Russian police were quite surprised last week when they showed up at the Moscow apartment of Anastasia Vasilyeva to arrest her. Instead of offering angry resistance, the political dissident played them a recital of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on her piano. A video of the performance has gone viral, perhaps giving a new flavor to the protests against the Putin regime to release the country’s most famous dissident, Alexei Navalny.
Ms. Vasilyeva is better known as a doctor than an artist, but her lively rendition of the classical tune sent a subtle message. The Beethoven composition is calming – one reason it is also a popular cellphone ring tone. Its gentleness creates a receptivity in the listener. Its universal tone makes it hard not to feel a bond with others. In fact, a German group, the Beethoven Academy, gives awards each year to artists who live up to the composer’s reputation as “the visionary of an alternative society.”
Artists and performers have long been able to shift political culture, offering aesthetic experiences that increase understanding or create a shared identity. Yet the digital age has expanded their reach and impact as well as endangered them. The Institute of International Education, for example, offers an artist protection fund to support threatened artists. Since 2012, the Human Rights Foundation has offered a prize for “creative dissent,” named after the Czech playwright Václav Havel who helped fell the Soviet empire.
News of artists-as-dissidents is now almost the norm in world trouble spots. In Uganda, rapper Bobi Wine used his political lyrics to gain enough followers so he could run against dictator Yoweri Museveni in a recent election. An exiled Chinese dissident, Badiucao, uses satirical images to raise awareness of the persecution of the Uyghur minority. A group of artists in Cuba have lately stepped up their challenge to the government’s suppression of their work and dissent in general.
Because good art, whether a play or a painting, creates its own meaning and dignity, it allows viewers to experience meaning and dignity. For those living under authoritarian rule and unable to protest in public, art can carry the flag of freedom. A 2015 report by the United States Institute of Peace in Washington said arts and cultural practices aimed at peace building can “embody a kind of power that rests not on injury or domination, but rather on reciprocity, connectivity, and generativity.”
Political protests do not always succeed because of their numbers but because of the messages they send, often in subtle ways. By itself, playing Beethoven for police and posting it on YouTube may not turn Russia into a free and fair democracy. But something has to keep lifting the thought of protesters in creative ways and perhaps change the thinking of their oppressors. It might as well be the music of someone who envisioned an alternative society two centuries ago.