Dissidents of Russian culture face dilemma between silence and exile

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The Kremlin has effectively taken over Russia’s culture industry as the invasion of Ukraine prompted intensifying repression – with cancelled concerts, theatre directors sacked and artists arrested. All this poses a dilemma for Russian writers, singers, directors and the like: do they leave to ensure their safety and free expression, or do they stay 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 to the new song they released upon their exile says it all: “I’ve got no, I’ve got no / I’ve got no voice / Die or leave, die or leave / I’ve got no choice,” goes one verse in this tune, “Generation Cancellation”.

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

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

‘Our Caesar’s Napoleonic plans’

“Grebenchtchikov left because he thought he could express himself better abroad,” said Clementine Fujimora, a professor of anthropology and Russia analyst at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “This way he can carry on playing concerts and post new songs on Telegram, Instagram and Facebook.”

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

Other dissident musicians have stayed in Russia – but are paying a heavy price. An icon of Russian rock, Yuri Shevchuck from the band DDT, was on stage in central Russia’s Ufa in May when he declared: “patriotism isn’t about kissing the president’s arse all the time”.

After repeatedly criticising Putin over the past several years, the 65-year-old doyen of contemporary Russian music also lamented that the “youth of Ukraine and Russia are dying” because of “our Caesar’s Napoleonic plans”.

In response, all of Shevchuk’s concerts have been cancelled and he is being prosecuted for “discrediting” the Russian army.

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

One of the most prominent victims of this repressive measure is artist and activist Alexandra Skochilenko – whose crime was to have replaced price tags in supermarkets with anti-war messages.

To avoid prison, others have had to make quick getaways. In May, Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina disguised herself as a food delivery worker to escape police surveillance and reach safety across the Lithuanian border.

“I’ll stay here as long as I’m not in danger,” Manija, the singer who represented Russia in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, told Radio France Internationale. “I think there are many people in Russia who share my view,” she said. Nevertheless, the singer says she's had her concerts cancelled since she took a stand against the invasion of Ukraine.

‘Afraid of cultural figures’

So one of the old dilemmas from the Soviet era is returning: do writers, musicians and artists stay as an act of defiance, even if they risk losing everything? Or do they leave so they can 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 some exiles’ loyalty.

Fujimura mentioned the most famous dissident of them all, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, essayist and historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who left the USSR for the US in 1974. “When he returned from exile in 1994, some expressed anger that he hadn’t come back sooner,” she observed.

This issue is resurfacing in the current context. Explaining her promise not to leave Russia at the outset of the Ukraine war, Diana Arbenina from 1990s rock band Night Snipers cited a line from a 1992 Anna Akhmatova poem: “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 if they’ve been fined, threatened and banned from performing concerts,” Fujimora said. “The Russian regime has always been afraid of cultural figures expressing themselves through social media – or indeed any other media – because they have the ability to change people’s consciences.”

But it looks like it will only get more difficult to be a writer, artist or musician in Russia. Not only is the Kremin cutting off dissident voices, it also wants to put the creative arts in the service of its national narrative – especially within Russia’s most influential institutions.

The heads of the Sovremennik Theatre and Gogol Centre in Moscow were ousted in early March. “From the point of view of art, this is not just sabotage – this is murder,” fumed Kirill Serebrennikov, the Gogol Centre’s exiled artistic director, renowned for making the performing arts centre a world leader in avant-garde theatre. Since then twenty more theatre directors have been sacked.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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