paintings on the wall

Russian artists in exile create new identity and work 

At the start of the war in Ukraine, much of Russia's cultural elite fled the country, including playwrights, filmmakers, artist and curators. A year on, they have established themselves in new cities across the world, a century after a previous exodus of Russian writers and artists reshaped global culture.

The World

Up to a million people have fled Russia since the start of the invasion of Ukraine — either in protest against the war, or to avoid the draft and increasing repression at home.

Among them are hundreds, if not thousands, of artists. They follow a well-trodden path of Russians in emigration or exile who have had a profound effect on global culture — from novelist Vladimir Nabokov to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a writer and teacher, to Rudolf Nureyev, a ballet dancer and choreographer, to name just a few.

But those great names seem far from the new arrivals' minds now as they struggle to adapt to life outside their home country.

the building that houses the collective

The building that the exiled Russian artists collective, Microcredit, calls home, in Paris.


Courtesy of Microcredit

In a half-abandoned office block on the outskirts of Paris, Vasilii Berezin and Stas Falkov — who fled Moscow last year — have set up an artists collective called Microcredit.

Berezin is 30, and a theater director. He explained that this squat is a place for contemporary art and exhibitions, for events and performances, and where Russian artists in transit can work and stay.

It’s also a way of giving something back to France, which has set up a support program for those in the cultural sector affected by the conflict — not just Ukrainians, but also Russian artists who oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

“I can offer something with my shows,” Berezin said. “It’s a joy that there is something to learn, something to give. It’s a joy that there’s someone who needs this. I didn’t expect so much interest.”

two men on a rooftop

 Vasilii Berezin (left) and Stas Falkov (right) of the Microcredit collective of exiled Russian artists at their building in Paris.


Courtesy of Microcredit 

In one room of the squat, there’s a mattress on the floor, and the walls are covered with Falkov’s rough, abstract paintings along with a poster reading: “Ukraine — never give up.”

Down a corridor is an exhibition by the Russian dissident artist Vanya Volkov, and beyond that, a handful of rooms that are being used as studios. There’s also a makeshift theater for Berezin’s troupe.

Falkov is a 35-year-old visual artist and designer. He left Russia with nothing more than a backpack. His mother and brother remain in the country.


Artwork on display from a collective of exiled Russian artists, Microcredit, in Paris.


Courtesy of Microcredit 

Despite the sense of community that Microcredit provides, Falkov said that he still feels out of place in Europe.

“It’s like taking a flower from the forest and replanting it in a garden,” he said. “It’s extremely stressful to live this. I often dream that I’m back in Russia. Mainly, I miss the people.”

Like generations of Russian emigre artists before him, Falkov is coming to terms with what the change of country will mean for his work.

“I am a Russian artist. But I want to become more global in my thinking. I can’t take any responsibility now for the fate of Russia — I can’t talk about that, because I am not there. I have made that choice.”

Falkov and Berezin don’t know how long they’ll be able to stay in the space — the building’s owners have been trying to throw them out. But they say they will continue to make art wherever they are.

art on the walls

Artwork on display from a collective of exiled Russian artists, Microcredit, in Paris.


Courtesy of Microcredit

Others in the city have yet to find a place where they can work at all. Among them is Kirill Makarov, a celebrated multimedia artist who has exhibited widely in Russia and abroad.

Makarov said that he never wanted to leave Russia at all — he had good opportunities there — but the environment made it impossible to continue.

Here in Paris, he’s working much less, and has yet to exhibit. If Makarov does stay long term, he too, wonders how it will affect his art.

“I’ll probably have to integrate myself into the artistic space in France,” he said. “But you can’t fully remove yourself from the country where you were born. It still influences you, no matter what happens there or what the government is doing.”

Alexander Burenkov is a curator, who himself left Russia immediately after the war and now also lives in Paris.

He said that in a way, this mass exodus might be good for Russian art, which even before the conflict was relatively isolated. Now, artists will have to engage with a global audience. But it all comes at a high price.

“People are struggling with depression, they’re disorientated, they can’t keep productive. Only a few established artists, mid-career ones, can easily adapt.”

France is far from the only destination for Russians in the cultural sector. Others have gone to different cities in Europe, to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the United States. But the experiences of many are similar across the world.

“People right now, all artists, are just thinking how to survive, how to earn money, just for food sometimes,” Burenkov said.

But the alternative is brought home by recent news out of Moscow. 

In Russia, police have arrested a theater director called Zhenya Berkovich and the playwright Svetlana Petriychuk on charges of “justifying terrorism” — over an award-winning play they produced two years ago.

Many believe they were really targeted because of statements against the war in Ukraine — the pair face up to seven years in jail if convicted.

Whatever the challenges facing Russian artists in the West, these latest arrests make it clear what they have escaped by fleeing.

Will you keep The World spinning?

Donations from listeners like you are absolutely crucial in funding the great music and human-centered global news you hear on The World. Recurring gifts provide predictable, sustainable support — letting our team focus on telling the stories you don’t hear anywhere else. If you make a gift of $100 or pledge $10/month we’ll send you a curated playlist highlighting some of the team's favorite music from the show Donate today to keep The World spinning.