Are music and politics connected? How can they be divided from each other when music becomes not only a matter of art but also in instrument of propaganda? Today, when wars are waged not only by military weapons but also at the level of ideology, music can become a dangerous tool.
A vivid example of using music as an ideological weapon is the Russian Alexandrov Ensemble of Song and Dance. When it was founded in 1928, it was called the Red Army Choir. Now it is the official army choir of the Russian armed forces. This fact already shows strong ideological connection with Russian authorities – an organization that conducts activities under support of the Ministry of Defense of a state-aggressor is taking a part of responsibility for the military actions of that state.
Moreover, the Alexandrov Ensemble is openly used as an ideological weapon of the Kremlin. Of course, the military uniforms are only a decoration, although with an ideological undertone. A deeper meaning is in the words and actions of the Ensemble representatives. In 2014, the Alexandrov Choir performed the song “Polite People” («Вежливые люди»), dedicated to the Russian militants who participated in annexation of the Crimea.
The “Little Green Men,” or “Polite People,” are terms that spread in Russian internet following the occupation of Crimea by unmarked Russian soldiers. They have been turned into a clothing brand and have had monuments being opened to them and constitute the glorification of Russian military expansionism, allowing to talk about the invasion of a sovereign land with a smirk.
The song, in fact, became an anthem of Russian aggression and occupation of Crimea and Eastern part of Ukraine. Prague activists overlaid the music on scenes of Crimean occupation and Russian aggression in Ukraine:
Performances of the Alexandrov Choir where Russian and Soviet ideological attributes are used (we mean not only military uniform, but, for example, Stalin’s portrait that was hanging on the scene during concerts in Moscow) are far more than nostalgia for the Soviet past. It is a very picturesque reminder about the politics of Russian president Putin. It is not only about past, but a future to which Putin is leading Russia. It is a reminder of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, as well as Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia back in 1968. Since the Alexandrov Choir sings for Putin, they sing for war and aggression.
So, even though the Alexandrov Ensemble already had their tours in European countries many times before (for instance, see this 2014 concert with Mireille Mathieu), today its performances directly serves Kremlin propaganda. Activists and politicians from a number of countries where the Ensembles’s tours are planned stated their position for a prohibition of Alexandrov’s concerts there.
Concerts cancelled officially and protests held
Already in spring 2014, after the Russian invasion to the Crimea, the director of Krakow’s Philharmonic Theatre cancelled a concert of Alexandrov Ensemble’s concert due to political reasons. A year and half has passed, Russia not only annexed the Crimea, but also invaded Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s hybrid army has broken all agreements about a ceasefire in Donbas; the Kremlin’s media is still leading a propaganda war all over the world. However, the Choir still gives its concerts all over Europe. Tours were planned in Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Protests in Poland
The first concert of the Polish tour of the Alexandrov Ensemble was held in Warsaw on November 19. Twelve more concerts are planned during this tour. The concert in Warsaw was accompanied by protests of Warsaw activists, but there was a campaign to cancel this tour that started at the beginning of October.
“Leni Riefenstahl knew how to make movies, but made them for Goebbels. The Alexandrov Russian Army Choir sings purely, but does it for Putin. We protest against mixing culture with politics and demand to cancel the concerts organize planned between 19 November and 2 December in 13 Polish cities,”
the activists wrote in Facebook. The event in Facebook gained nearly two thousand supporters. The petition to cancel the tour has collected nearly 700 signatures, but it was not enough. The tour will be held, and tickets for the concert in Warsaw were nearly all sold. The average Pole will say that she came only to listen to good Russian music, and ask to not mix up art and politics. However, activists do not agree. They came to the front of the Torwar sportcomplex where the concert was held, with banners saying “Propaganda kills” and Ukrainian flags painted with red, symbolizing blood.
Member of Polish Parliament Malgorzata Gosevska also supported the protest. She says concerts of a choir that glorifies an aggressor state and the army of an occupant are impermissible.
