Leaving Russia: Rockstars, Writers, Actors, and Filmmakers on the Country’s Cultural Brain Drain
I thought I had finally found a home. In April 2021, I left St. Petersburg, where I had spent the lockdown, and moved back to Moscow. I’d lived there for 10 years before the pandemic, working as an editor for GQ Russia, among other publications, and there was a sense of homecoming when my partner, Vova, and I returned. We rented an apartment on Prospekt Mira, or Peace Avenue, and furnished it together. We put some care into it. For the first time I had real flowers at home. Then, in November, I left my job at an independent Russian media outlet to work on a book about conversion therapy, and by February it was finished. I remember joking in January: “We will definitely publish the book in Pride Month, as long as there’s no war or some other crap.” I didn’t believe there could ever be a war; “war” was just a terrible word.
Then came February 24th. I woke up before Vova and, opening up Instagram, saw a video of military helicopters flying over country houses in Ukraine. In another video, a flaming missile rammed into a high-rise building. The forest around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was ablaze. Trying not to move, I sat and envied Vova for not having woken up yet.
As a journalist, I wanted transparency. But while soldiers on the southern front seized Ukrainian villages, people on the home front were being muzzled. Russian media were prohibited from calling the war anything other than a “special military operation.” On March 3, Putin signed into law a bill banning “fake news,” with fines of up to €13,000 and 15 years in prison. The police began to stop people on the street to search their phone chat histories for the words “war,” “Ukraine,” and “Zelensky.” In Moscow a man was detained for holding a bank card that had the word mir (peace) printed on it—the name of Russia’s equivalent of Visa and Mastercard. Another man found himself in a police cell for wearing sneakers that were blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A woman on Red Square was arrested for holding a sign that read “*** *****,” as the police suspected she had encrypted “net voine,” meaning “no to war.” Posting on Instagram—before the platform was completely blocked on March 14—became dangerous. Employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs were charged with scrolling through feeds all day long to draw up lists of fines. To condemn the war in Russia has become a de jure crime. But to ignore it is a de facto moral crime. This was the moment when we decided to leave.
It was the beginning of March. Vova and I sat at opposite ends of a plane en route to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. All of the furniture in our apartment had been sold. The flowers were left to wither on the windowsill. We had wiped our messenger apps because we’d heard FSB agents were inspecting phones at border control in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Our lives were stuffed into two hiking backpacks. Others packed even less. As I soon learned, the novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, frequently an oddsmakers’ favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, left Russia for Germany around the same time as we did. When later reached by phone, she told me that she had only managed to pack two pairs of trousers, two sweaters, and her computer.
Once in Tbilisi, I soon realized we were not alone. Around the city I began to spot the familiar faces of people I had once written about in articles. There was Kantemir Balagov, an acclaimed filmmaker twice nominated at the Academy Awards. I saw Ilya Kolmanovsky, a noted biologist and one of the most famous science journalists in Russia. There was also the contemporary artist Dagnini, the sculptor Nikita Seleznev, and literary bloggers Zhenya Kalinkin and Daria Kasyan. Another new arrival in Georgia was filmmaker Kira Kovalenko, who won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. I had interviewed her more than once before and found her always to be forthcoming, but not now.
“I have no words,” she wrote in reply to my text. “All I can do is scream.”
I understood that if I ever wanted to be able to speak and write openly about the war, leaving the country was necessary. Clearly, this had been Putin’s plan—to let those who “rock the boat,” as he liked to put it, to leave. “The Putin regime allows you to leave the country,” Kolmanovsky, the scientist, told me when we met in Georgia. “People leave, criminal cases are brought against them back in Russia, and then they can never return.”
On March 16, Putin announced that the ongoing mass emigration from Russia was “a natural self-purification of society,” rhetoric that sounded very much like that employed by the Bolsheviks exactly a hundred years ago. In 1922, two steamships, later dubbed the “philosophers’ ships,” set out for Europe from a dock in St. Petersburg. Onboard were philosophers, scientists, writers, and their families. Each passenger was a critic of the Bolsheviks and thus had been forcibly made to leave the country. There had been a similar exodus not long before. Future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Ivan Bunin had already left for Istanbul (then Constantinople); the writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Kuprin went to Paris and Finland, respectively; the composer Sergei Rachmaninov to Denmark, later the U.S., and the artist Wassily Kandinsky left for Germany.
