Dissidents of Russian culture face the dilemma between silence and exile


The Kremlin effectively took control of Russia’s cultural industry as the invasion of Ukraine prompted an intensification of repression – with concerts canceled, theater managers sacked and artists arrested. All this poses a dilemma for writers, singers, directors and other Russians: do they leave to ensure their safety and their freedom of expression, or do they remain at all costs in solidarity with the Russian people?

Punk-rave band Little Big were among the latest figures in Russian culture to have to flee the country last month. The lyrics of the new song they released after their exile says it all: “I don’t, I don’t / I don’t have a voice / Die or go, die or go / I don’t no choice,” goes a verse in that tune, “Generation Cancellation.”

“We condemn the actions of the Russian government and are so disgusted by the Kremlin’s military propaganda that we have decided to drop everything and leave the country,” the group wrote in a statement quoted by the independent news site Meduza. .

This hitherto apolitical group, formed in St. Petersburg in 2013, is the latest in a string of cultural figures who left Russia after opposing the invasion of Ukraine – including rock star Zemfira, who recently fled to France, and Boris Grebenchtchikov, leader of the Aquarium group, who called Vladimir Putin’s war “pure madness”.

“The Napoleonic plans of our Caesar”

“Grebenchtchikov left because he thought he could express himself better abroad,” said Clementine Fujimora, professor of anthropology and Russian analyst at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “That way he can keep playing gigs and posting new songs on Telegram, Instagram and Facebook.”

The singer recently released two songs about the horrors of war in Ukraine, “Obdidaba” and “Vorozhba”. In the latter, Grebenshchikov sings black magic spells that “grow coffins in our hearts.”

Other dissident musicians have remained in Russia, but are paying a high price. A Russian rock icon, Yuri Shevchuck of the band DDT, was on stage in Ufa, central Russia, in May when he said: “Patriotism is not about fucking the president’s ass while time “.

After criticizing Putin on several occasions in recent years, the 65-year-old dean of contemporary Russian music also lamented that “Ukrainian and Russian youth are dying” because of the “Napoleonic plans of our Caesar”.

In response, all of Shevchuk’s concerts were canceled and he was prosecuted for “discrediting” the Russian military.

The clearest sign of escalating repression in Russia is a law decreeing that spreading “false information” about the Russian military is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The legislation was put in place in early March, a week after the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow says is just a “special military operation”. Analysts say the law demonstrates that Russia’s mode of government has shifted from authoritarianism to a form of totalitarianism.

One of the main victims of this crackdown is artist and activist Alexandra Skochilenko – whose crime was replacing price tags in supermarkets with anti-war messages.

To avoid prison, others had to escape quickly. In May, Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina dressed up as a food delivery girl to escape police surveillance and get to safety across the Lithuanian border.

“I will stay here as long as I am not in danger,” Manija, the singer who represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest 2021, told Radio France Internationale. “I think there are a lot of people in Russia who share my point of view,” she said. Nevertheless, her concerts have been canceled since she took a stand against the invasion of Ukraine.

“Fear of cultural figures”

Thus returns one of the old dilemmas of the Soviet era: do writers, musicians and artists stay by defiance, even if they risk losing everything? Or are they leaving to be safe and speak freely?

“During the Soviet period, dissident cultural figures who left the country often felt a certain guilt because they were leaving people behind,” Fujimura said, noting that many in Russia questioned the loyalty of some exiles.

Fujimura mentioned the most famous dissident of all, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, essayist and historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who left the USSR for the United States in 1974. “Come back sooner,” she observed.

This question resurfaces in the current context. Explaining her promise not to leave Russia at the start of the Ukrainian war, Diana Arbenina of the 1990s rock band Night Snipers quoted a line from a 1992 poem by Anna Akhmatova: “I was with my people, where my people and their misfortune were.

“Most of the artists I follow on social media have no intention of leaving; they want to stay, even though they have been fined, threatened and banned from performing,” Fujimora said. “The Russian regime has always been afraid of cultural figures expressing themselves through social media – or any other medium – because they have the ability to change people’s consciousness.”

But it seems that it will only be more difficult to be a writer, artist or musician in Russia. Not only does the Kremin cut off dissenting voices, but it also wants to harness the creative arts to serve its national narrative — especially within Russia’s most influential institutions.

The heads of the Sovremennik Theater and the Gogol Center in Moscow were ousted in early March. “From an artistic point of view, it’s not just sabotage, it’s murder,” fumes Kirill Serebrennikov, artistic director-in-exile of the Gogol Center, renowned for having made the performing arts center a world leader in avant-garde theatre. Since then, more than twenty other theater managers have been fired.

This article has been translated from the original in French.


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