A Gift of Culture to Battered Palmyra

In an extraordinary act of culture and courage, a Russian orchestra performed in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra recently liberated from the Islamic State, but Western media mocked the event, notes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Even those with a limited knowledge of Russia may be credited with having heard of St. Petersburg being called the Venice of the North. This is a title it must share with a variety of other claimants famed for their canals, such as Bruges in Belgium, although St. Petersburg has more justification than competing cities given its common architectural roots with the Venice of the South, namely the leading Eighteenth Century Italian architects who contributed greatly to forming its appearance.

To cognoscenti there is also another twin city association of St. Petersburg, that of Northern Palmyra. That notion goes back to the age of Catherine the Great, who was likened to the Third Century Queen Zenobia, powerful ruler of the Palmyran Empire, who conquered Egypt and a large swathe of Anatolia. In the time of Pushkin, Russian writers further developed the allusion, drawing more generally upon the reputed beauty and cultural richness of Roman Palmyra.

A Russian orchestra performs a concert at Palmyra's ancient Roman theater on May 5, 2016. (Image from RT's live-streaming of the event)

A Russian orchestra performs a concert at Palmyra’s ancient Roman theater on May 5, 2016. (Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event)

The links of consciousness did not end there. Later in the Nineteenth Century, St. Petersburg based archeologists were among the Europeans taking part in digs in Palmyra and writing about their adventures.

With this twin city awareness borne by the Russian intelligentsia to this day, it is not so surprising that precisely a St. Petersburg conductor, Valeri Gergiev, thought up the grand gesture, an act of great imagination that was realized on May 5. He brought the Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater to Palmyra, recently liberated from the Islamic State by a Russian-backed offensive mounted by the Syrian government.

The orchestrated performed a concert of Bach, Shchedrin and Prokofiev in the Roman Amphitheater to celebrate the return of culture to a UNESCO site desecrated by its Islamic State occupiers who over the preceding year held their brutal public executions here. The concert audience consisted of Russian and Syrian troops, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, noted Arabist and Director of the Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky, local dignitaries, and a contingent of UNESCO representatives.

The event opened with a short speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin carried over a live satellite link from his residence in Sochi. Putin underscored the courage of those participating in the concert and the will of civilized society to triumph over terror. The entire event was broadcast live on Russian state television and was made available on the web by RT.

As the recording makes clear, this was a world-class performance that featured eminent soloists. The unaccompanied Bach piece for violin was played by a laureate of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, Pavel Miliukov. Quadrille, a work by the Mariinsky’s house composer Rodion Shchedrin, widower of ballet prima donna Maya Plisetskaya, was performed by cellist Sergei Roldugin. And the choice of a Prokofiev symphony was in line with Gergiev’s longstanding efforts to make that great Soviet composer widely known and appreciated at home and abroad.

A Frontline Performance

The concert took place little more than a month after Palmyra was liberated from its Islamic State occupiers and just days after the archeological sites were cleared of mines by Russian military specialists, many of whom were in the audience. Meanwhile, the forces of the Islamic State continue to send missions against Palmyra and its surrounding countryside in attempts to recapture lost ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing the audience at a concert for Palmyra via a satellite link on May 5, 2016. (Image from RT's live-streaming of the event)

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing the audience at a concert for Palmyra via a satellite link on May 5, 2016. (Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event)

In these circumstances, the action of maestro Gergiev, his orchestra and soloists, the logistics team that moved the orchestra and some 100 tons of telecommunications gear into the war zone, and the broadcasting team who set up the live coverage must be characterized as brave, even daring.

It was also in character for Gergiev. He performed at the front before, as he famously did in 2008 when he brought the orchestra to the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, just after its liberation from Georgian attackers. But he and his orchestra also perform at home in ways that show similar disregard for their own comfort and incur heightened risks: they regularly bring their music to hard to reach parts of the Russian Federation on grueling tours of the far north and the far east, often taking with them internationally known soloists. Those concerts do not receive the admiring attention of the outside world.

It bears mention that the concert by maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky orchestra was not a one-off event. It was meant to be the first step in the return of culture and decency to Palmyra. On the next day a follow-on concert featuring a Syrian orchestra and chorus was held in the Roman amphitheater.

Moreover, the Russians did not rush to evacuate their broadcasters and gear, because state television carried a live transmission of this evening concert to Russian viewers late last night.

With all due respect to maestro Gergiev’s intention to present a gift of culture to the residents of Palmyra and to convey the promise of return to normal civilian life in a country devastated by civil war and the intervention of foreign fighters, it would be disingenuous to ignore the way the Kremlin and its state television framed the event for consumption in Russia and the wider world.

Call it an exercise in Soft Power, of which it was surely Russia’s most successful in many, many years; call it what you will, the concert in Palmyra had a clearly stated political dimension. This “Pray for Palmyra” concert was dedicated to the memory of two heroes, one Syrian, the other Russian. Large photos of both were on either side of the stage.

