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Russia's biggest talents flee to Israel, seeking freedom from Putin's repression

Choreographer Polina Mitryashina, artist Victor Melamed, and jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskiy, from left, in Tel Aviv on Nov. 2. All three are Russian artists who have recently fled Russia to live in Israel.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
Choreographer Polina Mitryashina, artist Victor Melamed, and jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskiy, from left, in Tel Aviv on Nov. 2. All three are Russian artists who have recently fled Russia to live in Israel.

TEL AVIV — Some of Russia's biggest artistic talents have immigrated to Israel this year, finding a safe place to rebuild their careers and voice their conscience about their country's war in Ukraine.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has cracked down on even the slightest opposition to the war, forced thousands of citizens to enlist to fight and drawn tough sanctions from the West. All this has prompted many Russians to flee.

More than 28,000 Russian nationals have acquired Israeli citizenship since the war began, according to Israeli government figures. They include a pop superstar, a top photojournalist and many other creatives in art, theater, film, music and dance.

"Staying behind the Iron Curtain was incredibly scary," Russian artist Victor Melamed says, comparing Russia's current isolation to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Melamed, whose portraits have appeared in the New Yorker magazine, fled to Israel in June. He says: "I want to be a person of the world."

Russians are relocating mostly to Turkey, Kazakhstan and Georgia. But Israel offers one big advantage: Those with at least one Jewish grandparent can get Israeli citizenship for themselves and their close family.

"When the war started, I think, like, everybody literally remembered their Jewish grandma," says Liza Rozovsky, a Russian-born Israeli journalist tracking Russian celebrity arrivals for the Haaretz newspaper.

Israel defines itself as a refuge for Jews, which is why it's already home to 1 million Russian-speakers who fled the crumbling Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Some Ukrainian immigrants in Israel wish the Russian newcomers would stay in Russia to protest their leadership, despite the risks. "They're trying to run away," says Ilona Stavytska, 33, a Ukrainian-born barista in Tel Aviv.

But Russian exiles say their protest is more effective here. "Go protest in Moscow. I will support you. I will say, 'Oh, look, this person is protesting.' Then I will send you letters to jail," says Maxim Katz, 37, a Russian YouTube blogger and former opposition politician who escaped to Israel and publishes anti-war videos to audiences in Russia.

Here are three Russian artists who escaped to Israel this year and still grapple with the country they left behind.

A Russian jazz label migrates to Israel

Grammy-nominated jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskii at a waterfront park he frequents in Tel Aviv on Nov. 2.
/ Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
Grammy-nominated jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskii at a waterfront park he frequents in Tel Aviv on Nov. 2.

What a difference a year has made for jazz producer Evgenii Petrushanskii. Last year, his record label in Russia, Rainy Days Records, produced a jazz album which got nominated for a Grammy. This year, the record label has gone silent.

"I don't feel it's the right time now to release music as a Russian label," Petrushanskii, 36, says at a Tel Aviv coffee shop. "For the ethical reasons, I stopped."

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, he left St. Petersburg for Tel Aviv, claiming Israeli citizenship based on his father's Jewish roots.

"It's impossible to release a record in Russia so it goes to the foreign audience," Petrushanskii says. "A majority of music aggregators who release music toward the platforms like Apple Music, Spotify — they're not working. They're not presenting in Russia anymore."

Now he's re-registering his record label in Israel, hoping to release new records of Russian artists next year.

A Russian choreographer is not looking back

Choreographer and dancer Polina Mitryashina in a dance studio in Tel Aviv on Nov. 2.
/ Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
Choreographer and dancer Polina Mitryashina in a dance studio in Tel Aviv on Nov. 2.

Polina Mitryashina, 28, worked at one of the world's leading dance institutions, Russia's Mariinsky Theater. Then when the war broke out, her dancers began to vanish.

"Now they're in Oslo," she says. "They left Russia too."

Mitryashina attended a recent networking event at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, which brought 100 Russian and Ukrainian artists in film, music, art and dance — new immigrants like her — to meet veteran Israeli artistic directors and try to rebuild their careers in Israel.

"Sometimes I'm angry [at] the people who stay ... and continue to work for the big companies, and continue to make money" in Russia, she says. "I am like, 'Are you crazy? You, you're like a sponsor of the war.'"

A portrait artist draws Ukrainian war victims

Illustrator and portrait artist Victor Melamed at his home in Ramat Gan, Israel on Nov. 2 with Yegor, one of his 16-year-old twin sons.
/ Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR
Illustrator and portrait artist Victor Melamed at his home in Ramat Gan, Israel on Nov. 2 with Yegor, one of his 16-year-old twin sons.

Artist Victor Melamed, 45, moved his family to a quiet Tel Aviv suburb to keep his teenage boys out of a potential Russian military draft — though they will likely be drafted into the Israeli army.

"I have no romantic visions of, you know, Israel's policies," he says. "The Israeli army is an institution that cares for every person they have ... as opposed to the Russian army."

Each morning he draws a black-and-white portrait of a Ukrainian civilian killed in a Russian attack, and posts it on Instagram. He says it's his way of pinching himself, not to get too comfortable in his new home in Israel.

"This time is very demanding. We need to grow up," he says. "We cannot afford to stay the same."

Natan Odenheimer contributed to this story from Jerusalem.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.