This month, conductor Vitali Alekseenok was slated to conduct concerts in Lviv, Dnipro, and Kyiv, as well as open the Kharkiv Music Festival as its new artistic director. Instead, four days after the beginning of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, he and his girlfriend drove two trucks full of aid supplies eight and a half hours from Berlin to the Polish-Ukrainian border. They stayed there for a week, helping out as drivers, mediators, and interpreters as more than half a million Ukrainians crossed the border into Poland. The day after he returned to Berlin, I reached him via Zoom. Shortly after that, he went back to the border. 

VAN: What was your impression of the situation at the border? Do they have enough help?

Vitali Alekseenok: My impression was that there was enough help; almost too much. On Sunday, the fourth day after the invasion, the camp was no longer accepting clothing donations, only food and medicine. They had more than enough. Whatever they don’t need in Poland, they transport into Ukraine; it’s well-organized in Poland. And, if something is missing, we volunteers try to fill in the gaps. 

Are many Ukrainian musicians still in the country, or have they all fled?

The majority, I believe, are now out of the country. But many are still there. For example, I have friends that are still in Kharkiv because their parents, who are in their eighties, didn’t want to leave and they didn’t want to leave them alone. Of course, many also had to stay. Two weeks before the invasion, I was conducting in Odessa and many of the orchestra members had joined the Territorial Defense Forces. After upholding the theater from the inside, they’re now doing the same from the outside. Other musicians who didn’t want to take up arms have found other ways of helping, like serving as drivers. 

Vitali’s car before driving to the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Are they still able to communicate? 

Yes, via the Internet: Facebook, Telegram… The day before yesterday, I received a note from musicians in Kyiv asking me to send them sheet music so they could continue practicing. You go crazy from all of the explosions otherwise. They don’t want to evacuate, but they told me: “We have to keep practicing and making music so that we can remain human.” 

There’s currently a lot of discussion over how certain Russian artists are reacting—or should be reacting—to the invasion. What are your thoughts?

A year ago, you told me that Vladimir Jurowski had informed you that he wouldn’t comment on political issues as a matter of principle…

Yes, that was in February 2021, after the arrest of Alexei Navalny and the resulting wave of protests in Russia. 

Coincidentally, I was with Jurowski for all of the rehearsals for his Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra concerts in the days leading up to the invasion. I saw in real-time how he reacted to the Russian attack. He changed the concert program very quickly [from Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave” to Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky’s Symphonic Overture No. 1 and the Ukrainian national anthem, also composed by Verbytsky—Ed.] and was one of the first artists to give a very meaningful statement. There are also many others: Vasily Petrenko, Semyon Bychkov, Kirill Petrenko… What I’ve noticed is how different each of the statements are from one another; everyone is speaking from a slightly different vantage point. It was clear to me that Gergiev wouldn’t comment. He has, with his silence, clearly stood for Putin. Other artists may need more time to say something. 

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On the day that Russia invaded, you wrote on Facebook: “My Russian friends, colleagues, and everyone who lives there: If you don’t speak out now and remain silent, this blood will also be on your hands.” 

I thought about that for a long time, though at the same time I was very emotional. I addressed that specifically to my friends in Russia because they’re the only ones who can do something directly and immediately. I realize how hard it is to do anything in Russia, especially with the new laws that passed a few days after I made that post. But you have to do everything you can. You don’t necessarily need to take to the streets, but you must find some way of taking a stand and speaking out. Better small actions than no action at all. Silence is the most dangerous thing, but of course most people opt for that; or they keep their eyes closed. To be honest, I don’t have all that many friends or colleagues in Russia anymore. Most of them left the country in the last few years. 

Last year, you told me that you feared your home country of Belarus becoming part of Russia. That fear seems to have come true. 

Yes, although before it was “only” ideological. Now it’s physical, too. The war is also being waged from our territory. Of course, they aren’t going to be so bold as to flat-out say, “Belarus is now part of Russia.” But it is now a de facto Russian territory. All of the activists have gone abroad or gone to prison. What remains is an amorphous and apathetic population. I know that many Belarusians are ashamed. There’s blood on our hands, too. 

A camp with relief supplies on the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Can you work right now? Study scores? 

No, and it’s good that I don’t have to study anything right now. I was scheduled exclusively for projects in Ukraine through May. In a very drastic way, the war has shown us that even those of us in the world of classical music don’t live in a vacuum—even if some of us pretend to. Often we’re far too neutral and elitist, disconnected from real life. That’s also dangerous, because there’s always the chance that a moment comes where you have to take a stand, or at least ought to. 

A few days ago, you launched a campaign to support Ukrainian musicians. Can you say more about it? 

I know so many Ukrainian musicians and would like to act as an intermediary between them and the cultural institutions and private organizations offering concrete assistance. That help could come in the form of performances, temporary work or internships in orchestras or theaters, enrollment in a university. I’m glad to already have a few offers of help from orchestras around Europe, but I get dozens—if not hundreds—of requests from Ukrainians: opera singers, choir members, instrumentalists. The supply isn’t enough to meet the demand. Art and music—any kind of employment, really—can be as important as therapy for a person’s morale and mental-well being, as well as key for financial stability and integrating into a new host community. 

How can interested institutions or organizations contact you?

Just send me an email

Do you think you’ll conduct in Ukraine again once it’s an independent, free country? 

Absolutely. 

In Kharkiv?

I hope so. At the Festival, we thought about the wording for our cancellation announcement before deciding to write that it would “in the best-case scenario be postponed.” I’m sure that the Ukrainians will mobilize all of their strength and we’ll make music there again. I met a lot of people near the border who were going to Ukraine to fight. I picked one guy up in Kraków and drove him to the border. We said goodbye, but with the promise that we’d meet again. ¶

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Hartmut Welscher

... 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.