Pictures from a Russian Exhibition: What Happened in Palmyra

May 18, 2016, 2:46 PM · "If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind," Brahms wrote his friend, Clara Schumann. He was talking about the Chaconne, the last movement of Bach’s D minor Partita for Solo Violin.

Not only a cornerstone of the literature, but a pillar of Western civilization, the Chaconne has been arranged at one time or another for organ, guitar, trumpet and orchestra, marimba, solo flute, clarinet, saxophone, and two cellos. But this was certain to be the first time it had ever been played for an audience like this one, in the surviving ruin of a Roman amphitheater in the shadow of a Russian airbase.

Western representatives were conspicuously absent. But local and UNESCO officials, representatives of Zimbabwe, China and Serbia and the Russian minister of culture were present ex-officio, and there were plenty of Russian and Syrian soldiers to fill the seats.

Always good for a surprise, Russian policy-makers had pulled off another that the White House and State Department are unlikely to match. With the Chaconne leading the way, it was a memorial concert in Syrian Palmyra by the orchestra of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, Russia’s most iconic opera house, for local victims of ISIS, both human and archaeological.

But it was also a media event, carried nationally on Russian TV, with CNN, BBC, and at least a hundred foreign correspondents as well as Russian reporters along for the ride. Above all, as the host, aka the foreign ministry, made obvious, it was foreign policy. But it was a new kind of foreign policy.

The post-modern foreign policy of a post-modern dictatorship, Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for Bloomberg View, called it. "Write negatively about us," a ministry official told the Washington Post’s Andrew Roth, "and this will be your first and last trip." Andrew Kramer of the New York Times was advised to wear kevlar.


Three messages intended for both foreign, especially American, consumption, and domestic TV viewers, were telescoped one into the other. A Russian version of "Mission Accomplished" was the first. A Russian version of "Mission Civilisatrice," with the Chaconne in the program where national anthems conventionally go, was the second. "If Russia ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy," was the third message, spelled out almost literally as a line in the sand that was unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

Both hosts and visitors did what they came to do. Fliers from the nearby air base flew an estimated 10 sorties the day of the concert, and dropped bombs on ISIS territory. Soldiers rehearsed the annual parade commemorating victory in World War II. Hustled along like school kids on a field trip, the reporters inspected a volleyball court, barracks, mess hall, and an improvised library. A poster, strategically placed where people were likeliest to see it, declared defense "a system of political, economic, social, legal and military means." There was even a rest center, where stressed soldiers could look at oil paintings of snowy landscapes and birch trees.

Reporters asked inconclusively about a hospital in Aleppo that had reportedly been bombed, and looked on as soldiers handed out aid packages to local children, who came out to greet them with songs and little Syrian flags. Though it was not entirely clear who was who, they watched local combatants turn in their Kalashnikovs and sign truce agreements with a thumbprint in what Russian officers explained was a ceremony of reconciliation with the Assad government.

Unannounced until it happened, the concert, seems to have been the last item on a ministerial prix fixe. Orchestra and conductor too did what they came to do. There was even a teletron appearance from his home in Sochi by Vladimir Putin himself, the patron, if not the impresario, of the afternoon’s performance.

The dots left to connect could well be new to a music major or conservatory grad. But they were essentially familiar to anyone who has ever hung around a think tank or staff college. Their connection made all the difference in transforming hardy perennials into a conceptual novelty.

The first dot, with no identifiable parent and relatively modern as a formal concept, is known to both students and practitioners as "power projection." But the practice itself, most commonly understood as deployment of military force beyond national borders, has been around since the Greeks took off for Troy.

The second dot, unlike the first, has an identifiable parent, Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist who named it "soft power" in the late 1980’s. But whether as Alliance Française since 1883, Rhodes scholarships since 1902, or Willis Conover’s legendary jazz broadcasts on the Voice of America from 1955 to the 1990’s, it too was common practice long before it had a name. Then and since, the idea behind it is non-coercive appeal to hearts and minds.

Power projection in Poland and wars with Turkey in the age of Catherine the Great extended Russia to the west and south. In 1814 Russian troops made it all the way to Paris, in 1945 to Berlin. But for more than half the 20th century, Russians delivered soft power too in the form of violinists, pianists, chess masters, mathematicians, rocket scientists, even hockey players, who were not only among the Soviet Union’s few competitive products, but set global standards.

What made Palmyra original was the way the dots were connected. Call it "soft power projection." Assembled like a matryoshka, the concert was streamed and uploaded for global consumption from RT, formerly Russia Today, on May 5. Within a week it had already been seen on YouTube nearly 150,000 times.

