Pianist and family who defected from Russia find some summer peace in Aspen, Snowmass

This photo from March 2017 shows Mikhail Voskresensky with the Order of Friendship award, which he received at the ceremony to present state and ministerial awards to culture and art workers at the Imperial Hall of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.
Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik via AP

The Aspen Music Festival and School keeps it patrons and followers regularly apprised of international musicians coming to its concert halls and stages, but one performance this summer was kept low-key.

The performer’s name was Mikhail Voskresensky, a globally renowned classical pianist who had come to Aspen by the way of Russia. Voskresensky, 87, was in Aspen for a few weeks in July after secretly defecting from the country because he was repulsed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“He played for a board meeting,” said Alan Fletcher, CEO and president of AMFS, “but I didn’t tell any of the story.”

Had Fletcher told the story to the AMFS board trustees, it might have taken longer to complete than Mikhail Voskresensky’s performance. Worse, Voskresensky’s life could be put jeopardy if word about his whereabouts got to the wrong people.

“We were actually pretty quiet about what was going on until his petition for asylum was granted,” Fletcher said, noting that word about Voskresensky was gradually spreading in classical music circles. “Until anything was granted, this whole thing could have fallen apart.”

After Voskresensky eventually settled into an apartment in the Bronx, the story was vividly captured in an October article titled “The Defection of Mikhail Voskresensky” and published in The Atlantic.

The article told of how Voskresensky, a 1958 graduate of the Moscow State Conservatory, performed at the school’s Grand Hall just two days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February. Voskresensky was born in Berdyansk, a city that now is part southeastern Ukraine and has been occupied by Russian troops since February.

“More to the point, his mother was buried there. Whatever the propagandists proclaimed, he couldn’t think of Ukraine as enemy territory,” the article said. “Well before the discovery of mass graves in Bucha and Irpin, he considered the war not just a strategic blunder, but an expression of barbaric cruelty.”

Voskresensky had been chair of the Moscow State Conservatory’s piano department, and for as much as he loved Moscow, he chose to defect, telling Atlantic writer Franklin Foer: “I’m guilty if I live in this society. I had this feeling that was ethically hard to live with.”

He emailed colleagues in the West for help, but the response was limited until Veda Kaplinsky connected with him in late May. Kaplinsky, who has taught at the Aspen Music Festival and School over the years and is a professor of piano at the Julliard School, “arranged a pretext for him to leave Russia: She asked colleagues at the Aspen Music Festival to send him an invitation to teach master classes in July. It was his only opportunity to escape — but he couldn’t go without the permission of various slow moving bureaucracies.”

Voskresensky and his wife, a pianist from Vietnam, then embarked on what the article described as “a period of painful uncertainty” to get to the United States. The couple sold their Moscow apartment but had to put proceeds from the sale in Vietnam, where they could access the cash, because of sanctions.

They had to get either Moderna or Pfiszer COVID-19 vaccinations because they could not gain entry to the United States by getting jabbed with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Voskresensky, however, accepted an offer to teach and perform in Ankara, Turkey, in June. He and his wife didn’t need visas to go there, and they could both get two vaccination rounds in Ankara. Voskresensky told the conservancy he was starting a sabbatical there and would return to Russia within a year.

There also were visa hurdles to clear: The U.S. State Department had virtually shut down in Russia, whose border countries had huge backlogs of visa applications, the article said. Voskresensky went to Naples, Italy, to expedite the visa process, and received one day before he was set to return to Ankara.

“As Alan Fletcher, the president of the Aspen Music Festival, tracked Voskresensky’s progress from afar,” according to The Atlantic article, “he distracted himself by watching The Third Man, because he felt as if he had been transported into a Cold War noir. Through a member of his board, Fletcher enlisted the help of Sen. John Hickenlooper, who phoned top officials at the State Department to impress on them the importance of helping Voskresensky make his way to the festival.”

Fletcher said Monday that he had learned from his time at the New England Conservatory, and when the late Ted Kennedy was senator, “that when you have a really bad visa problem, you go through your senator rather than through the State Department.” Kennedy was quick to act, Fletcher recalled, and the same happened when an AMFS board member contacted Hickenlooper.

About a week later, Voskresensky, his wife and their 4-year-old son boarded a plane to Aspen. The three were in Aspen for about three weeks in July, Fletcher said.

“It was exciting,” Fletcher said. “I usually think I have enough to worry about in the summer, but until he was physically in Aspen, every single day I wanted to know what is happening now because what if someone in Russia gets wind of what is really happening?”

The family resided in a Snowmass provided provided by AMFS, Fletcher said. Voskresensk also taught three two-hour master classes at AMFS, Fletcher said.

“He was sweet and kind and absolutely brilliant,” Fletcher said. “His English is actually really good and his wife, who was born in Vietnam (was also fluent in English), so we had no problem immediately becoming friends.”

After leaving Aspen, Voskresensky and his family found a place to live in the Bronx. They will be joining Fletcher and his partner, Ronald Schiller, at their Princeton home for Thanksgiving dinner, Fletcher said.

Fletcher noted the “big risk” Voskresensky and his family took to get to the United States. The Music Festival also stands to lose something.

“We realized from the start that for the foreseeable future, there will be no major artists coming here from Russia because we assisted him,” Fletcher said. “I don’t think we’re very popular at the Moscow State Conservatory.”