The last time that Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts performed in his home country was in August 2021, seven months before Russia invaded Ukraine. Back then, Gringolts was embroiled in a contract dispute which, he says, resulted in him not being paid for his last performances in Russia. Now, he is glad he did not accept what he calls “dirty money”.
The 40-year-old has not lived in Russia for more than two decades, having left after becoming the youngest ever winner of Italy’s international violin competition, the Premio Paganini, when he was a teenager. After that he went to Juilliard in New York, where he studied under legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, and was soon regarded as one of the best violin soloists in the world. But to this day, his extended family are living in St Petersburg, though his parents fled the country soon after the invasion of Ukraine.
Gringolts is now an exile, based in Zurich. But currently he is in Australia, working as the guest artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra while long-serving leader Richard Tognetti is overseas. Throughout February, Gringolts will lead the ACO on an eastern seaboard tour, playing Bruch, Mendelssohn and a new work commissioned by the orchestra from Sydney composer Harry Sdraulig.
In April last year, Gringolts signed an open letter published in the Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, titled Putin is not all Russia. His fellow signatories were all Russian exiles living in Switzerland, including the Russian Booker prize-winning novelist Mikhail Shishkin, and Olga Ivanova, sister of long-term Putin critic Vladimir Bukovsky. But many other Russian artists have remained quiet since the invasion began: facing repercussions at home if they say something, and abroad if they don’t. Most notably, Valery Gergiev was sacked as the Munich Philharmonic’s chief conductor after he refused to publicly condemn Putin, as did Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who was forced to withdraw from performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Sitting in the ACO’s headquarters overlooking Sydney Harbour, Gringolts was sceptical when asked if Russian musicians working overseas felt pressure to decry Putin’s actions in order to save their careers.
“I don’t feel any pressure, to be honest, and I think the problem is slightly blown out of proportion,” he said. “I know plenty of people who don’t have any trouble even though they actually support the war. I’m not going to name any names … but you know they support the war. They keep their mouths shut and they can continue their international career.
“It’s a question of your own integrity. Everyone makes a choice. For some people their careers are more important and others believe in higher ideals. Of course, those who support the war will never say it out loud. Some of them are actually decent people. But that’s a choice we all make. I think it’s a slippery slope.”
‘A knife in the back’
One day after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Berlin Philharmonic chief conductor Kirill Petrenko became one of the first Russians to publicly denounce Putin’s aggression. In an open letter, he condemned the invasion as “a knife in the back of the entire peaceful world”.
Other Russians followed: Vasily Petrenko (no relation to Kirill), artistic director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra; Olga Smirnova, a principal soloist at the Bolshoi ballet; and Bolshoi choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, whose decision to speak out put him at odds with his friend and mentor Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has argued that Russian performers and artists should not be made to pay for the war.
“I don’t think it’s right to put the weight of a country’s political decisions on the backs of artists, or athletes, who may have vulnerable family members in their home country,” the legendary dancer, who defected to Canada in 1974, told the Observer a month after the invasion began. “For people in those exposed positions, neutrality is a powerful statement.”
Gringolts does not share Baryshnikov’s position, and has expressed his frustration with the neutrality Switzerland is renowned for; the open letter he co-signed condemned his adoptive country’s failure to prevent the “laundering of dirty money” from Russia.
“I understand it’s not so simple,” Gringolts said. “Switzerland has always stayed out of things and they have never been more involved in any political event than they are now, they’re actually taking sides.”
Although the Swiss ambassador to Ukraine has condemned Russian aggression as “illegal and illegitimate”, and Switzerland has frozen US$8bn in Swiss banks held by Russian nationals, Swiss president Ignazio Cassis has ruled out a proposal that would allow Ukraine to seize those assets to fund the country’s recovery.
“It is difficult because Swiss laws cannot be changed that easily,” says Gringolts. “There must be a public referendum, even if there is the will [from the government] – the people basically have to vote on everything. After all Switzerland is a direct democracy.”
For now, Gringolts is in Australia, performing with musicians who have, in some cases, admired his abilities ever since he was a child; Tognetti has called him “a phenomenal violinist with one of the most curious brains in the violin world”.
In the future, would he refuse to perform with compatriots who he knew were in support of the war against Ukraine?
“I think … probably, yes,” he says. “I definitely would not play for any company run by the Russian government. But that is, of course, now theoretical. They know where I stand.”