Julia Garnits and Anton Dmitriev are a couple both in life and on the stage. They moved to Israel from the southern Russian town of Samara in 2017 and work as the indie pop duo Ice Hokku. Some of their fans still reside in the land of their birth.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine, they used to fly to Russia at least once a year to perform and see their families. Later this year, they were supposed to go to the Dikaya Miyata festival in Tula, not far from Moscow. But now, it’s not clear if they’ll be able to go.
‘You don’t put out a new song when everyone’s feed is full of war pictures’
“It’s not just a matter of the flight itself having gotten more expensive, but also the aspect of funding and personal security,” Garnits says. “We were supposed to get economic support from the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, and now it’s not clear whether that will happen.”
“Aside from that,” Dmitriev adds, “it could really be dangerous. We’re people who have an opinion, and we have Facebook posts that immediately give it away.”
They say their decision to leave Russia five years ago was influenced in part by that year’s war in Ukraine and Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula: “We knew we had to leave Samara. There’s no prospect there of a musical career. We thought about Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but we didn’t feel comfortable in the capital. We could have created a bubble for ourselves, but even then, it was clear which way the winds were blowing.”
In retrospect, they know they made the right choice. “We don’t know what we would have done with our music in English in today’s Russia. It was actually when we arrived in Israel that we suddenly started to develop connections with Russia’s cultural centers. We became musicians from abroad who came to perform.”
'Since the war began, we haven’t gotten any new orders, but now, it’s also not clear how we’ll pay for them'
Garnits and Dmitriev regret their reduced contact with their fans in Russia, their lost opportunities to perform and expand their audience and the cooperative ventures that will no longer take place.
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“The crowd that comes to festivals in Russia actually isn’t one of the bastions of Vladimir Putin’s supporters,” Dmitriev says. “Nevertheless, questions arise. Who are you performing for, and why? And aside from that, there’s the feeling that you always have to be on guard there about who you speak with and what you say.”
Opportunities in Ukraine are also currently closed to them because of the fighting. They performed in Kharkiv just last year, and this year, they had made contact with a festival organizer in Kyiv and planned to go there.
“To tell you the truth, I can imagine us performing in Kyiv sooner than I can imagine us returning to Russia now,” Dmitriev says. Garnits says that despite Ukrainians’ tense relationship with their fellow Russian musicians right now, she would be happy to do a benefit concert there.
'Before we went, I erased everything I had written on social media, including personal messages, because I was afraid they would inspect us at the border'
The duo’s Israeli activities have also ground to a halt over the last mont: “We were supposed to put out an EP, and after that, we had also planned a concert. But in the end, we haven’t released any songs so far, because it simply wasn’t appropriate. Most of our audience in Israel is also Russian-speaking, and we didn’t see how it was possible to put out a new song when everyone’s feed is full of war pictures.”
The video of the new song was screened for a limited audience in Israel early last month. Now, Granits and Dmitriev are hoping they will at least not have to cancel the Israeli concert they have planned for May.
Their work also uses platforms like Spotify, which halted operations in Russia after the war broke out.
“Activity on these platforms is planned in advance,” one explained. “All the dates for releasing new songs are written in advance, everything has to come out on the agreed dates. And now, everything has stopped. We received a grant from an organization in Israel to work on this album, but that money, too, was conditioned on releasing the album by a certain date, and if that doesn’t happen, we’ll lose the grant.”
Canceled translation rights
Garnits and Dmitriev are among a sizable number of Israelis who may live in the Middle East, but for whom their connection with Russia is not just a major part of their identity, but of great economic importance as well.
The war in Ukraine has caused damage in many economic sectors. The prices of agricultural products and oil have risen. High-tech companies have had to help Russian employees flee the country and settle elsewhere. Huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees have fled to other countries, and there has also been a massive political exodus from Russia. Many companies have left the country, and bankruptcy currently looks inevitable.
Israel wasn’t one of the countries that imposed sanctions on Russia, either diplomatic or economic. But it does have a significant number of citizens whose livelihoods depend on their connection to Russia.
This week, the Bank of Israel issued a report predicting that the war in Ukraine and the international sanctions won’t significantly affect Israeli exports.
“First, Israel’s direct trade with Russia and Ukraine amounts to only about 1 percent of Israel’s total trade,” it said. “In addition, while an impact to exports is expected due to the moderation of world trade, it is expected to be offset by growth in the export of goods that are substitutions for Russian goods (such as potash) and the potential of increased defense exports. In addition, we assume that the increased immigration will have a limited macroeconomic effect.”
But despite the central bank’s optimism, there are several fields that have already been hurt by the war. Prominent among them is culture,. Creative artists, directors, vendors, publishers and many other Russian speakers around the world see Russia as both a cultural center and a source of income.
In Israel, hundreds of people are active in this field, both veteran immigrants and new ones. And even here, their main audience consists of Russian speakers who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.
Cultural figures are having trouble continuing to work with the Russian colleagues and partners they need to earn a living. People who immigrated from Russia and Ukraine over the last decade have gotten used to living on a plane. But flying to Ukraine is completely impossible right now, and even the availability of flights to Russia – and even moreso, the desire to take them – isn’t what it once was.
On top of the pain of the war and the desire to help friends and colleagues in Ukraine, these immigrants have to try to continue their Russian-language cultural life. This is a difficult task when an iron curtain is slowly descending and calls for boycotting anything marked as Russian are being heard worldwide.
