"War wants to swallow up everything I love."

Photo from Anna Chagina's personal archive

Anna Chagina is a violist and music master from Tomsk. On March 6, 2022 she was detained on New Cathedral Square in the center of the city for participating in an anti-war rally. In September, Anna's VKontakte page was blocked by the General Prosecutor's Office for anti-war posts. On 30th of November  Chagina's home was searched due to her accusation of "discrediting the military" in a criminal case under part 1 of Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code. The maximal punishment under this article is 3 years of imprisonment. As of 1 December, Anna is forbidden to use the Internet and the mail, as well as to leave the house after 10 p.m. and attend public events as a preventive measure. Through Anna's friends, we were able to contact her and get answers to our questions about music, wartime cultural life, and political speech.

In Russia, a musician who plays classical music is, with rare exceptions, not the most profitable profession. How does it feel to make money playing the violin while living in Tomsk?

– I want to be a little clearer: I am not a classical musician. I am a violist by training and not a virtuoso at all. I worked in a symphony orchestra for a year, then played in various groups, from punk bands to a piano quintet. In Tomsk we played almost every concert venue. The experience was over, with time it became physically demanding and boring. It's similar to the feeling you get when your favorite dress becomes small...

Now I make my living mostly as a music pedagogue. Tomsk is a small town, everyone knows each other. Especially in the musical environment: there are about 20 string masters for the whole city.

I taught in children's music schools and boarding schools for about 10 years, but eventually realised that I could not work in the system "from tech. credit to acad. concert".  Right now my youngest student is 2 years and 10 months old. I teach violin, general musical development, and musical literacy. There are episodes of music therapy. 

There is a whole field of myths about how artists make money. They say they don't have much money. Or a lot. How much is a lot? Or  little is how much?

If we compare the work regime of, say, a high school teacher, doctor and an orchestra performer and take into account the time and effort spent on the job, it turns out that the doctor/teacher, risking his own and others' health, earns several times less. About two years ago a vacancy for first violinist in our orchestra was published with a salary of 100 thousand rubles.

Photo from Anna Chagina's personal archive

In 2021, I became very concerned about financial issues and registered as self-employed. At one time I wanted to open my own online school. I had an unfortunate experience with scammers, took a bunch of courses, including web design. There was a desire to change the field of activity, first of all, because I wanted a global update of life. At least, I found myself a wonderful hobby. These were all pre-war plans. Now I realise that I want to keep putting my energies into what I already know and love: playing and teaching music. I'm going to do that whether I get paid for it or not. 

The argument "musicians don't make much money, so they need another profession" can be disastrously inappropriate, and I've seen it more than once in my life. It doesn't work! I think it's not about the profession.

I have never had the goal of earning a certain amount of money. I had no desire for, say, a fur coat, a car, a summer house, an apartment. I have no such talent. But there is a desire to record an album or play a special concert.  I consider a few embodied plans a luxury and I am grateful to my friends and relatives for their endless patience. It did not happen to raise grant money, and now it makes no sense to do so, since it is embedded in the general cultural policy, which is unacceptable to me.

Now I actually live on donations, because I can't pay for my own lawyer or household expenses. My economic standard of living after the start of the war is back to the level of 20 years ago.

What do you love most about your job?

- Connection, communication. Whether it is communication with students, or between musicians, with sounds, with instruments, with lyrics. Music to me is the voice of the unknown world, the incomprehensible, the mystery, the "whiff of the quiet wind. And it's not about volume! You can also hear the whiff of a quiet wind when you are watching a waterfall, standing next to it, feeling its roar in your body. The sensitivity of the soul, the thirst to sound with your own voice, the search for That-Special-Sound.

When it comes to pedagogy, the most joyful thing is when student's eyes light up, or when we laugh together because everything goes wrong... I have students of different ages. It's most mysterious to deal with little ones: for a child of 5-6 years, the result of the lessons is usually quite clear, and you can see it quite quickly. But when the child is three, I can only guess what he is actually learning. Violin for him becomes another window to the world, including the world of himself. And it doesn't matter at all whether or not these children become musicians. Interest, love of music, and the ability to listen to sounds and listen to yourself are my goals as a teacher.

