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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Valery Gergiev: 'I don't want us to be remembered for Beslan'

By Norman Lebrecht / November 3, 2004

Valery Gergiev discusses his relief efforts with Norman Lebrecht

On the day of the Beslan school massacre two months ago this week, Valery Gergiev was due to conduct the opening concert of the Vienna Philharmonic season. Racked with grief and fear for loved ones, he contemplated pulling out and flying home. But the programme was suitably sombre: the D-minor concerto by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony. That night, Austrian television showed Gergiev conducting the Pathetique with tears rolling down his unshaven cheeks. ‘The most terrible concert of my life,’ he calls it.

He booked a flight to Moscow and went on national television, appealing to the people of Ossetia to keep the peace. No anti-Russian demonstrations, he implored. No attacks on Moslems. ‘The only ones who will benefit from violence are the terrorists... It won’t bring our children back.’

Gergiev, 51, is the only Ossetian of international renown. Director of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre since 1988, he raised the company to post Communist prosperity with a new wave of singing and dancing talent and a dose of western sponsorship. One part of his company or another is perpetually on tour in Europe, Japan or the US. Gergiev plans another residency next summer at Covent Garden.

A high-octane performer, his first loyalty is to his company, ‘to the people who elected me – I remember that every second’. Spiritually, though, his roots are Caucasian. ‘I am Ossetian, first and foremost,’ he insists, returning to his homeland whenever three clear days appear in his diary to mingle with friends and refresh himself in mountain streams.

He was there just two days before terrorists seized the number one school in Beslan. He sensed tension, but no worse than usual in a troublesome border area. ‘What kind of place is Beslan?’ he reflects. ‘It’s like Omagh, in Northern Ireland, same size. An ordinary place, where nothing happens. Then something terrible happens.’

He was on the phone to Beslan ceaselessly during the siege, and daily ever since. ‘We are one million Ossetians. The tragedy, compared to 9/11, is that children were targeted. Certain families lost their only child. Some lost more than one. These are relatives of mine, friends of my friends. No point in mentioning names, there are so many…’

Now the 330 dead are buried and the 40 days of mourning over, fingers can be pointed. ‘There was no plan to storm the school. Many should feel guilty in front of those families – governments, media, everyone. There was no professional preparation. The heroes were Russian special forces - the Alpha unit – who saved children by covering them with their bodies as they fled. Eleven soldiers died. These men were highly trained but they forgot the rules and behaved like human beings.’

Emotion flows unstoppably, inseparable from a sense of personal responsibility. ‘I don’t know how others feel,’ says Valery Gergiev. ‘I feel a little guilty. We who know this region did not do enough to protect peaceful life.’

He has been on friendly terms with Vladimir Putin since the Russian president was deputy mayor of St Petersburg in the early 1990s and a regular attender at his theatre. He has not spoken to Putin in the past two months. ‘At some point I will,’ says Gergiev, meaningfully, ‘and I will do it with utmost concentration.’

He and Putin are the same generation, products of the privileged nomenklatura. Gergiev’s uncle was Stalin’s favourite tank designer; he once called on him for protektsiya to get a better teacher at the conservatoire. Unlike Putin, Gergiev was never a party member but he continues to cherish some values of the communist regime, particularly its emphasis on the role of culture in a healthy society. That legacy, along with one-man rule, persists in Gergiev’s Mariinsky. He has some sympathy for Putin’s growing authoritarianism.

‘When Putin became president,’ he sighs, ‘there was no government, only corruption. There was a huge robbery of national wealth. Many became astronomically rich.’ Gergiev had dealings with the media magnate Berezoksky, now in London (‘they called him Rasputin’) and with the Yukos oil chief Khodorkovsky, now in prison awaiting trial.

‘I once proposed to Putin that these people should put a fraction of their money into building hospitals and schools, as the rich do in the west. If Yukos had done that, Khodorkovsky would not be in jail.’ Of Roman Abramovich, who bought Chelsea Football Club, he says contemptuously, ‘I practically don’t know him personally’.

Putin, he argues, has not much time before the Caucusus erupts. ‘I will tell him that unless people have jobs, unless they have something to lose, there will never be peace. He must invest in the economy. The warlords must be stopped. I don’t know how to bring peace. I only see huge dangers, worse than Iraq.’

He worries about a double standard in the war on terrorism and wonders why Bin Laden and Saddam are being pursued more hotly than the Beslan muderers. I won’t be surprised if they return,’ he warns.

To raise funds for victim relief, Gergiev is giving benefit concerts around the world – the next in London on Sunday. ‘It’s not about money,’ hestipulates. ‘It’s about sympathy, solidarity, understanding. Beslan is in danger of becoming yesterday’s news. Music has the power to remind people what they felt. Also, it’s important for people in Ossetia to know that people in England feel for them.’

Funds from his appeal will enable gifted young Ossetians to study in St Petersburg and in the west, ‘also to recover.’ On Sunday, he will once again conduct the Pathetique, that peculiarly Russian blend of grandeur and helplessness, aspiration and resignation to a terrible fate.

That is not necessarily how Gergiev sees it. His interpretative style departs from the Russian norm, averse to self-pity, unafraid of fate. ‘I am,’ he growls determinedly, ‘a representative of the Scythian civilisation, which is 2,500 years old. I don’t want us to be remembered for what happened in Beslan.’

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001