The Syrian being honored was Dr. Khaled Asaad, director of the Palmyra museum complex who in August 2015, at age 81, was brutally executed, beheaded by the Islamic State militants. The presence at the concert of Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky was a direct counterpoint to the missing Syrian scholar and administrator. Piotrovsky symbolized the ongoing and future participation of Russian art restorers in bringing Palmyra back to its pre-war status as a center of research for orientalists and a major tourist attraction.

A Russian Hero

The Russian being honored was Lieutenant Alexander Prokhorenko, Russia’s national hero of the Syrian campaign, the special forces officer working behind enemy lines on the Palmyra front who, when surrounded by jihadists, called in Russian jet strikes on his own position and knowingly paid with his life while taking out an enemy detachment.

Prokhorenko’s body was eventually recovered and returned to Russia where it was given the highest state honors. His funeral in his native Orenburg region was held on May 6. Russian television news coverage of the Palmyra concert was back-to-back with video reportage of the honor guard receiving Prokhorenko’s coffin.

A Russian orchestra performing at Palmyra's Roman theater on May 5, 2016. (Image from RT's live-streaming of the event.)

A Russian orchestra performing at Palmyra’s Roman theater on May 5, 2016. (Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event.)

Though some British newspapers had described Prokhorenko as a Russian “Rambo” and some Western military experts saluted the selfless heroism of this fellow professional soldier, Russian state television chose to feature a more personal response. We were shown an elderly French couple who had sent their family medals for World War II resistance heroism to the parents of Prokhorenko via the Russian diplomatic service as their expression of solidarity. The couple was invited to Russia by President Putin and met with the grieving parents of Russia’s hero, as we saw on television.

More broadly, the date for the Mariinsky concert in Palmyra was surely chosen with an eye to the May 9 Victory in Europe celebrations across Russia. The concert was a gift to the Russian nation for its popular if skeptical support of the military intervention in Syria. The people saw on their screens the fruits of Russian-Syrian military cooperation, and in particular images of the secular and friendly Syria that Russian diplomacy has backed with blood and national wealth.

They saw the first step in what will be a long process of reconstruction, preparing the way for the return of refugees and displaced persons. All of this is a direct reproach to the European Union’s handling of the migrant crisis. Europe, like the United States, has at best stood by and at worst aided and abetted the Gulf States and Turkey in their interventions in the Syrian civil war, greatly strengthening the terrorist forces and prolonged the fighting awaiting the collapse of the Assad regime, notwithstanding all the havoc that resulted for the Syrian population.

Western mainstream media coverage of the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra’s concert in Palmyra runs the full range from merely tendentious and sour grapes to overtly hostile and malicious commentary.

U.S. media coverage was meager. The online edition of Time magazine was short, concentrated on the facts and avoided politically colored adjectives. To its credit, we were told that the concert was led “by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.” The presence in the audience of UNESCO dignitaries was noted.

The New York Times was less cautious, more inflammatory. Its editors chose a headline that sought to deprive the event of any serious merit: “Russian Orchestra Plays in Palmyra Ruins as Strikes Kill 28.” This linkage of two separate news items may be described as the “Washington narrative” because it shows up in many other derogatory press accounts of the concert.

What shred of journalistic integrity the Times managed to produce appears at the very end of the article, when the author admits that: “it was not immediately clear who carried out the attack on the camp in Idlib province where some 2,000 internally displaced people had taken shelter from the fighting in nearby Aleppo and Hama provinces over the past year.”

And the closing words are that it is “too early to say if Assad’s forces carried out the attack.”  But the intended damage to the credibility of the Russian cultural mission to Palmyra was already done up front.

The New Cold War

Probably the most toxic U.S. reporting on the concert was from Radio Svoboda, the old Cold War bullhorn directed against Russia with U.S. government funding.  Here at the outset we are told about the cellist Roldugin, the “close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin” who was revealed in the Panama Papers scandal as the owner of an offshore company engaged in “shady transactions.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr)

But then the article switches over entirely to a story broadcast by Sky News two days earlier alleging that Palmyra was handed over to Syrian government troops by the Islamic State in accordance with agreements reached between the Islamic State and the Assad regime. The propaganda point was that Assad was supposedly in cahoots with the jihadists. The notion of Russian participation in the city’s liberation is off the radar screen.

British media were more attentive to the concert in Palmyra but, with one or two exceptions, no friendlier than their American confrèresThe Guardian was entirely aligned with the Washington narrative. Valery Gergiev is portrayed as the “Kremlin favourite.” Moreover, we read that “Gergiev, the former principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is a controversial and outspoken supporter of Putin.”

In this light, we are reminded about Gergiev’s 2008 concert in Ossetia. I note parenthetically what The Guardian omitted in their rush to marginalize the maestro: that Gergiev is now the principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic as well as artistic director of the Mariinsky.

The Guardian also reminds us that featured cellist Sergei Roldugin is “Vladimir Putin’s best friend” and that  “the Panama Papers revealed that Roldugin was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore deals.”

Finally, The Guardian tells its readers that among the foreigners present at the concert were representatives from Zimbabwe, China and Serbia. They pointedly omitted that they were present in a UNESCO delegation which also included Europeans.