Photo from Anna Chagina's personal archive

Who are your favorite composers and why?

– In my youth I loved romantic composers, minor passions: Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. When I started studying viola, I discovered Johann Sebastian Bach. Healing music. Then I liked major Celtic. Then India. Then I got to Mozart. And now I am very selective in what I listen to. I prefer live sound. My approach to listening has changed radically, I'd rather listen to a rock concert live than a cleaned-up recording. Behind the sound I have learned to see a person and the energy that is broadcast through his music. I have favorite tracks that I listen to only in a certain performance.

Many famous creative people prefer to stay out of politics. Why did you decide to go out in a peaceful protest and make political statements on social media?

– Has saying out loud what you think now become politics? I don't consider myself a famous creative person and continue to stay out of politics. I don't need power. The Internet is a wonderful tool that people use according to their habits and goals. What is it even for if not for the free exchange of information? I'm not a super active blogger. "Not a day without a post" is not about me. Social media was an opportunity to find students and share the beautiful things.

And after the war began... In February, March, or April, you flip through the feed with kittens, flowers, and personal achievements in the form of photos, and you realise that the world had gone crazy. Then people started to leave VK one by one, and I stayed to keep in touch with everyone who wanted to.

We can turn a blind eye to the traumatic experience. We involuntarily turn away from the ugly spectacle. I don't blame people for this turning a blind eye... I guess I'm the kind of person who needs to talk about trauma, to share. To give other people something to think about, to look at the world OTHER way. When madness is happening, it's impossible to stay silent.
Photo: Anton Kharin (tomskie.ru)

Your first thoughts and feelings on February 24?

– Ridiculous, absurd, shame, wickedly ironic, I don't believe it, it can't be. A cold sweat. The ground crumbles under my feet.

How do informal conversations in the Tomsk musical community discuss what is happening in the country? What sentiments prevail?

- I lead a fairly private life. My social circle is small. I don't know what they discuss in music circles... I rarely go to concerts and parties, because I'm mostly busy with my life.

Hmm, I remembered a moment from a friend's birthday party. Among the invited guests there were people of opposing views on the current war. We held on as best we could, so as not to fight or prove to each other who was right. When the degree of alcohol reached a certain level, things got tensed. We argued, we wondered, we yelled, we got upset, we went home with our opinions. Society is divided...

People continue to go to concerts and exhibitions during the war. There is an opinion that this normalises the war. Do you think this is appropriate now?

– War puts a ban on any joy, consolation, elation of life. Even if you are happy and at peace, some people right now are crying from the loss of a loved one, or from the loss of everything they have gained, or from having to leave his homeland. And some hate, and their heart burn with the lust to kill.

What, to succumb to this gloom and agree with it? Is it appropriate to go on living: to read, to think, to laugh, to raise children, to create? Is watching the sunset now also normalising war?

An exhibition, a concert, is an artistic statement. A meeting. Maybe for someone this meeting will become an inspiration, support, discovery of a new WORLD IN PEACE, a step on the way to yourself...

The other thing is the pro-war concerts, the whole "hurrah-gee" thing... They are, of course, disgusting to the point of nausea. 

Photo: Anton Kharin (tomskie.ru)

Did the attitude at work change after your participation in the peaceful protest and now?

– For almost a year I worked on a dance project as a sound designer and actress. Here my personal experience is this: I quit my job in April 2022, because it had just become impossible to do creative projects. Nobody fired me or kicked me out. The administration, which supported the war, politely asked the reason for my departure. My colleagues gently and insistently invited me to immerse myself in the work, because it was the only reality they wanted and could be in. But I couldn't.

Will you continue to protest?

 My thinking out loud and going to rallies is more about defending what I hold dear. Some time after the war began, I began to remember very vividly my high school history and literature teachers. I wanted to look them in the eye and ask: Is this what you taught us? What do we do now? Then I realised that it was what they "taught at school" that the war tries to trample and destroy.- 

Have you had disagreements with people close to you or colleagues because of different views on the war?

