Leaving Russia: Rockstars, Writers, Actors, and Filmmakers on the Country’s Cultural Brain Drain

I understood that if I ever wanted to be able to speak and write openly about the war, leaving the country was necessary. Clearly, this had been Putin’s plan—to let those who “rock the boat,” as he liked to put it, to leave. “The Putin regime allows you to leave the country,” Kolmanovsky, the scientist, told me when we met in Georgia. “People leave, criminal cases are brought against them back in Russia, and then they can never return.”On March 16, Putin announced that the ongoing mass emigration from Russia was “a natural self-purification of society,” rhetoric that sounded very much like that employed by the Bolsheviks exactly a hundred years ago. In 1922, two steamships, later dubbed the “philosophers’ ships,” set out for Europe from a dock in St. Petersburg. Onboard were philosophers, scientists, writers, and their families. Each passenger was a critic of the Bolsheviks and thus had been forcibly made to leave the country. There had been a similar exodus not long before. Future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Ivan Bunin had already left for Istanbul (then Constantinople); the writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Kuprin went to Paris and Finland, respectively; the composer Sergei Rachmaninov to Denmark, later the U.S., and the artist Wassily Kandinsky left for Germany.In 1922, the Bolshevik plan to dispose of those who were polluting the minds of the Soviet people with ideas of freedom was highly effective. But in trying to revive that policy now, Putin, who is reported to read only newspapers, has forgotten that technological advances haven’t just brought us nuclear weapons, but also the internet, which has transformed the influence expatriates can have on their homeland. “In the 1920s, leaving the country was like a death of sorts,” explains historian Tamara Eidelman, who found herself on holiday in Portugal when the war broke out and decided not to return to Russia. “Emigration back then meant cutting all contact with the country. But now things have changed.”Many cultural figures have now also left Russia in order to make sense of the war and find a way to talk about it from a safe distance. The cult Russian rock singer Zemfira flew to Paris immediately after giving a performance in Moscow, which she ended with the song “Don’t Shoot.” One of the singer’s close friends, the actress and director Renata Litvinova, who is also now living in France, recalled the pressure her friend was under: “Zemfira was strongly urged to keep silent,” Litvinova tells me. From Paris, Zemfira has continued to speak out, writing a new track called “Meat,” about a war that turns people’s bodies into rotting flesh. As for Litvinova, she recently shot the short anti-war film When Will You Ever Learn?, in which she recites the lyrics, in Russian, from Pete Seeger’s famous protest song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “As soon as we departed from Moscow we asked a flight attendant for brandy, but it seemed to me like water,” Litvinova recalls. “Zero effect. I was shaking, and I suddenly realized that maybe I’m never going back.”“We are all hostages on board a plane that has been hijacked by a madman—and he’s about to fly it into a cliff face.” —Author Dmitry GlukhovskyTwenty-three-year-old singer Monetochka left Russia for Lithuania. Together with rapper Noize MC, she has been staging concerts in European cities and donating the proceeds to the Polish charity fund Siepomaga, which provides aid to Ukrainian refugees. One of her shows raised $330,000. “I took a step that I can’t come back from,” says Monetochka. For her fundraising initiative, the singer—who is eight months pregnant—could face up to 20 years in prison at home under the Treason article of Russia’s Criminal Code.