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A Russian rapper brings his banned antiwar message to Istanbul

Earlier this week, instead of playing one of his long-anticipated, sold-out arena shows in Russia, Oxxxymiron gave an antiwar concert in a packed club in Istanbul. A crowd of Russians, many of whom had left their own country, filled the club, chanting "No to war!" and "Glory to Ukraine!"—slogans that could now get them jailed at home

By Ivan Nechepurenko
Published: Mar 19, 2022

A Russian rapper brings his banned antiwar message to IstanbulPeople hold anti-war placards before a rap concert for Ukraine by Russian rapper Oxxxymiron, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Istanbul, Turkey March 15, 2022. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

ISTANBUL — Only a month ago, it would have been an innocuous scene in Moscow: Oxxxymiron, one of Russia’s most popular rappers, performing his latest tracks onstage with a banner behind him reading: “Russians against war.”

But after President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, what had been typical for the rapper, known for his political sloganeering, quickly became impossible.

On Tuesday, instead of playing one of a string of six long-anticipated, sold-out arena shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Oxxxymiron gave an antiwar concert in a packed club in Istanbul, while streaming the performance on YouTube and other platforms in the hope that people in Russia would watch and donate. He promised that all proceeds, including ticket sales, would go to help the more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled Russian aggression.

A crowd of Russians, many of whom had left their own country over the past three weeks, fearing Putin’s tightening oppression, filled a club in Istanbul’s trendy Kadıköy district, chanting “No to war!” and “Glory to Ukraine!” — slogans that could now get them jailed at home.

“Millions in Russia are against this war,” said Oxxxymiron, also known as Miron Fyodorov.

“I hate feeling so powerless, but I understand well that what we are doing today is the absolute minimum,” he said during the concert. “This is important not only to Ukraine, but to Russia, too, which we can lose.”

Thanks to the internet, rap has become a dominant genre in Russian pop culture over the past few years, with new stars defying the government’s preferred aesthetics and values. At one point the Kremlin, worried that it might lose the loyalty of young Russians, put pressure on some of the most outspoken rap artists and shut down concerts.

Oxxxymiron has been a pioneer of the movement and a symbol of the post-Soviet generation of globalized Russians. After growing up in Russia and Germany, and getting a degree at Oxford, he returned to his native St. Petersburg and quickly became an ambassador of Russian rap on the international stage.

Oxxxymiron may now be seen as one of Russian rap’s old guard, but his sentiments about the war are shared by many Russian artists across genres. Many of them either started their careers in Ukraine before moving to Russia or toured actively in Ukraine, building a fan base there.

After Valery Meladze, a pop singer who had regularly appeared on state-run channels, called for the war to end as soon as possible, he was quickly removed from some music channels in Russia, along with other pro-Ukrainian and Ukrainian artists.

The rapper Face said he had fled Russia and that he “practically” was no longer a Russian artist or citizen.

“I don’t plan to return to Russia, to pay taxes there,” Face, also known as Ivan Dryomin, wrote on Instagram. “Our state has forced me and my loved ones to leave our house, our land.”

Not all Russian rappers oppose the invasion. Timati, who has supported Putin and been praised by him, argued that the war in Ukraine “was a forced measure taken by the country’s leadership.”

“I love Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” Timati, also known as Timur Yunusov, said in a social media post. “I am very sorry that we have been pushed against each other and that we couldn’t find a compromise.”

Outside the Istanbul club where Oxxxymiron performed, people said they were still digesting the shock of Russia’s attack on what many consider a “brotherly nation.” Millions of Russians have relatives in Ukraine, and many worked, studied or spent parts of their childhoods there.

“I feel complete powerlessness and anger for what is happening, that you cannot influence anything,” said Natalia, 32, an IT engineer from Belarus, who said her country was “an accomplice in this war.”

“I don’t understand how anyone could support it,” said Natalia, who declined to give her last name, fearing repercussions against relatives back home.

Many Russians at the concert said they felt personal responsibility for what was happening in Ukraine. At the same time, a common refrain was that they were powerless to change their country’s political course.

Anna, an art historian from St. Petersburg, said she had been protesting Putin’s rule for years. She said she had to flee Russia after a criminal case was opened against a friend.

“I don’t feel I am personally guilty, but I am ashamed of my state,” said Anna, 26, who declined to give her last name because she has family in Russia. “I fought against the regime, my friends fought against it, but we ended up either here or in prison.”

Others said Russians had been too preoccupied with their day-to-day problems to try to change the political situation.

“We always try to adapt — even now, we flee the country and settle here, while the war in Ukraine is ongoing and people die there,” said Yevgeny Yankovoy, 46.

He was standing outside the club, holding a poster that read: “We allowed for this war to happen. We are too busy now.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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