– There were and still are. Fortunately, I have already managed to accept the fact that my relatives do not have to be like me, support, love and understand me. When that happens, I take it as a miracle and thank. Of course, it doesn't make the breakup situation any easier. What else can I say? Love conquers all.

Why do many Russians support aggressive government policies?

– Are there so many people? To make it clear what kind of people and how they "support" the war, let me tell you about my experience. In the summer I decided to go to a cafe to wash dishes, because it was very hard emotionally and financially. The owner of the cafe was a young beautiful woman, mother of a wonderful girl and a wonderful wife, and her husband was in the army. When it came to the events in Ukraine, she said in all seriousness: I said, "I wish they would drop a bomb on them already"... I objected: would she like it if they do that to us? She opened her mouth and clammed up. We did not argue, our relationship continued to be respectful and warm while I was working. What is the meaning of this?

I have many acquaintances of the 60+ generation who, at the first mention of the war, start talking like a Channel 1 newscaster. Only in high-pitched tones, repeating the same phrases, giving no opportunity to object, with a sense of being the only right ones.

 "You don't understand anything about geopolitics," my mother says to me. Until a year ago, she had never used this word. "You don't know history." I said, "Do you want me to bring you a textbook and we can read it?" "No need, I already know everything, because I've been living longer." This can hardly be called conscious support for the aggressive policy of the state. The somnambulistic everyday life...

There is a lot of talk now that Russian culture has, to some extent, determined the worldview and, as a consequence, the passivity of Russians. Do you agree with this?

– At the very beginning of the war I thought something similar. Aggression, guilt, tantrums, rudeness, a wounded ego, a desire to prove to the world that one is right, a desire to win everyone's attention and at the same time a desire for independence – this is how teenagers often display themselves. How do we define this "teenager"? Modern Russian culture? Or maybe post-Soviet? Or digital culture? Or post-human? And what should we understand by culture?

Blaming the cultural code for personal responsibility, by the way, is also quite infantile - "it's not us, it's our culture, we can't do anything about it.

What about the fact that Lev Nikolayevich, for example, taught about non-resistance to evil by violence? Does this somehow not fit into the cultural code? There is Dostoevsky and there is Shmelyov in the Russian language. Dostoevsky can find and show pain in any detail of life, Shmelyov - joy and warmth. In Russian music, there is Rachmaninov and there is Prokofiev. Rachmaninoff lived far from his homeland, but he continued to write recognisably Russian music. Prokofiev lived in the USSR and never stopped being himself. Russian musicians and artists until the middle of the 19th century were educated mainly in Italy, because there were simply no educational institutions of this kind in Russia. What makes their work Russian? What does it mean to be Russian at all?

My ancestors came to Siberia from the Ukraine, from the Urals, from Belarus in the early 20th century. I am a person who speaks and thinks in Russian. This is a fact. The rest is a product of my upbringing, a matter of taste, and my conscious choice.

Maybe some people would like to saw a piece of planet Earth for themselves, put up a fence and dig themselves into their "unique" world, but it seems silly and shortsighted to me.
Photo from Anna Chagina's personal archive

Why didn't you leave the country after your first arrest?

– First of all, I stayed for the sake of my loved ones, who did not want to leave. I thought that I would finish my household chores, pack up and leave. I didn't think that there would be a second detention and that a criminal case would be opened. Now my departure has become an entirely unrealistic prospect. 

Shortly before my arrest, I sat and cried realising that I was doing really well in my life. I have beautiful children. I finally have a space that feels like home. My loved ones love me no matter what. Our little town is so small and cozy, beautiful and fragile. People from all over the world live here, they come here, they leave here, but it is loved and remembered. Before the war I didn't appreciate it, couldn't feel it so deeply.

War wants to swallow up everything I love. And I will do everything in my power to keep my soul free from hatred, judgment, anger, fear. To pray.

What are you afraid of?

- The only known variable in the formula for life is death. And they say there is no death either! Why be afraid?

This is a joint project about Anna Chagina with the publication "NeMoskva Speaks".

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