Kissin Tells

The JC yesterday broke the news that Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin has spoken out against what he perceives as an anti-Israel bias in the BBC, accusing the organisation, in a letter to its director general Mark Thompson, of broadcasting material “painfully reminiscent of the old Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda”.

Growing up Jewish in Russia, Kissin experienced various anti-Semitic incidents, some of which he’s told me about during our various interviews. Here’s an extract of one interview from three years ago:

“At the end of March 1984 I made my big debut playing both Chopin concerti in the great hall of the Moscow Conservatoire. That concert was recorded live, that was my first recording and it was a big event. The following day a representative of the Kremlin phoned my teacher and invited – so to speak – me to play on Lenin’s birthday, which was due 3 weeks later, the 2nd and 3rd movements of Dimitri Kabalevsky’s third concerto. I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to learn that music. And then I was explained about the official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, of which I had not been aware before. I had experienced a daily life kind of anti-Semitism on numerous occasions but I wasn’t yet aware of the fact that it was also an unofficial government policy. So I was explained that I couldn’t possibly do everything I wanted to do and not do everything I didn’t want to do…” 

(The incident ultimately turned out in Kissin’s favour when Kabalevsky, who was to have conducted, fell ill, enabling the youthful pianist to play his preferred Chopin instead.)

No doubt there will be people who say Kissin should “shut up and play the piano”, as they said to Krystian Zimerman when he spoke out against America’s missile shield that was to be stationed in Poland, and to Daniel Barenboim when he speaks up in favour of more peaceful practices in the Middle East, building the necessary bridges through music. 

A few points. First, artists have the right to speak out, same as the rest of us. Secondly, you can see where Kissin’s coming from, in terms of his own background (in case you didn’t know, in Russia being Jewish is regarded as a nationality, not a race or religion, let alone a personal choice).

But thirdly, everyone wants the BBC to say only what they think themselves: there are plenty of people who would (and do) accuse it of bias in completely the opposite direction. The Beeb, however, appears to be running so scared and is so busy complying with compliance that it hesitates to stick its neck out at all, in any direction, ever, even at times when it should have a responsibility to do so: its failure to broadcast the charity appeal for the victims of a tragic war last winter was reprehensible. But because the war happened to be in Gaza…well, you know the rest.

What everyone is doing when they accuse the BBC of bias is essentially just shooting the messenger. It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to the reality on the ground, where anti-Semitism and the flouting of international law are both starkly actual – and fuel one another. Shooting the messenger, as ever, just diverts the argument away from where it really needs to be…

One amusing footnote: according to the JC,

A spokesman for the BBC said the corporation was unable to comment until it had received Mr Kissin’s letter.

So the JC knows what’s in EK’s letter to the BBC before the BBC does? As they say on Facebook: woot?

[update: apparently I don’t mean ‘woot’, I mean ‘WTF’. True. Thanks, Matthew!]

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