Nearly 50 years ago, in June, 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov made his dramatic leap to the West by bolting away from a touring Soviet Union ballet company performing in Toronto at what was then called O’Keefe Centre. He gave his first interview in the West after that historic decision to The Globe and Mail, and he donated the fee for his first performance in the West to Canada’s National Ballet School. It was in gratitude for the help Canada had given him at the single most pivotal moment in his life, before and after. It was also to this newspaper that he reached out again late this week to express his anger and sadness at the invasion of Ukraine by the deadly war machine of Vladimir Putin.
Of all the most famous artists who fled the old Soviet Union in the last half of the 20th century – from cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, to Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky and fellow dancer Rudolf Nureyev – only Baryshnikov and Natalia Romanovna Makarova remain as witnesses to the stultifying regime that Putin seems keen to revive.
I talked to him over the phone from the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. He seemed infinitely sad and infinitely angry at the extraordinary events unfolding in Ukraine and was anxious for people in the West not to paint all Russians with a Putin brush.
You have tried to stay clear of overt politics for most of your professional life. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems clearly and dramatically to have changed that sense of caution and keeping your distance. Am I right?
In 1974, my decision to leave Russia was an abrupt one and came about because of artistic curiosity, anxiety and restlessness. My first English phrase was, “I’m not a defector, I’m a selector.” So the decision was personal, not political. But over time, I’ve learned that participation is a responsibility of living in a democracy. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought that realization into sharp focus and it was not an option to do nothing.
You didn’t grow up in Russia but in Latvia. How did living outside direct Russian influence affect your outlook, personally and professionally?
I understood from my childhood that I was the son of a Russian military officer and that Russia was an unwelcome occupying force in Riga, Latvia’s capital. But Latvia has had many occupiers throughout its history and the Latvians remain fiercely independent. I think I absorbed some of that. Even in Soviet times, Riga was a city of multiple cultures, so it was a tiny window cracked open to the rest of the world. There’s a statue in the middle of Riga called the Freedom Monument and it’s not coincidental that she faces West.
I know you have started a website called truerussia.org. Who’s involved with you in it and what is the objective?
I was invited by Boris Akunin, a Russian émigré writer based in London, and Sergei Guriev, a Russian émigré economist based in Paris, to band together and create truerussia.org. They were pushed out of Russia for political reasons and have a better understanding than I of Putin’s Russia. Guriev predicted early on that Putin’s aggression would mean millions of Ukrainians would be forced from their homes and from their country. He knew the most valuable thing we could do was to create a secure and reliable portal to raise money to help these refugees and I am honoured to be a part of it. The money goes to the Disasters Emergency Committee, a group of U.K.-based charities co-ordinating emergency relief for victims of natural and humanitarian disasters. The effort is called True Russia because it appeals to what is deep and true and honest in all people, but particularly to Russians around the world who watch in horror at what Putin is doing in Russia’s name. All funds raised by True Russia go toward Ukrainian refugee assistance. I urge anyone who feels helpless to contribute through truerussia.org
Could you talk a bit about your sense of Ukraine both when you were dancing professionally in the Soviet Union and afterward. Did you have Ukrainian colleagues, for example? Did you ever dance in Kyiv?
There were Ukrainian students at the Vaganova school, and I recall dancing in Kyiv in a festival of Russian culture in the early seventies. I remember Kyiv as a gorgeous city and I certainly felt welcomed there as a performer. And as I’ve said earlier in another discussion, Ukrainians have always been, and still are, friends neighbours and families. The relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples has been one of easy fluidity between languages, between cultures and between borders. The two countries are incredibly interwoven, but with an awareness and appreciation of subtle cultural differences. That’s why it is unconscionable what is happening there now.
Did you have any sense of the impending war under Vladimir Putin’s leadership before it was unleashed?
Like everyone I was appalled and shocked when Putin “annexed” Crimea, but I didn’t anticipate an invasion of Ukraine. I didn’t think Putin’s control of his post Soviet empire was so fragile that he would try and reclaim former Soviet republics. I was wrong.
I remember very well when the University of Toronto celebrated your decision to cast your lot with the West by bestowing an honorary degree on you in 1999. It was the 25th anniversary. You told me at the time that you were moved by all the young graduates from within the former Soviet Union whose family’s made similar decisions and who made a point of thanking you for your words of hope and encouragement. What would you say to them today?
I would say that I hope those students have achieved their dreams and found their place in Canadian society or elsewhere in the free world. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible for the people of Ukraine right now, but I’m confident that it will be one day soon.
Finally, earlier this week Putin described Russians who support the West – and Western values – as ‘scum’ and ‘traitors.’ This seems to be a prelude to an increased crackdown on any and all opposition within the country. What would you say to those Russians who long for a democratic Russia?
I’m not surprised by Putin’s condemnation of anyone who speaks against him. It’s the classic response of a bully pushed into a corner. He should save his breath. Democracy is a messy challenge. We struggle with it every day here in the U.S. just as you do in Canada, but hope is a strong word, and I think Russians who want a free and democratic society should keep trying. Perhaps they should even thank Mr. Putin for uniting them in the cause.
This review has been condensed and edited.
John Fraser is the executive chair of the National NewsMedia Council of Canada and the Master Emeritus of Massey College. From 1971 to1975 he was The Globe and Mail’s dance critic and conducted the first interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov after his decision to stay in the West.
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