Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 27 December 2022

He is one of Russia’s most esteemed musicians. Why he left 

An audience with Mikhail Voskresensky, former head of the piano section at the Moscow Conservatory

 © Cristiana Couceiro He is one of Russia’s most esteemed musicians. Why he left on twitter (opens in a new window) He is one of Russia’s most esteemed musicians. Why he left on facebook (opens in a new window) He is one of Russia’s most esteemed musicians. Why he left on linkedin (opens in a new window) He is one of Russia’s most esteemed musicians. Why he left on whatsapp (opens in a new window) Share Save Gillian Tett DECEMBER 22 2022 77 Print this page Stay across the latest Ukraine coverage.Join the FT's Telegram channel Earlier this week, in a cramped rental flat in the Bronx with a small Christmas tree, I had the privilege of chatting with one of Russia’s most esteemed musicians. Mikhail Voskresensky is the former head of the piano section at the celebrated Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky was once a professor. Now 87, he had assumed he would spend the rest of his life in Moscow. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live there. He still performed frequently. And he had lived in the city for decades, spanning the Stalinist era through perestroika to current president Vladimir Putin. “I never wanted to leave,” he told me. But then Putin invaded Ukraine. Voskresensky is ethnically Russian, but was born in Berdyansk, Ukraine. Having witnessed German bombing as a small child and lost his father in combat, he hates war and thinks invading Ukraine “utterly stupid”. But when he shared his opposition with his colleagues at the Conservatory, he was shocked to learn that most either wanted to stay silent — or supported it. “It was a wound to me, that intelligent, cultured people would think that,” he said. “They had been brainwashed to think that Russia itself was under attack from Nato.” In the spring he decided to flee — as some 700,000 other Russians have since February, according to Russian media reports — and contacted friends at the Aspen Music Festival in the US to ask for an invitation that would provide the chance to defect. Several months passed before he got the visa and Covid-19 vaccinations in place. All the while, Voskresensky had to keep his plans secret from others, including most of his family. But eventually he, his wife and their four-year-old son escaped and applied for asylum. They are now living in New York City, hoping US immigration services will grant Voskresensky permission to work. The upheaval was huge, and he was grief-stricken at leaving behind his extended family, some of whom, to his horror, denounced him. But he felt it was too dangerous to stay. “Look at Ilya Yashin!” he said, referring to the opposition politician sentenced to eight and a half years in jail last week for denouncing the war. It was a haunting moment and, for me, underlined a point often overlooked, namely that — amid the Russian state’s brutality towards Ukraine — there are many brave and decent Russians. It sounds obvious. But one ghastly consequence of Putin’s brutal campaign is that it has sparked a wider revulsion towards Russians and their culture. Alan Fletcher, president of the Aspen Music Festival, knows this all too well. When he first told his colleagues that he wanted to invite Voskresensky to America, “there was such a deep split [on the board] that we could not even take a vote”, he said. Some wanted to ban all Russian artists and music, until Fletcher persuaded them otherwise The Voskresensky saga also reveals widening splits in Russia’s intelligentsia. He is certainly not the only artist opposed to the war. Just last week Vera Polozkova, a poet and actor living overseas, called Putin the “main maniac of the 21st century”. Recommended FT MagazineGillian Tett Should Russian composers be banned in the wake of the war? Voskresensky knows such protest is rare. Public life in Russia is dominated by increasingly extreme nationalist rhetoric. (This week top TV hosts bantered about Russian troops invading London.) “I think a majority of Russians do not support the war in private, but many people are afraid. I remember the Stalin regime, when everyone was afraid to speak out, and it is in our genetic code to be afraid of repression, prison and losing our jobs. That changed in perestroika, and after. Now it is back.” That raises a final point: as refuseniks head for the exits, they could be reshaping the Russian intellectual and creative elite for years to come. In the short term, their loss is curbing internal opposition to Putin (with the notable exception of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, who is being held in increasingly squalid conditions). In the longer term, it also threatens to undermine future efforts to build a civil society. As Voskresensky pointed out, in the decades since the Soviet Union collapsed, voters in Ukraine have steadily, albeit imperfectly, embraced a novel sense of agency, a belief that they can replace leaders they dislike. “I have friends there, so I have seen how people there have smelt democracy.” In Russia, by contrast, Putin’s war has undermined any sense of agency among ordinary Russians, even as it has stoked it further among the Ukrainians. This is tragic for Russia and has had more horrific consequences for Ukrainians. But even at his advanced age, Voskresensky hopes that someday he will be able to go home. “I can’t while Putin is there, but who knows?”

No comments:

Post a Comment