'This has broken my life': Russian artists demand free speech, flee their homeland to protest Ukraine war
- Many Russian artists have long faced the threat of persecution for not supporting official stances, but their criticism of the war put them in danger of imprisonment.
- Many artists in Russia work for theaters that are fully or partially funded through the Russian state, leaving them particularly vulnerable to censorship.
- Amid a harsh crackdown on opposing views, many are unsure if or when it will ever be possible to return.
KOTKA, Finland – Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, a bearded and distraught-looking Ivan Nikolaev, 35, posted a video on YouTube denouncing President Vladimir Putin for the attack.
“Innocent Ukrainian citizens are being murdered as Russia continues to occupy an independent state of Ukraine,” Nikolaev said. “As citizens of Russia, we are all involved in this military crime.”
His wife, Alena Starostina, 38, shared the video on her Facebook page.
Soon after, Russia passed a law against spreading statements not in line with the government narrative. With that, the husband and wife, who had spent their days as longtime performers thoughtfully dissecting plays, were suddenly criminals, facing fines of 1.5 million rubles, or more than $18,000, and up to 15 years in prison.
After a final performance by Starostina, the couple took out as much cash as they could and packed up their small car. They said goodbye to Starostina’s father, who couldn’t believe they were fleeing, and left for Finland.
Within a few days, the couple realized that the war probably would not be over for months.
“It feels like a person close to you is dying, not suddenly of a stroke, but of some terminal torturous disease,” Nikolaev said. But “there is always this silly hope that someone kills (Putin) and this whole thing will be over.”
Nikolaev and Starostina are among the growing numbers of artists who have fled Russia to neighboring Finland in recent weeks. Many have long faced the threat of persecution in Russia for not supporting official stances, but their criticism of the war put them in danger of imprisonment, forcing them to give up their work and make a new home several hours from the Russian border.
Now, amid a harsh crackdown on opposing views, such artists are unsure if or when it will ever be possible to return. They are also worried about the integrity of their work in Putin’s Russia, which has increasingly suppressed free speech and expression.
Starostina and Nikolaev, who worked at a small independent theater company in St. Petersburg, have found themselves closely following Russia’s actions in Ukraine with disgust while applying for work abroad. Nikolaev’s mother had long ago moved to the snowy, southeastern seaside of Kotka, and they have joined her in the tiny one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up flat.
They miss the lives they led, where they created elaborate worlds from words, sets and costumes to explore the futilities and ironies of Russian society. They are worried their art failed to transform the minds of their countrymen, to foster a more open and caring Russia.
“Theater is meant to talk to people and communicate with them, to explain things about the world,” Starostina said. “But it looks like we failed. We couldn’t stop this war, and so I think we are also responsible for it.”
The couple has through May to figure out whether they will be able to get a long-term visa to work in Finland or must otherwise leave. Meanwhile, they are still paying for their apartment back in St. Petersburg, using the rubles in their Russian bank account and saving the few hundred euros they converted before sanctions made it impossible to change the rest of their cash.
“We’re waiting to see which money runs out first,” Nikolaev said – the money in their Russian bank account or their cash.
Life in Russia could mean persecution for artists who oppose Putin
The threats to free-thinking artists in Russia have become more tangible with each passing day.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, some of the actors, stagehands, directors and other theater staff faced warnings of possible “consequences” from authorities for speaking out against the state, Nikolaev said. Once war broke out, those who publicly opposed the invasion were fired from official cultural posts and faced possible imprisonment.
Many artists in Russia work for theaters that are fully or partially funded by the Russian state, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to censorship. That was the case for Starostina and Nikolaev, who ran Theater Post, a small theater that took grants from the Russian government to fund its performances. Even so, many of their performances were put on by activist playwrights and included subtle criticisms of the government.
Nikolaev, who spoke primarily through an interpreter, said he received intimidating messages from authorities over the theater’s performances and his subscription to a newsletter belonging to opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption organization.
