As the Russian military began its attack on Ukraine in late February, Estonian American conductor Paavo Järvi was in Moscow conducting rehearsals for a long-planned engagement with a Russian youth orchestra.
Järvi, born in 1962 in Tallinn, Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union, had a difficult decision to make. Friends urged him to cancel the set to protest the invasion. But Järvi, saying he didn’t want to disappoint the musicians of the National Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia, decided to stay in Moscow and conduct the group in works by Richard Strauss on February 26, two days after the start. of the invasion, before leaving on February 26. 27.
Järvi’s appearance drew criticism from some corners of the music industry. The day after the concert, Järvi, the conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, issued a statement denouncing 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 can’t turn my back on my young colleagues: the musicians are all brothers and sisters.
In an interview with The New York Times via email from Florida, Järvi discussed his visit to Moscow, the wartime scrutiny of Russian artists, and the future of cultural exchange between Russia and the West. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
As an artist born in the former Soviet Union, how do you view Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?
It is even difficult to find words to describe what is happening in Ukraine right now. It’s totally barbaric, horrifying, inhumane and shocking, but ultimately unsurprising: in 1944 the Soviets did the same thing in Estonia, practically bombing Tallinn to the ground.
How does your Estonian heritage affect your view of this war?
A deep suspicion and distrust (to put it mildly) of the Soviets is virtually encoded in our DNA. My family left Estonia when I was 17 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, the younger generation of immigrants, have become more westernized, complacent and slowly accepting the idea that Russians have somehow changed and evolved, that they are no longer dangerous and can be treated as partners.
Many older Estonians living abroad are still afraid to visit, let alone return to Estonia, because of their deep fear and hatred of the Soviets. (I deliberately avoid using the word “Russians” because it’s really the hatred of Soviets, communists and Soviet leaders that we’re referring to.)
You were in Moscow when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. You said you initially felt conflicted with your decision to stay on to lead a gig. What was going through your mind?
It has always been part of my mission to give back to the next generation of musicians, which is why I regularly conduct youth orchestras. That was why I was in Moscow, but if the war had already started, I obviously wouldn’t have gone there.
Everyone was already incredibly nervous and tense at the start of the week, and when it actually happened there was complete shock.
Why not cancel and leave, like some of your friends asked you to?
I felt responsible. I couldn’t turn my back on these young musicians at such a difficult and confusing time. I wanted them to experience something meaningful. Something that could sustain them through the period of isolation and blockade that was clearly going to be imposed on them for a very long time, possibly decades.
The concert was played in a spirit of defiance to the invasion and solidarity with young musicians, and in deep solidarity and support for the Ukrainian people.
Will you return to Russia to lead as the invasion continues?
I will certainly not return to Russia while the war is on, and I find it very difficult to imagine returning even after the war is over, because long after it is over, the human suffering, the wounds, the hatred and the misery of ordinary people everywhere continue for generations.
What kind of engagement do you think Western artists should have with Russia in light of the ongoing war? Should Moscow be culturally isolated or should there be a free exchange of the arts?
Artists outside of Russia should not interact with Russia at all as 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 on Russian artists will 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, it is probably the old Soviet model that will be reinstated. At all levels – and culturally, of course, including music – life will be isolated from the West, as in the years of the former Soviet Union.
How the war in Ukraine affects the cultural world
Anna Netrebko. The superstar Russian soprano will not appear at the Metropolitan Opera again this season or next after failing to comply with the company’s request to distance herself from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin following the invasion of Ukraine.
Do you worry about the effects of war on global cultural exchanges? Will Russian art and artists be viewed with suspicion?
I don’t think Russian artists will necessarily be viewed with suspicion or have less respect or admiration from the music-loving public, but Western arts organizations and broadcasters will be under great pressure to toe a strong party line of boycott Russia or face the consequences.
In recent days, many arts institutions have begun to scrutinize artists’ political views, demanding that some speak out against the invasion and Putin as a precondition for performance. Do you support these efforts?
I cannot fundamentally agree with the policy of universally requiring the condemnation of performers of the invasion or of Putin himself in order to be invited to perform. That’s what the Soviets would do. This goes against Western principles of free speech and many other core values we are proud of.
On the other hand, it makes sense to demand a clear position from artists who have previously and publicly aligned themselves with Putin. Each case must be judged separately, and common sense and human decency must prevail and guide the making of such decisions, however difficult they may be in the current hostile climate.
Russian stars linked to Putin, such as soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, have seen their canceled engagements in the West. But cultural institutions still don’t seem quite sure where to draw the line with other artists.
Standards of behavior are clearly different in times of war and peace; Right now it’s clearly a time of war. It is absurd to speak of the “rights” of Russian artists when we see innocent civilians, children and maternities bombarded indiscriminately.
There are no easy answers as many Russian musicians live outside of Russia. I have the impression that the majority of them are against Putin’s war. And many Russians who live in the West have relatives in Russia and the consequences of saying anything negative about Putin or the war could have disastrous consequences for their families living 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 the utmost force and cruelty.