the triumph of the young American. Cliburn, who died in 2013 after an important career, won over the Russian public as well as the judges in 1958, and his victory, just a few years after the Korean War and the height of McCarthyism in the United States, became associated with a broader aspiration for peace. It was during this same period that the famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra embarked on a tour of the Soviet Union. Music, and classical music in particular, was seen as having the potential to advance the cause of international understanding.
While Tchaikovsky events include competitions for violin, cello and vocal artists, and also included brass in his last competition in 2019, the focus is on the piano. Among its first winners over the years are such eminent musicians as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Grigory Sokolov, Andrei Gavrilov, Mikhail Pletnev, Boris Berezovsky, Denis Matsuev, Daniil Trifonov and Barry Douglas (in 1986 the first non-Russian pianist to win the first price from Clipurn). Violin laureates include Gidon Kremer, Vladimir Spivakov and Viktoria Mullova.
In a statement issued on behalf of its President and Secretary General, the WFIMC felt compelled to acknowledge the importance of the Tchaikovsky Competition, even as it sought, somewhat defensively, to justify its action.
“Many winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition are among today’s leading artists,” conceded the WFIMC. “However, in the face of Russia’s brutal war and humanitarian atrocities in Ukraine, the WFIMC as a non-political organization cannot support or have as a member any competition funded and used as a promotional tool by the Russian regime.”
While this supposedly “apolitical” organization aligns itself with the US-NATO proxy war against Russia, it says nothing about how Putin’s reactionary attack was unleashed for decades. decades by relentless provocations by US imperialism, including the constant expansion of NATO. after its purported raison d’être ended with the end of the Cold War. Nor is there any mention of the installation of a pro-NATO regime after a US-backed right-wing coup in Ukraine in 2014. The WFIMC’s hypocritical statement does not attempt either more to justify its exclusion from a competition based in Russia while ignoring its many affiliates. in the United States, where governments led by the two main parties of American imperialism have launched unprovoked wars and aggression against Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, Libya and elsewhere in recent years.
Of course, neither Russian nor American artists should be banned based on the actions of their governments, or even – except in the most extreme circumstances as in the case of the Holocaust – based on their own political views. Now, however, banning artists is part of efforts to stoke nationalism and heighten the danger of a Third World War. On the other side, Vladimir Putin pointed to attacks on Russian artists to also stoke reactionary Russian nationalism.
The action against the Tchaikovsky competition is part of an ongoing effort to demonize Russia as part of the war fever orchestrated in London, Berlin, Paris and especially Washington. It follows efforts to disrupt or destroy the international careers of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko, as well as smaller but no less serious attacks on young artists, such as the cancellation of several recitals by Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, and the decision of the Sibelius Violin Competition to exclude Russian competitors from this year’s event.
A growing number of musicians and other artists have expressed their opposition to attempts to ban Russian artists. More recently, the Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary, Canada, was forced to reverse its attempt to ban six young Russian pianists, after the decision was condemned on social media and by renowned pianist Kirill Gerstein, among others.
The WFIMC statement, apparently attempting to fend off this criticism, makes the contradictory claim that it “affirms its previous statement against blanket sanctions against all Russians and against discrimination and exclusion of individual artists, on the basis of their nationality”. But of course, the action against the Tchaikovsky Competition excludes artists because of their nationality. The statement concludes: “In times of war especially, we believe it is essential to maintain a dialogue with those who trust us and who share our values, in the same way that we trust them. The hypocritical praise of “dialogue” is limited to “those… who share our values”, ie a boycott of those who cannot, and of all those preparing for the next Tchaikovsky competition.
This week’s announcement underscores the fact that what has turned into a US-NATO proxy war against Russia marks the end of an era. The impact of war on international cultural events recalls the period leading up to the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958. The war fever fueled today has not been seen for at least 70 years. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the era of Ronald Reagan’s rants against the “evil empire”, international cultural exchanges were rarely, if ever, affected. The single focus, by the WFIMC and similar institutions, on Putin and the impending invasion, entirely separate from its history, is a statement of solidarity with US-NATO aggression.
The privileged social stratum that dominates the boards of the various elite musical organizations and musical competitions in Europe and North America agrees with the will to war. Young musicians and other artists, on the other hand, have no reason to support the war.