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The Rumble Over Russian Composer Tchaikovsky At An Elite Ukrainian Conservatory

Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had Ukrainian roots and was influenced by Ukrainian motifs.
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had Ukrainian roots and was influenced by Ukrainian motifs.

Should he stay or should he go?

That’s the question sparking heated debate in Ukraine about the man whose name adorns a renowned conservatory in the heart of Kyiv: Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky was certainly not a Ukrainophobe. He was connected to Ukraine in many ways through his work. Though Tchaikovsky was not a great Ukrainophile, either."
-- Ukrainian cultural critic Maksym Strikha

In the wake of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, students at the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine, previously known as the Kyiv Conservatory, have pushed for the removal of the Russian composer’s name from their university.

And while they’ve received backing in their effort from the Ukrainian government, which views the composer as a tool in the Kremlin’s imperial designs, the academy’s faculty in late December opted to keep the composer’s name.

The debate comes amid measures to “de-Russify” Ukraine across the country since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine a year ago last month. Multiple Ukrainian cities have removed statues of the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, while streets honoring the 19th century writer have been renamed.

In June 2022, the conservatory’s academic council voted to leave Tchaikovsky's name in place, emphasizing the Ukrainian roots of the composer, whose great-grandfather was born in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, which has been struck with heavy Russian aerial bombardment.

In November, an online petition filed with the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for the conservatory to drop Tchaikovsky’s name, saying it “spits” on “the independence of Ukrainian culture,” though the petition fell short of the 25,000-signature threshold for the president’s consideration.

The following month, the conservatory’s academic council again voted to keep Tchaikovsky’s name in place until further review, a decision that Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko called “disappointing.”

“We hope that the team will return soon to at last make the final decision,” Tkachenko wrote.

Chinese Considerations

Founded in 1863, the Kyiv Conservatory was renamed in honor of Tchaikovsky by the Soviet government in 1940, just in time for the composer’s 100th birthday.

Tchaikovsky considered himself a Russian composer, despite his Ukrainian roots and Ukrainian influences in his music, but the debate about removing his name from the academy only emerged following Russia’s invasion last year.

In an e-mail to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, student activists wrote that the decision to rename the conservatory is hampered in part by considerations of its branch in China.

The Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine (file photo)
The Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine (file photo)

"For China, it is prestigious to have Tchaikovsky in the name because of the parallels with the Moscow Conservatory," the students wrote in the letter.

"It's no secret that Tchaikovsky's name is fundamental for China. The Chinese know Tchaikovsky, but they don't know Vedel, Bortnyansky, or Berezovsky. But continental communist China will not be a strategic partner of Ukraine in the near future," Ukrainian cultural critic Maksym Strikha said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

"The most important factor is trying to maintain our position in the Chinese market of educational services. I don't know if it's worth doing this. I understand that, financially, it is a very attractive thing [for the conservatory]. But from the point of view of those who are dying today near Bakhmut or Kreminna, I don't know if it is moral," Strikha said.

'Russian In The Fullest Sense Of The Word'

While Tchaikovsky had close links to Ukraine and visited it frequently, he traveled to Kyiv only twice -- in 1890 and 1891.

In Kyiv, Tchaikovsky met with the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko and offered him a production of Lysenko's opera Taras Bulba at the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg. But Lysenko did not accept one condition of the offer -- that the libretto be translated into Russian. He did not see his opera performed during his lifetime.

Tchaikovsky himself was greatly influenced by Ukrainian melodies in his work. Ukrainian motifs feature heavily in his Symphony No. 2, which was originally nicknamed "Little Russian" -- a reference to the Russian term for Ukraine at the time -- but is also referred to as the composer’s “Ukrainian symphony.”

Tchaikovsky also composed the opera Mazepa, based on Aleksandr Pushkin's poem Poltava about the Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, and the opera Cherevichki, which is set in Ukraine and based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol.

The debate over Tchaikovsky in the wake of the Russian invasion has stretched beyond Ukraine’s borders.
The debate over Tchaikovsky in the wake of the Russian invasion has stretched beyond Ukraine’s borders.

"Tchaikovsky was certainly not a Ukrainophobe. He was connected to Ukraine in many ways through his work. Though Tchaikovsky was not a great Ukrainophile, either. The opera Mazepa is written to a libretto by Pushkin, and this libretto is, to put it mildly, imperial," Strikha told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

But despite his familial ties to Ukraine and the significant amount of time he spent there during his life, Tchaikovsky did not consider himself Ukrainian.

"I am a Russian in the fullest sense of the word," he wrote in a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, in 1878. In a letter to an acquaintance in 1891, the composer wrote: "I am a realist and a native Russian person."

Earlier, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINP), Anton Drobovych, said Tchaikovsky "clearly identified himself as a Russian composer" and had no direct relationship with the Kyiv Conservatory.

'Symbols Of Putin's Imperial Russia'

The debate over Tchaikovsky in the wake of the Russian invasion has stretched beyond Ukraine’s borders, as well. In March 2022, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales scrapped a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, saying it would be “inappropriate” following the invasion.

“It was nothing to do with Tchaikovsky being Russian. It was much more to do with us deciding that it was inappropriate at the present time, given that some pieces are military-themed and they come with the sound of a volley of cannon fire,” Linda Robinson, a director of the philharmonic, told The Guardian following the decision.

Multiple professional orchestras in Japan also declined to perform the 1812 Overture following the invasion, local media there reported.

Ukrainian composer Oksana Lyniv, whose orchestras have performed Tchaikovsky's works in the West following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, wrote on Facebook: "Friends, Tchaikovsky is wonderful, but not in the name of the main music academy of Ukraine!"

"Whether we like it or not, today Tchaikovsky is one of the symbols of Putin's imperial Russia," Strikha said. “I, for example, would be against renaming a certain Tchaikovsky street in Kyiv, when we are talking about 6,000 streets. But when a leading arts university is named after Tchaikovsky, today this name is completely inappropriate. We have a set of first-rate composers worthy of immortalization."

Adapted from the original Ukrainian by RFE/RL’s Carl Schreck.
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    Rostyslav Khotin

    Rostyslav Khotin is a senior editor with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. He has previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters in Kyiv, at the BBC World Service in London, and as a correspondent for the "1+1" TV channel and the UNIAN agency in Brussels.

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