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.
Reuters

“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.
Reuters
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, and domestic consumption, were nested one into the other. A Russian version of “Mission Accomplished” was the first. A Russian version of “mission civilisatrice,” with the chaconne in the program where national anthems conventionally go and a Russian violinist and orchestra was the second. “If Russia ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” was the third, spelled out almost literally as a line in the sand by a government intent on proving itself the Comeback Kid of global power. The line is unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

In the event, both hosts and visitors did what they came to do. Planes from the nearby air base flew an estimated ten sorties the day of the concert, dropping tons of bombs on ISIS territory. Soldiers rehearsed for their annual parade commemorating victory in World War II. Hustled along like school kids on a field trip, reporters inspected a volleyball court, barracks, mess hall, and an improvised library, where a strategically placed poster could be read as a kind of mission statement.  Defense, it declared, is “a system of political, economic, social, legal and military means.” There was even a rest center, where stressed and overheated soldiers could look at oil paintings of snowy landscapes and birch trees.

Reporters at the event asked about a hospital in Aleppo that had reportedly been bombed, with little response. They looked on as soldiers handed out aid packages to local children, who came out to greet them with songs and little Syrian flags. Although it was not entirely clear who was who, the reporters watched local combatants turn in their Kalashnikovs and sign truce agreements with a thumbprint in what Russian officers explained was a ceremony of reconciliation with the government of Bashar al-Assad. Russian President Vladimir Putin even made a teletron appearance from his home in Sochi as part of the afternoon’s performance.

The dots were easy to connect for anyone who has ever hung around a think tank or staff college. The first, known to both students and practitioners as power projection, is a relatively modern term for the ancient concept of deploying military force beyond national borders. For a familiar example, interventions in Poland and wars with Turkey extended Russia to its west and south.  In 1814, Russian troops made it to Paris, in 1945 to Berlin, where they would remain for nearly half a century.

The second, unlike the first, has an identifiable parent, Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist who named it soft power in the late 1980s. Then and since, the idea behind it is a non-coercive appeal to hearts and minds. Whether as Alliance Française since 1883, Rhodes scholarships since 1902, Willis Conover’s legendary jazz broadcasts on the Voice of America, or the Moiseyev Dance Ensemble at the Minneapolis Auditorium, it, too, was common practice long before it had a name.

What made Palmyra a novelty was the connection. Call it soft power projection. The concert was streamed and uploaded for global consumption from RT, formerly Russia Today, on May 5. Within a week, it had already been seen on YouTube nearly 150,000 times.

The most visible figure was Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky’s artistic director since 1988 and an international superstar. Gergiev and Putin have been friends since the 1990s, when Leningrad again became St. Petersburg with Putin in charge of economic development. Then came the orchestra and the soloists. The violinist, Pavel Milyukov, was a recent bronze medalist at the same Tchaikovsky competition that launched Van Cliburn in 1957.

The sun sets behind ruined columns at the historical city of Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, some 150 miles northeast the capital of Damascus November 12, 2010.
The sun sets behind ruined columns at the historical city of Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, some 150 miles northeast the capital of Damascus November 12, 2010.
Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters
But the other soloist, Sergei Roldugin, a former Mariinsky section principal, was of more immediate media interest. Very probably the world’s only billionaire cellist, Roldugin has been a close friend of Putin’s since 1978. Virtually sanction-proof, he was recently discovered in the Panama Papers as a stakeholder in Russia’s biggest ad agency, an army truck manufacturer, a Cyprus-based steel and glass fabricator, and Bank Rossiya.

Asked about it directly, he denied any interest in financial instruments. But, as a Stradivari owner himself, he acknowledged interest in the musical instruments again in demand for the first time since the Revolution—at least by Russians who can afford seven- and eight-digit prices in euros and dollars.

The 50-minute program that began with Milyukov’s Bach was followed by a somewhat lead-footed performance of the 26-year-old Sergei Prokofiev’s frisky First Symphony. Although not quite in top form, Roldugin finished with a favorite Russian concert piece, the veteran Rodion Shchedrin’s quadrille from “Not Love Alone,” a coolly received 1961 opera about a May–December romance on a postwar collective farm.