In 1922, the Bolshevik plan to dispose of those who were polluting the minds of the Soviet people with ideas of freedom was highly effective. But in trying to revive that policy now, Putin, who is reported to read only newspapers, has forgotten that technological advances haven’t just brought us nuclear weapons, but also the internet, which has transformed the influence expatriates can have on their homeland. “In the 1920s, leaving the country was like a death of sorts,” explains historian Tamara Eidelman, who found herself on holiday in Portugal when the war broke out and decided not to return to Russia. “Emigration back then meant cutting all contact with the country. But now things have changed.”
Many cultural figures have now also left Russia in order to make sense of the war and find a way to talk about it from a safe distance. The cult Russian rock singer Zemfira flew to Paris immediately after giving a performance in Moscow, which she ended with the song “Don’t Shoot.” One of the singer’s close friends, the actress and director Renata Litvinova, who is also now living in France, recalled the pressure her friend was under: “Zemfira was strongly urged to keep silent,” Litvinova tells me. From Paris, Zemfira has continued to speak out, writing a new track called “Meat,” about a war that turns people’s bodies into rotting flesh. As for Litvinova, she recently shot the short anti-war film When Will You Ever Learn?, in which she recites the lyrics, in Russian, from Pete Seeger’s famous protest song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
“As soon as we departed from Moscow we asked a flight attendant for brandy, but it seemed to me like water,” Litvinova recalls. “Zero effect. I was shaking, and I suddenly realized that maybe I’m never going back.”
Twenty-three-year-old singer Monetochka left Russia for Lithuania. Together with rapper Noize MC, she has been staging concerts in European cities and donating the proceeds to the Polish charity fund Siepomaga, which provides aid to Ukrainian refugees. One of her shows in Berlin raised $330,000. “I took a step that I can’t come back from,” says Monetochka. For her fundraising initiative, the singer—who is eight months pregnant—could face up to 20 years in prison at home under the Treason article of Russia’s Criminal Code.
“We are all hostages on board a plane that has been hijacked by a madman—and he’s about to fly it into a cliff face,” says the bestselling writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, who won’t reveal where in Europe he’s moved. In the 2000s, he published Metro 2033 and Metro 2034, a pair of novels set in a future Moscow in which the city’s population is living underground after a nuclear war while their dictator, who fears losing power, conceals the news that the world above has not in fact been utterly destroyed. “Now my readers in Kharkiv and Kyiv send me photos on Instagram from the tunnels of metro stations. I feel nothing but horror from this.”
A Russian film adaptation of Metro 2034 was planned for 2024, but Glukhovsky says that’s now all over: “Over the next year only pseudo-patriotic films will be made in Russia—or mindless comedies that will turn off people’s brains completely.” His future back in Russia is also in question: On June 7, Glukhovsky was added to Russia’s federal wanted list for discrediting the army.
Russia has attacked its own culture before. Take, for example, musicians whose songs were screened by regional prosecutors’ offices for “extremism.” This happened to the hip-hop electronic duo IC3PEAK in 2018, whose track “Death No More” was dedicated to Putin’s next presidential term. The government has also paid special attention to journalists. In 2015, the newspaper RBC published an investigative piece on Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, and less than a year later the editor-in-chief Maxim Solius was fired. In March of this year he left Russia, explaining his decision as follows: “Today people like me can take one of two paths: to play the hero or bite your tongue. Neither of these appeals to me.”
In 2021, journalist Andrey Zakharov discovered that Putin had fathered an illegitimate daughter. Six months later Zakharov was declared a foreign agent. He left the country after noticing that he was being followed in Moscow.
The authorities also control the release of documentary films. Last year, for example, St. Petersburg did not host the annual Artdocfest Documentary Film Festival, which had been scheduled to include a film about a gay MMA fighter forced to flee Chechnya. The official reason given for the cancellation was the lack of social distancing measures in the cinema. But everyone knew the real reason: Chechnya is the domain of Putin’s closest ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, who claims that there are no gays in his Muslim republic. “This is how the current government works,” says Vitaly Mansky, a film director and the festival’s founder, whose documentary Putin’s Witnesses provides a close-up look at the president’s first term. “The government does not allow any public discussion on topics that it deems toxic.” This year, before the opening of the festival in Moscow, Mansky was doused with paint and the event was cancelled after a report of a supposed bomb threat in the cinema. The filmmaker is now living in Latvia.
