Semyon Bychkov. Picture Credit: Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Interview: Semyon Bychkov on Ukraine and nationhood

He discusses exile, the horrors of totalitarianism and why Russophobia is not the answer

Artillery Row

Semyon Bychkov, a Russian-born and internationally famed conductor, and familiar figure in London opera houses and concert halls, recently made a forceful intervention, releasing a statement condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and “silence in the face of evil”. Now Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic, he started his career as a refugee and dissident, fleeing the Soviet Union whilst still a young man, and became a lifelong opponent of Soviet totalitarianism, and has continued to attack the current regime in Russia for its refusal to confront this legacy. Ahead of the Czech Philharmonic’s forthcoming tour in England, David Conway spoke to Mr Bychkov on behalf of the Critic about his statement, his exile from Russia, and the relationship between music, nationality and the human spirit.

DC: Maestro Bychkov, we look forward greatly to your two London concerts with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in London on 15 and 16 March. Three of the works you are playing speak very strongly about Czech identity, and now we in Western Europe have again to confront the value of such identity in the wake of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

SB: Music certainly reflects national identity because music reflects life. If we think of the people that created the music we will be playing, the home country of Dvořak and Smetana was a part of the Austrian Empire, and there was already a strong feeling among Czech people that they wanted to preserve their culture, their identity, they wanted to be truly independent. One certainly hears that in the music of Ma Vlast and of Dvořak’s Eighth Symphony — and then one hears it transformed in Janaček’s Glagolitic Mass. Neither Smetana nor Dvořak lived to see their country’s independence in 1918, but Janaček did, and the Glagolitic Mass came 8 years after.

DC: I was very moved when I heard the wonderful concert you gave with the Czech Philharmonic three weeks ago in Prague. This was in a way an essay of how music reveals truth after time, including music by two composers sidelined or murdered by authoritarian regimes, (Miloslav Kabeláč and Viktor Ullmann) and ending with Brahms’s First Symphony which looks to the future but is rooted in Beethoven.

SB: In the case of Kabeláč, this is a man who was a contemporary of Shostakovich. He lived through the period of Nazism, but then his country was kidnapped by the Soviet Union in the division of Europe which took place when Germany was defeated. Kabeláč’s style was one the authorities didn’t want to hear so eventually he became banned. The orchestral passacaglia Mystery of Time which we performed in Prague, was completed in 1957, after the uprising in Budapest and Hungary in 1956, suppressed by the Soviet Army. 

As long as you do not atone, evil will keep repeating itself

Listening to this work I am convinced that Kabeláč must have known every note of the music of Shostakovich and there’s definitely a connection, even though I don’t believe that they ever met.  So this shows you that such artists, as they create, are experiencing and reflecting the times they are living through. And such transformation is not unique to their individual countries — it becomes universal when it is at such a colossal level of creativity.

In the case of Ullmann, we can hardly imagine imagine how a man in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt could actually compose. The setting of Rilke, (The Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke) was performed there – and he was then sent to Auschwitz where he was killed, in December 1944. Once again one is inevitably conscious of the time and circumstances in which it was composed.

DC:  Now that we are confronting the terrible events in Ukraine, the roles of music and culture take on new dimensions. In your striking comments on the crisis last week, you say that “history always repeats itself if forgotten” and refer to the “mental genocide of the Russian people” by its rulers. You specify Putin’s suppression of the Memorial organization founded by Andrei Sakharov, which means that “victims of repression were killed once again”. And since then we have had Russia’s bombing of Babi Yar in Kyiv.  Music and art can keep memory alive.

SB: That is absolutely right. Culture is accumulated over the entire period of the existence of humanity; it brings us to history, whether it is of our own time or something that happened centuries ago – including especially colossal upheavals, dramas – as the Siege of Leningrad, which my mother survived, is remembered for its 900 days of absolute terror. Culture forces us to remember – and the more we are reminded of human tragedies, the more there is a chance that perhaps they will not repeat themselves. 

And every time we forget, such repetitions occur. In 1945 Germany was totally destroyed and the crimes and the horrors of Nazism were revealed — and ever since the German nation has continued to atone for the sins of the Nazis. And that feeling of shame continues to this day, and lets us believe that something like this can never be repeated in Germany. That came about because their total defeat forced them to come to grips with the reasons for that destruction. 

How do we avoid closing ourselves to Russian culture?

Look now at those who defeated them — and I’m not talking about the Western allies, but about the Soviet Union. First Stalin entered into a pact with Hitler and they made an agreement to divide Eastern Europe. In this way both were co-authors of the World War II that followed. The difference is that the Soviet Union ended on the winning side, together with the allies, and therefore felt no need for atonement. 27 million Soviet people were killed during the war — but that’s still a smaller number than those of their own people killed in the gulags — and for that, also, there is still no atonement.

