Postscript to the Mariinsky Theater’s Concert in Palmyra

The Kremlin invited 100 Moscow-based foreign reporters to make the trip to Palmyra for the concert on 5 May. Judging by the column inches which followed in Western mainstream media, the return on this investment was poor though not hopeless.

Postscript to the Mariinsky Theater’s Concert in Palmyra

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



A couple of articles which came my way after publication of my commentary on these pages four days ago require that I return to the subject to add some important information to the picture I presented. One is an article in the Russian daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta (RG) dated 5 May and the other is by the Moscow-based reporter for The New York Times (NYT) Andrew Kramer published only yesterday.

The article in RG included background information about how the visit to Palmyra was fit into a very heavy schedule of concert tours in Russia by the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra as part of their Easter Festival. It took down a highly illuminating commentary on the Palmyra concert by maestro Gergiev and also issued the text of an interview with Alexander Kormilitsyn, deputy  to the principal producer of the Rossiya 1 television channel, the organizer of the event and of the direct satellite broadcast.

The truly heroic efforts of the orchestra and their conductor become obvious when one considers that they flew all night to Palmyra upon completing a concert in Yekaterinburg, then traveled by bus to Palmyra, spent 3.5 hours there, and headed straight back to the airport for their flight to Perm for another Festival concert.  From Perm they continued on their way to Votkinsk, the home village of Tchaikovsky for a concert to mark the birthday of the composer. This truly is an orchestra that is pursuing a mission and knows no rest.

Upon his arrival in Perm Valery Gergiev commented on the Palmyra concert to the RG reporter with words that bear repeating in full:

“We will all remember the concert in Palmyra, and I think many of us will recall this concert ten or twenty years from now. We played under the blazing sun. And there were many happy and amazed people. This concert was prepared under conditions of the strictest confidentiality. I personally spoke to no one about it.  Eight hours before the flight I collected the musicians and said that I asked them all to make up their minds about who can join such a project and fly with me to Syria. The idea was advanced by us in common – by masters of art and those responsible for security and by those who see how Russia today can and must conduct itself in the international arena – as a super power, as a country responsible for its international deeds. And it seems to me that things worked out well on this level: the people who propose projects like this see all their huge complexity, and do not only see them as some kind of PR action. This is far from being PR. It is a humanitarian gesture. An act of sympathy and support. People there have experienced terrible events and unfortunately that is still going on. We heard explosions in Palmyra at a distance of several kilometers while we prepared for our rehearsal. The theater has about two thousand years of history. The theater is superb, beautiful. It is a magnificent architectural ensemble worthy of all of humanity. To our good fortune, they did not destroy it.”

The interview with Alexander Kormilitsyn covered issues of logistics and personnel from someone who took a hand in putting together the concert logistics and technical side.  One point of interest is that on top of the orchestra and the 80 technicians from the broadcasting unit, the Russians brought to Palmyra some 150 journalists.

Who those journalists were we learn from the article in The New York Times by Andrew Kramer, “A Russian Concert in Syria? I Took a Bulletproof Vest.”  Kramer mentions that several days ahead of the flight the Kremlin invited 100 Moscow-based foreign reporters including himself to make the trip to Palmyra. We may assume the other 50 journalists were Russians.

It would appear, judging by the coverage of the concert in mainstream Western media in the day following the concert that this investment gave poor returns in column inches.  Until I came across the Kramer article, I did not see any coverage by reporters who claimed to be firsthand witnesses. Many newspapers merely cited news agencies for their reports, in particular AFP or Reuters.

For that matter, Kramer’s article is not a news story as such. It is impressionistic, as is appropriate under the rubric “Reporter’s Notebook” where it was filed.

Kramer is not an art-music critic and so it is not surprising that his coverage of the Palmyra concert is very thin on the concert. He mostly talks about the Russian military campaign in Syria, about what he saw on the ground at Latakia air base, about the Russian officers trying to mediate cease fire arrangements with each rebel group coming into their station and about the flight back to Russia when the journalists broke out some Syrian hard liquor.

Kramer duly mentions the scurrilous characterization of the Palmyra concert as “tasteless” by Britain’s foreign secretary Philip Hammond. But the experience of being there overcomes his political constraints and Kramer acknowledges that: “the concert was simply, starkly beautiful, and unfolded as the late afternoon sun faced over the ruins.”

This leads Kramer to quote Gergiev on why he was there:  to “protest against barbarism that destroyed tremendous monuments of world culture” and to “protest against executions of people, here on this stage.” We do not hear from Kramer about Gergiev’s connections to Putin or any other irrelevant and malicious rumors that filled Western news stories immediately after the concert.

Finally, Kramer concludes:  “Played in a second-century Roman amphitheater, it was a concert of a lifetime – and surely risked a few lives along the way….[t]he gentler sounds of Pavel Milyukov playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin echoed through the eerie desert space.”

With this human touch showing through, it is obvious why the editors of The New York Times held back Kramer’s story until four days after the concert, when it was no longer news

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016


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 G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.