Evgeny Kogan and his wife Yelena opened their bookstore, Babel (named after the Soviet Jewish author Isaac Babel), in Tel Aviv in 2015. Since then, it has become a lively hub of Russian-speaking culture in Israel.
The store hosts authors and creative artists of all kinds, many of them from the Russian opposition, and some of the books Kogan imports come from independent publishers. In his view, they are the ones that have been publishing the truly interesting material in Russia’s literature market in recent years.
Now, he says, he is expecting a new shipment at the end of the month. But it’s not yet clear how he will remit payment.
“First of all, printing prices in Russia had risen even before the war,” he says. “Colleagues say there has been an increase of 10 to 15 percent, and prices will evidently continue climbing.” These price increases have first and foremost hit small publishers, he adds.
But beyond that, orders of books to Israel are currently shrouded in fog. “We buy all the books that arrive here in advance,” he explains. “There’s no option of returning what we didn’t sell to the publishers. Since the war began, we haven’t gotten any new orders, but now, it’s also not clear how we’ll pay for them.”
The problem is that Russia has been kicked off the SWIFT international financial messaging system. And even if some solution were found to that problem, there might well be shipping delays.
Kogan also noted another problem affecting Russia’s book industry that could also hurt consumers in Israel – translation rights. Authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, as well as some overseas publishing houses, have revoked their consent to be translated into Russian. Thus Israelis who prefer to read in Russian, mainly older adults who don’t know English or other languages, may well be left with no access to new books.
The brain drain among Russian intellectuals may also affect the state of the country’s literature business. Many of the people who have fled in recent years or are fleeing now due to the war are intellectuals, and cultural figures – both those directly working in these fields or who are their main customers.
Some of the people now leaving Russia are relocating to new centers of Russian-speaking culture – Tbilisi in Georgia, Yerevan in Armenia, and Israel. Consequently, the number of guests who could potentially speak at the bookstore has risen due to the unfortunate circumstances.
‘A month’s work in Russia pays for a week in Israel’
Yelena Repetur, a book illustrator, arrived in Israel on March 7, two weeks after the war in Ukraine began, because she felt it was no longer possible to continue living in Russia. “Before we went, I erased everything I had written on social media, including personal messages, because I was afraid they would inspect us at the border,” she says.
Now, she realizes that she might be her family’s main breadwinner in their new home in Israel. Her husband is a professional Russian-language narrator who worked in the film and audiobook industries, and the move has been even harder for him.
Repetur also noteds another problem facing people who want to earn their income in Russia while living in Israel. The gap between the two countries’ economies has widened due to the economic crisis that the war created in Russia.
When the couple left, she had contracts to illustrate books in Moscow that she had signed before the war began. She had to complete one of them in Israel without the right equipment. The second, a graphic novel that she wrote, was supposed to be a significant part of her portfolio, but has now been frozen completely.
“It was supposed to be a book with color illustrations printed on special paper,” she explains. “But that kind of paper isn’t manufactured in Russia, and now, it’s impossible to import it to Russia. If I can’t find a local substitute, publication will be further delayed, or canceled entirely.”
The payment for the work Repetur completed in Israel needs to be transmitted via a Russian credit card, and it is not clear how it will be possible to get the money out and use it. “They say there’s a possibility of using the money through services like Western Union, but everything is changing very fast, so that is not yet clear,” she says.
Repetur says she had another job, for a different publisher, but has decided to give it up: the pay she would have received for about two months’ work isn’t enough to live on in Israel. “I’ve decided that only if there are small and simple jobs for employers in Moscow that don’t require a lot of effort and investment – I will accept them,” she says. “We still have an apartment we own in Moscow where we are paying the bills and I would like my son to continue to study online, music, for example, and Russian, so I will use that money to pay the teachers.”
She says that just getting to Russia now is no simple matter, even though Israel-Moscow flights are among those that haven’t been canceled. “At first, when we left, we thought we wouldn’t be going back to Moscow in the foreseeable future. Now, we are flying there to sort out some final arrangements and the tickets we bought cost $1,400 per person. In addition, the earliest date for coming back is May 12.” She says she didn’t want to remain in Russia for May 9, for fear of escalation in the war on that date, which the regime uses for showy celebrations of the Soviet victory in World War II.
In any case, she says, it’s impossible to keep working for Russia and live in Israel: “It doesn’t make sense with respect to the prices. It’s impossible to go to the supermarket and rent an apartment on the salaries people earn there. In Moscow, you can rent a small apartment for 40,000 or 50,000 rubles (about 2,000 shekels or $620) a month. In Tel Aviv, that won’t even pay for a one-room apartment. A month of work in Russia equals, as far as I’m concerned, a week of living in Israel.”
Along with that, Repetur describes difficult emotions she has been experiencing since the start of the war. “We also have a feeling of collective guilt,” she says. “People ask us why we didn’t go out and demonstrate there. We have a 7-year-old son, and I am not prepared to see him again only when he is 20 years old.” There are also guilty feelings about the friends who have remained in Russia, not all of whom have where to go. She says no one from her closest circles supports the war and everyone she talks to is very anxious. “First of all, I pray that the war will end. But it is easier for me to imagine a scenario in which Ukraine recovers quickly and Russia sinks. If there was ever a hope that it would be a normal country, now that looks impossible. It is becoming a black blot on the map, like North Korea.”