Today, I read an outstanding essay by Jon Object - a Ukrainian musician who became a soldier after the war started. Brilliantly, he'd expressed the feelings of many Ukrainian artists today, who are forced out of their country and are struggling to keep their work going. They are living through the trauma of a full-scale invasion of their homeland. They are mourning the loss of beloved ones and hundreds of thousands of compatriots, who all feel like extended family members. They are also trying to survive in their new habitats, make a living and find some support to continue their artistic work.
Many a time, they are forced to share their artistic residencies, living spaces and exhibition spaces with "exiled" Russian artists. I've put exiled in parentheses because there is a very short list of Russian artists who are actually exiled. Only a few expressed their true antiwar sentiments enough to get persecuted, and some already have five to ten-year prison sentences waiting for them were they ever to return to Russia.
However, Jon's essay was not about them; it was about the vast majority of Russian artists who lived quietly under Putin and created bland, meaningless art for the hipster collectors of Moscow. They enjoyed going to biennales worldwide and pretending to be a part of the zeitgeist without contributing to it meaningfully. Today, many of them have left Russia "for no obvious reason" and are hiding their roots with paranoia, yet it always becomes evident for anyone from Ukraine.
They get grants to work in Europe and get invited to festivals and artistic residencies. It hurts the Ukrainian artists as it takes away opportunities from those artists who really deserve the support, and, more importantly, it creates a justification of an apolitical way of thinking that all these "exiles" adopt — the way of thinking that made Russia a genocide-wielding nation once again.
This essay touched me deeply. Firstly, it was remarkably written, and the author's emotion was expressed in a raw, powerful way. I feel the same when interacting with my ex-compatriots who try to sell me their lack of culpability or agency in this war. Everyone in Russia has a burden of responsibility, and until they accept it, there's no conversation.
There's a deeper layer, though, to why it touched me. As a refugee from Russia, I have been trying to find my new identity for the first few years of my exile. At first, I wanted to adopt the British identity and even considered changing my name and removing my accent. I knew I could pull it off, yet it felt untruthful, and I decided against it. Later, I started making a film about a Russian marine biologist because I found an example in him of a Russian doing some quality work that is important for the world despite the lack of meaningful support from his university or society. I thought that making a movie about such a protagonist could inspire some younger Russians to commit to the party of the living and not the ruling party of the dead. It was naive, to say the least. I've spent seven years working on that film, and I never got anyone from Russia to express any interest in this story.
Around five years ago, I moved to Kyiv. I fell in love with the city long ago, but after wandering between the UK, the US and Europe, I grew to appreciate it much more profoundly. My mother is half Ukrainian, and I was raised and formed by my father's Crimean Tatar Nonna. The more time I spent in Kyiv, the more I felt this place's calling. I knew I wanted to build my life there.
By then, I had almost given up on the film, but I'd met a genius editor, and we got back to work. My editor is a true Ukrainian patriot who was active in Maydan and has a solid anti-Russian stance. He had stopped working for Russian productions since the invasion of Crimea, and before we started working, he said that he would not work on the film if it ever came out under the Russian flag. It was an easy promise for me, as I produced this film out of the UK with a British director and international crew, had zero support from the Russian state and, having done the film festival circuit, developed a strong resentment of the Russian film industry.
Through Sasha (the editor), I also got involved in a rural community fifty miles outside Kyiv, curious about restoring the vanishing Ukrainian culture. They have been restoring old clay "mazankas", doing serious ecological research and using permaculture to rewild the vast agricultural lands around their "hutor" to restore the long-lost endemic plants. I embarked on a research project with an artist woodworker, where we tried to restore the traditional Ukrainian yurt - "kurin". We wanted to create an ecological modular design out of it, which could be used to build beautiful all-natural abodes across Ukraine and overseas while restoring the Zaprozhian cossack legacy. The first one was being built on my tiny piece of land.
We finished the film in late 2021, and I've sent around thirty applications to the 2022 film festivals around Europe. When the war started, I was in my home in Kyiv, woken up with missiles landing. In the first week, I ran to safety alongside hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians west. I vividly remember a moment after the border crossing and a couple of hours of bus rides with other refugees. I had a consultancy call with one of the largest media franchises in the world that wanted to do an NFT drop while sitting in a train station terminal and thinking how fucking surreal it was that people cared for such things. Then came the refusals from all thirty festivals. In a couple where I had back channels, the response was: "Dude, it's in the Russian language, and half of the film takes place in Moscow. We don't care what country produced it. No festival will take it this year."
I had no desire to present it in Russia after the invasion, so the film was shelved indefinitely. You see, it was not apparent to me that the ultimate benefactor of any story about a positive Russian was Vladimir Putin and his regime. For that mistake, I paid handsomely - seven years of work, most of my net worth and dozens of failed promises to investors and crew was the cost of my naiveté. I still harbour some hope that the film once sees the light of day. I think the story is universal and uniquely beautiful.
While running from the invasion, my fourth round as a refugee from Putin's regime, I realised my responsibility for its strength. I had a personal story worth sharing that I have failed to share because of the deep-rooted fear of the Russian government that lived inside of me rent-free. That fear became apparent on that trip, and I vowed to tell my story. I have been working on it since and am about to start publishing parts here. The first chapter is nearly complete.
The essay I read threw me off-kilter. This guy finished with, "Any Russian that opposes genocide should be at the front line, fighting on our side." I wanted to comment on Jon's essay, commending its beauty and power but explaining how destructive such an attitude is to the author himself. Luckily, I shared my intention with my partner, who got very upset with me and explained that the last thing any Ukrainian needs now is my input on how they should feel and how condescendingly horrible such an attitude is. I am grateful for that lesson. I needed it.
Only through writing this piece have I now realised that I felt a pang of bitterness as a "Moscow-born" artist, although my story has very little to do with those mentioned in this essay. And for this, I am very grateful to the author, as there could be no better reminder to expunge any trace of association with the complacent ones.
I also remembered that the front line exists in the minds as much as on land. It is my volition to conquer the fear and be outspoken and truthful about the regime, and that is precisely what I am working on in my novel and this blog. Hopefully, my work inspires other Russians to take charge of their freedom and join the fight in whichever way they can.
Perhaps it will never be enough for some Ukrainians, and I do not blame them. From now on, their anger only inspires me to work harder. Not for their sake or approval but out of my resentment of murderous Kremlin occupiers. And out of hope for a better future.
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