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Protester Crashes Performances Of 'Hypocritical' Pro-Putin Musicians

  • Luke Johnson

Roman Torgovitsky takes the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York on January 29.

Roman Torgovitsky takes the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York on January 29.

On January 29, Roman Torgovitsky took to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the curtain call of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and unfurled a banner showing diva Anna Netrebko, conductor Valery Gergiyev, the Ukrainian flag, and a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin with a Hitler mustache.

The banner read: "Active contributors to Putin's war against Ukraine." He turned the banner to Netrebko, who gave a check for 1 million rubles to pro-Russian separatist Oleg Tsaryov in December for the Donetsk Opera Theater and posed with the flag of Novorossia, the territory in eastern Ukraine claimed by the separatists.

Torgovitsky was greeted with boos and cheers by the audience, and exited after about 30 seconds onstage.

He was charged with criminal trespass and spent almost 24 hours in jail before the charges were conditionally dismissed.

Torgovitsky, 38, sees Netrebko and Gergiyev -- who signed a letter backing Putin's policies in Ukraine and Crimea -- as hypocritical.

"On some level, the opera is about human emotions, it's about compassion, it's about passion, and showing this on stage while in real life not really being concerned about these very fundamental human emotions and human suffering, that's hypocritical," he told RFE/RL on January 31 from New Jersey, where he was recovering from jail.

He said he was using the same "strong mental approach" that Russia used to invade Crimea to protest the activities of Gergiyev and Netrebko.

Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko (right) and separatist leader Oleg Tsaryov pose with a Novorossia flag in St. Petersburg in December.

Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko (right) and separatist leader Oleg Tsaryov pose with a Novorossia flag in St. Petersburg in December.

"They themselves are strong supporters that Russia can do whatever they want, and disrespect international law, so therefore, I say, okay, if you want to disrespect international law, let me demonstrate and disrespect the default behavior during the opera concert, and let's see how you like that," Torgovitsky said.

Winning Over Pussy Riot

It wasn't the first time that Torgovitsky has confronted a Putin supporter.

In May, the Boston resident jumped on the stage of Harvard University's Sanders Theatre after a concert with violinist Vladimir Spivakov, who also signed the same letter backing Putin. He got close to Spivakov, and a police officer carried him off stage and arrested him. Charges of disorderly conduct were dropped, but Torgovitsky -- who has a PhD in biostatistics from the school -- was banned from setting foot on campus.

He did just that when punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot came to speak at the Harvard University's Institute of Politics on September 15. He posed a long question to the group, and was later arrested for trespassing.

Pussy Riot went to the Cambridge Police Department to rally for his release. Just after midnight on September 16, they tweeted a picture with him: "We've just managed to free Roman Torgovitsky - police released him, woohoo!"

'If Need Be, I Will Have To Do It Again'

Torgovitsky, who moved to the United States from Moscow at age 17, said he got involved in the pro-Ukrainian cause "by accident." He was in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a business trip when the Maidan protests erupted in Kyiv in late 2013, and flew to see the scene for himself.

"It just amazed me," he said, adding that "he never met so many people dedicated to changing things for the better, both young and old."

He went on to found Wounded Warrior Ukraine, an organization that wants to train Ukrainians to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It's this very strange situation where every day I have the opportunity to talk and meet with people who actually suffer from these policies," Torgovitsky said.

He said that the protests were not challenging physically, but psychologically. "I dream about jumping on stage after the performance, the heart rate goes up," he said.

Torgovitsky was unsure whether an encore would happen. "I hope not, I don't like doing that, it takes a lot of time. It's extremely unpleasant to spend time at jail, and I am getting more and more familiar with American jails," he said. "If need be, I will have to do it again, it doesn't give me pleasure. We will see."

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