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Arts world rises to the moment against Putin

From performances of the Ukrainian National Anthem in European streets and concert halls to cultural resignations in Moscow, the arts world has taken a unified stance against the bloody invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s army.

10,000 Russian arts professionals have signed an open letter against the war stating, ‘We artists, curators, architects, critics, art critics, arts managers, representatives of the culture and art of the Russian Federation express our absolute solidarity with the people of Ukraine and say, resolutely, ‘No To War!!’

Among the bravest statements was that of Elena Kovalskaya, who resigned as director of the Vsevolod Meyerhold Moscow State Theatre after the Moscow cultural department issued a diktat that any negative comments about Russia’s attack on Ukraine would be considered a ‘betrayal’.

It is impossible to work for a murderer and get paid by him.

Kovalskaya posted a message on social media, saying, ‘Friends, as a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I am resigning from the position of director of the state theatre. It is impossible to work for a murderer and get paid by him.’

Last month The King’s Singers announced that concerts in St Petersburg and Moscow, scheduled for 8 and 10 March, would not take place.

Semyon Bychkov, the St Petersburg-born conductor, has cancelled his June performances with the Russian National Youth Orchestra in Moscow. He wrote, ‘This is a painful decision as I was looking forward with enormous joy to making music with the exceptionally gifted young Russian artists. Yet doing so under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.’

The Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor, the Russian born Kirill Petrenko, called Putin’s aggression ‘a knife in the back on the entire peaceful world.’

Van Magazine has posted a series of quotes from renowned Russian classical musicians, including singer and composer, Natalia Pschenitshinikova, who said, ‘I want to scream on behalf of the Ukrainian mothers whose children have died in shellings; on behalf of the Russian mothers whose children have been made into invaders and murderers. But I scream on my own behalf: Russia, stop this war! I don’t want this shameful and traitorous war!’ 

Ukrainians are extremely brave, beautiful, fierce and inspirational.

Not surprisingly, the pop world has reacted strongly. Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova spoke out at a performance in New York, ‘I hate war. I love peace. I support Ukraine. Fuck Putin. I hope he dies soon.’ She admitted afterwards that those words weren’t planned and might come back to haunt her.

Tologonnikova says she has friends who have been imprisoned for protesting the war in Russia. She has launched UkraineDAO, a crypto-fundraiser to send money to Ukrainians via the charity Come Back Alive, which has raised US$3 million so far. She told Rolling Stone that, ‘I have a lot of friends in Ukraine. I think Ukrainians are extremely brave, beautiful, fierce and inspirational.’ 

How does this happen in 2022? This shouldn’t be possible.

Russian hip-hop act, Oxxxymiron (Miron Fyodorov) cancelled six sold-out shows in Moscow and St Petersburg, writing on Instagram, ‘It’s not Ukraine that invaded Russian territory, it’s Russia bombing a sovereign state right now.’ Even the Eurovision Song Contest was quick off the mark to expel Russian artists from the competition. And Ukrainian-born Sonia Kuprienko of The Bloom Twins told the NME that, ‘Ukraine cannot be erased. It cannot. It will always stay with us, no matter what. It’s in our hearts.’ ‘How does this happen in 2022? This shouldn’t be possible.’

Ukrainian musicians have sung out at protests within their country and around the world. Baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, who had been in Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London, sang the Ukrainian national anthem in the protest at Downing Street. Hundreds of Ukrainians and Poles sang it on the streets of Warsaw

Many musicians are trapped within Ukraine. Kyiv-based world music quartet DakhaBrakha has a tour booked in the USA this spring, but only if they can escape. Singer and cellist Nina Garenetska spoke to the New York Times from the apartment she is sheltering in with her husband, mother and 10-month-old son, ‘We can’t make any music because this is our life now: an air raid siren goes off. You go downstairs, you wait, you go back up.

‘During our last concert, I was tearing up all the time with a weird mix: fear, love, but also hope and faith that everything will be OK. We had a small tour of five or six concerts in Europe — Ukraine, Slovenia, Prague, Oslo. From Oslo we flew to Zaporizhzhya [in southeastern Ukraine], and we came back to Kyiv literally for the day. The next day, we were going to continue touring, but we didn’t go because at 5 am Thursday, the war started.’

Ukrainian DJ Olga Korolova escaped from Chernihiv to Poland with her baby daughter and played a gig that night in Poland, giving her fees to the Ukrainian army and playing only Ukrainian music. The next night she played another fundraiser and is filling her Instagram pages with images of the invasion and updates on the destruction, including that of her home city.

‘I’m in shock that Russian people are not seeing the truth,’ she told the BBC. ‘It’s like they’re in North Korea, without information. My fans from Russia, they send me messages saying, ‘It’s not true. It’s a lie. All your posts are a lie.’ They don’t want to see it.’

Musical stars previously known to have supported or been feted by Putin are finding their work cancelled in protest. Valery Gergiev was replaced by Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in New York after the website almost crashed from a flood of protests at the Russian who is a good friend of Putin’s. He has also been cancelled from two other Carnegie Hall concerts in May leading the Mariinsky Orchestra. His position as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic is also under threat if he doesn’t publicly denounce Putin.

Ultimately, this will be the end for Putin. At what horrific cost though?

New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced that it, too, would cut any affiliation with pro-Putin artists, including singer Anna Netrebko.

Meanwhile, the Western music world has spoken out in support of Ukraine. Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos posted a thread fearing for the future of Ukraine but also feeling for the people of Russia, ‘who I know are appalled by this action… …Ultimately, this will be the end for Putin. At what horrific cost though?’

Yungblud tweeted, ‘I’m so devastated to see what’s happening in the Ukraine right now. My prayers are with you.’ And Amanda Palmer said, ‘My heart is cracking.’ 

UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries has called on the creative world to become an effective ‘third front’ against Russia’s aggression. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, she said, ‘Putin is now suffering a sporting and cultural Siberia of his own making,’ adding that she was employing ‘the full might of the UK’s soft power’ against Putin.

Header graphic: DakhaBrakha, the world music quartet from Kyiv, Ukraine

DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal

The Disasters Emergency Committee brings together 15 leading UK aid charities, raising funds to quickly and effectively respond to overseas disasters.