According to the Polish activists Rosyjska V kolumna w Polsce, the organizer of the tour is Europejska Agencja Reklamowa, an advertising agency the main activity of which is organizing events in Poland with the participation of Russian teams. Apart from the Alexandrov Ensemble tour, they organized concerts of the Beriozka choir, the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, the “Cossacks of Russia” dance ensemble, the St.Petersburg Music Hall State Theater, and the Red Star Red Army Chorus of the rocket forces of the Russian army. The agency is also the organizer of the Russian film festival Sputnik of Poland. Its director Piotr Skulski, a 2010 candidate for the mayor of Warsaw, received an award from the Russian Ministry of Defense for building “Polish-Russian friendship and mutual support.”
Discussions in Czech Republic
The Czech reaction of Czechs to Alexandov Ensemble concerts was ambiguous. Some Czechs believe that there is nothing in common between music and politics, and the Choir’s performance is only entertainment. Helena Vondráčková, a Czech singer who performs with the Ensemble, is one of them: in her opinion, only demagogues make a connection between politics and art.
Meanwhile, not all the Czech believe that the Alexandrov Ensemble is separated from politics. Some activists started a petition campaign against the concert that was to be held under the support of Czech president Miloš Zeman.
“Nowadays, they’re definitely soldiers, not musicians. Of course, their performances have a certain professional, cultural, and entertainment side to them, but they do not fit to our time,” said Thomas Peshinski, one of the initiators of a public protest. Prague Maidan together with the East European Information Centre held a number of protests against the Choir’s concerts, among them a protest in Prague. During the protest, visitors of the concert had to walk through “the corridor of shame” that ended with banners “Russia, hands off Ukraine!” Also, activists showed the abovementioned video laid to the song “Polite People.” Members of the Choir were also among viewers and their reaction was ambiguous – some of them thought that the events pictured are only videos. During the concert itself activists from the oMEN group appeared with “Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria” written on their bare torsos, holding Ukrainian, European Union, and NATO flags.
Czech politicians also had different opinions regarding the Alexandrov Ensemble’s concerts. Member of Czech Parliament Jaromir Stetina wrote on his Facebook page: “I do not like the Alexandrov Choir not for the fact that they are Russian, but for the fact that they are a symbol of militarism and a part of the Russian army which violates international law and occupies part of the territory of the three sovereign states, namely Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. They are praising the occupiers.” Karel Schwarzenberg, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed that the concert is held under the President’s support: “This fact had better not take a place while the Russian army is in the territory of our neighbor state.”
Though the concert in Prague was not cancelled, protest actions had a great impact. They showed that Czech people do not support pro-Russian politics of President Zeman. Concertgoers were mainly older people with a nostalgia for the Soviet past, while young people clearly understand all risks of supporting Russia’s propaganda machine.
Concerts cancelled in Lithuania and Latvia, but not in Estonia
The Visaginskiy Culture Center in Lithuania cancelled a concert of the Alexandrov Ensemble that was planned for December 6. As the director of the Centre Danute Morkunene explains, the main reason to cancel the concert was the ideological meaning of the Choir. Also, she explained why permission to hold the concert was given in the first place: the organizers initially booked the hall without announcing who would have a performance there.
Latvia also got doubts about holding concerts of the Alexandrov Choir. The Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgar Rinkevich stated that this concert “can have an unacceptable character because its ideological conception with active propaganda of the Russian army is inadequate in the context of the history of the Baltic countries.” Latvia’s Ministry of Defense also supported this position and claimed that, as the Choir is part of the Russian Army, its appearance on the territory of Latvia can be qualified as an uncoordinated presence of Russian military forces.
In Estonia there were also some discussions about the Alexandrov Ensemble concerts. However, Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally said that Estonia is strong enough not to declare war on songs. At the same time, he reminded that they expect that the Choir will perform with all the respect to Estonia.