Putin Jazzman Hailed by Clinton Skates U.S.-Russia Divide

  • Dual citizen warned by America over `illegal' Crimea concert
  • Elite caught between loyalty to Kremlin and global ties

The only American jazzman who plays pickup hockey with Vladimir Putin has some advice for the leaders of both sides of the former Cold War divide as tensions over Ukraine and Syria simmer: Be cool, man.

Such yearning for harmony may be expected from the musician Bill Clinton called his favorite living saxophonist, but Igor Butman is more than a maestro. After immigrating to New York in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the St. Petersburg native returned with dual nationality less than a decade later and now spends most of his time in Moscow, where he’s a senior member of the ruling United Russia party.

Igor Butman

Photographer: Jennifer S. Altman/Getty Images

Butman, 53, is a rarity in Russia, a political insider openly sympathetic to the U.S. While he defends Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which sparked the tensest standoff with the West since the communist era, he makes no apologies for his love of America and rebuffs pleas from Russian officials and the public to surrender his U.S. passport.

“I’m a patriot of Russia and the U.S.,” Butman said in an interview in the Russian capital. “It’s not a war. Someone has to have a cool head.”

Putin Love

Putin described Russian-U.S. relations as being “pretty low” on Monday after his first meeting with President Barack Obama in more than a year. Part of the problem, Butman said, is that Americans view Putin as being hostile toward them, which just isn’t true.

“Vladimir Putin loves America,” he said. “He loves and respects it.”

Igor Butman and Bill Clinton in Moscow in 2000.

Source: Igor Butman Music Group

Branded “Putin’s dog” by opposition activists, Butman insists he’s his own master and that it’s in Russia’s interests to forge stronger ties with the U.S. His dual fealty reflects a wider dilemma facing Russia’s elite, many of whom are caught between demands for loyalty to country and ties to the West, where they have children, property and business interests.

It’s been almost 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, opening Russia to the outside world, and Butman isn’t the only one with influence in Moscow who remembers how damaging isolation can be, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

‘Heads Down’

“Even within the government, at very high levels, there are lots of people who don’t think this confrontation is in Russia’s long-term interest,” McFaul, a regular at Butman’s concerts when he lived in Moscow, said by phone from Palo Alto, California, where he’s teaching at Stanford University. “They have to keep their heads down, they have to be careful.”

Butman is under pressure from the Obama administration, which warned him against attending a recent jazz festival in Crimea because sanctions bar U.S. citizens and companies from providing services in the disputed territory.

At the same time, Butman said he’s been berated privately by senior officials in Moscow for not renouncing his U.S. citizenship. He said he was unmoved by their pleas, as he was by the storm of online outrage that accompanied his performance at the U.S. embassy earlier this year.

While sanctions bar many officials close to Putin from traveling to the U.S. and Europe, Butman said his blue passport allows him to fly around the world freely, so why give it up? He still performs in the U.S. and owns an apartment in New York, where his mother lives and he likes to mix his music.

Obama Letter

U.S. citizenship offers Butman other perks as well, including the right to lodge a complaint with the government in Washington.

After the Crimea warning, Butman wrote a letter to Obama and had Russia’s Foreign Ministry forward it to the White House. In it, he said music was too important to be censored and asked that U.S. artists be allowed to perform on the Black Sea peninsula.

“I practically built the whole jazz scene in the former Soviet Union,” Butman said in the letter. “And in these hard times I’m trying to stay above the political turmoil.”

Butman, who’s also an accomplished band leader, said the same desire to have his voice heard was the reason he both fled one-party rule in 1987 and eventually jockeyed for a senior post in United Russia after his return.

“I joined the party to have some of the tools, some of the power of the ruling party to advance my views,” he said. “It doesn’t give you power, but it gives you respect. I can call anyone in government, anyone in the party.”

He also keeps the lines open to some of America’s greatest musicians, including George Benson and Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter who runs the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

“He’s a fantastic musician” who’s using his role as an artist to build bridges, Marsalis said by phone during a tour of the U.S. West Coast. “I’m not going to ask a man to distance himself from his country. That’s crazy.”

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