MOSCOW: Russia's government on Friday appointed controversial maestro Valery Gergiev, who is an ally of President Vladimir Putin, to lead Moscow's world famous Bolshoi Theatre.
The appointment brings one of Russia's most influential institutions closer under the Kremlin at a time when Moscow is increasingly casting culture as a battleground in its confrontation with the West.
"Mikhail Mishustin has signed an order appointing Valery Gergiev as General Director of the Bolshoi Theater for a period of five years," the Russian government announced in a statement on social media.
Gergiev has supported Putin's policies throughout the Russian leader's 23-year rule and has been shunned by Western institutions for failing to denounce Russia's military offensive in Ukraine.
The musical giant has been head of Saint Petersburg's Marinsky Theatre since 1988. He could now head both of Russia's main stages, in a merger suggested by Putin last year.
Putin suggested integrating the management of the theatres in March last year, saying they were run this way before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
The Kremlin in recent years has sought to reel in cultural institutions and many high-profile artists left Russia after February 2022, when Moscow launched its offensive.
Those that stayed say they have been forced to censor their work and face arrest if they veer too far away from the Kremlin's official narrative.
- Western backlash -
Gergiev has known Putin for decades and has performed propaganda concerts in honour of Russian military victories in places like Syria and Georgia.
He has not made any public political statements since Putin sent troops into Ukraine in February last year.
But his refusal to condemn the military attack led to his firing by the Munich Philharmonic last year, where he had been the principal conductor since 2015.
Other Western concert halls from the Paris Philharmonic to New York's Carnegie Hall also dropped his performances.
Now persona non grata in the West, Gergiev has mainly conducted concerts in Russia, but earlier this year also went on tour in China.
In one of his most criticised moves, Gergiev conducted a concert in Syria's Palmyra ruins after Moscow's intervention in the country on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
He also conducted a triumphant concert in Georgia's Tskhinvali region after the Russian invasion in 2008, just a few meters from a detention centre where Georgian civilians were being held.
- 'Names vanished' -
He replaces Vladimir Urin, who at the start of the Ukraine offensive signed a public letter by artists calling for "all sides" to stop combat in Ukraine.
Urin, who led the Bolshoi since 2013, also often spoke out in support of the Kremlin, including when it annexed Crimea the year after his appointment.
Moscow's far-reaching crackdown on dissent has hugely affected the arts, also hitting the Boshoi theatre.
Urin earlier this autumn admitted to removing playwrights critical of the Ukraine campaign from repertoires.
"When some creators of plays spoke out very clearly about the special military operation then, in those cases, their names vanished from posters," he told government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in September.
He said the theatre was going through "not easy times." The government statement Friday said Urin had stepped down voluntarily.
Earlier this year, the Bolshoi dropped a contemporary ballet about the life of Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev directed by acclaimed director Kirill Serebrennikov -- who has fled Russia and denounces the Ukraine campaign.
Urin had said that the ballet was dropped due to new legislation against spreading "propaganda of non-traditional values", as the play centres around a gay dancer.
The Bolshoi's top ballerina Olga Smirnova quit the theatre in protest over the Ukraine offensive last year, part of a wider exodus of artists throughout the nearly two-year conflict.