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On Pussy Riot, Gergiyev Channels Shakespeare (And Putin)


Valery Gergiyev (left), artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin open the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in June 2011.

Valery Gergiyev (left), artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin open the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in June 2011.

Valery Gergiyev, the head of Russia's famed Mariinsky Theater, looks like he's been brushing up on his Shakespeare.

In Act 3, Scene 1 of "Hamlet," the forever moody title character tells the poor, confused Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery."

When asked by RFE/RL for his take on the Pussy Riot trial and the stiff punishments meted out to members of the dissident female punk group, Gergiyev appeared to channel the playwright.

"I was, myself, not so interested in hearing how the court [would decide]," he said. "I thought that maybe they will find time in their lives to spend, I don't know, maybe a few months, maybe a few weeks, in one of the monasteries, and maybe they will come out of this experience, in case they find it important, slightly different persons."

The maestro was speaking at a lavish gala in celebration of Russian culture on October 25 at the Library of Congress in Washington, an event funded in part by the Russian Embassy.

Judging by the "punk prayer" the rockers performed in February in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral -- a song in protest of President Vladimir Putin and the close links between church and state in Russia -- the jailed Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova might have found convent confinement an even harsher punishment than what they received.

According to their lawyer, the women arrived this week at their respective penal colonies east of Moscow, where they will serve out two-year sentences for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

The sentences were roundly condemned by rights groups, which warned of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia. Western governments described the sentencing as "disproportionate."

Results from a new national poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Study Center found that nearly a third of respondents could not rule out that the sentencing was meant to intimidate the opposition and boost the president's authority.

Thirty-seven percent said the sentence was meant to strengthen Orthodox values in society, while 36 percent described it as means of distracting the public from other social and economic concerns.

A third Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed by an appeals court earlier this month. In theory, then, she still has a chance to trade in her colorful balaclava for more pious garb.

Echoing Putin

This summer, a false report claiming that Gergiyev had threatened to step down as the Mariinsky's leader in protest of Pussy Riot's treatment went viral.

In Washington, the real Gergiyev suggested that the group's protest act was destructive in an almost physical sense.

"Why [do] you have to do something in the biggest church of a big country? If you want to do something artistically or politically motivated, you may do it in some other place, because Russia is a country where many, many churches were destroyed. I mean many -- not one, not two, not 10 -- very many," he said.

"So for the pride of people, ordinary people, simple people, to see something happening in a church which was recently restored -- and we know very well that many of those who don't make millions of dollars, whose living is very, very modest, also contributed to the restoration of this biggest church. What do you think these people feel?"

Putin has used similar language, saying that the court ruled correctly in the Pussy Riot case because "it is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country."

Gergiyev, who is also the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, has a well-documented friendship with the Russian leader.

When asked by RFE/RL if he saw the space for artistic expression shrinking in Russia, he referred to his own experience at the Mariinsky, which is said to receive substantial support from the president's office.

"Not 20 years ago, when I started -- 23 years, to be precise -- not 20 days, not 20 months ago, [has] someone tried to limit what we want to do," he said.

-- Richard Solash

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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