We recently discussed controversies involving Russian artists and athletes being told that they will be cancelled or blacklisted if they do not expressly denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin. Now that assault on free speech has reached the highest levels of ballet after Tugan Sokhiev, the chief conductor at Bolshoi Theatre and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, resigned rather than be coerced into such public statements. The Munich Philharmonic also dismissed chief conductor Valery Gergiev after he failed to condemn the invasion.
Sokhiev is one of the most celebrated and respected conductors in the world. He also happens to be Russian. For many, his musical contributions became secondary when he failed to publicly condemn Putin. They demanded that he speak or resign. He resigned.
Sokhiev wrote on Facebook “during last few days I witnessed something I thought I would never see in my life. In Europe, today I am forced to make a choice and choose one of my musical family over the other.”
As we previously discussed, it is during wartime and periods of social discord that the greatest abuses can occur for those with dissenting or unpopular views. Despite my strong support for Ukraine and condemnation of Putin, it is important for advocates of civil liberties and free speech to stand against such blacklisting and compelled speech.
For many, this is hardly a new movement. For years, powerful politicians, academics, and even some in the media have demanded more censorship. This move against Russian performers and athletes may draw the unwitting into this anti-free speech movement. The response to those of us who are raising concerns is the same and predictable. You are called an apologist for Putin or a traitor to the cause. It is an effort to create a glacial chilling effect on dissenting voices.
Once again, it is important to address the rationalization on the left for attacks on free speech in recent years: the First Amendment only protects speech from government crackdowns. The First Amendment is not the full or exclusive embodiment of free speech. It addresses just one of the dangers to free speech posed by government regulation. Many of us view free speech as a human right. Corporate censorship of social media clearly impacts free speech, and replacing Big Brother with a cadre of Little Brothers actually allows for far greater control of free expression. As I have noted earlier, while liberal writers and artists were blacklisted and investigated in the 1950s, liberal activists have succeeded in censoring opposing views to an unprecedented degree in recent years. Rather than burn books, they have simply gotten stores to ban them or blacklist the authors, athletes, and artists.
Figures like the great singer Paul Robeson (right) found themselves barred from performances due to their refusal to condemn others or Russia.
Some, however, are not intimidated but rather incensed by the attack on free speech. In the meantime, at least one opera lover is boycotting the Met after it cancelled another great Russian artist for not publicly reciting the official line against Putin. I recently received the attached letter from a donor at the Met who stated that he was changing his will over the controversy involving soprano Anna Netrebko. He would no longer leave his estate to the Met and pledged to stop his regular contributions to the institution.
As for Sokhiev, he noted that in both cities he regularly invited Ukrainian singers and conductors because “we never even thought about our nationalities. We were enjoying making music together.”
The response from the mayor of Toulouse, Jean-Luc Moudenc, was particularly telling. While denying that they demanded that Sokhiev “make a choice between his native country and his beloved city of Toulouse,” the mayor added: “However, it was unthinkable to imagine that he would remain silent in the face of the war situation, both vis-à-vis the musicians and the public and the community.”
It is not “unthinkable.” He may support the invasion or fear for himself or his family in opposing this tyrant. It does not matter his reasons. He should have a right to hold opposing views or to remain silent. What is unthinkable is that artists are being blacklisted for refusing to recite political statements like some reeducation camp in the Cultural Revolution. It is a curious way to fight tyranny by denying free speech.
The Met donor allowed me to post the following version of his letter: