11/14/2012 05:45 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

Maestro Gergiev sells Russia's Olympics to the world

Maestro Valery Gergiev is Russia's greatest living cultural czar and, fittingly, a key ambassador for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

Famous for his inexhaustible work ethic and charisma, the 60-year-old conductor somehow manages to juggle full-time jobs as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and head of the Mariinsky Ballet and Opera Company in St. Petersburg.

Sought by orchestras worldwide because of the passion he pours into conducting, he is also known for his unshakeable loyalty to the country that nurtured him.

Because of this, Russian officials made him one of the faces of the upcoming Sochi Olympics, which begin just over a year from now. Gergiev has become a roving ambassador with the open assignment of talking up Russia and its bright future during the second term in power of President Vladimir Putin.

Gergiev was in Toronto recently for a performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Stradivarius Ensemble and he spoke with CBC News producer Jennifer Clibbon about a resurgent Russia, a country that refuses to measure itself by how the West views its internal politics.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What does it mean to be 'an ambassador' for the Sochi Olympics?

Gergiev: Six years ago, my role was to help Sochi win the 2014 Olympics. I myself am from the Caucasus and went to Sochi many times as a student. My role was to bring international attention to the fact that Russia is transforming itself in big international forums — in sports, arts, culture and films.

This will be a big period of building. The facilities are not only for professional athletes and events, but for the people, for normal Russians.

My role is to articulate the interests of the people, for example, deciding where young musicians will perform before and after the Olympics.

You don't build these huge facilities for just a few weeks, you should build them for 40 or 50 years. You have to think of people, not only of one particular event.

Sochi was an interesting choice for the Olympics. Isn't it risky, because it sits on the edge of a very troubled region, the Caucasus, and is only a few hundred kilometres from war-torn Chechnya?

There has never been trouble in Sochi. I think that in the Caucasus, things are changing. It was very difficult 20 years ago, but it's more stable now in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

The region has good relations with Turkey, Europe and with China and the United States. And Sochi is well-positioned because it is so close to the sea and to the mountains. People will enjoy such natural beauty.

Many in the West are critical of the Putin regime, though he is very popular within Russia. What do you think his regime brings to the 'new Russia?'

What is the Putin regime? What is the Obama regime? Many people are critical of Obama, and very many people were very critical of George Bush. But a chosen president has to do his work.

Twelve years ago, the situation in Russia was difficult. But it was not up to the West, but to Russians to make things work.

The Russian economy is moderately healthy now, and some think it is healthier than the general European economy. We never achieved that before. Never.

People in Russia always worry what others say. China doesn't worry at all what others say. They just do what they think is good for the country.

We have to continue to learn how to make Russia the country that everyone wants it to be.

There were big hopes in the early '90s and in the last years of the Soviet Union. Expectations for freedom and democracy were big. But people didn't understand that immediate freedom can also bring a lot of trouble.

We spoke before about the Caucasus being dangerous. During Soviet times, this was one of the safest regions on Earth. We didn't know crime. That was only 25 or 30 years ago.

You're a global citizen. You could live anywhere. But you have worked tirelessly over the past quarter of a century to protect and strengthen the Mariinsky, one of Russia's key cultural institutions. How do you feel when people in the West write off Russia because of all its problems?

First of all, the West doesn't understand Russia. I don't blame you. It's 10 hours away from Canada or the U.S.

Russia is a great country with a great culture and great cultural institutions. I am lucky that I can enjoy both worlds. I believe in the country. Period. Russia can live as it wants. Its history allows it to do it.

The world benefits strongly from Russian cultural riches. Russia doesn't need any defence or protection from me. There should not be a love affair between Russia and other countries, it's not needed. It's the biggest country on Earth.

You mean that Russia is still a great power…

We don't think that way anymore. We don't think this because we have more tanks. Yes, we have nuclear weapons. Is that why we are great? Not necessarily, not only.

But culturally it is, traditionally, a very special country.

There are so many factors. It's got nothing to do with one man: Mr. Putin. It has absolutely nothing to do with one man. Things happen independently of government, of the Kremlin or any mayor or governor.

What the government should do, and hopefully will do, is to improve the standard of living in Russia, especially outside Moscow.

Moscow is a very rich city. It is so rich that it has become annoying to see all the demonstrations of this wealth. It would be much better to spend this vast wealth on education or health systems and artistic and musical presence in the lives of many Russians.