Russian artists face the same dilemma as their Soviet ancestors: stay or go?
With few exceptions, most Russian artists who oppose the war have been relegated to releasing songs, posting artwork, or posting articles on social media.
Boris Grebenshchikov is an artist who took to social media following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On April 16, 2022, Grebenshchikov posted a song on the Telegram messaging app – and later on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook – with the unsettling line: “But none of us will get out of here alive.” A few days later, her flow went silent. People started to worry about his safety.
A crackdown on free speech has made life more risky for dissident artists critical of Vladimir Putin and the war.
This has forced many of them to flee or to consider fleeing the country altogether – not easy, as Russians have traditionally not looked kindly on artists who have fled in times of crisis.
The fight against Stalin
During the Soviet era, many talented authors, poets and musicians cultivated an underground culture of opposition to resist government repression.
Different movements emerged, each with its own style and purpose.
One of them, the Acmeist movement, included poets Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam. The three spoke out against the brutality of Joseph Stalin at a time when he tried to silence any artist who did not echo his propaganda or support his political agenda.
In “The Stalin Epigram,” a satirical poem written in 1933, Mandelstam wrote of the climate of terror under Stalin:
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses he toys with the tributes of half-men. One whistles, another meows, a third snivels. He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom. He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes, One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye. He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries. He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
These poets – along with many others – became the targets of the regime: Gumilev was shot, Akhmatova ostracized until 1940 and Mandelstam sent to the gulag, where he died.
Meanwhile, Stalin demanded that composers write optimistic and triumphant music. But for Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, there was little to celebrate. During the Great Purge – when Stalin executed or imprisoned millions suspected of opposing the Communist Party – his friends kept disappearing. Family members were shot.
To escape persecution, Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony to end on what seemed like a positive note, using the same key as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. But above all, the music contains instructions to be executed at half the expected speed.
The result, Shostakovich later explained, is a sound of joy that seems “forced, created under threat. It’s like someone hitting you with a stick and saying, “Your business rejoices, your business rejoices.”
The subtle dig went unrecorded by Stalin, who interpreted the piece as a hymn to his reign.
Soviet rockers yearn for freedom
Although there was a period of political thaw under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, which eased repression and freed millions from gulag labor camps, artists who spoke out against the regime still ran considerable risks.
From the mid-1960s, after Leonid Brezhnev assumed the post of Soviet premier, rock music flourished underground, providing an expressive outlet for a generation that yearned for a definitive end to censorship, oppression and persecution. These musicians were the heroes of Russian youth and they risked their lives performing in hidden places with well-planned escape routes.
While state-sponsored bands such as Zemlyane and Poyushchiye Gitary appeared on TV to play syrupy love ballads and sing about the country’s prosperity, dissident singers and rockers like Bulat Okudzhava and Victor Tsoi performed in seedy basements and cramped apartments.
Songs like Victor Tsoi’s “Changes” spoke of the desire and frustration of the younger generation:
Our hearts demand changes! Our eyes demand changes! In our laughter, in our tears, And in the pulsing of our veins We are waiting for change.
The dilemma of flight
As Putin, like Stalin, threatens to persecute those who rise up against him, Russian artists face an age-old dilemma: suffer with their people or move to places where they will be freer to pursue their work.
Under Stalin, the poet Anna Akhmatova stayed put, despite the fact that some of her peers chose to leave. She was hailed for her heroism, and in 1922 she criticized those who fled with a poem titled “I am not one of those who left their land”.
As an anthropologist studying contemporary Russian culture and society, I have found that Russians tend to question the allegiance of artists who left on their own or did not return after being exiled and had the opportunity to return.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was sent to a labor camp in 1945, where he was imprisoned for eight years. In 1973, he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled from the country after publishing “The Gulag Archipelago”, which detailed life in Soviet forced labor camps.
Yet feelings were mixed after Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia in 1994. Many Russians felt that, even if he had been exiled, he should have returned as soon as he was allowed to – in 1990 – and experienced the turmoil and post-Soviet difficulties. alongside his compatriots.
Social networks as a tool of resistance
While many Russians swallowed the messages delivered to them by Putin’s propaganda machine, many did not. Citizens who feel scared and disillusioned feed on the hope they glean from artists who speak out against war.
During a recent conversation with a friend in Russia, I asked if and how current events are discussed.
“Very carefully,” she replied. “Often discussing the creations of our beloved artists.”
Yet acts of public defiance are becoming increasingly difficult to perform.
Alexandra Skochilenko, a 31-year-old performance artist, faces up to 10 years in prison for spreading “knowingly false information” after she replaced price tags in a grocery store with stories about the war in Ukraine. Yuri Shevchuk and his band, DDT, stopped performing after Shevchuk was charged with a misdemeanor in May 2022 for insulting Putin during a performance. Maria Alyokhina, the leader of the punk band Pussy Riot, recently fled Russia before she could be arrested. In order to escape, she left her cell phone behind to avoid being found.
However, artists today have access to something their Soviet ancestors did not have: social media.
With the internet as a powerful and valuable tool for professing opposition to Putin, Russian artists are wondering if there’s any value in staying – and if they might be able to more effectively resist Putin from abroad in as “net-citizens”.
Grebenshchikov, the artist whose feed went silent in April, reappeared nearly two weeks later, posting videos on Instagram, Facebook and Telegram in which he performs against blue skies. His whereabouts are unknown, but with concerts scheduled internationally, it’s probably not Russia; he wrote about his plans to perform in Cyprus, Israel and the Netherlands in the coming months.
Yes, the mass departure of artists portends the loss of artistic culture in person in Russia. But on the other hand, online posts can, at the very least, support Russia’s dying dissident cultures.