Valery Gergiev, the star Russian conductor and prominent supporter of Vladimir Putin, has been installed as general director of Moscow’s Bolshoi theatre, in the latest appointment of a Kremlin loyalist to a leading cultural institution.
The appointment means that Gergiev, who also heads the rival Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg, will have artistic control over the two crown jewels of the Russian ballet and opera.
In a statement at the Bolshoi theatre on Friday, the Russian deputy prime minister Tatyana Golikova said Gergiev would lead the institution for five years.
Gergiev, 67, has been close to Putin since the early 1990s and publicly supported the president many times, including appearing in a television ad for his 2012 campaign, supporting the 2014 annexation of Crimea and conducting a patriotic concert in the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2016.
He was once one of the world’s busiest international conductors but has emerged as a persona non grata in the west for his refusal to distance himself from Putin since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Shortly after Russian troops launched their invasion he was dismissed as the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. Gergiev has appeared with the Mariinsky Orchestra in China where he received a standing ovation during the ensemble’s first foreign tour since the war in Ukraine.
Simon Morrison, a leading specialist in Russian music at Princeton University, said it was unprecedented in modern Russia to have one person lead both Moscow’s Bolshoi and its St Petersburg rival.
“Gergiev’s role becomes the equivalent of what Russia had in the 19th century in the form of the director of the imperial theatre,” Morrison said, referring to the structure that existed in imperial Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, when a single director oversaw the ballet, opera and theatre companies. “Only here you have the director of the Putin theatres.”
Morrison expects the Bolshoi to take a more conservative and imperialistic direction in line with Putin’s geopolitical ambitions under the guidance of Gergiev.
“It is part of the Putin agenda of restoring Russian imperialism,” he said. “Both Putin and Gergiev promote the rotten old Russian trifecta: nationalism, orthodoxy and conservatism. Putin does it in military and politics while Gergiev does it in culture.
“What we can expect is performances in the Bolshoi operas that affirm [the] Ukrainian, Polish and Georgian place in the Russian empire.”
Gergiev will replace the current Bolshoi director, Vladimir Urin, who joined the theatre in 2013 and was generally regarded as a skilful administrator and artistic director. Shortly after Russian troops entered Ukraine in February 2022, Urin was one of numerous cultural figures who signed an open letter calling on “all on whom it depends to stop all armed activities”.
Morrison said: “Urin showed some conscience, he put himself into a dangerous position. One has to respect him for that and for the way he ran the Bolshoi. He did a great job.”
In March, the longtime head of Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts was replaced by a former police officer and one-time member of a pro-Kremlin youth movement.
Russian authorities have also cracked down on cultural figures who have criticised the war, with many purged from their jobs.
In a move that sent shock waves through the arts world, police in May arrested two prominent Russian theatre workers, marking the first time since the Soviet period that a criminal case was opened over the content of a play.