The BBC online coverage carries many of the anti-Putin, anti-Russian tendentious adjectives, reminders and omissions that we have seen above. But it goes the extra mile by quoting UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s extraordinary comment that the concert was “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians. It shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink.”

From the BBC quote, it is not clear whether the Minister had in mind Putin’s or Assad’s regime’s plumbing the depths, but his intention to slander the Russians is obvious.

The BBC also carried a more balanced separate report from their bureau chief in Moscow, Steve Rosenberg. He saw that the message from Moscow was that Russia is a force for good, whereas Western officials “remain suspicious of Russia’s intentions.” Otherwise Rosenberg just repeats the same hurtful innuendos that we have seen above: the connection between Rodulgin and the Panama Papers, the Gergiev concert in Tskhinvali in 2008.

To every generalization there is always an exception, and as happens from time to time it is the British tabloids that show more common sense and decency than the high-style outlets of the political class.

The heading given to the article on the concert in the online edition of The Daily Mail says it all:  “Culture and civilization return to Palmyra: Russian orchestra performs concert in the ancient Roman amphitheatre for the first time since ISIS used it to carry out public executions in Syria.” The editors wisely included a click-on video recording of the concert, allowing their readers to judge for themselves.

In summary, the Information War that the West has been waging against Russia is going full tilt. It is an unpardonable error of judgment to speak of a new Cold War as something that lies ahead, just around the corner. We are in the midst of it, and it will take enormous luck or a change of leaders for the better if we are to avoid a hot war.

Gilbert 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.  © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

8 comments for “A Gift of Culture to Battered Palmyra

  1. Idiotland
    May 13, 2016 at 22:54

    The group of people who should be mocked mercilessly, if not tarred and feathered, is the Western corporate “media.” Every bit as bad as the criminals they whore for.

  2. ltr
    May 10, 2016 at 15:51

    Brilliant essay.

  3. Chris Chuba
    May 10, 2016 at 12:07

    Prior to this, the Russian military personnel removed up to 3,000 mines left behind by ISIS so that residents could return to Tadmur/Palmyra in safety. Contrast this to Ramadi where over 70% of the city was destroyed because the elite Iraqi fighting forces basically called in airstrikes to defeat 200 ISIS fighters and then private U.S. contractors were hired to remove mines and over 100 Iraqis have been either injured or killed attempting to return to that city.

  4. Zachary Smith
    May 10, 2016 at 10:58

    I’ll admit to scrolling down for a list of the publications – and was mighty surprised not to see the Washington Post named. So a quick trip to Google News —-

    Russia’s military is crafting a new, media-friendly (or at least media-tolerant) image. Novelties include televised briefings, a blood-pumping medley of events called the International Military Games, and a chain of clothing stores that carry patriotic leather jackets and children’s T-shirts. But the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s rendition of Prokofiev and Bach at an ancient amphitheater recently retaken from the Islamic State militant group was by far the ministry’s most ambitious press stunt to date. It was a sublime experiment in propaganda, marrying Russia’s cultural heritage to its martial ambitions.


    So a big player in what I like to call the Pissant Press didn’t disappoint after all.

  5. alexander
    May 10, 2016 at 10:16

    Wow, Mr Doctorow,

    I must say my admiration for Russian intervention on the part of the Syrian people, their culture and civilization, marks a stark and searing contrast to the phony and catastrophic R2P interventions of our own Neocon-ed government.

    This concert, symbolizing “the good” of rescuing a towering cultural space from the Neocon’s pernicious, never-ending, proxy war of destruction , re-ignites our collective notions of why wars should be fought, and the true heroism that lies at the heart of this struggle.

    It shames our nation, to the core, how we have to look on, in envy, at the authenticity and courage of Russia, in its highly “just” actions (fully compliant with international law).

    just as it shames us to the core, how we must endure, in grief and contempt, our own Neocon government, whose phony “rationales”, bogus aggression’s, and never ending military spending spree, has led our nation to the brink of moral and fiscal insolvency.

    Three cheers for Syria, the Syrian people, and Russia for rescuing Palmyra from the clutches of Neocon extermination.

    Maybe one day too, the United States of America can hold a concert in Washington,celebrating our own country’s liberation from the clutches of Neocon extermination.

    Wouldn’t that be a fine day , indeed ?

  6. dahoit
    May 10, 2016 at 10:02

    Yes,the NYlying times reporter says he wore a bullet proof vest to the concert.What a bunch of scum,the instigators of Syrian misery disrespecting those who are trying to end this disaster.

  7. Aggrieved
    May 10, 2016 at 09:52

    Very good to seen this fair-minded commentary. The Russians showed their classiness. The western media should hang its head in shame.

  8. Kiza
    May 9, 2016 at 21:27

    What a wonderful article Mr Doctorow, a thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Of course that this concert had a symbolic and emotional value for the Russians and the Syrians, that it was used also to justify the Russian expenditure of blood and wealth to save Syria from the Coalition of the Sponsors of Terrorism – COST (Israel, US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, all sponsors, supporters or fight-pretenders of ISIS and Al Qaeda). But it was a true return of civilization to a ravaged country, as The Daily Mail stated to everyone’s great surprise, ravaged by the West&Friends locusts.

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