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Russian artists feel effects of Ukraine invasion

During the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s, “witch hunts” of Americans seen as sympathetic to the cause of Russian communism were triggered by U.S. politicians like Sen. Joe McCarthy, fueling an ugly national hysteria targeted largely at film-makers and others in the arts community. Careers were ended and lives were ruined.

Today, we are seeing the same thing in reverse, with Russian artists the targets of witch hunts launched by the United States and Western countries in a misguided response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Careers will end and lives will be ruined. And Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will get a significant boost in his effort to distract Russians from the misery caused by his brutal, ill-conceived war.

There are a number of examples. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has been banned from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City because of her ties to Putin. Russian piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev declared that “Every Russian will feel guilty for decades” for the invasion of Ukraine and still had three concerts postponed by the Montreal Symphony. The Royal Opera House in London canceled performances by the Bolshoi Ballet. Orchestras have dropped the works of the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky from their repertoires even though he and his music were Western-oriented - and more significantly - he died in the 19th century.

Those outside the arts - both dead and alive - are also victims of this rush to poor judgment. The U.S.-based Space Foundation removed the name of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, from a fund-raising campaign. He died in 1968. And last week 63 runners from Russia and Belarus were prohibited from participating in the Boston Marathon.

The situation with Netrebko, a global superstar, is particularly absurd and rife with hypocrisy. Met General Manager Peter Gelb first banned Netrebko for being insufficiently critical of the Russian invasion. When Netrebko issued a strong statement condemning the war, Gelb shifted the goalposts and announced that the soprano remained banned because of her past ties to Putin. If those links were so appalling shouldn’t she have been exiled from the Met years ago?

Netrebko’s anti-war statement was convincing enough in Russia that she was banned from performing in her native land and called a traitor. Russians castigating Netrebko are heir to those who branded critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as un-American. That war was based on lies as well, and imagine the domestic furor if American artists had been banned because of the invasion.

It is simplistic to blame artists and others for the actions of their political leaders. It leads to empty, self-satisfied policies like those of Gelb. In this particular case, it leads to vindication for Putin in his assertion that the West is trying to cancel Russian culture. With Russian artists and others indeed being cancelled, why would any Russian believe President Biden’s repeated claims that the U.S. and the West are not enemies of the Russian people?

Totalitarian leaders historically ban artists and stifle dissent - Putin is doing the latter at home. Democracies should do neither, especially when doing so plays into the hands of a dictator’s propaganda machine. The U.S. and Western nations should end the witch hunts of Russian artists and other figures who aren’t war mongers and find themselves caught - like Netrebko - in an impossible position.

Bill Everhart is the former editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle and is an occasional Eagle contributor. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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