From top musicians to museum staff, thousands…

From top musicians to museum staff, thousands of arts workers are taking a public stand against the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine. New Russian laws mean that speaking out puts their livelihoods, freedom and safety even more at risk.

While the war of Ukraine entered its second week, more than 17,000 Russian cultural sector workers signed an open letter demanding the withdrawal of troops from Russia and calling the war “senseless and pointless”.

“The reasoning behind this so-called ‘special military operation’ is a construct entirely made by representatives of the Russian state. We are opposed to this war being fought in our name,” they wrote.

Leading Russian personalities on the international art scene have also denounced the Russian invasion.

On February 25, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Petrenko, described by Vladimir Putin as an “insidious attack on Ukraine”.

Artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva have pulled out of the Venice Biennale with a Instagram statement saying “there is no place for art when civilians are dying under missile fire”.

And nearly 20 musicians made statements against the war at the classical music magazine Van. “How do I feel now?” Pain, devastation, shame,” wrote pianist Polina Osetinskaya.

‘The stakes are high’

Such outspoken opposition to decisions made by the Russian president is rare and dangerous. According to independent monitoring group OVD, more than 8,000 people had been arrested for taking part in anti-war protests in Russia as of March 4, nine days after Putin invaded Ukraine.

On March 4, the Russian parliament upped the ante by passing a new law providing for tougher penalties for public dissent. Russians who are seen as discrediting the armed forces, spreading “false information” or calling for unauthorized public action could now face various penalties, including long prison sentences.

“The stakes are high,” Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia researcher, told FRANCE 24. and very heavy fines.

At the same time, Russia’s growing media restrictions make it unlikely that counter-narratives about opponents of the regime will surface. Some high profile opponents have already been the subject of posts online sharing their image with words such as “traitor” or “enemy” scrawled on it.

“We don’t know who is behind all this, it could be just one person or the Telegram channel,” Prilutskaya said. “What is really worrying is that there are groups in society who support the war and we can expect there to be acts where some of these people might want to attack those who express.”

Most of the 17,000 signatories of the letter are museum curators or art critics working in the cultural sector, who are not well enough known to be the subject of such messages. That doesn’t mean they’re safe. “Ordinary people risk a lot, especially those who live in small towns. There are all kinds of dangers they face,” Prilutskaya said. “But they still found it necessary to speak out about it.”

“War destroys everything”

Meanwhile, Western countries are rapidly removing Russian culture from their schedules.

In addition to being excluded from international events such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Cannes, Glasgow and Stockholm film festivals have also announced a boycott of Russian delegations.

In New York and London, opera houses and classical music halls have canceled Russian music and ballet performances. The Metropolitan Opera in New York added that it would no longer work with artists or institutions that support Putin’s policies.

In the Netherlands, the Hermitage Amsterdam, which is a subsidiary of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, has cut ties with the Russian institution. “War destroys everything. Even 30 years of collaboration,” he said in a statement on March 3.

A worldwide rejection of Russian art and culture presents its own risks, Prilutskaya said. “If this continues, we fear that these people [in Russia] who speak out and those who want to be heard would effectively be imprisoned in their country.

“And Russian propaganda is also pretty good at perverting what’s going on, so they can say, ‘We’ve been telling you this for ages. The West is against Russia as a whole. It’s not against Putin, or against one of the oligarchs, it is against Russia.

“An act of cowardice”

Some Russian artists have already found themselves caught between the demands of Western cultural institutions and the Russian authorities.

The Munich Philharmonic sacked famed conductor Valery Gergiev on March 1 for refusing to speak out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Gergiev has known the Russian president for three decades and has long supported him. He was also dismissed as honorary conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Opera star Anna Netrebko has also lost engagements in Germany, Switzerland and the United States due to her ties to Putin. The soprano celebrated her 50th birthday by singing in the Kremlin and publicly supported the president’s election campaign in 2014.

In a Facebook post she has since said she is “opposed to this war”, but refrained from mentioning Putin by name. She added: “I am not a political person. Forcing artists, or any public figure, to express their political views in public and denounce their homeland is not right.

Even so, given her close ties to Putin, New York’s Metropolitan Opera said it was “hard to imagine a scenario” in which she would perform there again.

“One argument is that art and politics should be separate, but not speaking out in this particular situation is whether you support war and absolutely brutal, unnecessary, senseless killing,” Prilutskaya said.

“Some very high-level artists have long enjoyed closeness to the highest leaders in Russia. That could be their position, that they’re okay with what’s going on [in Ukraine]. Or is this an act of cowardice by people who are probably in a better position than many of those 17,000 people who signed the open letter? »

While the balance of power may work against them, culture workers who have spoken out against the war are not alone. Russian medical professionals started their own open letter which gathered 15,000 signatories before February 28. Some 30,000 Russian computer scientists and 600 scientists also did the same.

In a country of 144 million people, these acts are still what Prilutskaya calls “little shoots” of resistance that need support to grow stronger. But, she added, “there is hope. The bigger the anti-war movement, the more likely it is that Russian aggression will at least diminish.

“And the scale of the protests and the fact that there are all these letters from different parts of society is unprecedented.”

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