Valery Gergiev, a Putin ally, chosen to lead Bolshoi Theater

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Valery Gergiev, a Putin ally, chosen to lead Bolshoi Theater
Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in New York, April 3, 2017. Gergiev, a friend and prominent supporter of President Vladimir Putin, was tapped to lead the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the Russian government announced on Dec. 1, 2023. (Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández and Ivan Nechepurenko

NEW YORK, NY.- Valery Gergiev, a star Russian maestro and prominent supporter of President Vladimir Putin, was tapped Friday to lead the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the Russian government announced.

The move, effective immediately, will expand Gergiev’s dominance at the pinnacle of Russia culture. He already serves as the artistic and general director of the nation’s other premier performing arts institution, the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. In Moscow, he replaces Vladimir Urin, the Bolshoi’s general director since 2013, who signed a petition last year expressing opposition to the war in Ukraine.

Gergiev will serve a five-year term, according to an order signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. In a post on Telegram, Russia’s government said that Urin had been “relieved of this position at his own request.”

Gergiev appeared Friday alongside Urin at the Bolshoi, which houses renowned ballet and opera companies as well as an orchestra. He was introduced to the theater’s staff by Tatyana Golikova, a deputy prime minister, and praised the Bolshoi’s history of artistic excellence. Gergiev said the theater, which has lost many of its overseas engagements because of the war, should focus on working “at home” in Russia.

“I know that the Bolshoi has been headed by great artists and major statesmen,” he said, according to a video of the meeting published by Russian news outlets. “Everyone tried to do everything to multiply the glory of this great collective, this unique building — complex of buildings — in the heart of Moscow.”

In selecting Gergiev, 70, to lead the Bolshoi, Putin has rewarded a renowned musician and staunch ally who once endorsed his reelection and has appeared at concerts in Russia and abroad to promote his policies. The men have known each other since the early 1990s, when Putin was an official in St. Petersburg and Gergiev was leading the Mariinsky.

Urin’s fate at the Bolshoi had been uncertain since his name appeared on the petition opposing the war. Putin at times seemed to hint that Urin’s days were numbered; in March 2022 he publicly asked Gergiev if he was interested in “re-creating a common directorate” that would unite the Bolshoi with the Mariinsky.

But Urin, 76, defied expectations for a time, maintaining his post even as other artists and cultural leaders who denounced the war faced reprisals or left the country. He said in an interview with a Russian news outlet earlier this year that it was “not an easy time” for the Bolshoi.

Urin announced his resignation to colleagues Thursday after a performance at the Bolshoi of César Cui’s “The Mandarin’s Son” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” Russian news outlets reported.

“Today I say goodbye to you, because today is my last working day at the Bolshoi Theater,” Urin said in a speech to his colleagues, according to a video that circulated online.

Despite Putin’s remarks last year, his advisers have since suggested that the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky will not be merged.

As rumors about a leadership change at the Bolshoi spread last month, Mikhail Shvydkoy, Putin’s special representative on cultural matters, said that the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky were too distinct to be joined. “Nobody is talking about the unification of the two theaters,” he said. “This is impossible.”

On Friday, Golikova reiterated that message, saying the theaters would “exist as they have been: as separate legal entities.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Gergiev, whose extensive international career once made him one of the busiest maestros in the world, has been persona non grata in the United States and Europe. His touring schedule dried up in the West, and he was fired by the Munich Philharmonic, where he had been chief conductor, because of his long record of support for Putin.

After the invasion, many cultural institutions in the United States and Europe rushed to cut ties with Russian artists and institutions closely aligned with Putin, upending decades of cultural exchange that had endured even during the depths of the Cold War.

The Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters faced cancellations of performances set for London, Madrid, New York and elsewhere, and a popular program to broadcast Bolshoi performances into more than 1,700 movie theaters in 70 countries and territories was suspended. Licenses to perform foreign works at Russian theaters expired, and some Russian choreographers and directors asked that their names be removed from works performed in Russia. Several Russian stars with ties to Putin lost work in the West, including soprano Anna Netrebko and pianist Denis Matsuev.

Urin, who played a key role in steering the Bolshoi after the shock of the 2013 acid attack on ballet director Sergei Filin, tried to maintain a sense of normalcy, pushing forward with performances of classics like the ballet “Giselle” and the opera “Eugene Onegin.” But the war created new complications. He said at one point that he could not stage works by artists who spoke out against the invasion because it might create a “serious negative reaction,” according to Russian news reports.

Demand for performances at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky in recent months has appeared to remain strong. A stampede broke out outside the Bolshoi last month as several hundred people lined up to buy tickets for a popular holiday run of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” according to Russian news outlets.

With the West off limits, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky have turned to other overseas markets, including China, where Russian artists and cultural groups have been warmly received. Gergiev and the Mariinsky have led three tours in China this year; the Bolshoi appeared in Beijing over the summer.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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