Tright here was no place Mikhail Voskresensky cherished greater than the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated from the varsity in 1958. For many years, he was the venerable chair of the piano division, specializing within the masters of Nineteenth-century romanticism. His granddaughter served as his assistant, educating alongside him. His younger spouse, a gifted pianist from Vietnam, had studied there. In February, two days earlier than Russian troops started flowing throughout the Ukrainian border, Voskresensky performed a live performance for a whole bunch within the Conservatory’s Grand Corridor, an beautiful artifact of the imperial age, with hovering partitions lined by portraits of the nation’s nice composers.
Voskresensky wasn’t ethnically Ukrainian. However, in a narrative typical of the imposed multiculturalism of Soviet occasions, he was born in what’s now Ukraine, within the metropolis of Berdyansk, on the banks of the Azov Sea. Extra to the purpose, his mom was buried there. Regardless of the propagandists proclaimed, he couldn’t consider Ukraine as enemy territory. Nicely earlier than the invention of mass graves in Bucha and Irpin, he thought-about the struggle not only a strategic blunder, however an expression of barbaric cruelty.
However he was an outlier. Even within the hallways of the comparatively cosmopolitan conservatory, he overheard jingoistic speak. The invasion of Ukraine was generally described as a protection of Russian territory. “What a part of Russian territory was attacked?” he would retort.
Someday, a fellow pianist approached him, and the dialog turned to Ukraine. No profound distinction of opinion separated them. The pianist agreed that struggle was folly. However he added, “Since we began it, now we have no alternative however to win it.”
By the requirements of Russian political discourse, this was hardly provocative. Nonetheless, it triggered Voskresensky. As he left the dialog, he thought to himself: How can I reside with clever individuals who suppose like this? The thought of fleeing into exile had been stirring in his head for weeks. Now it was changing into extra like a conviction.
He couldn’t shake the sensation of his personal complicity. “I’m responsible if I reside on this society,” he instructed me, many months later. “I had this sense that was ethically arduous to reside with.” Though he was 87 years previous, he had a 4-year-old son, and he needed his youngest little one “to develop up freed from this sense.” His spouse, who shared his distaste for Moscow’s wartime oppressiveness, agreed.
To place it within the parlance of one other time: Voskresensky—a beloved determine who had received a lot of his nation’s highest honors, together with the Folks’s Artist of Russia—was able to defect.
The final time Voskresensky engaged in a political act was in 1963. He was a charismatic prodigy, on the cusp of stardom. He had performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto on the Prague Spring Worldwide Music Pageant, its first efficiency exterior the Soviet Union, and within the presence of the good composer himself, who overcame his worry of flying to attend. He had medaled on the Van Cliburn Worldwide Piano Competitors in Texas.
The Soviet cultural equipment needed to indicate him off to the world. Preparations have been made for a tour of the USA. However earlier than plans have been finalized, Voskresensky acquired a name from a KGB agent who requested him to hold letters to American contacts on the group’s behalf.
That night time, Voskresensky couldn’t sleep. He dreaded the task and grasped for a approach to keep away from it. The subsequent day he known as the agent and instructed him, “I’m a person of artwork. Folks of artwork are extraordinarily emotional and simply agitated. I’m afraid if I settle for your provide, I’ll inadvertently make a mistake that may mirror poorly on our state.” Instantly, the road went lifeless—and so did his worldwide profession. The federal government canceled his tour. It took 13 years for the state to forgive his reticence and allow him a tour of the West.
Being a classical pianist in Moscow within the Soviet period got here with cultural cachet, but in addition limitations. It wasn’t simply that Voskresensky couldn’t carry out overseas. He would embark on epic initiatives—comparable to enjoying each Chopin piano piece in chronological order—however as a result of the Soviets didn’t have a vibrant recording business, his biggest performances disappeared as quickly as they ended.
Voskresensky by no means acquired the worldwide popularity he deserved—and plenty of many years later, this truth could have difficult his try and defect. When he despatched emails to colleagues throughout the West asking for assist leaving, none supplied help. Most of the West’s cultural establishments hesitated to host Russian performers, irrespective of their politics. He needed to take a stand towards a horrible struggle, however he was given the chilly shoulder.
Voskresensky acquired only one heat response, in late Could. It got here from Veda Kaplinsky, a professor at Juilliard, promising assist. Two days later, she organized a pretext for him to go away Russia: She requested colleagues on the Aspen Music Pageant to ship him an invite to show grasp lessons in July. It was his solely alternative to flee—however he couldn’t go with out the permission of assorted slow-moving bureaucracies. And so started a interval of painful uncertainty.
Defecting within the time of pandemic and struggle got here with peculiar challenges. The primary was the COVID vaccine. Russia had distributed its personal vaccine, Sputnik V, which the State Division declared insufficient for the needs of coming into the USA. So Voskresensky began attempting to find jabs of Pfizer or Moderna.
Serendipitously, he acquired an invite to show and play at a music competition in Ankara, Turkey, in June. He might journey there with out a visa, and he was positive that he and his spouse might discover photographs within the metropolis.
