A Conductor on Why He Stayed in Russia After the Invasion Began

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As the Russian military began its attack on Ukraine in late February, the Estonian American conductor Paavo Järvi was in Moscow, leading rehearsals for a long-planned engagement with a Russian youth orchestra.

Järvi, who was born in 1962 in Tallinn, Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union, had a difficult decision to make. Friends urged him to cancel on the ensemble to protest the invasion. But Järvi, saying he did not want to disappoint the players of the Russian National Youth Symphony Orchestra, decided to stay in Moscow and lead the group in works by Richard Strauss on Feb. 26, two days after the invasion began, before departing on Feb. 27.

Järvi’s appearance drew criticism in some corners of the music industry. The day after the concert, Järvi, the chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, released a statement decrying the invasion and defending his decision.

“These young people should not and cannot be punished for the barbaric actions of their government,” Järvi said in the statement. “I cannot turn my back on my young colleagues: Musicians are all brothers and sisters.”

In an interview with The New York Times by email from Florida, Järvi reflected on his visit to Moscow, the scrutiny of Russian artists in wartime, and the future of cultural exchange between Russia and the West. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

As an artist who was born in the former Soviet Union, how do you view Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

It is hard even to find any words for what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment. It is totally barbaric, horrible, inhuman and shocking, yet ultimately unsurprising: In 1944, the Soviets did the same to Estonia, practically carpet bombing Tallinn to the ground.

How does your Estonian heritage affect how you see this war?

Deep suspicion and distrust (to put it mildly) of Soviets is virtually encoded in our DNA. My family left Estonia when I was 17 years old to escape the Communists. My parents and my grandparents never trusted the Soviets, but life here in the West makes you forget certain realities. Over the years, we of the younger immigrant generation have become more westernized, complacent and slowly accepting of the view that Russians have somehow changed and evolved, that they are no longer dangerous and can be treated as partners.

Many of the older Estonians living abroad are still afraid to go and visit, not to mention move back to Estonia, because of their deep fear and hatred of Soviets. (I deliberately avoid using the word “Russians” because it is really the hatred of Soviets, Communists and Soviet leaders that we are referring to.)

You were in Moscow just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine was getting underway. You have said you initially felt conflicted about your decision to stay to lead a concert. What was going through your mind?

It has always been a part of my mission to give back to the next generation of musicians, which is why I regularly conduct youth orchestras. That was the reason I was in Moscow, but had the war already started, I would obviously not have traveled there.

Everyone was already incredibly nervous and tense at the beginning of the week, and when it actually happened, there was complete shock.

Why not cancel and leave, as some of your friends urged?

I felt a responsibility. I could not turn my back on these young musicians at such a difficult and confusing time. I wanted for them to experience something meaningful. Something that could sustain them during the time of isolation and blockade that clearly was going to be imposed on them for a very long time, maybe decades.

The concert was played in a spirit of defiance of the invasion and solidarity with the young musicians, and in deep solidarity and support of the Ukrainian people.

Will you return to Russia to conduct while the invasion continues?

I will definitely not return to Russia while the war is ongoing, and I find it very difficult to imagine returning even after the war is over, because long after it has finished, the human suffering, wounds, hatred and misery of ordinary people everywhere will continue for generations.

What sort of engagement do you think artists in the West should have with Russia in light of the ongoing war? Is it necessary to isolate Moscow culturally, or should there be a free exchange of the arts?

Artists outside of Russia should not be interacting with Russia at all so long as the war continues and innocent people are being bombed and dying.

How do you think this war will affect the arts in Russia and Ukraine?

The impact to Russian artists is going to be devastating. There will be a boycott for a very long time as a new Iron Curtain will be in effect. In the worst case scenario, there is probably going to be the old Soviet model that will be reinstituted. On every level — and culturally, of course, including music — life will be isolated from the West, similar to the former Soviet years.

Do you worry about the effects of the war on global cultural exchange? Will Russian art and artists be looked at suspiciously?

I don’t think that Russian artists will necessarily be seen with suspicion or will have any less respect or admiration from the music-loving public, but Western arts organizations and presenters will be under great pressure to follow a strong party line to boycott Russia or face the consequences.

In recent days, many arts institutions have started vetting artists’ political views, demanding that some denounce the invasion and Putin as a prerequisite for performing. Do you support these efforts?

I cannot fundamentally agree with the policy of universally demanding performers’ condemnation of the invasion or of Putin himself in order to be invited to perform. That’s what Soviets would do. That is against the Western principles of freedom of speech and many other fundamental values that we take pride in ourselves.

On the other hand, it makes sense to require a clear position from the artists who have previously and publicly aligned themselves with Putin. Each case has to be judged separately, and common sense and human decency must prevail and be the guiding light in making such decisions, however difficult in the current hostile climate.

Russian stars with ties to Putin, like the soprano Anna Netrebko and the conductor Valery Gergiev, have seen their engagements canceled in the West. But cultural institutions don’t seem entirely sure yet where to draw the line with other artists.

The standards of behavior are clearly different during war and peace; right now, it is clearly a time of war. It is absurd to talk about the “rights” of Russian artists when one sees innocent civilians, children and maternity wards being indiscriminately bombed.

There are no easy answers because many Russian musicians live outside of Russia. My sense is that the majority of them are against Putin’s war. And many Russians who are living in the West have relatives in Russia and the consequences of saying anything negative about Putin or the war could have dire consequences for their families living back in Russia.

We can never forget that, in the case of Russia, we are not dealing with a democracy. It is a dictatorship, and dissent is dealt with with utmost force and cruelty.

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