In standard concert dress in a more conventional locale, the program might have attracted a small but curious audience. But as so often, location and media management made all the difference, even in a year that might yet see Donald Trump in the White House and the Cubs in the World Series. An eye-catching change of costume—nifty black shirts and white baseball caps that could as well have said “Make Russia Great Again”—didn’t hurt either.

There could be more to come. In fact, “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” Al Jolson declared famously in 1927 as the movies burst into song. Touring orchestras have done their best in the intervening years to go and do likewise. 

For all the excellence of their domestic ensembles, the touring Boston Symphony in 1956 was an ain’t-heard-nothin’-yet experience for Cold War Russians. After a deep freeze dating back to the Communist victory in 1949, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s ice-breaker tour in 1973 couldn’t help but be more of the same for mainland Chinese. In March 2008, the late Lorin Maazel’s New York Philharmonic astonished the world with Gershwin’s “American in Paris” and Dvorak’s New World symphony in Pyongyang, a guaranteed novel yet experience for North Koreans. Havana too was in his sights, but it was regrettably declared a tour too far.

Virtually everyone in attendance in Palmyra was likely to remember a private initiative by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in November 1989. Arriving in Berlin in a private jet from Paris, he proceeded to Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary crossing point from West to East, borrowed a chair from an East German border guard and played solo Bach with his back to the disappearing Wall.

Gergiev too had some experience with musical statements. In 2004, he conducted a memorial concert after terrorists massacred school children in his native Ossetia. Four years later, after skirmishes between Russia and neighboring Georgia led to a major Russian military operation, he returned for another memorial. His program choice, above all Shostakovich’s Seventh symphony, composed and premiered in besieged Leningrad in World War II, was no coincidence. There were questions about Gergiev’s judgment, but no one questioned the sincerity of his claim to solidarity with fellow Russians. 

Like religion, language and culture, music is identity. During World War II, the Berlin Philharmonic toured from Finland to Portugal under the sponsorship of the ministry of propaganda. During the Cold War, the Iowa String Quartet showed up in Palermo and Beirut and Louis Armstrong went to Cairo with USIA sponsorship. “They send us their Jewish violinists from Odessa and we send them our Jewish violinists from Odessa,” Isaac Stern remarked as the ice thawed in the mid 1950s. On the chance that there might be listeners out there, Lewis Thomas, the physician-essayist, suggested that the Jodrell Bank radiotelescope stream the complete works of Bach out into the universe on behalf of the whole human race. We might as well lead with the best we have, he said.

With the possible exception of Thomas, the ratios of sincerity to cynicism, opportunism, and realpolitik are never easy to calculate. But the subtexts of the Palmyra concert at least allow for a few educated guesses. 

Mission accomplished? If mission is understood as a local victory over ISIS, the answer is probably a qualified yes. But certainty recedes where ISIS’ loss means Assad’s gain; it is practically impossible to be friends with Assad without adding new enemies, and as the Americans can confirm with authority, there is a meaningful difference between winning battles and winning wars. And as a matter of historical record, Russian Mideast initiatives have also come to a consistently bad end since Czar Nicholas I tangled with Napoleon III over the keys to Jerusalem’s Church of the Nativity. Between 1967 and 1973 alone, Russians lost three bets in Syria, and millions of Russians are likely to recall Afghanistan as Americans remember Vietnam.

Civilizing mission? The fairest answer is, again, a qualified yes. World-class musicians have been among Russia’s most competitive exports since the late nineteenth century. Their success abroad is surely cause for good feelings at home. Their impact in Palmyra is less clear. Western classical music has never caught on in the Middle East and Muslim world. Militant Islamists regard it, on the contrary, with the same murderous hate they’ve shown for ancient Buddhas, classical ruins and the treasures of Timbuktu. “We are in a struggle against all the musicians in the world,” the military leader of one such group told a telephone interviewer a few years ago in Mali.

“If Russia ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”? The third subtext, at least, is both simple and unequivocal. As Yogi Berra might have said, that line in the sand deserves to be remembered before it’s forgotten.