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Some Russian performing artists are speaking out against Putin

Conductor Semyon Bychkov, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance in Vienna in 2017.
Joe Klamar
AFP via Getty Images
Conductor Semyon Bychkov, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance in Vienna in 2017.

In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, a number of Russian performing artists are speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many of them come from the worlds of classical music, ballet and theater — revered art forms in a country that prizes its high-arts heritage.

The noted conductor Semyon Bychkov, who was born in St. Petersburg but now lives in Europe, canceled his planned performances with the Russian National Youth Symphony Orchestra at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow that were planned for June. In a statement posted to Facebook Friday, Bychkov 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 youth orchestra is affiliated with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, which is led by Valery Gergiev.

Bychkov, who is currently chief conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic, continued: "I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: 'The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death'."

As part of a lengthy separate statement posted on the Czech Philharmonic's website, Bychkov said: "Silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice and ends up becoming its equal. ... To remain silent today is to betray our conscience and our values, and ultimately what defines the nobility of human nature."

The Russian-born conductor Kirill Petrenko, who emigrated to Austria at age 18, made a statement on Friday with the Berlin Philharmonic, where he is chief conductor. Petrenko wrote: "Putin's insidious attack on Ukraine, which violates international law, is a knife in the back of the entire peaceful world. It is also an attack on the arts, which, as we know, unite across all borders. I am in complete solidarity with all my Ukrainian colleagues and can only hope that all artists will stand together for freedom, sovereignty and against aggression."

The influential Russian hip-hop artist Oxxxymiron, also known as Miron Fyodorov, said in a video posted to Instagram Friday that he was canceling six sold-out shows planned for Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest the invasion. "It's not Ukraine that invaded Russian territory," he said. "It's Russia bombing a sovereign state."

Artists from other disciplines are resigning from their jobs and canceling projects as well. Alexei Ratmansky, who is the former choreographer at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and currently the artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre in New York City, left Moscow in the midst of preparing a new ballet at the Bolshoi that was supposed to premiere on March 30.

On Sunday, Ratmansky — who is of both Ukrainian and Russian heritage, grew up in Kyiv, and has family still in Ukraine — told The New York Times that he doubts he will return to Moscow to finish the project "if Putin is still president." He was also supposed to premiere a separate ballet in May for the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

Elena Kovalskaya, a theater director who served as one of the artistic directors of the Meyerhold Theatre and Cultural Center in Moscow, posted on Facebook Thursday that she could no longer remain in her position. "It is impossible to work for a murderer and get a salary from him," she wrote. The Meyerhold is a state-run theater.

So far, some 10,000 other Russian cultural and art workers have signed an open letter against Putin's actions. "We, artists, curators, architects, critics, art critics, art 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!" ("No to war" has become a rallying cry on both Russian-language social media and in the protests that are taking place in cities around Russia and elsewhere around the world.)

Some foreign artists are choosing to break their ties with Russian institutions as well. On Saturday, the French ballet dancer Laurent Hilaire resigned his post as artistic director of ballet of Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet. "I am leaving Moscow tomorrow in view of the situation," he told AFP. "I am departing with a heavy heart, but the context no longer allows me to work with peace of mind."

Mindaugas Karbauskis, a theater director who was born in what was then Soviet Lithuania, suddenly left his role as director of the Mayakovsky Theater in Moscow last week. He did not specify a reason for his departure, but posted on his Facebook account Friday: "I'm leaving too!"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.