Speak Russian cultural exile in Berlin

The Russian invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago unleashed the departure of Russian dissidents from literature and art from the country, in an exodus that is still ongoing, and that adds to the diaspora that already existed of other intellectuals who detracted from Putin.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 March 2023 Wednesday 22:44
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Speak Russian cultural exile in Berlin

The Russian invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago unleashed the departure of Russian dissidents from literature and art from the country, in an exodus that is still ongoing, and that adds to the diaspora that already existed of other intellectuals who detracted from Putin. abroad. Berlin is an esteemed destination, due to its cosmopolitanism, its powerful cultural sector and its aura of freedom, although it is expensive to live here, and obtaining the humanitarian visa that Germany grants to Russians at risk of repression is not a quick process.

In practice, those who already had a previous link with the city (professional contacts, housing or friends) can get ahead in Berlin, as is the case, among others, of the writers Liudmila Ulítskaya, Vladimir Sorokin or María Stepanova, and of the protagonists of this report.

“I don't think my choice to leave Russia is the only option or the right option; I know people who have stayed, published books, lectured, and held small spaces of freedom. I didn't have the guts to do it, so there's no reason to be proud. The police came to my Moscow flat almost every day; I left to be safe ”, summarizes Anna Narinskaya, playwright and literary critic, at the entrance to the Gorki theater, where in December she premiered the piece The last word, about the last words pronounced in court by Russian women activists.

“What has happened in Russia is my own failure and that of other intellectuals; Putin's actions are not our fault, of course, but the social support that this war has. Don't be fooled, he has the support of many people,” Narinskaya continues. We intellectuals in Moscow organized shows and talks, we lived well, we were better paid than the average Russian citizen. And we were delighted with ourselves: an exhibition on Stalin's repression, how important... But we were preaching to already convinced people, we were short-sighted in our actions. Now I look back and feel disappointment and guilt."

The horror of a war launched by their country haunts the exiled creators, who try to respond with their own language. “Many people say that Russian voices should be silent now, that they should not be present; maybe I can understand it emotionally, but politically it's a big mistake," says Dimitri Vilensky, a member of the artist collective Chto Delat (translation: what is there to do?) along with his wife, Olga Egorova. combines political theory, art and activism.

They had to leave St. Petersburg with their daughter, because the police showed up at their art school and they are the subject of a criminal case. Both had declared themselves as dissidents since 2014, when the war in Donbass instigated by Putin began. Their students dispersed, and the men have left the country to avoid military mobilization.

In Berlin they replicate their emergency school model –which they will soon take to workshops in Stockholm and Hamburg–, a format of dialogues on topics chosen by a host, from the war in Ukraine to climate change, which they record and document. “This is not the time to hold exhibitions or celebrate events, but rather this type of reflective work. What art to create in this situation? And if art must continue, what kind of art and directed to whom? There are many questions; In the workshops we don't teach, we debate”, explains Egorova together with Vilensky in their studio in the Mitte district of Berlin.

She remains hopeful that she can return to Russia and influence a regeneration. “Historically, Russian artists, poets and writers had a strong sense of mission, of sharing their ideas with the people; it was a traditional thing that was disappearing and losing importance. Now, with the war, it is important again to maintain a mission, ”she argues. And Vilensky intervenes: “But you have to define the mission; If we are talking about a new democratic development, then a political force is needed, it cannot be done only from culture”.

In Russia there is no strong opposition, both lament. “Russians in exile don't trust the political opposition; perhaps in Alexéi Navalni, but after being cured of his poisoning, he chose to return to Russia to face Putin in an almost religious sacrifice so that maybe something would change, but politics does not work that way, ”recalls Egorova. For Vilensky, the situation of the current Russian cultural diaspora has certain echoes of 1917. “Those who did not support the Bolsheviks had to leave, and the first years they thought that the Bolsheviks would soon fail and they would return to Russia, and bring education and democracy, but the years go by and the State becomes more and more regressive but self-sustaining, there is more repression and more people leave”.

For Russian intellectuals and artists with a history of rejecting Putin, who have condemned his attacks on Ukraine since 2014, the break with Ukrainian friends and colleagues resulting from the massacre and destruction perpetrated by their compatriots is painful company. “Everything between us has been poisoned. In the first days of the war, I wrote a message to some friends in Kharkiv, famous designers, and they told me never to write to them again. Although there are exceptions, I do not see the possibility of joint cultural projects between Russians and Ukrainians in the near future”, laments Anna Narinskaya.

The artists Egorova and Vilensky agree that for obvious reasons it is very difficult, almost impossible, for Russians and Ukrainians to launch initiatives together. “Besides, for the Russians there is now a great collapse of meaning; the cancellation of Russian culture seen as imperialist was already discussed before, but now it has come to the fore,” Vilensky points out. It's hard for us, because we always believed that we could do something internationally and bring it to Russia. And now we can't even go back to St. Petersburg."

Meanwhile, Russian artists and writers abroad are exploring their role as dissident creators, and doing so in the German capital has its own challenges. Because for the Russians there are two Berlins, recalls Anna Narinskaya. “There is German Berlin, the space in which Germans, not Russians, see our works, the space in which we go to Germany, like in the production in which I participated in the Gorki theater –explains the playwright–. And there is the Russian, Russian-speaking Berlin, which is very traditional and started with the Russians who arrived in the twenties after the revolution, where of course I can exhibit in small galleries”. But the objective is not to stay in that circle, but to reach the German, the international, platform, and that is an arduous effort.