As long as you do not atone, evil will keep repeating itself. We are seeing it now in Ukraine — which is a genuine genocidal attack against a nation which simply wants to go its way, is of no danger to anyone — in fact, Ukraine is even denied the right of being considered a true nation. I understand a little Ukrainian. 

And language as we know is the mirror of our human nature, of the human soul, of the national soul. It reflects it, it expresses it. So how can one try to deny them – who they are, what defines them?  And so now they are being wilfully destroyed. The Ukrainian government is being called “bunch of Nazis and drug-addicts”. Now can somebody explain to me how a Nazi could be elected to be President of a country who himself is Jewish?

DC: It’s crazy;  but we have to find a way of confronting it. You yourself were born Russian, then became American, then European. How did you come to terms with your own experience? And now, naming no names, we see some Russian artists who ally to Putin’s regime  –  but what about young Russian artists who do not have such privileged status –we surely mustn’t exclude all Russia culture and Russian artists from our wider culture.

SB: Your question touches many complex issues. When I left the Soviet Union, at the age of 22,  what I rejected was its regime, its dogma, its ideology.  For some years, when I was living in America, I could not listen to one note of the music of Shostakovich – who was one of my gods — because it brought me back to what I left behind. For 12 years after my departure, my father, a scientist, who applied to emigrate and to follow me, was refused by the Soviet government — basically they said to him “first you’re free to die, after that you can go anywhere you want.” 

So for those years, I lived feeling that I would probably never see my father again. And then came Gorbachev as Prime Minister in 1985 . Two years later my father was called in and told “Alright you can leave now”. Things began to change; and for the first time, in December 1987 I returned to the Soviet Union, now as an American citizen. (I had been stripped of my Russian citizenship when I had left the country). 

I revisited Leningrad and then one or two years later I started conducting there. And I saw the changes happening through perestroika and society desperately trying to find its way towards something more consonant with human nature despite the dictatorship in which they were still living. My hatred of the regime  was replaced by a real sympathy and compassion for people who were experiencing enormous difficulties in a dysfunctional society. 

It was emotionally very difficult for the older generations. For example, the generation of my parents who became suddenly aware that all their lives they had lived for nothing — that everything had been a lie. What were they supposed to do now – no one could give them their life back. In this painful situation, in the late 80s and early 90s,  I was happy to come back to Russia and make music for and with Russians and to return, not only to the music of Shostakovich, but to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, all the composers who have been so important to me and a central part of my musical life, always and still today.

There are moments when we don’t have a right to remain silent

How do we deal with the situation today, and how do we deal, for example,  with young Russian artists, how do we avoid closing ourselves to Russian culture? We have to acquire a new modes of intellectual and emotional maturity; the natural revulsion that people are feeling to the tragedy in Ukraine should not be fed, as it has been recently at the Warsaw Opera house, by cancelling performances of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov which happened some days ago. 

What does Mussorgsky have to do with the Putin regime? What he created with Boris Godunov is a gift to humanity, and indeed a reproach of the present situation; he represents the absolute power of the Tsar, shows people being silent. Such cancellation, which is completely irrational, for me is wrong and cannot be justified. The same with artists. If we imagine a gifted young musicians,  can it be right that they will be cancelled out at the start of their careers because they happen to be in possession of a Russian passport? For me this is an injustice which I could not possibly tolerate.

At the same time, when we speak about those who are aligned with the regime, who have benefited from it in every possible way, from social status and honours, financial privileges, and sponsorship from State-aligned companies, well — they have to declare their position. If they are in favour of this war then I don’t think I want to hear what they express in art — because for me art is not about that. It’s about spirituality — that means to sustain people, not to bring them down. And with that comes a certain responsibility.

 In the end, I will not tell anyone what to do. I think we have to live with our own consciences, our own decisions — but there are moments when we don’t have a right to remain silent.  When we see ordinary people going on the streets and protesting about the war and being punished for that — that tells you that there are people who have a conscience and are willing to display it.

DC: Tell us please about working with the Czech Philharmonic and their unique style.

SB: We can say that there is no such thing as an absolute definitive interpretation. But what this orchestra has is an authentic spirit of interpretation — a spirit which means that when you are performing something, you are not doing so as a “tourist”. And this is the great experience of working with the Czech Philharmonic — they know what lies behind the notes. For example, Ma Vlast — we were rehearsing it in Prague just at the moment when the invasion of Ukraine happened — and the Czechs took it personally because they know what it means,  from the experience of 1968. 

So this piece which we have played so often together, which we have recorded together — while we were rehearsing it in the Rudolfinum, I experienced it quite differently. I felt anew that it is so universal, it is not only about the Czech experience, it is human nature, it must manifest itself! Although it was written 150 years ago, it still speaks to us so powerfully. One could not be indifferent, in the face of such commitment. 

DC: Maestro Bychkov, many thanks.

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