What it’s like to be a Russian artist now

‘You breathe the polluted air’: A dancer, director and conductor reflect on what Putin’s funding, and his war, mean for the arts in Russia

By Sarah L. Kaufman
April 1, 2022
The Washington Post

Olga Smirnova and Vladislav Lantratov perform the ballet “Onegin” at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 2013. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

A couple of months ago, ballerina Olga Smirnova was soaring across the vast Bolshoi Theatre stage in “Swan Lake.” Celebrated actor Chulpan Khamatova, fresh off her star turn at Moscow’s State Theatre of Nations, was planning a vacation. And theater director Dmitry Krymov was finishing up his first feature film, “Everything Is Okay.”

The title was meant as sarcasm, but the irony is even sharper now. Today, all three Russian artists are living in self-imposed exile, prompted by their opposition to the war in Ukraine. Smirnova quit the Bolshoi and joined the Dutch National Ballet. Khamatova, who had voiced support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has decided to remain in Riga, where she went on holiday before the war. Both women have issued antiwar statements.

Bolshoi star ballerina quits famed Moscow company: ‘I never thought I would be ashamed of Russia’

Krymov is in Philadelphia, readying a new production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at the Wilma Theater, scheduled long before the invasion of Ukraine. But for now, he has no plans to return home to Russia, he said in a recent interview.

Such a rupture with the motherland is not done lightly. These artists have broken free of the invisible web that envelops virtually all the arts in Russia — a web of state influence and funding in which they’ve built their careers, knowing that the government has had a hand in just about everything they’ve done, but alsoknowing that it is pointless to object.

In most cases, artists in Russia owe nearly everything to the state. It pays their salaries, builds their theaters, provides the time and space to pursue their art — within limits. The arts and the state are inextricably entwined and have been for centuries, whether that has meant holding one’s nose and bowing to czarist desires, Soviet control or Putin.

“All the money for theater in Russia is coming from the government,” Krymov said. “So how can you breathe if you’re living next door to a polluting, heavy-metal plant? There is no other air that you can find. So you breathe the polluted air.”

The draining of artists from Russia since the war began presents an opportunity to reflect on this system and its impact on the artists themselves. What is it like to be a Russian artist now? And with the ruthlessness of Putin’s government exposed for the world to see, impossible for anyone on the state payroll to ignore, what does that mean for the future of artists in Russia?

Dmitry Krymov attends rehearsal for his adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. (Johanna Austin)

Until recently, Russian artists “felt relatively free,” Krymov said over Zoom from Philadelphia, through an interpreter. “I did what I wanted, I directed the shows that I wanted.” The war changed everything.

“When you see that there are mass murders going on, and blood is pouring,” he said, “and you cannot even name the thing that is happening, and you have to express your support and say that the murders are an effort to free the people who are being murdered, then it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing in the theater. I don’t want to participate in it.”

To be an artist in Russia has usually meant some degree of compromise — stay away from political controversies, don’t openly criticize the government — and now artists “are evaluating whether those deals were worth it,” said Misha Kachman, a Russian-born set and costume designer who teaches at the University of Maryland and has designed productions for such D.C. companies as Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Arena Stage, among others.

Artists have operated on an unspoken understanding with the government, Kachman said: “ ‘We won’t do certain things, and you won’t touch us, and you fund us.’

“Now that social contract has been ripped apart,” he added, “because the government are military criminals who are committing war. Not that we learned anything new about the government, but there was some willingness to ignore it.”

‘The screws started tightening’

At one point, Vladimir Jurowski, chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, was among those willing to overlook signs of trouble in his homeland. In 1990, at 18, he left Russia for Berlin with his parents, when antisemitism made it impossible for his father, also a conductor, to work. In recent years, whenever Jurowski traveled back to Russia to lead concerts, he faced questions from his friends in the West.

“People would say, ‘Why are you playing in Putin’s Russia? Don’t you understand you are helping the regime?’ ” Jurowski said, speaking from a train en route to Vienna, where his orchestra was scheduled to perform.

