- Associated Press - Sunday, February 3, 2013

MOSCOW (AP) - When famed viola player Yuri Bashmet declared that he “adored” President Vladimir Putin, he stirred little controversy in a country where classical musicians have often curried favor with the political elite.

But political drama spilled into the orchestra pit last month when Bashmet refused to condemn a new law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children, and in response the beloved singer Sergei Nikitin canceled his appearance at a concert celebrating the violist’s 60th birthday.

The spat joins a long Russian tradition of artists who have jumped _ or been dragged _ into the political fray. From composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived in fear of arrest under dictator Josef Stalin, to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who returned to a liberalizing Soviet Union in 1991 and took up arms to defy Communist hardliners, Russian musicians and other artists have had a habit of becoming politicized figures.

At the core of the argument today is a question about what an artist’s role should be in Putin’s Russia: Attracting generous state funding for bigger and better artistic projects? Or challenging the political system in a way most ordinary citizens cannot afford to do?

Some of Russia’s cultural figures brought their star power to the anti-Putin rallies that rocked Moscow last winter. Others were recruited to back up Putin as he ran for a third term as Russia’s president. As the expression goes: “A poet in Russia is always more than a poet.”

Actor and theater director Yevgeny Mironov appeared in a pro-Putin campaign ad in which he gave heartfelt thanks to Putin for keeping Russia _ and his Moscow theater _ afloat. Some of his fellow actors loudly refused.

Actress Chulpan Khamatova, who depends on government support for charity work for children, filmed a similar pro-Putin ad, but the delivery was tortured, as if she were speaking under duress. And she was one of the many cultural figures who signed a petition condemning the adoption bill.

The ban, which went into effect Jan. 1, proved controversial even among many Putin loyalists in the intelligentsia, who see the Kremlin as playing politics at the expense of Russia’s orphans. Tens of thousands of people took part in a Jan. 13 protest march through Moscow, one of the largest anti-Putin demonstrations the city had seen in many months.

The adoption ban was in response to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that imposes sanctions on Russians accused of involvement in the prison death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other rights abuses.

Yuri Norshteyn, Russia’s most beloved animator, took Putin to task over Magnitsky during an awards ceremony on Jan. 19. Norshteyn noted that Putin had attributed Magnitsky’s death to heart failure, but said that in fact the lawyer had died because of “a failure of Putin’s heart.”

The audience erupted with cheers and applause.

Discontent over the adoption ban entered the classical music world at a news conference Bashmet gave ahead of his birthday jubilee concert on Jan. 24. The floppy-haired violist, who is the conductor of two Moscow orchestras and a famed soloist in his own right, gave an equivocal answer when asked about his stance on the adoption ban, refusing to condemn the law in its entirety.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Jan. 27, Bashmet said he didn’t think the fate of children should be decided by anti-American legislation, but he asserted that the adoption ban would end up helping Russia’s orphans by raising awareness within the country about the tens of thousands of children in need of families.

“There are things that need to be decided within the country, and it’s good that this question has been raised in such a controversial way, so that now the president has decreed that it will be at the center of attention,” Bashmet told the AP. “Our government is now responding to this, to the betterment of these children.”

That stance didn’t sit well with Nikitin, a bard in the Russian folk tradition. He said that it didn’t bother him if “Bashmet adores the president,” but his ambiguous justification of the adoption ban took things too far.

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