In Feature Articles, Ukraine

Interview with Valentina Lisitsa published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, translated to English and published on, May 16, 2016. Translation by Alexander Fedotov for

Musicians Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin spoke with the renowned international, classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa for Komsomolskaya Pravda prior to a recent concert in Donetsk. She was in the city for the annual music festival honoring Donetsk-born Sergei Prokoviev. Lisitsa grew up in Ukraine and moved to the United States at the age of 18 to further her music career.

Valentina Lisitsa interviewed in Donetsk in April 2016

Valentina Lisitsa interviewed in Donetsk in April 2016

Valentina Lisitsa is not just loved in the Donbass, she is worshipped. And not only for her professional qualities but also for her political stance on the events in Ukraine of the past two and a half years. Her support of the people of Donbass has caused her much controversy and broken relationships with friends and colleagues, not only in Ukraine, where she comes from, but also in Europe. Despite the risk of becoming a persona non grata in her professional circles, she has traveled several times to perform in the war-torn land of eastern Ukraine. Tickets to her concerts sold out in a few hours. Before her performance in Donetsk. we stopped into her rehearsal.

Alexander Kots  and Dmitry Steshin:  We have been performing here since the very beginning – since March 2014. And it is somehow sad that so few musicians and actors come here to support the people of the Donbass. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But you are here for the second time already.

Valentina Lisitsa:  I have been closely watching the situation [in the Donbass –trans.] from the very beginning and my heart was bleeding. Maidan… I was perceiving it somehow differently. I am from the generation from the period of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I used to speak the formal Ukrainian and run around in embroidered blouses. We had such independence…

Valentina Lisitsa performance in Donetsk April 2016

Valentina Lisitsa performance in Donetsk April 2016

Then that generation realised that it was deceived and all of them left. I ended up in America. I felt sorry for the young people at the last Maidan as they believed in the bright future while I had experienced it already and knew everything. Odessa was a disaster for me, because my roots are from Odessa. I looked in horror at what happened there [on May 2, 2014] and realised that there is no return to the past.

What happened in the Donbass and, fortunately, did not happen in the Crimea … I wanted to support the people. I am a pianist, my only weapon is my music. And it turned out to be a very powerful weapon. When I played here in Donetsk for the first time, I realised that the music is not just for pleasure, not some nice, elitist thing for people who have everything. No, people need music like oxygen. In Donetsk, I play Prokofiev, he was born here. Here are our roots, our civilisation to which the people, who are listening to me here, belong. Everything was tried to be taken away from them, with blood. I feel how the people need music; I do not think about the danger here or how the West will look at me. If anything, I have a home here and I can always come back. I came to Donetsk from Berlin, then I will fly to Canada, but my family and my people are on this land.

AK & DS:  Back in the 1990s, it was noticed that despite all the ‘freedom of speech’, there is a secret switch in the West. If it is switched off, a man, regardless of whether he is famous and talented, suddenly disappears from the information field. Forever. Are you not afraid of losing your audiences?

Valentina Lisitsa:  The elite always created obstacles for me. That is why I created myself on my own, simply through YouTube. Over a hundred million people watched me. I do not think that someone can take these listeners away from me, or deceive them by telling them that I am not the one I say I am. I was not allowed to play in Canada last year. But recently I performed in Toronto. Tickets were sold out, and when I went on stage, I was greeted by a standing ovation. [Story below.]

Valentina Lisitsa at the piano performing in Donetsk in April 2016 (photo by Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin

Valentina Lisitsa at the piano performing in Donetsk in April 2016 (photo by Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin

Actually, there are more thinking people than seems. Not everyone automatically believes the television. They are the people to whom I appeal. I’m not afraid of threats, even though I have been threatened many times. I was threatened to be killed; myself nd my family were insulted. But that’s nothing. It’s not worth the tears of a child. Two days ago, I played a day-time concert in Gorlovka. There were so many children there… They surrounded me, they wanted to play for me. We were warned that it was time they went home, as it was late … I, foolishly, thought: ‘Well, let the kids play’. Then we left and at 19:10 Gorlovka was fired upon while the kids returned to their homes under shelling. I played them Prokofiev, Bach, Chopin and remember how they looked at me. It was my best reward.

‘We are called ‘Kremlin trolls’.’

AK & DS:  Is what is happening in the Donbass discussed in any way in the West? Is there anything in the newspapers, on television?

Valentina Lisitsa:  Something has started to appear. But the majority of discussions are in the ‘alternative’ media: Twitter, Facebook. I have met a large number of ordinary people around the world. We are called ‘Kremlin trolls’ and blamed for all deadly sins. However, these very people are conveying the truth to the entire world. We are poking around a stone wall with a fork to make a small hole in it, the hole through which the sun will shine. Judging by the communications, there are more and more people who understand what is happening in the Donbass and the Ukraine.

