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Russian and Ukrainian Musicians Caught Between Conflict, Bitter Rhetoric and Bans

Andrei Makarevich wears a ribbon with the colors of the Ukrainian Flag in the March of Peace in Moscow on March 15th. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

Andrei Makarevich wears a ribbon with the colors of the Ukrainian Flag in the March of Peace in Moscow on March 15th. Image from Wikimedia Commons

As Russian singer Andrei Makarevich was performing at the House of Music in Moscow on September 25, members of the unregistered nationalist party “Other Russia” disrupted the show, yelled “Traitor!” threw eggs and leaflets, and released pepper spray into the theater.

Makarevich recently performed in the Donetsk region, which, in light of the increasingly aggressive nationalist tensions building as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, proved to be enough to brand Makarevich a Ukraine sympathizer in the eyes of pro-Russian activists. As the conflict unfolds, political borders turn into cultural borders, and artists on both sides suffer the consequences.

Russian artists denounced

The Russian and Ukrainian music scenes have always been intertwined. Young Ukrainian artists would come to Moscow looking for fame and fortune, while Russian celebrities would go to Ukraine on tour. The two countries have always been connected through culture, languages and history. But as nationalist rhetoric gets more heated, cultural exchange is suffering.

Together with some Ukrainian artists, Makarevich, leader of the well-know Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), performed for children of refugees in the Donetsk region, near Slovyansk and Svyatogorsk, in the beginning of August.

Donetsk, a city within the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, has been at the center of summer’s Russia-Ukraine conflict, ever since it was taken over by pro-Russian separatists in April. Although an official ceasefire was declared in September, violent clashes continue.  

After he returned to Russia, Makarevich wrote a column about his trip for Russia’s Snob magazine, which ignited heated debates in pro-Kremlin Mass Media. Headlines accused Makarevich of performing for Ukrainian occupation troops.  Well-known Russian figures used their platforms to publicly denounce him.

Joseph Kobzon, an iconic Russian singer and politician said :

И говорить о том, что демократия позволяет каждому иметь свое мнение… Свое мнение – да, но демократия не позволяет быть предателями своей страны.

[There is no point in] saying that democracy allows everyone to have their own opinion. Your opinion – yes, but democracy doesn’t allow you [to become] a traitor of your country.

Russian MP Yevgeny Fyodorov suggested revoking all the state awards that Makarevich has previously received. Another MP, Dmitry Livintsev, offered to deport Makarevich from the country.

“Andrei Makarevich has been working with fascists for a long time. He made this choice a while ago, when he came to the side of the enemies of the Russian Federation,” Fyodorov told to Izvestia newspaper. 

After Nashe Radio, the organizer of the rock festival Nashestvie, announced that Mashina Vremeni would perform at the closing concert of the festival, its website was flooded with angry comments and calls to boycott the festival. (Nashestviye itself had a strong military presence, including tanks, soldiers in uniform, and a recruiting station.) 

After three weeks of bullying, Makarevitch wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin asking him to “stop this [witches’] Sabbath.” He has since postponed a forthcoming Ukraine tour, claiming health reasons.

Nochnye Snaipery, another well-known Russian rock band, is no longer welcome to perform in several Russian cities after Diana Arbenina, the band’s leader, was accused of expressing sympathy with the Ukrainian people. Diana Arbenina believes that her October concert in Vladimir was cancelled because her band performed in Kyiv in July. At least nine concerts of Arbenina have been cancelled in the past few months.

During her concert in Kyiv Arbenina said

Я за то, что бы нас не могли разлучить и поссорить наши народы […] Меня никто об этом не просил, но мне кажется, что сейчас очень правильно перед лицом Всевышнего попросить прощения за своих коллег, за тех людей, которые играют рок-н-ролл и, которые почему-то вас до сих не поддержали в страшное для Украины время

I support the idea that nothing can separate us and split our people. […] No one asked me to do this. In the face of the Almighty, I want to ask for forgiveness for my colleagues, for those people who play rock and roll, and for some reason haven’t yet supported you in the worst time for Ukraine.

After her concerts were cancelled all over Russia, Arbenina issued a video message on YouTube. 

She said: 

Причини по которому это случилось очень разные. потекла крыша. был ремонт в клубе. плошадку внезапно забирали под другие городские нужды. и все ето конечно же вранье. я хочу вам сказат што мы все равно приедем. ждите нас пожалуйста, мы делаем все што би ситуация стала нармални, штобы те политические брены которые вешают мне на голову закончилес. 

