‘Everything We Say Can Be Used Against Us’: Russian Art Workers Weigh the Risks of Speaking Out Against the War in Ukraine

Actions that were once considered risky are now in many cases outright dangerous.

An anti-war protester in Moscow. Photo by Daniil Danchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

An open letter demanding the end of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has attracted the signatures of over 13,000 Russian art workers on Google Docs—even though speaking out against the war could have serious personal and professional consequences.

Katya Dolinina, a manager of two Moskino theaters in Moscow, resigned under pressure on February 28, three days after adding her name to the missive. By 4 p.m. on February 26, the day the letter was published, Dolinina got a call from theatre administration.

“I had an option to write a statement saying that my name appeared on the letter by mistake,” Dolinina told Artnet News. “I refused.”

She was told to clear out her desk by the end of the day Monday. The paperwork took just one hour.

“It felt quite mournful,” Dolinina said. “My colleagues presented it like they didn’t initiate things but were just carrying out orders. I was told that I was first but not last.”

Katya Dolinina. Photo courtesy of Katya Dolinina.

Katya Dolinina. Photo courtesy of Katya Dolinina.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Moscow Museum of Modern Art has fired any staffers who signed the anti-war letter. The museum did not respond to inquiries from Artnet News.

Some signatories appear to have acquiesced to demands like the one made of Dolinina, and withdrawn their names from the missive. The New York Times reports that there were at one point some 17,000 signees.

For Dolinina, losing her job was a shock.

“This letter didn’t seem like a risky step,” she said. “I knew that going to the protests would be problematic. If I got arrested, I could lose my job. But not by signing an open letter. It’s a new reality.”

Police officers detain a man during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow on February 27, 2022. Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images.

Police officers detain a man during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow. Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images.

Another, more strongly worded petition circulating on Facebook is calling for Vladimir Putin’s resignation, reports Archi.ru. The letter, from “Russian artists, architects, designers, art historians, historians, employees of museums, archives and libraries, [and] art collectors,” denounces the war, which it blames on Putin’s consolidation of political power over the last 20 years.

“To remove Putin from Russian power is to end the war. We demand the immediate resignation of Vladimir Putin, and we call upon you to do the same,” the petition says.

But there is widespread fear of reprisals.

“Everything we say now can be used against us in the future,” a museum staffer, who signed two petitions and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Artnet News. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or in two hours.

“We didn’t know that Russia would invade Ukraine,” the person added. “No one could imagine this. Now anything is possible. We understand that the next hit will be against the enemies inside Russia. It’s us.”

Criticizing the invasion amounts to a “betrayal,” Vyacheslav Volodin, a high-level Russian lawmaker, wrote on Telegram over the weekend, suggesting that those who object to the government’s actions should stop accepting government grants.

But the Google Doc letter expressed concern that the invasion “will result in irreparable consequences for workers in the arts and culture.”

“All international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended,” it says. “All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture.”

Already, Russian exhibitions abroad are being cancelled. The Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale will remain closed during the high-profile international exhibition following the withdrawal of artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva and curator Raimundas Malasauskas.

A number of museums in Russia have put a halt to programming during the war, including the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and the GES-2, both in Moscow. The Icelandic artists Ragnar Kjartansson cancelled a planned performance featuring Ukrainian and Russian artists that was scheduled in March at GES-2.

Those museums are privately run, but state-run institutions have also been affected.

People take part in a demonstration in front of the Greek Parliament in Athen against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Socrates Baltagiannis/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images.

A demonstration in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens. Photo by Socrates Baltagiannis/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images.

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow planned to lend works to a Wassily Kandinsky show in Rome and to host an exhibition of contemporary art from India. The former show is now in jeopardy, and the latter has already been cancelled, according to a person familiar with the program.

Following the invasion, the Foundation for Art and Culture, a nonprofit based in Bonn, demanded that the Tretyakov close “Diversity United,” a critically acclaimed traveling show celebrating European unity with works by 90 artists from 34 countries.

When the exhibition opened in December, it was identified as a PR coup for Russia. “It’s an opportunity for soft diplomacy,” Jane Sharp, a professor at Rutgers University specializing in Russian and Soviet art, told the New York Times.

For art workers who oppose the invasion, the future is now uncertain. As Dolinina decides on her next steps, she can’t help but notice that many of her friends are leaving for other countries, such as Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey.

“I don’t know what we all are going to do,” she said. “We must survive somehow.”

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