The biggest doll, of course, was Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky’s artistic director and a superstar with a globetrotter resumé. Gergiev and Putin have been friends since the 1990’s, when Leningrad again became St. Petersburg with Putin in charge of economic development.

Then came the orchestra, and the soloists. The violinist, Pavel Milyukov, was a recent bronze medalist at the same Tchaikovsky competition that launched Van Cliburn in 1957.

Pavel Milyukov
Violinist Pavel Milyukov plays the Bach Chaconne.

The other soloist, Sergei Roldugin, a former Mariinsky section principal, very probably the world’s only billionaire cellist and a close friend of Putin’s since 1978, was of more immediate media interest. Virtually sanction-proof, Roldugin was recently discovered in the Panama Papers as a stakeholder in Russia’s biggest ad agency, an army truck manufacturer, a Cyprus-based steel and glass fabricator, and Bank Rossiya. Asked directly, he denied any interest in financial instruments. But, as a Stradivari owner himself, he acknowledged interest in the musical kind that are again accessible for the first time since the Revolution to Russians who can afford seven and eight-digit figures in Euros and dollars.

An eccentric 50—minute program was the innermost doll. It began with Milyukov’s Bach. It was followed by a somewhat lead-footed performance of the 26-year-old Sergei Prokofiev’s frisky First Symphony. Though not quite in top form, Roldugin finished with a favorite concert piece, the veteran Rodion Shchedrin’s quadrille from a coolly received 1961 opera about a May-December romance on a postwar collective farm.

Booked in standard concert dress in a more conventional locale, the set might attract a small but curious audience. But as so often, location and media management can make a world of difference, even in a year that might yet see Donald Trump in the White House and the Cubs in the World Series. An eye-catching change of costume – nifty black shirts and white baseball caps, that could as well have said "Make Russia Great Again" – didn’t hurt either.

Unprecedented? Not entirely. "You ain’t heard nothing yet," Al Jolson declared famously in 1927 as the movies burst into song. For all the excellence of domestic ensembles, the touring Boston Symphony in 1956 was arguably an ain’t-heard-nothing-yet experience for Cold War Russians. After a deep freeze dating back to the Communist victory in 1949, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s ice-breaker tour in 1973 couldn’t help but be more of the same for mainland Chinese.

RostropovichVirtually everyone remembered a private initiative by the great Mstislav Rostropovich in November 1989, who arrived in Berlin in a private jet from Paris. From there, he proceeded to Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary crossing point from West to East, borrowed a chair from an East German border guard, and played solo Bach.

In March 2008, the late Lorin Maazel’s New York Philharmonic astonished the world with Gershwin’s "American in Paris" and Dvorak’s New World symphony in Pyongyang, an guaranteed ain’t-heard-nothing-yet experience for North Koreans. Havana too was in his sights, but regrettably declared a tour too far. A few months later, Gergiev, who had already conducted a memorial concert after a terrorist school massacre in 2004, returned to his native Ossetia, after Georgia tried and failed to reclaim the Caucasian enclave. Program choice, above all Shostakovich’s Seventh symphony, composed and premiered in besieged Leningrad in World War II, was no coincidence. There were questions about his judgment. But no one questioned his sincerity.

The ratios of sincerity to cynicism, opportunism and realpolitik are never easy to calculate. The concert in Palmyra is no exception. But it allows at least for speculation on the ratio of intention to impact as measured against the intended messages.

Mission accomplished? Possibly, if mission is understood as a local victory over ISIS. But amber lights are indicated from there on. As Americans can confirm with authority, winning battles is not the same as winning wars.

No one can be friends with Syria’s President Assad without making more enemies. The area has been short on winners and long on losers since 1453, when the Ottomans arrived in Constantinople. Russian Mideast initiatives have consistently ended badly since Czar Nicholas I tangled with Napoleon III over the keys to Jerusalem’s Church of the Nativity.

Civilizing mission? Possible. But the prognosis is at least mixed. Surely cause for good feelings at home. But dubiously effective in the one major region where Western classical music has never caught on, and is regarded by ISIS, Taliban, al Qaeda et al. with the same murderous hate they’ve shown for ancient Buddhas, classical ruins and the treasures of Timbuktu.

"No one is happy if Russia ain’t happy" and line in the sand? That one, for a change, should be simple. As Yogi Berra might have said, it deserves to be remembered before it’s forgotten.

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