Reasons why [my concerts were cancelled] were different: a leaking roof, club renovations or the city suddenly decides to occupy the venue for its needs. And of course all of this is a lie. I want to say that we will still come. Please wait for us. We will do everything we can to normalize the situation. So that all this political nonsense […] would end.

Ukrainian artists banned in Russia

Conversely, some Russian MPs have expressed their desire to create a list of Ukrainian artists who are no longer welcome in Russia.

Last spring, Okean Elzi, a Ukrainian band, and Lyapis Trubetskoy, a Belorussian band, had their Russian concerts. Both of the bands were accused of supporting the Euromaidan movement, even though the artists have repeatedly denied such accusations.

Vopli Vidoplyasova is a Ukrainian band that has been popular in both Russia and Ukraine since 1986. This August, their concerts were cancelled in Moscow. Oleg Skripka, the band’s frontman, told Echo Moskvy about the band's troubles, and called the situation a “war of lists” – a severe disease which simply needs to be endured:

Мы в Россию ездить не можем. У нас были запланированы два концерта — на Кубани и в Москве. Их отменили, потому что мы украинцы.

Пока это похоже на бред, но потом все устаканится.

We cannot go to Russia. We had two concerts planned in Kuban and Moscow. They were cancelled because we are Ukrainians. 

So far it looks like nonsense; it will calm down later.

The Ukrainian response

Ukrainian politicians have also jumped on the bandwagon of hatred. In his recent interview, Bogdan Chervak, director of the information policy department of Ukraine’s State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, said that Russian performers and their songs may soon be banned on Ukrainian television and radio channels.

“[It’s repulsive that] the content of [radio stations] is mainly based on the performances of so called Russian ‘stars,’ many of whom are disgraced by publicly supporting the aggressive and expansionist policy of Putin. [They don’t] hide their hatred towards our motherland,” Chervak told Komsomolskaya Pravda in Ukraine.  

Anton Gerashenko, advisor to the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, wrote on his Facebook wall:

Мы сейчас со своей стороны готовим список по запрету въезда в Украину около 500 российских деятелей одобривших аннексию Крыма и раздел Украину.

И я считаю правильным не давать им зарабатывать денег на концертах и выступлениях в Украине – пусть едут выступают в Крым перед чайками на пустых пляжах.

We are now preparing a list to ban entry to Ukraine for over 500 Russian artists who approved the Crimean annexation and the separation of Ukraine.  I believe it is not right to let them earn money on concerts in Ukraine. Let them perform in the Crimea before seagulls, on empty beaches.

Ukrainian nationalists mirrored the attitudes of Russian nationalists by declaring famous Ukrainian singer Ani Lorak a traitor after she received two music awards in Russia last May. Protesters boycotted her concerts and vandalized posters depicting her face. When Lorak recorded a patriotic song by renowned Ukrainian composer Ivasiuk, Euromaidan activists accused her of trying to “profit off of blood.”

In May, Maidan activists disrupted her performance in the Ukrainian city of Odessa and tried to break into the nightclub where she was performing. More than 200 armed police officers were called in to stop the protesters, and the situation escalated into violence.

Gerashenko wrote an in-depth Facebook posts responding to the event, stating that he does not approve of Lorak's behavior in relation to Russia, but ultimately coming to the defense of Lorak and the police:

Я не считаю вину Ани Лорак настолько большой, чтоб не давать ей выступать в Украине. Она несколько мне известно не делала заявлений о поддержки аннексии Крыма или раздела Украины, а только поехала на награждение какой то музыкальной премией в мае этого года. Считаю, что казнить ее за это нельзя.

I don’t think Ani Lorak’s guilt is so big that we need to prevent her from performing in Ukraine. As far as I know she didn’t make any statements supporting the annexation of the Crimea or the division of Ukraine. She just went to some music award ceremony in May. I think she shouldn’t be executed for that.

[clashes at Club Ibiza – video by YouTube user ClikaTV] 

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has crossed the borders of just a military operation – right now the war is waged in the media, online, and in the cultural spheres. Because of how close-knit the two countries’ ties have been historically, the conflict is in many ways a civil war. As the back-and-forth vilification of culture-makers continues, it goes to show just how personal the conflict truly is. 

Correction: The original version of the article incorrectly stated that Makarevich performed in Donetsk city in August. Donetsk city was already under rebel control by then, he performed in the larger Donetsk region, near the cities Slovyansk and Svyatogors.

This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide, and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Masha Egupova, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.
  • Visitor

    The first sentence of Mr Kobzon’s quote should be translated as : “And to talk about the fact that democracy allows everyone to have his opinion…”

    The actual translation (There is no point in saying that democracy allows everyone to have their own opinion) means that democracy DOESN’T allow to have one’s own opinion.

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