Criticism on Fridays: End of the Year But Not the War

A Little Prayer for the Russian Artists

By Polina Lyapustina

There’s always a place for a bittersweet sentimentality at the end of the year when we sum up our best and worst moments to see what place this year gets in our personal tops. 

This year, many people cannot think about anything like this, at all.

Quite obviously, they are the people of Ukraine. Those who live with only two feelings firmly rooted in their hearts — fear and hope. Scattered around the world but united like never before. Ukrainian artists and musicians bring their truly great and proud culture everywhere around the globe. Unfortunately, it’s not only that but also loads of pain, condemnation, and curse that are also present (and very powerful). And noone (especially me) can blame them for that. 

And yet, maybe the end of the year is the time to oversee the victims of this terrible war and call out, that they are way, way more than we are allowed to say. I’m talking about the sufferers of the horrifying secret operation of Putin’s assassins. 

I talk about those who were lucky (or silly) enough to think that they got away from the regime years before this war started. Those who finally felt free to express their thoughts and their art. Those who took their well-deserved places on the international stage and served it well. Those who were the stars of the shows and the wonderful second cast singers, the members of the chorus, the stage workers, and many-many others. 

Those, who never shared the path proposed ordered by the Tsar. With all the different stories behind their escapes, they all have the same origin — they are Russian. And, as I can say from my own experience, they paid the price for their new chance in life.

By losing connections, friends, and habits, assimilating in the new countries, and only after a few years, returning in their minds to their native lands — quite idealized by that moment — the lands of childhood happiness, of big trees and funny ice cream which they now understand was horrible. And yet it was the best. This inner world was also shaped by the Silver age of poetry, and tunes of Prokofiev, and the nostalgia of Brodsky. 

But this war is so dreadful that it penetrates even there. It covered everything in shame and blood and pain. No matter if those people in their new countries were ever attacked for being Russian. It was the Russian army that attacked them inside.

It was easy for them to declare (absolutely honestly) that they don’t support Putin and condemn the war. But could it help them? Do you know this feeling when you are afraid to speak your native language in public? Or when your kids say they don’t want to be of their origin anymore? 

We were all afraid of the cancellation of Russian culture and Russian music in the European and U.S. theaters, but as I said many times during the pandemic crisis, art is greater than this. And certainly, it survived all the (fortunately) brief (political) attacks and now even got some (political again!) support. But as we mentioned during the pandemic, Art is its people. And this is where the Great Russian Art was most damaged. 

So many lives and especially artistic lives were harmed on both sides of a new fresh iron curtain. Some big names, like Anna Netrebko, were condemned or used for demonstration execution (either to teach others a lesson or to accurately show their position), while others, like Tugan Sokhiev, found it not possible to continue their artistic or managing activity. And how many unknown artists never got their small, first jobs? How many of them couldn’t get out of bed just to try? 

A young baritone who is still in Russia told me this November that after all these months, the only feelings that he carries with him are tiredness and hopelessness. He expressed the idea that in a way he is envious of the Ukrainian people who “are united and fight for the truth and one day will be victorious, while here we can only rot.”

And he is right. While the entire world understands how important it is to help Ukraine and many things have been done for that, no one ever speaks out about the Russian people, Russian artists, especially young artists, for whom all the doors are now shut down. The only education available is full of propaganda and any resistance is punishable by the total destruction of life. 

Today, the grand theaters of Russia only have open positions for the loyal, young supporters of Putin. Those people on (and behind) the stage will form, very shrewdly and deeply through their art, the consciousness of the young generation of country of 140 million people (though I believe it must be way less after the last 10 years of the regime). The country that is cursed by the whole world and can’t wait for help from anywhere. 

I don’t know if it’s good or bad, or whether I am allowed, but this time, after Christmas and before the New Year I want to raise my voice for the first time since the war began to say what makes my heart bleed every day. I wish my people will be helped too. I wish that young Russian artists will have their future without having to kneel to Putin.

And I wish this pointless war ends soon.