When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the pianist Polina Osetinskaya, who lives in Moscow, was distraught. She took to social media to describe a sense of “horror, shame and disgust,” and expressed solidarity with Ukraine, where she had often performed.
But unlike many artists, activists and intellectuals, Osetinskaya, 47, decided to remain in Russia, where she lives with her three children, even as the Kremlin cracked down on free expression and made clear that any contradiction of the government’s statements on the invasion could be treated as a crime. She has faced consequences for her views — some concerts at state-run halls have been canceled, while others have been interrupted by the authorities.
Osetinskaya, who was born in Moscow, says her international career has also suffered because of her Russian identity. She lost some overseas engagements after the invasion, she says, because presenters were nervous about featuring Russian citizens. As a result, she says that she often feels caught in the middle: seen suspiciously both inside and outside her country.
Osetinskaya will perform a program of Bach, Handel, Purcell and Rameau at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Saturday, part of a five-city tour organized by the Cherry Orchard Festival, which promotes global cultural exchange. The program explores Baroque masterpieces featured in movies like “The Godfather” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
In between concerts and rehearsals this week, she discussed her opposition to the war, the role of music in healing and her decision to remain in Moscow. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve made the difficult decision to stay in Russia even as you criticize the war. Why have you continued to speak out?
This is a huge tragedy that is happening in my soul every day. Some of my friends tell me, “Take this war out of your heart, it’s not your problem.” I think it’s our problem. A lot of us, in the beginning, didn’t think it would turn out this way. Being Russian now is kind of like being crucified in the eyes of a lot of people. But I know that there are Russians who are truly against the war and against what is happening.
I want people to know that there are a lot of people like this in Russia. And they’ve been put in prison for their views, or for their likes on Facebook. And they’ve lost their jobs, they’ve lost their freedom just for openly expressing their opinions. I want people to know that there are a lot of good Russians, if I may say so.
Are you concerned about your own safety?
I was born in 1975 and remember the repression that was in the Soviet Union. And I have a feeling like I’m back in this time. And that’s what makes me so sad. We have so many opportunities to grow, to be a part of a world community, and instead we’re still repeating our own story, and it’s not the best pages of our story.
Right now, I’m playing private concerts in Moscow because big halls are closed for me. I truly hope that I won’t be put in jail for my views and opinions. Every time I talk openly about my feelings, I’m being watched. All I need now is to be able to work, to feed my children, and not to be afraid that I might be a political prisoner.
In March, the authorities in Moscow interrupted a concert in which you and several other artists were playing works by Shostakovich and Mieczysław Weinberg.
The police ran into the concert hall in the middle of the performance, and they said they got a call that there was a bomb inside. And they asked everyone to to leave. And everybody stepped out onto the rainy street, and the police went inside with the bomb-sniffing dogs. And the audience stayed with me — there under the rain — and nobody left. And when finally the police hadn’t found any bombs, obviously, we got back to the hall and we continued the concert.
How did that experience make you feel?
At that moment, I was completely broken because I had the feeling that I had been struggling for months for the possibility to play, and it was interrupted. But I remembered the people who have been thanking me for not leaving Russia. People write me letters telling me that they don’t feel abandoned because I’m here. Many of the artists have left.
Did you have any hesitations about speaking out when the war first started?
On the first day of the war, I woke up at 7 a.m. because I was making my children breakfast and taking them to school. And I opened my eyes and I saw a post on Facebook by my friend that said, “Oh God, No! No!” I immediately understood what was going on. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I never had the idea that I could keep silent. I had to scream.
What do you hope audiences will take away from your tour in the United States this week?
Baroque music very much suits our time because it has so much drama, so much tragedy, so much power, so much consolation at the same time. It sounds like it was written just now. The music that I am playing makes us look into ourselves, feel empathy to anyone who is suffering right now, including ourselves, and gives us hope. That’s what we need probably most right now. When the war started, this program made so much sense. I want as many people as possible to hear this music.
Do you think your words and music can have an impact?
I feel a little bit useless. I have no power to stop the war. I have no power to do anything to change things. But playing music and touching the keyboard — that’s the only thing I can do to solve my own pain and to solve other people’s pain.
It’s dangerous to say this right now, but I have to say that I love Russia. I can separate Russia — my country, my homeland, the beautiful people who live there — from the government and from the people who are making decisions. I can tell one from the other, but it seems to me that nobody else can.
Life is not just black and white like my keyboard. It has a lot of colors and it has a lot of shades. We should remember people’s feelings and souls.