The greatest Russian artists of Jewish descent go into exile in Israel: NPR

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The greatest Russian artists of Jewish descent go into exile in Israel: NPR
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Choreographer Polina Mitryashina, artist Victor Melamed and jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskiy, from left, in Tel Aviv on November 2. All three are Russian artists who recently fled Russia to live in Israel.

Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR


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The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Choreographer Polina Mitryashina, artist Victor Melamed and jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskiy, from left, in Tel Aviv on November 2. All three are Russian artists who recently fled Russia to live in Israel.

Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

TEL AVIV — Some of Russia’s top artistic talents immigrated to Israel this year, finding a safe place to rebuild their careers and express their conscience about their country’s war in Ukraine.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has suppressed even the slightest opposition to the war, forced thousands of citizens to enlist to fight, and attracted harsh sanctions from the West. All this caused many Russians to flee.

More than 28,000 Russian nationals have acquired Israeli citizenship since the start of the war, according to Israeli government figures. They include a pop superstar, a renowned photojournalist, and many other creators in art, theater, film, music, and dance.

“Staying behind the Iron Curtain was incredibly scary,” says Russian artist Victor Melamed, comparing Russia’s current isolation to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Melamed, whose portraits appeared in the New Yorker magazine, fled to Israel in June. He says, “I want to be a person of the world.

Russians mainly settle in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Georgia. But Israel offers a big advantage: Those with at least one Jewish grandparent can obtain Israeli citizenship for themselves and their immediate family.

“When the war started, I think everyone literally remembered their Jewish grandmother,” says Liza Rozovsky, a Russian-born Israeli journalist who tracks Russian celebrity arrivals for the Ha’aretz newspaper.

Israel defines itself as a haven for Jews, which is why it is already home to 1 million Russian speakers who fled the crumbling Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Some Ukrainian immigrants to Israel want Russian newcomers to stay in Russia to protest their leadership, despite the risks. “They are trying to run away,” said Ilona Stavytska, 33, a Ukrainian-born barista in Tel Aviv.

But Russian exiles say their protest is more effective here. “Go demonstrate in Moscow. I will support you. I will say, ‘Oh look, this person is demonstrating.’ Then I’ll send you letters to jail,” says Maxim Katz, 37, a Russian YouTube blogger and former opposition politician who escaped to Israel and posts anti-war videos to the public in Russia.

Here are three Russian artists who fled to Israel this year and are still struggling with the country they left behind.

Russian jazz label moves to Israel

The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Grammy-nominated jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskii at a waterfront park he frequents in Tel Aviv on November 2.

Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR


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The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Grammy-nominated jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskii at a waterfront park he frequents in Tel Aviv on November 2.

Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

What a difference a year made for jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskii. Last year, his label in Russia, Rainy Days Records, produced a jazz album that was nominated for a Grammy. This year, the record company has gone silent.

“I don’t think it’s the right time to release music as a Russian label,” Petrushanskii, 36, says at a Tel Aviv cafe. “For ethical reasons, I quit.”

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, he left St. Petersburg for Tel Aviv, claiming Israeli citizenship based on his father’s Jewish roots.

“It’s impossible to release a record in Russia for a foreign audience,” says Petrushanskii. “Majority of music aggregators that release music on platforms like Apple Music, Spotify don’t work. They don’t present in Russia anymore.”

He is now re-recording his label in Israel, hoping to release new records by Russian artists next year.

A Russian choreographer does not look back

The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Choreographer and dancer Polina Mitryashina at a dance studio in Tel Aviv on November 2.

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The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Choreographer and dancer Polina Mitryashina at a dance studio in Tel Aviv on November 2.

Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

Polina Mitryashina, 28, worked in one of the world’s leading dance institutions, the Mariinsky Theater of Russia. Then, when war broke out, her dancers began to disappear.

“Now they are in Oslo,” she said. “They also left Russia.”

Mitryashina recently participated in a networking event at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, which brought together 100 Russian and Ukrainian film, music, art and dance artists – new immigrants like her – to meet veteran Israeli art directors and trying to rebuild their careers in Israel.

“Sometimes I’m angry [at] the people who stay…and continue to work for the big companies, and continue to make money” in Russia, she said. “I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? You are like a sponsor of war.’”

A portrait artist draws Ukrainian war victims

The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Illustrator and portrait artist Victor Melamed at his home in Ramat Gan, Israel, on November 2 with Yegor, one of his 16-year-old twin sons.

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The Greatest Russian Artists Of Jewish Descent Go Into Exile In Israel: Npr

Illustrator and portrait artist Victor Melamed at his home in Ramat Gan, Israel, on November 2 with Yegor, one of his 16-year-old twin sons.

Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

Artist Victor Melamed, 45, has moved his family to a quiet suburb of Tel Aviv to keep his teenagers out of possible Russian military recruitment – although they are likely to be drafted into the Israeli army.

“I don’t have romantic visions of, you know, the politics of Israel,” he says. “The Israeli army is an institution that takes care of every person it has…unlike the Russian army.”

Every morning, he draws a black and white portrait of a Ukrainian civilian killed in a Russian attack, and posts it on Instagram. He says it’s his way of pinching himself, of not feeling too comfortable in his new home in Israel.

“This period is very demanding. We have to grow,” he said. “We can’t afford to stay the same.”

Natan Odenheimer contributed to this history of Jerusalem.

NPR News

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