Then the theater group’s performances of “The Sad Deity Committee'' and “Ribbons,” by activist Belarussian playwright Pavel Pryazhko, set for March and April, were canceled. The “Sad Deity” tells the story of patriotic, unskilled workers who do not understand that their poverty is the product of their society, Nikolaev said. “Ribbons” tells the terrible and ordinary stories of life under the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator."
While some Russian artists spoke out against the government or quit their positions, many others weren’t able to or chose not to speak up, Nikolaev said.
Nikolaev was sickened by his peers who would not join the opposition.
“Theater is supposed to be about common values, like good and evil, but the biggest names in the Russian theater industry, they all kept quiet,” Nikolaev said. “Just a few people made statements, but most of them, the best around, they haven’t said a word. So how can I keep working with them?”
Nikolaev’s mother, Valentina Lyakhova, who emigrated to Finland for work in 2004, was grateful when her son and his wife finally arrived at her flat. They were finally safe.
She gave her son and wife her bed, choosing to sleep on the floor to give them comfort. She said she worries for their safety and obsessively monitors the news, but she tries not to think of what may happen if her son and daughter-in-law must return to Russia. She, too, shared Nikolaev’s video on her social media and supports their outspokenness because “not doing anything is also a way of destroying yourself.”
Attending anti-war protests in Russia is dangerous
After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, celebrated playwright Mikhail Durnenkov went to protests in Moscow daily for a week, messaging friends on Telegram that he was “going for a walk” as code.
He worried his communications were being monitored by the Russian government.
Durnenkov has spoken out against the Russian government before. His most well-known play, “The War Has Not Started Yet,” was written after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and features characters bombarded by state propaganda. Durnenkov was arrested for protesting.
As the war continued, Durnenkov’s friends abroad urged him to leave. It was a difficult decision, he said.
“I’m a writer. I write in Russian,” he said.
It wasn’t until he, his wife, their 15-year-old son and their dachshund, Kubrik, crossed the border into Finland on March 18 in their Hyundai Solaris that he realized how much tension he had been holding in his muscles. His hunched body suddenly felt lighter and taller.
During his first few days, Durnenkov said he was in shock but slowly came to realize “my life is broken. It is completely ruined.”
“I’m between (worlds),” Durnenkov said. “Abroad you’re the invader, and in your country you’re a traitor.”
While he is working in Finland on a play that was arranged before the war, he said he feels powerless and knows he could be arrested if he returns to Moscow. At the same time, the destruction and violence he sees in Ukraine is unbearable: He has never felt more Russian in his life, and never wanted to not be Russian more.
“When I was in Russia, I had a feeling this war was started in my name, and I wanted to be as distant from the country as possible, like my identity was part of the state,” Durnenkov said. “Now I have a right to say, ‘them.’”
Durnenkov has been given space to work inside a former psychiatric hospital in Helsinki along the Baltic Sea, a studio and common space run by the nonprofit Artists at Risk, which helps artists facing persecution flee their homeland and relocate. The organization has assisted artists – including members of the famed feminist Moscow-based punk rock protest group Pussy Riot – in Belarus, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Egypt and elsewhere.
Finland and Russia have always had a close bond, especially among artists, said Marita Muukkonen, who co-founded Artists at Risk. She said at least 220 Russian artists have applied for a safe haven through the program, including Nikolaev and Starostina. She noted that when Finland was part of the Russian empire, it flourished because many intellectuals went through Helsinki to St. Petersburg at the time. Now there is a type of reverse migration as Russian dissidents leave for Finland.
"If we want to change governments and have more democratic governments, we need dissidents," Muukkonen said. "We need those people who speak up. If we hope that there will be a new power in Russia, it means that the dissidents have to continue their fight."
Like many Russian dissidents, Durnenkov yearns to return to Russia one day and build change from within. He doesn’t know when or how, as long as his son is safe outside the country.
He worries he didn’t do enough to challenge the Russian government and its followers during his years creating art in Moscow. He said he lived in a liberal bubble, cutting off people who didn’t share his beliefs, unfriending people on social media after the annexation of Crimea. He yearns to listen and connect with people with different and contradictory opinions.
