For Russia's pop star exiles, a moral stand and a creative climb

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For Russia's pop star exiles, a moral stand and a creative climb
The Russian musician Monetochka, who now lives in Lithuania, performing in Zurich on Nov. 18, 2023. She is just one of the many Russian music stars rebuilding their careers outside their homeland after taking a moral stand against the invasion of Ukraine. (Marvin Zilm/The New York Times)

by Paul Sonne and Alex Marshall

NEW YORK, NY.- Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Monetochka was on her way to becoming a superstar in Russia.

She had released two hit albums of lyrical pop; secured ad deals with brands including Nike and Spotify; and was set to appear and sing a new song in the opening scene of Netflix’s first original Russian drama, a lush adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”

But President Vladimir Putin’s military action derailed everything.

Netflix shelved the series. The big ad deals, which once constituted more than half of Monetochka’s income, disappeared. And after making a raft of anti-war statements and fleeing Russia, she was branded a foreign agent in January.

Yet the 25-year-old singer-songwriter — who now lives in Lithuania and is scheduled to perform at the Melrose Ballroom in New York on Sunday as part of a U.S. and European tour — said exile had removed the burden of worrying about what she says and was worth the cost.

“You can scream, yell, rant, write any songs or poems you want — and this, of course, means a lot to me,” said Monetochka, or “Little Coin,” whose real name is Liza Gyrdymova. “For me, this is such an important feeling as an artist and a lyricist: freedom of expression.”

She is just one of the many Russian music stars rebuilding their careers outside their homeland after taking a moral stand against the invasion of Ukraine. Now forced to operate at a distance from most of their fan bases and, in many cases, labeled traitors by their government, they are adopting touring schedules that hew to the new geography of the Russian diaspora as they try to keep their careers moving forward.

Michael Idov, a Latvian American writer and director who has worked with top Russian singers and has directed a music video for Monetochka (pronounced moh-NYET-och-ka), said that those musicians faced several dilemmas abroad, even though in most cases, Russians can still stream their music on YouTube and Yandex Music, a Russian streaming platform.

“The basic question is: Can you write new hits in this situation, or are you automatically a nostalgia act, even if the nostalgia is for the year 2021?” he said.

There was also the question of how to create a sustainable future. “After you have played every new Russian enclave five times, what do you do after that?” Idov added. The musicians could break into new markets through collaboration with non-Russian artists, Idov noted, but few had tried that approach or put out much new music.

So far, the millions of Russian speakers outside Russia have been sustaining the performers. Last Saturday, at a Monetochka concert in Zurich, the hall was packed with nearly 700 fans, including middle-aged couples bopping along and screaming young women taking selfies — some of them with their hair done up in the singer’s trademark double buns. Everyone was speaking Russian.

Onstage, Monetochka acknowledged that things had changed. “For all these songs and these views and beliefs, folks, they gifted me the rank of foreign agent,” she said. The crowd erupted in cheers, and the singer launched into a song criticizing Russian internet censorship.

Her tour, which kicked off in Barcelona, Spain, last month, has faced logistical challenges. This week, Monetochka had to postpone a concert in London and cancel one in Miami because she didn’t get visas in time. And figuring out the right size and type of venues has involved some guesswork.

To widen their appeal, some exiled artists, including Face, a Russian rapper, have considered switching to English. Yet only a couple of Russian acts, such as the girl group t.A.T.u., have ever landed a hit on the U.S. charts.

Monetochka, who rocketed to fame in part because of the poetry of her subversive lyrics, said she couldn’t imagine achieving a similar depth of expression in a language other than Russian. She plans to release a new album in the spring, which she said would reflect her rage and alarm about the war but also the hopeful feelings she had felt since becoming a mother last year. She said she felt she needed to leave listeners with something positive, too.

Other exiled Russian stars have soured on living abroad. Morgenshtern, a popular Russian rapper who moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, last year and was also labeled a foreign agent, recently told a Russian interviewer that he missed home and wanted to return to Russia but was too scared for his safety, including the possibility of being sent to the front as retribution. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov later said no one would give Morgenshtern “guarantees that everything will be fine.”

While Russian musicians who backed the war and embraced the accompanying nationalist fervor have found themselves rewarded with growing popularity and riches, the acts who left have felt financial effects, even if they already had large followings outside the country.

Sonya Tayurskaya, a member of a rave band called Little Big, who moved to Los Angeles from Russia just days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, said that the group had to go “back to the beginning.”

Rebooting their careers had been a test of character, said Ilya Prusikin, Little Big’s main songwriter. “What we’ve learned is that money is not important,” he said.

Monetochka said she knew her finances would suffer when she left Russia. She is now touring more and playing smaller venues than she did there. She said she was also considering moving beyond music to stage theatrical performances that would be subtitled for non-Russian speakers to try to reach new audiences.

But for now, she said, she was still making enough from concerts and streaming to produce new music — and that was what matters.

“If you’re still dreaming of some kind of big concert in Moscow, some sort of solo performance at the Olympic Stadium, then it’s going to be hard for you,” she said. “You have to make the decision to go down a few notches and start building it up again.

“It doesn’t take much time to get on your feet and understand how you can earn money,” she added. “Everyone I know after this move feels a surge of inspiration. And again, this is the most important thing — not money, but songs.”

With young, tech-savvy music listeners in Russia always a step ahead of government censorship, she said she never expected to fully lose access to her fans in Russia. Her anti-war stance had also gained new fans in Ukraine, including among her nearly 2 million TikTok followers.

But even before the war, Monetochka had faced political pressure. After she released a video in support of LGBTQ rights, Russian state television went after her, she said, and authorities called music festivals to get her removed from lineups. She said she had come to shrug off Russia’s branding her as a traitor with humor and “accept that people love to hate someone; they really need it — and when the state encourages this, they reach untold heights.”

Toward the end of her concert in Zurich, Monetochka tried to impart some of that resilient spirit as she prepared to play her 2020 song, “Will Survive,” an anthem many of her fans have adopted amid the war.

“All of this nonsense, all of this nastiness and filth,” she told the audience. “We will survive.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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