In conversation, Ukrainian concert pianist Anna Fedorova is controlled, which belies the expressive style with which she usually plays. Her disposition is unfailingly sweet, and the hint of a kind smile is ever-present—but her face is also understandably lined with stress and sadness, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As a follow-up to her 2020 album featuring Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Preludes, and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” the Ukrainian-born Fedorova will be releasing the other Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos later this year and in early 2023. At the moment, however, the 32-year-old is channeling all her talents and focus into humanitarian aid. Fedorova turned tour dates in Poland and Romania into benefits, and has organized a series of fundraising concerts for Ukrainian relief organizations.

Fedorova and I talked about her family life, her charitable push in this moment of maximum uncertainty, and her impression of the cultural boycotts being levied against contemporary performers as well as, in some cases, long-dead Russian composers.

VAN: You were born in Kyiv but come from a family with Russian roots, your father is Russian. How is he, and your family in general, coping with these commingled feelings?

Anna Fedorova: [My father] was born in Russia but he lived in Ukraine for 35 years. He still has some friends in Russia, but basically his whole life and his family is in Ukraine, and he basically feels Ukrainian as well. But of course he feels that his two homelands are now at war. Now he also feels very strongly about supporting the Ukrainian people. 

We’re playing together in all these benefit concerts; he conducts, teaches, performs, and composes. We are also trying to help my parents’ former students, because they are also piano professors who have a huge class in Ukraine. So some of them are coming out to the Netherlands and [we] are helping them find places to stay. Actually, now I am speaking to you from one of the houses that we found for one of my mother’s students. People are offering rooms in their houses and are willing to help to house people for as long as needed; there’s been amazing support from the Dutch.

Growing up, what stories did your parents tell you about being musicians in the Soviet era?

Of course, they only knew what they were allowed to know, they only knew the world that was shown to them. They didn’t have a way to travel and [the authorities] were very strict about what books they were allowed to read or what movies they could see. But the good thing in the Soviet Union was the education, especially the musical education. There were many incredible musicians in the Soviet Union, and both my parents started at the Moscow Conservatory. 

There were [international] competitions, and if you were among the best in the whole Soviet Union, you would be allowed to go. But then you’d be supervised, to make sure that you didn’t go anywhere and talk to anyone. It was a very different reality. And it seems now that Russia is going back to that at the moment, because now people there don’t even have access to any foreign information. Basically they are going back to the Iron Curtain.

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Since the war started, have you been listening to or playing much music? 

The first week [after the invasion] I barely touched the piano, just because I was constantly on the phone and speaking to people in Ukraine and watching the news, and I was also busy organizing this [benefit]. But then once we started rehearsing and playing, [music] gave me a feeling of normality. I was feeling more myself, more alive again. Playing music and performing at concerts, has given me a lot of comfort and happiness. I just was in Poland and people there are so supportive, there was such a huge energy from the conductor and the organizers of support and love and understanding. Constantly being on the phone with people in Ukraine gets really sad and terrifying, and the music comes and it somehow takes away the tension.

Photo © Eduardus Lee

How did you get the idea for these benefit concerts?

Well, my parents were actually in Kyiv just a few days before the bombing started, and I managed to get them out just in time—while planes were still flying and it was still possible to leave. So we were together and that was a big relief, though of course we were all in shock. But I also started to feel strongly that we cannot just sit and be terrified: We need to try to do something, and to help people in any way we can. And as musicians, we actually can help on two levels. We can help to raise money, and we can help emotionally and with moral support: Music is also a very powerful tool. [My friend, the Russian cellist Maya Fridman and I] contacted the director of the Concertgebouw, and he was very much willing to help and they basically offered the hall for free, just for this event, they offered all their staff for free, they offered PR—it was amazing, the initiative everyone took. And in 30 hours the hall was sold out and we raised over €100,000, with just one concert in the Concertgebouw. On the same day, we played a benefit concert which we also initiated with another Dutch concert venue, Amare Hague, and that raised around €50,000. We have many more concerts planned.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in preparing the concerts?

I guess the biggest challenge was to manage to cope with everything, because it was just really hard emotionally. But once I started, it was also great to feel busy and to feel that you are actually making a difference. Of course there were problems: there were many people involved in the organization, so you have some arguments about how to do things. But these details are all really small problems, because in general it was so amazing, the support and willingness to help we’ve encountered. So yeah, I think the biggest challenge was just emotionally managing to cope with everything and to find time to sleep, to find time to eat—I don’t remember eating these whole last two weeks, I just do it on autopilot. [Laughs.]

There have been numerous examples already of Russian artists—even Russians living abroad—who have had events canceled. Some orchestras have canceled performances of Russian composers in solidarity with Ukraine. What is your opinion on the idea of cultural boycotts?

Yes, well basically I don’t agree with it. We have to show solidarity with Ukraine, but banning Russian culture, Russian music, Russian literature in general—even if the poets, writers, composers, really have absolutely no connection with what is happening now… I don’t think that is the way to go. I was just in Poland; I was supposed to play Rachmaninoff in Warsaw and it [was] changed to Chopin. And I spoke about this with the director of the hall, and she said, “It’s only a little break, we love Rachmaninoff, we love Tchaikovsky, of course. We want you to come back and perform Rachmaninoff with our orchestra and everything, but this is just kind of a statement of solidarity and of protest against what is happening.”

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In a way I understand that, but I still just don’t think that it’s helping. With musicians, I think everyone has to be taken individually, because there are plenty of Russian musicians who support the Ukrainian people. But if some musicians are actually supporting the Russian government or its actions, or even just staying indifferent, then actually I don’t really mind if there is some protest against these actions, because I just don’t think that you can be indifferent to this situation.

But composers like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich as well, they all were victims—especially Rachmaninoff, he had to flee the country because of the Revolution. Shostakovich also suffered all his life from the Soviet regime, and he expressed that in his music. So, I really don’t see why we have to ban Russian composers who have absolutely nothing to do with what is happening now, at least in the Russian government. And also, the Russian input in our culture of classical music is so huge, we will really be missing this huge part. It’s music that is emotionally powerful. We really need the music of Rachmaninoff now to survive this because it gives strength, it gives hope. ¶

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Brent Simon is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He has written for Screen International, Mtime, Newsweek Japan, AV Club, and other publications.