Reuters Russia's Mariinsky Theatre performs at the amphitheater of the Syrian city of Palmyra, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on May 5, 2016.

The Violins of Palmyra

Soft Power Projection, Then and Now

“If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece,” Brahms wrote to his friend, Clara Schumann, “I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” He was talking about the chaconne, the last movement of Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin.

Not only a cornerstone of the literature, the chaconne is a pillar of Western civilization. It has been arranged for organ, guitar, trumpet and orchestra, marimba, solo flute, clarinet, saxophone, and two cellos. But no one could recall a performance like this one, in the surviving ruin of a Roman amphitheater, in the shadow of a Russian airbase, in Syrian Palmyra.

Western representatives were conspicuously absent. But local and UNESCO officials; representatives of Zimbabwe, China, and Serbia; and the Russian minister of culture were present ex officio, and there were plenty of Russian and Syrian soldiers to fill the seats.

Always good for a surprise, Russian policymakers had pulled off another show that the White House and State Department are unlikely to match. With the chaconne leading the way, the orchestra of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, Russia’s most iconic opera house, had come to Palmyra to honor local victims of the Islamic State (ISIS), both human and archaeological.

An image distributed by ISIS militants on social media on August 25, 2015 purports to show explosives on stone ledges of columns during what they said was the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

An image distributed by ISIS militants on social media on August 25, 2015 purports to show explosives on stone ledges of columns during what they said was the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

Of course it was a media event, carried nationally on Russian TV, with CNN, BBC, and at least a hundred foreign correspondents and Russian reporters along for the ride. But above all, as the host—the foreign ministry—made obvious, it was foreign policy. The post-modern foreign policy of a post-modern dictatorship, Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for Bloomberg View, called it. “Write negatively about us,” a Russian ministry official told the Washington Post’s Andrew Roth, who was in attendance, “and this will be your first and last trip.” Andrew Kramer who was also there from the New York Times was advised to wear kevlar.

Three subtexts intended for both foreign, especially American,

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