“I’m sorry, things are pretty dramatic here and all I can focus on right now is saving my family. I’ll write you next week.” That was how Anna Stavychenko, artistic director of the Open Music City Festival and executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, replied to me when I contacted her for an interview on February 12. The situation has deteriorated further since Putin’s speech on Monday, February 21, in which he recognized the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and announced that he would deploy Russian forces to the region of Donbas. “It’s a permanent state of emergency and stress,” Stavychenko told me when I reached her in Kyiv via Zoom.

Less than 24 hours after we spoke about being on high alert and the importance of culture in a crisis, Russian troops launched attacks by air, land, and sea in ten of Ukraine’s 27 regions. Vladimir Putin called it “a special military option.” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba called it “a full-scale invasion.”

Update: February 28, 2022

VAN received the following update from Anna Stavychenko on the evening of Sunday, February 27:

“I am with my parents in Poland, where we are hosted and helped by wonderful volunteers. There are a lot of them here, including many activists from Belarus who had to leave their country because of the regime. Now my parents and I help as volunteers, too.

“Most of the members of the team and musicians of the orchestra are still in Ukraine. Some try to send family members at the least to other cities; some live in the suburbs of Kyiv and are ready to host colleagues. Those in Kyiv spend their nights and parts of their days in bomb shelters. We rely on our army, they are real heroes. The orchestra and I are launching a campaign of solidarity, asking international musicians to record videos with words of support for Ukraine. Matthias Goerne is already involved. The power of art and community is very important now.”

VAN: How are things for you right now? 

Anna Stavychenko: It’s never been as threatening as it is now, at least not for those who, like me, are lucky enough to live in Kyiv and not Donetsk or Lugansk. For the people there, the war began eight years ago—almost exactly. I was at the Maidan, volunteering at the military hospital when the war broke out. At some point, it became clear that it wouldn’t end as quickly as it had started. At the same time, I realized that I still needed to have my life and my work. I wanted to try and make my small contribution to the development of my country, especially its cultural identity. I just kept going like so many other Ukrainians. We had learned to live with it. But now it’s really scary, because every hour we get news of troop deployments, the Russian army invading tonight, tomorrow… It’s a constant state of stress. 

How do you deal with the stress? 

I work a lot. It’s my way of getting my mind off of things. We’re kind of programmed for that. There’s been a war going on here for so many years, and before that it was one revolution and economic crisis after another. Life has never been easy or relaxed here. When I was a kid, we had Chernobyl, then all of the upheaval in the turbulent 1990s. We’ve somehow learned to survive, even under great stress. 

Maidan in Kyiv • Photo: Juan Antonio Segal (CC BY 2.0)

Do you have a concrete plan right now for what’s next?

I have to have a plan, not just for me but for my family as well. So yes, our plan would be to flee to the countryside, if possible. A colleague from the orchestra was kind enough to offer me and my parents shelter there. We’d take a car and drive there. I don’t think about it all the time, but when you know you have a plan, it calms you down a bit. Most airlines have stopped flights going into or out of Ukraine, which means that it will be impossible for those who still want to get out of the country.

I read that the Kyiv city council published a map for all of the nearest bunkers.  

Yes, I know where the bunkers near my apartment are—as well as those near my parents. We live in the city center, which makes us a prime target for attacks. But my parents checked their local bunker recently and said you couldn’t go in because it’s locked. We don’t know if someone would be there to open it if worse comes to worst, or how any of that will work. So we know where we need to go, but we don’t know if that’s really going to help. 

Have you received a lot of support from the international arts community? Any statements of solidarity? 

Ever since the Russian Parliament recognized the independence of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, I’ve received messages of support from colleagues in various countries. Including Russians who emigrated from Russia. And that support really goes a long way. But before that speech, I was only getting questions from our partners about whether concerts would take place or not. No one seemed to care what was actually going on in Ukraine. 

The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra • Photo © Dmitro Larin

Why was that? 

Perhaps it was out of a sense of diplomacy. Our politicians don’t promote Ukraine and our culture nearly enough. That’s something I keep talking about: how important culture is, even in situations like this. Culture isn’t a priority for Ukrainian politicians. That, for me, is very sad. It’s a very powerful part of our national identity, and how we present ourselves to the world. If we do nothing with that, no one will know what Ukraine is, where it is, whether it’s a part of Russia or not. On the other side, we see how culture and classical music can be excellent tools for propaganda. And Russia knows how to use them

Are there a lot of musicians who have left the country, or who want to leave? 

Yes, many Ukrainian musicians have emigrated in recent years, and still do. But it’s for better career opportunities abroad. There are Ukrainian musicians and singers at the Vienna Staatsoper, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Bavarian Staatsoper…

How is your orchestra financed? 

We receive financial support from the city. At the moment, we’re trying to be designated as a state orchestra. Our musicians are salaried employees, but they’re paid less than state orchestra musicians. I wish that more international musicians would also come and perform here. I have a few dream artists I’d love to invite. 

Like who? 

Barbara Hannigan. I’m a big fan. I would also like to see more performances of works by Richard Strauss, who is rarely played here. We want to show Ukrainian audiences how great classical music can be, and that there are great performers on the international stage. 

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How did the war affect your friendships with Russian musicians and colleagues? 

I no longer have any contact with many of my friends who still live in Russia. It’s been like that since Crimea and then Donbas were occupied. It wasn’t a matter of principle; it was just such a big shock that I didn’t know how to talk to them. Especially the ones who didn’t show any remorse. Some apologized for Russia’s actions, and that was nice. But for those who didn’t, it wasn’t clear to me how we were going to continue having a friendship. So we just stopped. I don’t really have any friends in Russia anymore. 

Are there musicians of Russian heritage in your orchestra? 

No, but we have a few musicians who moved from Donbas to Kyiv when the war started. 

Can you listen to any music at the moment? Is that something that gives you hope? 

Not really, no. As a musicologist and music critic, classical music is mainly work for me, anyway. When I hear it, I start analyzing or comparing interpretations. It’s complicated. Speaking for myself, I don’t usually listen to classical music. I prefer electronica, techno, or something like that. But right now, at home, I’m not listening to any music. I’m too stressed. 

Right now, you’re planning a concert in Kyiv with Matthias Goerne for the beginning of March. I imagine that’s an important event for your orchestra? 

Absolutely. It will be his first concert in Kyiv and we have a whole Wagner program planned. As a Wagnerian, it means a lot to me to bring his music to my country. Unfortunately, his music isn’t played very often here, so I’m trying to change that. In September, my orchestra performed “Tristan und Isolde” for the first time in Ukraine, at the National Opera House. 

You can imagine how stressed we are at the moment, with sponsors only focusing on the rescue plan in the event of war, or with Austrian Airlines canceling flights to Ukraine. But we’ll figure it out. For example, Ukrainian Airlines will be flying the routes that Austrian Airlines has canceled, so that logistical problem is solved. Additionally, our partner, the German Embassy in Ukraine, supports us and believes in the success of the concert and its importance given the current situation. The embassy is still open. And, incidentally, it’s right across the street from the opera house. 

Have you thought about leaving Ukraine? 

I thought about it when I was doing research in Munich for my PhD. But I decided to come back, because I really wanted to do something in my own country. Just because I’m here now doesn’t mean I’m here forever. But, for the moment, I hope I can make a small contribution. ¶

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... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.

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