Royal Albert Hall and Latvian music festival drawn into Russian culture war
At first glance, Latvia’s New Wave music festival and the iconic London concert hall might seem to have little in common. But both have recently been embroiled in the fallout from the crisis in Ukraine, James Montague reports
03 Nov 14

Protest outside the Royal Albert Hall in London over a concert being staged by Russian singer Valeriya (Photo: Lensi Photography/Demotix)

Protest outside the Royal Albert Hall in London over a concert being staged by Russian singer Valeriya (Photo: Lensi Photography/Demotix)

Protest outside the Royal Albert Hall in London over the recent concert staged by Russian singer Valeriya (Photo: Lensi Photography/Demotix)

At first glance, there seems to be little that Latvia’s New Wave music festival and London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall would have in common.

The former is hugely popular contemporary music festival and talent spotting contest on the shores of the Baltic Sea, attracting thousands of revellers from Eastern Europe and beyond. The latter is one of the world’s most famous venues, where some of the global music industry’s biggest and best artists regularly perform. It is also home to the Proms, the premier musical event of the British establishment.

But both have recently been embroiled in the fallout from the crisis in Ukraine, as a culture war between Russia and the west threatens to widen.

Last week it was claimed by Russia’s culture minister that the New Wave festival was on the verge of being cancelled and moved to Russia after three of the headline acts were barred by the Latvian government earlier this year.

The New Wave festival in the town of Jurmala was due to see Oleg Gazmanov, Joseph Kobzon and Alla Perfilova, known as Valeriya, perform in July.

According to the Baltic Times, the trio were banned from attending by the Latvian foreign ministry over their pro Russian views on the Ukraine crises. At the time several members of the Russian State Duma called on the festival to be moved to another Russian seaside resort, and suggested Crimea as an alternative.

“Concerning the organisation of ‘New Wave’ in Crimea, we are ready to cooperate and will gladly host any creative project in Crimea,” Crimea’s Culture Minister Arina Novoselskaya was quoted as saying.

But Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has reopened the debate by suggesting that the festival is now on the verge of being moved permanently.

“This decision by the Latvian powers that be can be regarded with nothing except astonishment, and as a result, Jurmala stands to suffer serious economic losses,” he told the Baltic Times while at a private meeting in the capital Riga. “We are very close to making the decision to exit, because Russian artists will not tolerate such a slap in the face.”

The six day concert, which gives emerging artists around the world a chance to perform in front of large crowds, was started in 2002 and is considered one of the best in the region. Thousands attend the event and prizes for the winners can be in their tens of thousands of euros.

But big stars attend too.

Kobzon – once dubbed “Russia’s Frank Sinatra” and who is now a Russian MP – said that he was going to file a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights over his ban. “I’m suing the Latvian government for moral and material damages,” he told Pravda. “I had paid the hotel 11,500 euros for the time of my stay in Jurmala, but the hotel did not return the money to me.”

The Latvian foreign ministry released a statement at the time that said the three singers “through their words and actions have contributed to the undermining of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics sent a tweet that “apologists of imperialism and aggression” would be denied entry into Latvia for the festival. The tweet appears to have been deleted.

The issue has once again raised its head after a campaign was launched by anti-Putin activists to have several Russian artists banned from performing in the UK too. Both Kobzon and Valeriya, who were billed to play at a special one-off concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 21 October, were again targets of the proposed bans.

According to The Guardian, both artists signed an open letter supporting Putin’s controversial policies in Ukraine. In the week running up to the concert, Valeriya was pictured sitting next to Putin at the Russian F1 Grand Prix.

The London concert went ahead, though it would seem, not exactly as planned. Kobzon reportedly decided to not attend at the last minute, allegedly fearing he would be turned away at the UK border. Over 100 Ukrainian activists picketed the concert, holding placards that read: “Ukrainian Blood on Putin’s Hands” and “Valeria [sic] and Kobzon: Putin’s Voices of War and Death”.

“After the concert we asked some of the people who attended what was said, as they were leaving. They told us Kobzon didn’t perform, “Nadia Pylypchuk, from the London Euromaidan campaign group who organised the protest, told Index on Censorship. “Valeriya told them on stage that Kobzon couldn’t be there because of ill health. But a few days later he performed in Eastern Ukraine. He was just scared that he would not be allowed into the country,” she added.

Despite several attempts by Index to contact the Royal Albert Hall, the venue declined to answer questions about the concert, including whether Kobzon had performed.

A week later, Kobzon, who was born in the Donbass region, would be banned from entering Ukraine by the Kiev government. He nevertheless returned through the porous Russian border, which the Kiev government has little control over, to perform a concert at the Donetsk Opera House.

According to Buzzfeed he was joined on stage by rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko for the Soviet classic I Love You, Life. Although Zakharchenko was clearly a little rusty. “It’s fine,” Kobzon reassured him after the performance. “I’m an even worse soldier than you are a singer.”

For activists back in the UK, the London concert was proof that Russia’s elite preaches one message to his home audience, whilst acting very differently abroad.

“Such hypocrisy is unacceptable,” Andrei Sidelnikov, an anti-Putin activist who has been given political asylum in the UK and who started the campaign to have the concert scrapped, told The Guardian. “In Russia, they declare that western values are bad, wrong, and not suitable for Russia. Then they travel to western countries to earn money, spend holidays, and buy real estate.”

This article was originally posted on 3 November at

By James Montague

James Montague is a correspondent for Mapping Media Freedom, an Index on Censorship project funded by the European Union.