A little peace: 'Russian Seasons' festival kicks off in Berlin

Russian theaters and orchestras will perform in a range of concerts, exhibitions and shows throughout Germany this year. DW's Anastassia Boutsko wonders if it's a way of scaring off evil spirits in the political realm.

Alexandra Dovgan is just 11 years old and very sweet  to watch. On January 7, Russia's Christmas Day, the up-and-coming pianist floated onto the stage of the Berlin Philharmonic. Like a Christmas angel all in white, she heralded in the "Russian Seasons" in Germany with Bach's heavenly sounds. Dovgan herself is a beneficiary of Russia's still excellent early education for the musically gifted.

Then followed Iolanta — Pyotr Tchaikovsky's final opera, performed by the predominantly young soloists of the orchestra of St. Petersburg's famous Mariinsky Theater under the baton of Valery Gergiev. In the enchanting fairy tale, the blind princess Iolanta is given the gift of sight through love...

Stephan Steinlein, head of the Office of the Federal President of Germany, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets at the opening of "Russian Seasons"

One could consider the evening's program to be a symbolic attempt to banish the evil spirits of politics through the unifying and reconciling power of culture — music to forget about the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass or the propaganda trial against Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov.

Guest performances instead of cultural cooperation

Cultural exchange is a proven means of staying in dialogue with one another even in bad times. When the political climate was less harsh, Russia and Germany practiced the model of bilateral cultural festivals, held in 2002/2003 and 2014/2015. The programs for the festivals were developed by both countries and included joint projects in addition to guest performances.

However, this year's "Russian Seasons" festival is more of a one-way street. The program, which was launched in 2016 and is sponsored by the Russian government, aims for a massive landing of Russian artists in a specifically selected country.

Following Japan in 2017 and Italy in 2018, Germany is the focus of attention in 2019. Berlin, it must be said, was targeted by the strategists of the Russian Ministry of Culture at rather short notice, after the US and various other countries were dropped as less suitable partners for current reasons.

A broad range

Now Germany can enjoy Russian cultural exports, not only in big cities like Berlin and Munich, but also in Darmstadt, Zerbst and Quakenbrück. According to "Russian Seasons," a subcontractor of the Russian Ministry of Culture, 453 events in 77 German cities are expected in the next 12 months.

The program reads like a Who's Who of the Russian subsidies culture with its own mixture of tradition and commerce. There will be a lot of dance — both on stage and on ice. Performers include students of the legendary St. Petersburg Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet and the Eifman Ballet, as well as figure skating acrobats presenting Ilya Averbukh's Carmen on Ice musical.

Large-scale exhibition projects were not possible to organize in such a short time, but many smaller ones are scheduled, such as the photography exhibition "St. Petersburg from an Angel's Perspective: Views from St. Isaac's Cathedral" in Düsseldorf.

Conductors Vladimir Spivakov and Yuri Bashmet, who have been courted by the Kremlin, will be on show with their orchestras in 2019, as will old master Vladimir Fedoseyev.

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Conductor Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev, Russia's unofficial minister of music and outstanding artistic figure, has welded together the somewhat diffuse musical program. Listeners can enjoy the maestro and his musical entourage several times during the year, in Munich, Baden-Baden, Frankfurt and lastly, in Berlin, where the "Russian Seasons" cultural festival will close under his direction in December 2019, accompanied by a Russian Christmas market.

Diaghilev 2.0

The campaign is somewhat arbitrarily branded after the famous Ballets Russes seasons by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who a century ago inspired all of Paris with daring ballet and opera performances and catapulted Russian culture from the periphery to the center of international cultural life.

Entrepreneur and fan of the arts Diaghilev risked a great deal back then, and often struggled with financial difficulties. This revamped "Seasons" enjoys financial security from the Russian government, and the program in general lacks daring artistic endeavors, with rather pale classical productions by Moscow's Vakhtangov Theater and St. Petersburg's Alexandrinsky Theater harmlessly representing Russia's otherwise effervescent theater scene.

Sergei Diaghilev, mastermind of the "Ballets Russes" seasons

Works by cultural institutions such as the Gogol Center led by Russia's important theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has been under house arrest for over a year on allegations of embezzlement of state funds, are nowhere to be found on the program. None of the German partners were interested in a guest performance by him, said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets at the program presentation in Berlin.

Did the German side have any say at all in the programming? "It varied from project to project," was the diplomatic response by Mikhail Shvydkoy, special representative of Russian President Vladimir Putin on international cultural cooperation.

So much can be revealed: the Russian budget for "Russian Seasons" is 120 million rubles, (nearly €1.5 million / $1.72 million). You don't need to be an expert to realize that you can't finance hundreds of cultural events with that sum.

So, who's financing the difference? Shvydkoy just smiles and nods to the stage of German companies with Russian interests and their Russian partners. That's also just classic.