Putin Hometown Orchestra Plays Where ISIS Carried Out Killings

  • Gergiev conducts concert in amphitheater of Syria's Palmyra
  • Islamic State carried out massacre of troops on arena's stage

A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the theater at the ancient city of Palmyra.

Photographer: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

The Mariinsky Orchestra, based in Vladimir Putin’s hometown, staged a concert on Thursday in the Roman amphitheater in Syria’s Palmyra, weeks after Russian air power helped free the city from Islamic State rule that had turned the ancient stage into a venue for executions.

Valery Gergiev, the artistic director for the St. Petersburg-based orchestra, conducted the event entitled “A Prayer for Palmyra.” Putin’s classical musician friend Sergey Roldugin, who was at the center of allegations in the so-called Panama Papers last month regarding $2 billion in offshore transactions linked to Russia, was among performers at the concert. Members of the Russian military made up half the audience.

Islamic State, which seized control of Palmyra in May last year, razed some temples and ruins in the UNESCO-listed area, while leaving the amphitheater intact. A video released by the group in July showed a mass execution of Syrian government soldiers on the stage of the ancient arena that reportedly happened soon after militants took over the city. The Russian military led an operation to clear the area of landmines planted by Islamic State after the city was recaptured by Syrian government forces and allies in March.

Gergiev and the members of the orchestra, all dressed in black, performed music from composers including Johann Sebastian Bach and Sergei Prokofiev. The concert, broadcast live on Russian state television, is a “call for peace and unity,” the conductor said.

Ukraine Protest

Putin in a video link with musicians and guests at the event from the Black Sea resort of Sochi called the performance an “amazing humanitarian action” in memory of victims of terrorism. It’s a sign of hope for Palmyra’s resurrection as a center of human civilization and the banishment of this “terrible scourge of international terrorism,” Putin said.

Gergiev, who’s also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is a supporter of Putin. He staged a high-profile concert by the Mariinsky in August 2008 in the bombed South Ossetian capital of Tshkinvali after Russia fought a brief war with Georgia over the breakaway territory.

His performances in the U.S. and Europe drew protests after he signed a letter endorsing Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and when the government passed a law infringing on gay rights in 2013.

Putin’s military intervention in Syria more than seven months ago turned the war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia is now playing a leading role with the U.S. in efforts to craft a peace settlement in which the Syrian leader is rejecting opposition demands for his departure. At least 270,000 people have died and millions more have fled their homes during the five-year civil war.

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