However that solely half-solved his drawback, as a result of they wanted two photographs, separated by a minimum of three weeks. He instructed the conservatory that he would take a household trip in Turkey a month earlier than he attended the music competition there, after which would return for the occasion. Voskresensky frightened that his plans sounded suspiciously unbelievable—and that authorities would possibly take discover. However he would not uncover that till he reached passport management, when he tried to go away his motherland.
Within the meantime, it was greatest that he saved his intentions to himself. He instructed the conservatory that his journey to Turkey was going to be the beginning of a protracted sabbatical, and that he would return in a yr’s time. He took his “trip” and received the shot, and waited. It pained him that he couldn’t reveal his plans to his granddaughter, the kid of his son from his first marriage. And he dreaded that his departure from Russia, when it will definitely turned public, would possibly someway show catastrophic for his relations who remained.
As he plotted his escape, he might see that this entire journey would shortly exhaust his financial savings, so he and his spouse organized to promote an house that she owned in Moscow. Sanctions prevented them from transferring the proceeds of the sale to the West, so she deposited the money in Vietnam, the place it could theoretically stay accessible to him in exile.
Subsequent, he wanted a visa—and he wanted it to materialize by the tip of July. However on the onset of the struggle, the U.S. State Division had largely shut down its operations in Russia. To get a visa, he would want to journey to a different nation. He realized that there have been large backlogs of visa purposes in every of Russia’s neighboring international locations. The shortest wait was supposedly in Naples, Italy. That was helpful intelligence—but in addition one other impediment in his path. The visa in his passport permitting him to journey to Europe had simply expired.
He now wanted to use for a visa to the European Union in order that he might apply for a visa to the U.S. Every little thing about his escape felt precarious. However on the final enterprise day earlier than he left for Turkey, the Italian embassy instructed him that his visa was prepared.
As Alan Fletcher, the president of the Aspen Music Pageant, tracked Voskresensky’s progress from afar, he distracted himself by watching The Third Man, as a result of he felt as if he had been transported right into a Chilly Conflict noir. By a member of his board, Fletcher enlisted the assistance of Senator John Hickenlooper, who phoned prime officers on the State Division to impress on them the significance of serving to Voskresensky make his approach to the competition.
Their efforts labored. Voskresensky spent per week educating in Ankara, then flew to Naples, the place he swam within the Mediterranean along with his son and stalked the American consulate till his paperwork arrived. Almost two months after he’d left Moscow, Voskresensky, his spouse, and their son boarded a aircraft to Aspen, which he prayed would turn into his sanctuary.
Earlier this month, I met Voskresensky and his spouse for espresso at an house within the Bronx, simply off West Kingsbridge Highway. Once I arrived, he bounded down the steps with an athleticism that appeared unbelievable for a near-nonagenarian.
I observed that he preferred to tout his vigor. He talked about that he might nonetheless play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a famously technical piece that required power and precision. “I needs to be within the Guinness Guide,” he joked. Not one of the greats, he famous, might play it at his age—the virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz hadn’t even lived that lengthy. (Horowitz, I remembered, was additionally from Ukraine; born in Kyiv, he died in New York Metropolis.)
Voskresensky supplied me a seat at a small spherical desk flush towards an open window, and his spouse introduced me with a plate piled excessive with cream-filled pastries that she had baked. As he waved his arm on the naked white partitions, he instructed me, “I came upon that Aspen was not inside my price range.”
Looking for a house in New York Metropolis, Voskresensky had visited seven completely different residences, however was rejected at every cease as a result of he lacked a Social Safety quantity and didn’t have a dependable paycheck. The unit within the Bronx solely tumbled into his palms due to a pal in Moscow, who knew somebody who knew somebody who owned a constructing and smiled kindly at his plight.
Voskresensky needed to be in New York due to its density of musical conservatories. Certainly, Juilliard had already supplied its college students the possibility to take a grasp class with him. Forty-nine college students signed up in three hours. However his immigration paperwork hadn’t totally arrived—and his lawyer couldn’t get anybody on the telephone within the workplace in Nebraska that was alleged to ship his promised work allow—which meant he didn’t have permission to show.
He laughed at this plot level in his picaresque escape from authoritarianism, which he known as “my Mark Twain story.”
Every week earlier, he had visited the Steinway manufacturing facility, the place he placed on an unscheduled recital. On the finish of his tour, the president of Steinway made an look and supplied to mortgage him one of many firm’s best devices. However when the piano movers arrived with it within the Bronx, they found that the stairway within the constructing was too slender.
This was the one truth about his new American life that triggered him palpable ache. Again in his Moscow house, he had three pianos. Right here he had solely a Yamaha electrical keyboard, loaned to him by the mom of considered one of his former college students. “It looks like my arm has been reduce off,” he instructed me.
As he started to recount the comforts of the life he cherished in Moscow, he paused, as if he wanted to remind himself of why he left. “If I meet an individual who helps homicide, I can’t speak to that individual,” he stated. However then he appeared a bit of greatly surprised by his personal fervor. He leaned towards me, his studying glasses jangling round his neck. “I by no means needed to be a political individual. I’m a person of the humanities.”