“It’s very nice to be brave in your bubble,” Durnenkov said. But “my words were invisible for them. Maybe this was my mistake.”
Or “maybe it’s not about art. Maybe art is not enough. I feel Russian culture has failed.”
War has changed how some Russians view Ukraine
For Aleksey Yudnikov, 48, an actor with the Moscow theater Teatr.doc, known for its artistic independent plays with social commentary, the past few weeks in Finland have felt like a “bad trip” in more ways than one.
Yudnikov lived in Russia for 30 years and mostly considers himself Russian – his father comes from a long line of Russian military officers – but he has a Ukrainian passport. That’s because he was born in Kyiv when it was ruled by the Soviet Union and spent his summers there with his grandparents. His background is emblematic of the complicated identities frequently found among former Soviet and Russian nationals.
Not many among his social group knew of his Ukrainian passport until war broke out, he said. It had not really mattered much before. But because his mother and brother live in Kyiv, he felt he needed to leave Russia. He left by train for St. Petersburg, then by bus for Helsinki.
Yudnikov had hoped to stay with a friend in Tel Aviv, Israel, and hopped on the next flight there. But a wave of Ukrainian Jews fleeing to Israel instead resulted in him being placed overnight in a deportation holding cell equipped with bunk beds, a steel door and bars on the windows, and then, with official apologies from a Knesset member, spending a surreal two days at a COVID-19 hotel where people are typically quarantined.
He was offered group therapy with other newly arrived Ukrainians from cities across Ukraine as he waited for the next Finnair flight to return him to Helsinki.
Once he returned to Finland, he was given space to work by Artists at Risk at their studio. Because of his Ukrainian citizenship, he is able to apply for temporary protected status.
“For many years I didn’t feel a deep identity with Ukraine. It was just the place I was born, the place where my grandfather and grandmother died,” Yudnikov said.
Everything changed for him eight years ago, after Putin annexed Crimea.
Since then, Putin’s push to merge Ukraine back with Russia and erase its unique identity has backfired for Yudnikov and friends of his who share a Ukrainian identity. He noted how some have moved from Moscow to Ukraine in the past few years, shockingly reclaiming their heritage while he has remained in Russia. Today, he feels a sense of guilt over his identity, as if having not staunchly identified as Ukrainian has helped validate Putin’s claim that Ukraine isn’t a sovereign nation.
In his new country, Yudnikov doesn’t eat or sleep well. He's glued to his phone checking Telegram channels for news, contacting his mother and brother every time there is a bombing, and processing his shock over the war.
In a group therapy session recently, he listened to Ukrainians from Mariupol and Kharkiv tell their stories of escape. Yudnikov, a man who almost never cries, teared up, he said.
“This has broken my life,” Yudnikov said.
‘I wish I could forget’
On a recent afternoon, Nikolaev sat in a chair in his mother’s living room, taking long drags on a vape pen with the words “USA'' and an image of a New York cab on the outside. On the wall behind him was a framed photograph of his grandfather, with the same facial features, proudly wearing his Russian military uniform.
Seeing what Russian soldiers have done and the “disaster” that was Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were found murdered by Russian soldiers, some with their hands tied behind their backs or in mass graves, has made Nikolaev feel ashamed of his heritage.
“I wish I could forget my own language,” Nikolaev said. “But I don’t know any other one well enough yet.”
Starostina cried when she spoke to her father by phone the other day. He has bought into the Russian propaganda, she said, and claims Russia and its citizens are a victim of the Ukrainian state. Nikolaev’s father, a well-known Russian television star of police dramas, works hard to rationalize Putin's actions.
Since fleeing home, Starostina and Nikolaev have been unable to create new art. Their faith in the value of art and its shared experience was shaken.
Still, Starostina said, there are embers of a brighter tomorrow.
On a recent night at the philharmonic in Kotka, the orchestra played the Ukrainian national anthem as Nikolaev and Starostina stood up and listened, tears in their eyes. They let themselves feel hope that in a country with more freedom of expression, it might be possible for them to make art again, and for it to matter.
Translation work by Elena Tarashanskaja