“I told them, ‘I am not helping. I’m bringing that necessary breath of fresh air to people who need it.’ I didn’t feel I was committing any crime. Yes, the country is ill, but if one of your family members is ill, you bring this person hot tea and lemon and medicine instead of punishing them.”

“That’s what I was doing” with music, he said — “bringing medicine to my country.”

Vladimir Jurowski leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague in 2017. (Vit Simanek/CTK/AP)

From 2011 to 2021, Jurowski, 49, was artistic director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia. As a visiting “foreign specialist” traveling there from Berlin, he was impressed by the artistic openness.

Until that began to evaporate.

Jurowski says he felt a change in 2014. “It was like the Benjamin Britten opera ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ ” he said. “The screws started tightening. The whole atmosphere became suddenly much less tolerant.”

It was about this time that some artists were being targeted. Members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot had been imprisoned in 2012 for their anti-Putin lyrics. In 2017, stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov, who built Moscow’s Gogol Center into a cultural hot spot, was put under house arrest for 18 months on embezzlement charges. The director denied wrongdoing, and the charges were seen by many as phony and politically motivated. Cultural conservatives had bristled at Serebrennikov’s use of onstage nudity and his modern adaptations of Russian classics.

Putin was once seen as a savior of the arts in Russia. State funding for culture dried up in the chaotic 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Communist Party collapsed, and Russia was thrown into economic crisis. When Putin was first elected in 2000, he fueled the arts with grants, earning him the gratitude of ballet dancers, musicians, actors and other artists across the country.

“That was a pact with the devil,” said Jurowski. “We know from Faust, the bill is never presented to you immediately. And it’s coming to all of us now. I was also part of that plan without knowing it because I was allowed to return and have a substantial career in that post-Soviet state, thanks to the seemingly tolerant position of the authorities at that time.

“Now it’s clear that tolerance had its limits, and I am off-limits now,” he said.

On March 22, Jurowski published a public letter signed by dozens of musicians calling for an end to the war in Ukraine and an end tothe boycotting of Russian artists. Those boycotts — such as London’s Royal Opera House canceling a summer tour of the Bolshoi Ballet — have dismayed many expatriates, who say it is wrong to punish the artists.

“My return to Russia is unthinkable,” Jurowski said. “As long as this war doesn’t stop, I won’t set foot in Russia.”

It’s more difficult for artists to wrench themselves away when they live there. Six weeks ago, Krymov’s calendar was crammed with jobs, stretching into the next three years. But he couldn’t shake a feeling of impending catastrophe, which is why he gave such a cheeky title to the film he wrote and directed, about life “when everything seems to be okay, but you understand that really everything is not okay and not normal,” he said.

Then his fears came true. The day Russia invaded Ukraine, the director and his wife, Inna, were on their way to Philadelphia. The trip had been booked months in advance — a providential twist, he said.

“God prevented me from making a conscious decision about leaving the country because I was already here,” Krymov said.

In his adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard,” which runs April 12-May 1, he’s experimenting with working in references to Ukraine. Directing the classic Russian play, which deals with the loss of one’s home and motherland, is another bit of providence.

“The pain that Chekhov was talking about expresses what is happening now,” he said. “He was writing about us.”

Dmitry Krymov during rehearsal at the Wilma Theater: “It’s maybe childish of me, but I don’t want to believe in the most dark thing.” (Johanna Austin)

Krymov is 67, with hanks of pale hair sweeping across a broad forehead. Asked about his plans, he falls silent. Behind his aviator glasses,

“It’s maybe childish of me, but I don’t want to believe in the most dark thing,” he said finally. “I hear about a darkness that will engulf us, and maybe that is right. But every day I open up the news section, and I hope that everything is okay, and [that] at the end of April I will go back.”

A system that can produce ‘great art'

Has the omnipresent tension between state control and the artist’s quest for creative freedom contributed to Russia’s legacy of great art?

“It is ironic,” said Paata Tsikurishvili, 55, “because it gives you the opportunity to take your art to a different level.”

Tsikurishvili and his wife, Irina, founded Synetic Theater in the D.C. area in 2001. They fled Georgia amid the brutal wars erupting in the republic during the mid-1990s, after the Soviet Union dissolved. “What you see on TV now [in Ukraine], that was my ‘90s,” he said.

