Examiner exclusive: Legendary Russian ballet dancer speaks out about Ukrainian war

Mikhail Baryshnikov raising funds to help refugees

Like any tale of international intrigue, there’s always a San Francisco angle.

Take the story of Mikhail Baryshnikov. After the ballet legend defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, the equally legendary Rudolf Nureyev connected Baryshnikov with San Francisco doyenne Armen Baliantz and her daughter Jeannette Etheredge. Baliantz had helped Nureyev when he defected in 1961, and she and her daughter did the same for Baryshnikov over a decade later. The women, both true bohemians, befriended dancers, writers and artists in The City, carving a legacy that shaped our culture.

Baliantz passed away in 2007, and Etheredge kept the relationship with “Misha” going. In fact, that’s how we heard about a letter Baryshnikov published about the invasion of Ukraine in the French newspaper Le Figaro. He had called Etheredge, who owned and operated San Francisco’s famed Tosca Cafe for decades, to talk about it.

A translation of Baryshnikov’s letter reveals a man with deep passions about the tragedy raining down on Ukraine. And a hopeful vision for peace.

“From the start of the invasion of Ukraine by the armies of Vladimir Putin, I’ve felt deep dread and a certainty that this will be a bloody and horrific conflict,” writes Baryshnikov, in the submission titled, “The Ukrainians are fighting for all of us.” “I understood immediately that this move of the Russian army was more threatening than the so-called annexation of Crimea and the separatist insurgency in the Donbas region. … I can’t begin to understand why people would trust and follow a leader like Putin, but Russians historically have struggled under oppressive and brutal leadership.”

“I wouldn’t be worth much as a fighter, but when the Ukrainians are victorious, I would be honored to go and thank them for fighting. In fact, they aren’t fighting just for themselves, but for all of us who believe in free and open societies.”

Etheredge had conveyed this inspirational message in a conversation where we revisited some of the legendary nights in the back room at Tosca. One thing led to another, calls were made and emails written. The result is an exclusive interview The Examiner conducted with the ballet star, choreographer and humanitarian who lives in New York. In it, the Latvia-born Baryshnikov shares his thoughts about the war, his own motivations and the new organization he’s co-founded to help Ukrainian refugees.

What inspired you to speak so publicly about Putin and Ukraine? What did you hope to achieve? I was asked by my two friends, Boris Akunin, a Russian émigré writer based in London, and Sergei Guriev, a Russian émigré economist based in Paris, to join them in creating truerussia.org, a site to raise funds for Ukrainian refugees. All money goes to the Disasters Emergency Committee, a group of UK-based charities coordinating emergency relief for victims of natural and humanitarian disasters. Speaking out against Putin’s war was the natural next step.

Can you tell us about the response you received? I’ve received many warm, encouraging and thankful responses from people all over the world, and the response to True Russia has been strong. We’ve raised over $1 million so far and people continue to contribute.

With so many Ukrainians fleeing their homeland, can you reflect back on the time you left the Soviet Union? The emotions and anxieties involved must have been immense. I think it’s inappropriate for me to compare my experience of leaving the Soviet Union in 1974 with what Ukrainians are facing now. I was running from artistic frustration and a repressive society, but Ukrainian mothers, children and the elderly are fleeing from bombs. I never imagined this could be possible in the 21st century.

How is this war impacting ballet dancers from Ukraine and Russia? They must be in a terrible position, regarding their families and friends at home. In the early days of the invasion, my daughter sent me a tweet with a picture of a National Opera of Ukraine dancer, Oleksii Potiomkin, placed next to a picture of him in fatigues. I was taken aback and communicated to him that he is my hero. To my amazement, he responded and said that he’s not a hero, but the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people are heroic. He’s right, of course, and there are many other Ukrainian dancers who have now joined the fight. The Russian ballerina Olga Smirnova left the Bolshoi Ballet in protest over Putin’s war. So … like everyone caught in the sites of this despicable invasion, ballet dancers are doing whatever they can to fight, to protest and to help. I am in awe of their bravery and ethical grounding.

Misha and Armen Baliantz at Bali’s Restaurant. (Courtesy Jeannette Etheredge)

Misha and Armen Baliantz at Bali’s Restaurant. (Courtesy Jeannette Etheredge)

Your journey to the United States had a connection to San Francisco. Can you tell us about your relationship with Armen Baliantz and her daughter Jeannette Etheredge? The legendary Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova introduced me to Armen and Jeannette just a few months after I left the USSR. Armen’s extraordinary family history of escaping through Russia to China during the Armenian genocide in 1915, spending four years in a Japanese internment camp in Manchuria during the Second Sino-Japanese War, then a refugee camp in the Philippines and finally ending up in San Francisco, was inspiring to me.

If she, her husband and their young family could survive multiple violent uprootings, then I knew I would be fine. By the time I met them, Armen and her daughter Jeannette were like ambassadors in San Francisco. They invited me to Armen’s restaurant, Bali’s, where I inflicted my broken English on writers, sculptors, politicians and possibly all of San Francisco. Armen’s incredible smile was her spiritual weapon and she used it to connect people from everywhere. Jeannette went on to do the same at Tosca, a San Franciscan landmark. It’s hard to sum up the influence these two women have had on me, but I feel fortunate to have experienced their generosity, their care and their love.

The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com.

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