The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in history. I have had the extreme privilege to live over 60 years untroubled by a major war in Europe, with the exception of a post-Yugoslav conflict that always felt remote. Sadly, that time has ended. The videos of streams of refugees and cities under heavy bombardment from one of the world’s major armies are a truly chilling sight and we fear the arrival of more lethal weaponry.

The Ukrainian government has appealed for support from across the world and many governments have responded with condemnations, sanctions and, in some cases, actual military and logistic assistance. Many individual Ukrainians have also made appeals, of which a notable one came in the form of an emotionally charged short video from Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, saying that everybody is responsible for the new situation, that everybody who now keeps silent is supporting Putin. So how is the classical music world responding?

First, a summary of what’s being done. Then, my opinions.

Institutions are responding in several different ways. Zurich’s Tonhalle and France Musique are staging benefit concerts. The Vienna Philharmonic asked for a minute’s silence at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique at Carnegie Hall. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic played the Ukrainian national anthem before Sunday’s concert (which also featured a Russian symphony, Rachmaninov’s second). Teatro Real chose the symbolic route, wrapping Siegfried’s dead body in a Ukrainian flag for their production of Götterdämmerung. Tours by the Bolshoi and the Russian State Ballet of Siberia have been cancelled. But the most notable activity has been the severing by a slew of institutions of their links with Valery Gergiev, considered to be close to Putin. When Gergiev refused to publicly distance himself from the invasion, Rotterdam Philharmonic terminated their decades-long relationship with him and cancelled the festival that bears his name; Munich Philharmonic removed him from the post of Chief Conductor. Edinburgh International Festival “asked for and accepted the resignation of Valery Gergiev” as their Honorary President. The Festivals of Lucerne, Verbier and Baden-Baden Festival have cancelled visits from Gergiev and the Mariinsky. Others, one can be sure, will follow if they haven’t already.

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Birmingham Symphony Hall before the March 2nd CBSO concert
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

At the Met, Peter Gelb has announced the suspension of ties with Russian artists who support Putin, stating that “as an international opera company, the Met can help ring the alarm and contribute to the fight against oppression... we can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him”. It’s not clear whether that list will include another Russian superstar, Anna Netrebko, who has publicly stated her opposition to the war, while deploring the idea that, as an artist and non-politician, she should be required to pass comment.

Is all this appropriate? Is it the place of classical music to dive into the political arena? Do we agree with Zurich Opera’s Andreas Homoki when he says that “As a matter of principle, we do not consider it appropriate to judge the decisions and actions of citizens of repressive regimes based on the perspective of those living in a Western European democracy”? Here are some thoughts.

Some of the actions taken are an unalloyed good: benefit concerts to raise help for victims and refugees, or events such as the joint Concertgebouw concert of Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova and Russian cellist Maya Friedman, which is centred round peace and harmony between their two countries.

Classical music can have an effect in times of war. Russians know this better than anyone, with memories of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. But let’s not get carried away by an exaggerated sense of our own importance. The cancellation of a bunch of concerts and artists isn’t going to have much effect on Russian artillery, on the Russian economy or even on the self-esteem of 99.9% of the Russian people.

The best we can hope for from a truly grim situation is that Putin becomes persuaded, presumably by the small group of people close to him, that pursuing the invasion is doing more harm than good to Russian interests and decides to withdraw. There is a strong argument that Gergiev is close to Putin and is therefore legitimately in the firing line for sanctions, although I seriously doubt that he has any influence whatsoever in matters of warfare and I doubt that music or even the wider world of culture and sport will contribute significantly. And when Netrebko says that forcing artists to denounce their homeland in public is not right, I agree with her.

What must not happen is for this situation to become the demonisation of Russians and all things Russian. That will feed the Putin narrative that the rest of the world has a dagger pointed at the heart of Russia and will legitimise his paranoid siege mentality in the eyes of his supporters. And let’s note that Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev – and yes, Netrebko and Gergiev – didn’t suddenly cease to be great musicians when Putin sent his tanks in.

The Ukrainian people have shown immense courage in the face of appalling treatment, and we have a duty not to stand silent on the sidelines. So let’s lend every support that we can to the call for this war to end and let’s lend every assistance that we can to Ukraine (short, sadly, of actually entering the fight, which risks a nuclear confrontation that we dare not contemplate). But let’s not do it by ostracising all Russians or forcing public recantations.

We pray for a lasting peace.