Yet for years, he and Irina had worked in theater and dance in the Soviet system. The financial support had its benefits, he said.

Synetic Theater co-founders Irina and Paata Tsikurishvili. (Synetic Theater)

“I think that’s the reason why great art was produced, because you can spend much more time when you’re putting on a show. It gives you time to really chew it up,” Tsikurishvili said in a recent Zoom interview. “At the end of the day, that’s the best training, that you can go so deep” into your art.

On other hand, he added, “it’s censored and it’s propaganda. So then it doesn’t matter about the quality, you don’t serve art anymore. What’s the point?”

‘To go backward is not evolution’

The flight from Russia of high-profile artists such as Smirnova, the Bolshoi Ballet star, brings back memories of dancer defections in Soviet times, during the 1960s and ‘70s. Natalia Makarova shocked the world when she defected from the Mariinsky Ballet in 1970 in London. In a recent interview from her home in San Francisco, Makarova, 81, said she identifies with Smirnova.

“It is quite a good step, quite courageous and mature to take that drastic step,” Makarova said. “Particularly from the Bolshoi. Every dancer probably dreams about going to the Bolshoi.”

Thinking about her own defection, she said, “Under the Iron Curtain, we did not have freedom of action at all. And I remember the fear, constant fear, when I was at the Mariinsky as a ballerina. And I think this emotional fear is a most dangerous and unpleasant thing.

“My motivation was, I want to be free, to make my choice,” Makarova continued. “Not to be dictated to. For Smirnova it is different, probably, but I admire her courage. It’s difficult to adjust to a new theater, new repertoire, new people.” (Smirnova did not respond to a request for comment.)

Makarova said she fears the Iron Curtain “is coming back.”

“It is important to have evolution, not a war,” she said. “To go backward is not evolution, no? For humanity.” The war in Ukraine, she said, “is already the first steps of that.”

Natalia Makarova at home in California in 2020. (Dina Makaroff)

Putin seems to have at least one backward step in mind for the arts in his country — the consolidation of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters under a single director. In the midst of war, the Russian president found time last week to meet with artists and talk about his idea for the country’s top performing-arts institutions.

According to the Russian state-controlled Tass news agency, Putin advised conductor Valery Gergiev, a noted loyalist and head of the Mariinsky Theatre, “to think about” founding a joint management of the two colossal theaters.

“How do you feel about the idea of re-creating a common directorate?” Putinreportedly asked Gergiev, referring to the system in imperial Russia, before the 1917 revolution, when a single director oversaw the opera, ballet and theater companies in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as their schools.

Reached for comment last week, Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova said in an email, “What is published here by Tass agency is that Mr. Putin suggested Valery Gergiev to think over the idea of united direction the way it was” with the imperial theaters, “and we don’t comment on it.”

What does that potential development portend for the future of the arts in Russia?

“That would be a terrible decision, politically and artistically,” said Jurowski, the conductor. “There’s a danger now that the state, because of the crisis it’s in, will exert even more power over the arts organizations in Russia. That will be a really fatal development over the next few years. I think repression will function in higher gear because the government is now afraid of its own citizens.”

What’s clear is that artists working in Russia now face a pressing moral dilemma.

“I don’t know who will be able to create anything in these circumstances, morally,” said Yury Urnov, co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater. He moved to the United States from Russia 13 years ago.

“It’s hard to rehearse when you know every second that someone is bombing the country next to you. You can’t not think about it. You can’t not talk about it. You can’t not make art about that,” he said.

“You’re connected to it. So people will try to sneak their ideas and feelings and horror into their work — and that means censorship will be coming after them,” Urnov said.

Krymov, reflecting on the future of the arts in his country, fell silent for a moment. “For many people, and for me, too, there is no life without theater,” he said. “But what if people cannot leave? They’ll have to work there. When I think about that I lose control, I go into darkness. I don’t understand.

“I’m thinking about the people who are there, wonderful people who I know and love who have to work there,” he continued. “How are they going to think about that line, the line that marks when they will not be able to work there anymore? Where is the line that they won’t be able to step over? Because they will be faced with it every day.”

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