The International Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious music contests, is typically a bustling, Olympics-style gathering that every four years brings talented young pianists, violinists, cellists, singers and others from around the globe to Russia.
But as the storied competition unfolds this month for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine and became a pariah in the West, it is struggling to live up to its reputation.
The contest, which is organized and financed by the Russian government, was expelled from the international federation of music competitions because of the war. Contestants and jurors from the United States and Europe are scarce. A streaming deal that drew millions of overseas viewers has been terminated. And, amid a crackdown on free speech, the foreign press corps representation is less robust, save for journalists from nations friendly to Russia, including China.
“They’re having to try to pretend that nothing’s different, which is obviously an illusion,” said Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, a three-time juror at the contest. “It’s genuinely sad because it was very prestigious.”
The Tchaikovsky competition, which has helped launch the careers of stars like the pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniil Trifonov and the violinist Gidon Kremer, has sought a role in cultural diplomacy since the inaugural contest in 1958, when the American pianist Van Cliburn clinched the gold medal at the height of the Cold War, a feat that was seen as a sign that art could transcend politics.
But Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine has stoked doubts about the benefits of cultural exchange. Many arts leaders in the United States and Europe see this year’s Tchaikovsky competition as a propaganda tool. Even officials at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas, which made a point of welcoming Russian pianists last year despite criticism, said that they could not endorse a Russian state-run contest in a time of war.
“We cannot support an organization that is being used by the Russian government as propaganda,” said Jacques Marquis, the president and chief executive of the Cliburn, adding that he did not fault the young artists who had decided to participate.
Politics have been front and center at this year’s Tchaikovsky contest. President Vladimir V. Putin, who has repeatedly portrayed Russia as the victim of a campaign to erase its culture despite the fact that Russian works are still programmed regularly in the West, recently described the Tchaikovsky competition as “one of the major and most significant events in the world of music” and a showcase for the “rich history and unique traditions of Russian culture.”
At the opening ceremony, Tatyana Golikova, a deputy prime minister, took the stage to rail against “unfriendly political elites,” whom she accused of trying to “cancel Russian culture all over the world.” The performers included four Russian musicians, a Mongolian baritone and Liu Shikun, an 84-year-old Chinese pianist who took the silver medal to Cliburn’s gold in 1958.
The war sent applications down to 742 this year from 954 in 2019, a decline of more than 20 percent. Of the 236 contestants chosen to perform this year, only four are American, down from 15 in 2019, and only one is from Germany, down from eight in 2019. Four years ago there were three contestants from Ukraine; this year there are none.
More than half the musicians competing this year — 128 — are from Russia; in 2019, they made up just a little more than a third of the contestants. And the number of Chinese contestants has more than quintupled, to 48 from nine in 2019.
Gyehee Kim, a 29-year-old violin contestant, said that when she arrived in Moscow this month she was startled to learn that she was the only violinist from South Korea.
“It feels very weird,” she said. “It’s really shocking.”
Ms. Kim, who was initially hesitant about the competition because of the war but was persuaded to apply by her teacher, said there had been no discussion of the conflict aside from occasional talk among foreigners at breakfast. “It feels like there’s nothing going on,” she said.
Sam Lucas, a 27-year-old cellist from Australia, decided to give the competition a try despite misgivings about the dearth of foreign jurors and warnings from colleagues that his career would suffer.
“I wanted to contribute my music to the competition to ensure its survival,” he said. “And that’s really as deep as my thinking went.”
The Russian contestants have been similarly enthusiastic, despite the war.
“The spirit of the Tchaikovsky competition remains the same,” said Nikolai Kuznetsov, 28, a pianist from Moscow.
The competition proceeded as usual last weekend, even as an armed rebellion by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, moved closer to Moscow. Some competitors stayed in hotel rooms, and others scrambled to find early tickets home.
The Tchaikovsky competition’s troubles began soon after the invasion. When Carnegie Hall canceled appearances in February 2022 by the Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, an associate of Mr. Putin who serves as co-chairman of the Tchaikovsky competition’s organizing committee, Mr. Gergiev asked Mr. Gillinson of Carnegie Hall if his support for the contest would also be affected. Mr. Gillinson said it would.
Soon after, Medici.tv, a classical streaming service, canceled a deal that had brought the contest to millions of viewers in 190 countries. The World Federation of International Music Competitions in Switzerland, which represents about 120 contests, expelled the Tchaikovsky, calling it “a competition financed and used as a promotional tool by the Russian regime.”
“It just leads people to believe in the greatness of Russian culture and the Russian nation and makes them forget what’s going on next door,” said Florian Riem, the secretary general of the federation.
Officials at the Tchaikovsky competition did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement last year, Andrei Malyshev, a Russian cultural official, said the competition was focused on “music and art.”
“They demanded that we speak out on political issues,” he said of the federation.
Mr. Putin has highlighted the Tchaikovsky’s history of welcoming foreigners as he seeks to elevate this year’s contest. During a recent meeting with Mr. Gergiev, he discussed Mr. Cliburn’s victory, according to Russian news media reports. Mr. Putin fondly recalled the Russian diminutive of Mr. Cliburn’s first name: “We used to call him Vanya.”
The competition has received glowing coverage in the domestic media and is popular with many Russians.
“To cancel it would be to admit a disruption in normal life that the Putin regime, supporters of the invasion, and that decreasing segment of the public unaffected by Ukraine, doesn’t want to admit,” said Simon Morrison, a specialist in Soviet music at Princeton University.
One of the jurors is Sergei P. Roldugin, a Russian concert cellist who is a longstanding friend of Mr. Putin and godfather to his eldest daughter.
Several foreign jurors rejected suggestions that they were lending support to Moscow, saying they wanted to show that art could play a role in easing tensions.
“I’m not endorsing any government,” said Suren Bagratuni, a professor at Michigan State University who is one of the few American jurors at the competition. “I’m endorsing culture.”
Justus Frantz, a German serving on the piano jury who has spoken favorably of Mr. Putin in the past, said he had no connection to the Russian government and that his aim was to “bring birth to great talents.”
The winners of the current competition will be announced on Friday, but it’s unclear if this year’s accolades will provide the customary guarantee of concert dates and recording deals, especially in the West.
“The magnet for talent has been greatly diminished,” Mr. Gillinson said. “At some point, when Russia becomes part of the world community again, they will have to build it back up again.”
Milana Mazaeva contributed research from Washington, D.C.