Mikhail Baryshnikov joins Pope’s appeal to stop the war in Ukraine
By Linda Bordoni
When Mikhail Baryshnikov agreed to speak with me to join the universal cry for peace in Ukraine, I felt extremely honored to be able to add his voice to those who are providing appeals, reflections, and testimonies through the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication.
I was inspired to reach out to the great dancer and artist, who chose to leave his life in the USSR and his career at the Leningrad-based Kirov Ballet in 1974, when I came across an open letter he published this week on Facebook highlighting the interconnectedness of Russian and Ukrainian culture, his horror for the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, and his wish to help as many refugees as possible. This is what he said to me:
In the letter you published this week you speak of yourself as “a product of Europe, Russia, and the United States.” Can you explain why?
I grew up in Latvia after the Second World War as the son of a Russian military officer. From a tender age, I understood that I was Russian in an occupied country that traditionally looked to the West. Riga has a long history of diversity in peoples, cultures, and religions. Even the Freedom Monument in the heart of Riga faces West. My early dance training was at the excellent Riga Choreography School, but Russian was spoken at home, my family was Russian, and as a teenager, I moved to St. Petersburg in Russia to train at the Vaganova Academy. And of course, I’ve lived in the United States since my mid-twenties - almost 50 years now - so I feel the time spent with the people of these places has shaped who I am and how I regard the world.
“Ukrainians have always been, and still are, friends, neighbours, family members” – you say – adding that the relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples is one of fluidity. Could you elaborate on this, perhaps with an example?
I’ve always thought that because most Russians understand Ukrainian, and most Ukrainians speak and understand Russian, that our cultures were historically related. I certainly learned Ukrainian folk dances as a boy, and when I was older I read the brilliant Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, and my Ukrainian friends read Fyodor Dostoevsky. I worked with choreographers from Ukraine. Ukrainians studied at the Vaganova Academy. I danced at a Russian cultural festival in Kyiv. And of course, Russian friends married Ukrainians and Ukrainian friends married Russians. That’s what I mean by fluidity. It’s a state of mutual appreciation for how each culture augments the other even as they are distinct.
You also say you refuse to paint all Russians “in one colour” and of course we agree and feel solidarity with all those Russians who are trying to make their voices for peace heard, and who are grieved for the suffering of Ukrainians. Do you hope that proud spirit and centuries of intellectual and artistic excellence that characterize Russian culture will be able to emerge and make a difference in this dramatic situation?
I believe in the goodness of people. I don’t want to call any one group evil, or any one group superior. This is a dangerous mistake. What I mean by not painting all Russians with the same brush is that I believe most Russians - once they have accurate information, once they understand what is being perpetrated in their name - will find their humanity. Thousands are already taking tremendous risks to demonstrate, to speak out, and use whatever means they can to educate their fellow Russians. I think this will make an important difference.
You express your desire to help as many refugees as possible and mention the establishment of the “True Russia” organization that aims to raise funds for Ukrainian refugees and give voice to expatriates, such as yourself. Would you like to tell me about it?
I was invited by Boris Akunin, a Russian emigre writer based in London, and Sergei Guriev, a Russian emigre economist based in Paris, to band together and create True Russia. They were pushed out of Russia for political reasons and have a better understanding than I of Putin’s Russia. Guriev predicted early on that Putin’s aggression would mean millions of Ukrainians would be forced from their homes and from their country. He knew the most valuable thing we could do was to create a secure and reliable portal to raise money to help these refugees and I am honored to be a part of it. The money goes to the Disasters Emergency Committee, a group of UK-based charities coordinating emergency relief for victims of natural and humanitarian disasters. The effort is called True Russia because it appeals to what is deep and true and honest in all people, but particularly to Russians around the world who watch in horror at what Putin is doing in Russia’s name. All funds raised by True Russia go toward Ukrainian refugee assistance. I urge anyone who feels helpless to contribute through truerussia.org.
Do you consider Pope Francis’ appeals for peace significant? Has his voice reached artists and intellectuals in the United States?
Absolutely. His statements are extraordinary in their simplicity. He literally asks in the name of God for this madness to stop. Any thinking person understands the power of this message.
We know that, like all Argentinians, Pope Francis likes tango, but I have a feeling he doesn’t know much about ballet and dance; however, he has often thanked performing artists for their capacity to “create beauty.” Would you like to share thoughts regarding the power of art to promote peace and fraternity?
I think art and beauty speak in a universal language. It’s why art has existed practically since humans have existed. It can push us to think, to dream, and to stop and look more closely. In other words, art is a great communicator. When the Pope speaks in the universal language of compassion, his message is powerful and deep. Perhaps it is he who is the ultimate artist.
Would you like to make an appeal for peace through the Vatican’s communication channels?
I can only repeat the Holy Father’s statement: “War is madness! Stop, please! Look at this cruelty!” I don’t think I can say it any better.