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Russia's Polarized Art Community Takes Sides On Crimea

The director of Russia's State Historical Museum Aleksei Levykin is one of several cultural luminaries who have signed a letter backing Moscow's action in Crimea.
The director of Russia's State Historical Museum Aleksei Levykin is one of several cultural luminaries who have signed a letter backing Moscow's action in Crimea.
Rarely has Russia's cultural scene been so bitterly divided.

The conflict over Crimea has driven a deep wedge between artists who support Russia's military invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula and those who see it as an unjustifiable use of force against a sovereign nation.

And as the political standoff escalates, artists are publicly taking sides.

More than 100 Russian cultural luminaries have signed an open letter backing the Kremlin's moves in Ukraine.

In the letter, posted on the Culture Ministry's website on March 11, the signatories say they "cannot be indifferent observers with cold hearts" and "firmly express support for the position of the President of the Russian Federation on Ukraine and Crimea."

The list includes many prestigious names such as Valery Gergiev, the director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre; pianist Denis Matsuev; ballet dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze; film director Fyodor Bondarchuk; and Karen Shakhnazarov, the head of the country's legendary Mosfilm studios; and Aleksei Levykin, the director of the State Historical Museum.

"Cultural figures are not isolated from society," Levykin told RFE/RL. "They live in it, they are an integral part of it, and they take certain ideological stances."

The letter is reminiscent of Soviet times, when artists were often asked to sign similar documents backing state policy.

But as the list of signatories continues to grow, doubts are emerging as to how these signatures were collected.

Levykin said he was called and asked to sign, although he declined to say by whom.

Meanwhile, a rival petition is gathering signatures to protest the occupation of Crimea by Russian forces.

More than 130 cultural figures have already put their names on the letter, penned in response to an emotional plea for peace from Ukrainian artists to their Russian counterparts.

WATCH: Ukrainian artists appeal to their Russian counterparts

The letter, published on March 8, "categorically" opposes Russia's military intervention in Ukraine and denounces an "unprecedented anti-Ukrainian campaign" on Russian television.

Cult Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova is one of its most illustrious signatories.

"I performed so many times there, I was in Lviv and Sebastopol, I spent holidays in Truskavets," she told RFE/RL. "Ukraine is as much my homeland as Russia."

Akhedzhakova, who was born in Ukraine and spent the first year of her life there, says the conflict in Ukraine has bitterly polarized Russians

She says she has received a barrage of hate messages since standing up against the takeover of Crimea.

"At first, I was horrified by these insults," she says. "But events have unfolded in such a way that I prefer to be on this side. Let them insult me and throw stones at me. I will not betray Ukraine, even if this means I will be cruelly insulted and humiliated."

LIVE BLOG: Crisis In Ukraine

Another signatory, prominent Russian film critic Anton Dolin, says friends and colleagues have also turned their backs on him over his support for Ukraine.

"Arguments and controversy surrounding Ukraine are now taking place at all levels of Russian society," he says. "Opinions are polarized on all sides, people have begun fighting, hating each other, and breaking off longstanding relations over this issue. This is part of the madness we condemn in our open letter."

RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report from Prague

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