How Russian artists are coping with the war in Ukraine
How are Russian artists doing in Switzerland while their country is waging war on Ukraine? SWI swissinfo.ch talks to three musicians about the impact the conflict has had on their work and their relationship with their homeland.
This content was published on October 28, 2022 – 09:00
The number of people who have left Russia since the start of the war is difficult to estimate. Many left on tourist visas. Some of those who were already abroad decided not to return. Among them are artists now living in Switzerland.
At the start of the war, Anton Ponomarev and his Swiss wife were in Moscow, visiting his parents to introduce them to their two-month-old granddaughter. On February 27, they took the last direct flight to Switzerland. The following day, Ponomarev took part in a demonstration in support of Ukraine in the center of Zurich.
Before moving to the Swiss city in 2021, Ponomarev had worked as a psychologist and a musician.
“In the morning, I worked with children who have intellectual disabilities, he says. In the afternoon, I composed and played the saxophone.”
Upon returning to Switzerland, Ponomarev joined Russian punk band Pussy Riot and performed on stage with them to raise money for a children’s hospital in Kyiv.
“It’s not a project where I perform as a musician – it’s more of a performance than a concert,” he said. “But given what’s been going on since February, supporting Pussy Riot and Ukraine felt important to me.”
Alexander Boldachev came to Switzerland in 2005 to pursue music studies. In 2019, he obtained Swiss nationality. The war catches up with him while he is at his mother’s house in Saint Petersburg.
A harpist, Boldachev has achieved a lot: he was a soloist at the Bolshoi Theater and played at the opening of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. He is currently filming in a theatrical adaptation of the play Orpheus, accompanied by Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova, who has been living in exile since the start of the war.
In March 2022, he and his colleagues founded the community LYUDY – Cultural Solidarity in Zurich.
“We have built an academy where refugee children from Ukraine receive free music lessons,” he said. A choir was founded under the direction of Tatiana Severnchuk from Ukraine and the Swiss Asylum Orchestra.
There, refugees from Ukraine, Belarus and Syria play music together. Alongside Ukrainian musicians, Boldachev also organizes benefit concerts with the orchestra, including one which took place at Zurich’s Tonhalle in September. The title of the event was “For Harmony”.
Lose the desire to make music
Siberian electronic musician Stas Sharifullin, known under the pseudonym HMOT, was curator for sound art and sound studies at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. In the winter of 2022 he came to Basel for a Pro Helvetia residency to continue his research on multi-channel music. After the invasion of Ukraine began, he decided to stay.
“It became clear that it was a bad idea to come back after that,” he said.
For the moment, he has lost part of his desire to make music.
“I have all my instruments with me,” he said. “Sometimes I play the piano at night, but I don’t feel like making music like before.” That’s partly because, since Feb. 24, he’s spent more time helping people than composing.
“Time is running out because other things are more urgent,” he said. “So the music took a bit of a step back.”
He stressed, however, that he did not want to say goodbye to Russian culture: “I have friends who no longer want to identify with Russia, who say they will never go back there.”
” But I can not. I love Siberia and I like working with the Russian language. I think it’s more than the language of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy – it’s much wider and needs to be reclaimed.”
The war changed its direction. Sharifullin is now much more interested in Russia’s relations with “underdeveloped” Siberia or in solving the genocide of Bashkirs, Circassians and other ethnic groups.
“No one knows about this, not even in Russia and certainly not in the West,” he said.
Against the colonial use of culture
For Sharifullin, it is important to tell all these stories. He hopes they will help uncover the colonial nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine and get rid of illusions about “brother peoples”. This includes old Soviet rhetoric about the deep brotherly bond between Russians and Ukrainians currently used in propaganda.
Boldachev also sees it that way.
“I love Russian culture, and it cannot be blamed for its use for propaganda purposes,” he said. That’s why he now plays Russian and Ukrainian music. “Not to show that we are ‘brother peoples’, but to create something new together,” he said. “We must establish new relations – not as vassals and not in an imperial way, but in a universal way.”
Adapted from German by Catherine Hickley
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