In 2017, the regime turned on another director, Kirill Serebrennikov, whose films had been selected to compete at the Berlin, Venice, and Cannes Film Festivals. Ever since then, Serebrennikov has been under investigation in Russia for fabricated charges of large-scale fraud (the case was only closed the day before his departure from Russia to Berlin). Letters of support for the director were written by Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among other cultural figures. As the German theater director Thomas Ostermeier explained, “This is a typical example of how the Russian authorities neutralize artists they deem undesirable: not through censorship, but by accusing them of financial crimes.”
I called Serebrennikov in May, a few weeks before his last film, Tchaikovsky’s Wife, was shown at Cannes. “I continue to allow myself the illusion that my departure was not a permanent escape,” said Serebrennikov, “because I have work contracts until 2026 for which I need to be abroad. I suppose, to some extent, this is my mad attempt to maintain some sense of normality. It’s not unlike people living through war: Their house has collapsed, but they continue to cover the burnt table with a burnt tablecloth, even though their old life is no more.”
“In my case,” he continued, “it’s good to be where there’s work. I don’t have any work in Russia now—the court case made sure of that.” A couple of days after our conversation, his words were reaffirmed: the Bolshoi Theater removed Serebrennikov’s production Nureyev from their program. The ballet tells the story of Rudolf Nureyev, another artist who fled his home, leaving the Soviet Union in 1961 for the security of Europe. Soviet newspapers dubbed the celebrated dancer a “traitor to the Motherland” and didn’t publish a single line about Nureyev until after his death.
In Georgia I found out that my name had been added to a list of “cowards and fugitives” that had begun to circulate on Russian websites (it included over 300 other journalists who left the country after the war began). But my inclusion on that list didn’t bother me the way it would have before. Georgia, separated from Russia by the Caucasus Mountains, felt like another planet. Clothing on shop-window mannequins and mobile phone apps were in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. Stores handed out badges in support of Ukraine. Outside the Parliament building, clothes, medicine, and grains were being collected to send to the front. In several branches of the Bank of Georgia, Russians were only permitted to open accounts if they signed declarations that read: “Yes, my country is waging war against Ukraine.” In Russia they were trying to hide the war, but here even cocktails reminded us of it, as White Russians were renamed White Ukrainians. Graffiti on the streets urged Russians to “go home,” alongside inscriptions of “Putin is a murderer.” The red Russian passport became a red light for those looking to rent apartments: Russians were not wanted here.
I understood all too well where the Russophobia was coming from, just as I felt a corrosive sense of guilt and shame for my national identity. This war is being waged by a president and politicians I didn’t vote for, but in the eyes of many, I am their unwitting accomplice. Kolmanovsky, the scientist, articulated the magnitude of our government’s crimes. “It’s one thing for Putin to be a mafioso dictator who has his opponents killed from time to time,” he explained. “It’s another thing entirely if we’re talking about the embodiment of evil that has the capacity to destroy the world. But with time, people will come to understand that Putin’s invasion was also an attack on Russia.”
I don’t know what my country would be like without its dictator; I was five years old when Putin came to power, and a Russia under Putin is all I know. But one day in Tbilisi I began to picture it.
It was March. I was on my way to an anti-war rally outside the Russian Federation Interests Section in Georgia—an agency, based in the Swiss Embassy, that has acted as Russia’s diplomatic mission based ever since Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Russia in 2008—when I saw a crowd of people carrying flags with blue and white bands. Red, the color of blood, had been washed from my national flag. Among the crowd I glimpsed Kolmanovsky; he later told me it was the first protest he’d gone to without bringing his medicine—a habit formed in Moscow, in case he was arrested. The director Kira Kovalenko pressed a bouquet of yellow daffodils tied with a blue ribbon to her chest. The crowd chanted “No to war.” People hugged one another and vowed that “We can handle anything that comes.” Along the metal fence stood Ukrainian Femen activists and members of the Russian protest band Pussy Riot, naked and bedecked in crowns made of roses. Instead of bruises from police batons, their skin blossomed with ruddy southern tans.
The chant “No to war” was replaced with “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” And then a voice shouted through a megaphone “Putin is a murderer”—words that have long been running through my head, but that I’ve never heard said aloud. Trying to shout, I opened my mouth, but fear silenced my voice.
Vadim Smyslov, a former features editor at GQ Russia, is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.
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