AK & DS:  What has struck you in Donbass, what has gone straight to your heart?

Valentina Lisitsa:  We were in Debaltsevo and I was shown an apartment building, of which only the walls remained. And everything was so gloomy and grey. Suddenly, among this there was a bright spot – a pink baby blanket, girly. There is no need for photos with blood and dead bodies. It is enough to show a baby blanket that somehow survived in the burned house.

AK & DS:  Have you seen any difference between Donetsktoday compared to last year?

Valentina Lisitsa with some of her young fans in Donetsk, April 2016 (photo by Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin)

Valentina Lisitsa with some of her young fans in Donetsk, April 2016 (photo by Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin)

Valentina Lisitsa:  Wherever we go, we see people literally come out on Saturdays to clean, paint doors, windows and walls. People know this is their land – they cannot escape anywhere. In Ukraine, people dream of a visa-free regime; the whole country is ready to run away. The people of the Donbass have nowhere to flee. They protect their land, their ideals, their history, their civilisation… They take care of their land for real.

I conducted an experiment exhibiting photos from my concert in Stuttgart mixed with Donetsk ones. I asked which of these cities is a European city? I did not like Stuttgart – litter, graffiti everywhere, weeds on the main street. In contrast to Donetsk, it was something of a shocking realisation for everyone. Here, people clean the streets and are proud of what they do. They may be not inventing spaceships, but they do very important things for the city. I wanted to hug and kiss them all. What they do is important for the survival of Donbas, like any other task.

AK & DS:  It is a sign that the people have not lost faith, that they are not broken. We saw something similar in Syria, where the after-effects of the most powerful acts of terrorism disappear before our eyes …

Valentina Lisitsa:   At the same time, the people of the Donbass, for example, are repairing the roofs not with plywood but with pretty new slate. So they believe that there will be peace and are building their future right now.

‘Reconciliation is possible’

AK & DS:  There were cases here of families breaking up because of different views on things. Were you somehow affected in any way? Have your friends in the Ukraine turned their backs to you?

Valentina Lisitsa:  Not only in Ukraine, it was much harder to perceive the behaviour of friends and colleagues in the West. It was one of the most difficult moments when I was accused of all deadly sins, except eating babies.

The first time I returned from Donbass, someone started a “hoax” in the Dutch press that I tweeted that I was very pleased with the crash of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing [on July 17, 2014]. And how did my colleagues with whom I have worked for so many years react? One wrote a letter: “Valentine, I know you did not say that. But I have other friends who have lost their relatives, therefore, I cannot continue working with you.” I would stand firm for a man whom I know. But those good, correct Europeans heard something on TV and washed their hands of me. He and I were very close. His favourite composer was Shostakovich, who endured oppression, betrayal of friends …

And this Dutchman, knowing my civic position, turned away from me, like those ‘friends’ of Shostakovich. I want to ask him after many years whether he has learnt to better understand the music of Shostakovich. That is a West European style: not to be engaged and stand aside. It was the biggest disappointment.

AK & DS:  It is a common human tradition defeating war with music. Remember Shostakovich in the besieged Leningrad. Remember the film ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’: the cellist climbs the hill above the town, starts to play and people from the ruins are drawn to him. Now you have come to Donetsk. Will the war continue? How do you feel about it?

Valentina Lisitsa:  I want to believe that all the people on the other side are already fed up with the war. They will achieve nothing with it. People here will stand till the last man is standing as they fight for a just cause. And they do not want any shameful peace that looks like surrender. They want fair and just peace.

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before there would be a rapprochement of  Ukraine with Donbass – too much blood has been shed. You see, the average Western man or woman knows about ‘Russian aggression’ in Ukraine. Who is the real aggressor? The aggressor is in Kyiv. Neo-Nazis with their extreme ideology were sent here from there. They shot the grandmothers that went against their tanks. There is no reconciliation until they say: “Yes, we are guilty”, until the perpetrators go to court with the instigators.

It is clear that there are plenty of people in Ukraine who were herded into the army and executed orders. But there are also many ideological murderers and those who came here for money… Everything must be sorted out and perpetrators sentenced with the appropriate punishment. Only then reconciliation and rapprochement can start.

AK & DS:  In your spare time, what music do you listen to?

Valentina Lisitsa:  (laughs) I’m listening to classical music 99 per cent of my time. My hobbies are folk music – Russian, Ukrainian, some kinds of exotic ones. It is hard to live without music so it lives with me. I have no vacations, no holidays. It’s always work, work, work.

AK & DS:  Well what do you have on your player, on your phone?

Valentina Lisitsa:  Classical music (laughs).

Read also:
The story of Valentina Lisitsa’s triumphant return to a concert stage in Toronto, on April 10, 2016, is described here in several articles on New Cold

Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa returns to Toronto after TSO ban, lets her fingers do the talking


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