On Tuesday 22nd February I was supposed to fly to Kyiv with a delegation of Russian professors from my London Performing Academy of Music (LPMAM): awaiting us was a week of concerts, masterclasses and conferences together with professors and students of our institutional partner, the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Kyiv. Additionally, through my platform for live online teaching, we were due to host professors and students from both the Russian and UK Capitals.
The previous weeks leading up to the trip had been incredibly intense with concert rehearsals and lessons with the students who would be joining us in Kyiv from the University of Kharkiv. Whilst we were increasingly concerned by the menacing manoeuvres of Russian troops at the border, we were hopeful the trip and sell-out Second International Festival "New Music in Ukraine” could still be a success. The news media may have been reporting otherwise, but our colleagues on the ground reassured us the situation had not changed that much since our last visit in October 2021, and that we would never be in the state that we find ourselves in today. How quickly things changed in just a few days.
If our airline hadn't cancelled our flight to Kyiv on the eve of our trip, we would have boarded the plane, strengthened by our mission to create unity and harmony through music.
I can't even describe that mixed feelings of disbelief and horror that overwhelmed me on the morning of the 24th. The very first thought of course went to our colleagues and students in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and then to the festival that had been so long in the planning and that was so strongly desired by all despite the ignored alarm bells, and which was so suddenly dissolved by an inadmissible reality in the 21st century. Since that fateful day and despite all the violence being unleashed, our academics at my conservatory in London have continued to teach our music students in Ukraine online – a way to encourage and help them pass the hours and days that separate them from the end of this tragedy faster.
I now have meetings, phone calls and conferences daily to see how we can best support our music students in Ukraine and hopefully help to bring their nightmare to an end. Every day I wait for news updates on the safety of those still stuck in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and we are in close touch with our professors closest to Ukraine to see if they can give refuge to our escaping students, assuming they can get out, while we find a way to eventually bring them over to the UK. But of course it’s such an incredibly difficult situation for everyone, not least the male students expected to stay and fight. One of our postgraduate male students – a double bass player who was unable to take his instrument with him while abandoning his home in Kyiv – asked to be able to continue with our composition lessons, and amazingly he listens to the weekly LPMAM music business lesson while he was actually on active duty, patrolling with other soldiers to check their territory.
But there are many other acts of incredibly bravery taking place: female colleagues, for example, have remained in Kyiv and Kharkiv so as not to leave husbands and sons called to arms. Another postgraduate student on her own because she was studying at the University of Karkhiv and could not leave the city in time, has lessons when he can through our platform under the sirens and military manoeuvres on the street.
A stereo audio platform that was developed to connect artists and students from all over the world, uniting conservatories and universities globally, and which during the Covid pandemic allowed LPMAM to continue with its international education programme, now allows us to continue in the face of war, even if in the background we can sometimes hear the noises of battle drowning out the sound of our students. The pandemic has taught us the importance of technology, revealed the importance of distance learning ... with the official end of the pandemic restrictions, the war has reminded us and reaffirmed this.
It's hard to convey the full extent of the horror and challenges being faced daily by our courageous students, and the difficulties that we also face in our efforts to help them, but perhaps these email dispatches give a flavour.
11 March 2022 Email to a colleague:
Not sure about my next commitment: the war has thrown everything into chaos! Since the war, I have been busy trying to rescue our Ukrainian students left alone in Kharkiv and Kyiv: so far we lost contact with just one student because her teacher is Russian and she decided she hates all Russians now… The others managed to escape to Odessa and Lviv, but they are now under threat. We also have a small group of 14 year- old students from my Junior department who are alone in the abandoned music school in Lviv (the teacher who accompanied them there disappeared.. she wasn’t one of our professors so we hope she just managed to flee the country, although super despicable that she left the students there…. We are trying to find boarding schools that could host them outside Ukraine and scholarships to continue studying with us.
I am very happy to confirm that 4 students have managed to escape Ukraine today. They are travelling to Switzerland to be hosted by their LPMAM Russian professor. A comment from the mother of the 15 year-old that we had lost contact at the beginning of the war because she didn’t want to talk with her Russian teachers anymore: she fled with mother and grandmother under the bombs in Kharkiv to Germany. The mother was in such panic, that she forgot to pack her daughter’s passport: she only remembered to pack the concert dress and the violin for her daughter, so she could continue playing. It struck me, as musician myself, that I would have done the same thing, as our identity is defined by our art more than any passport or nationality.
Today our LPMAM professor in Moscow put us in contact with his student from the St Petersburg Conservatoire (we were due to do a big concert with the orchestra and choir of the student of the St Petersburg Conservatoire at the end of March). Our student is Ukrainian, from Odessa. Luckily he was visiting his family in Netherland for a school holiday, when the war happened, and he cannot go back to St Petersburg to finish his studies. So he is hoping to be able to come to the UK to finish his studies with the same professor at LPMAM. But we fear for our Russian professors in Moscow: they are forbidden to continue to teach their Ukrainian students in Ukraine. They are also scared that their work with LPMAM might be seen as being against the state regime, so we are communicating mainly through our Russian professor in Switzerland. They start to have no money, the bank cards don’t work, they cannot receive money from us for their lessons, students cannot do exams with ABRSM because they live in Russia…
Another two young guitar students reached out to our LPMAM guitar professor to continue their studies with her. They met her in January at the masterclass we held for the Kharkiv University of the Arts. From his email: “… study and life stopped due to military action… university destroyed and nobody knows when this stop, now my family and I are hiding in a bomb shelter and hope for better. More part of my life I spent with guitar and I hope I will can continue my musical way.”
Amazing news. One of our male students went to the military office and was told that, since he lost his brother in the war, he might get a “white ticket” to leave Ukraine and come here to finish his studies! “the military registration and enlistment office said the more documents the better.”
Now the rush to find a UK host to add the documentation is more vital than ever!
Update: 25th March
“Dear Stefania, I have all documents, but military commission will give me a white ticket on 1 April:-((. They said I have chance cross border. Unfortunately, I have to wait a week but this white ticket should help me. Sorry for taking so long, the recruiting office is not working stably.
BPI published my blog, and I have been overwhelmed by the very generous offers of UK musicians and music professionals!
I was very impressed by many telling me that they wanted to host a Ukrainian musician since the beginning of the war, but had no contact with Ukraine and the Musician Union told them that there was no counterpart in Ukraine to forward their generous offer.
An enormous thanks you BPI for suggesting me to write the blog, so I can also help the Musician Union and the Ivors Academy to extend the generous offers of their members to help more Ukrainian musicians and students.
By today we already managed to match 8 students of LPMAM.
If I can name names, I would mention David Barnard, Education Official of the Musician Union, who was the first to fill the application for our student and provided us with an exact list of the questionnaire so I could have a more effective way to put together the information for sponsors and students, and complete it quickly and with no mistakes!
David was also the first to receive the information on step two after the process started, so we were able to share it with any new prospective host.
In the evening of the same day, I received a very working message from the two brothers, double bass students:
“Sorry for late message. Today , together with my brother we tried to cross the border. But , unfortunately we got in some trouble. Both of us have a special document about medical deferral from army. Nevertheless we were sent by soldiers to military registration office to get another document ( based on our medical documents) that will allow us to cross the border. But unfortunately not all of our army chiefs today work rightfully and legally. And at the office they just took away our documents and proclaimed that we are fully ready to serve in the army or in Territorial Defense (kind of “voluntary” army group in Ukraine). Together with us were a lot of men in same situation, some of them even with visible serious health problems (including a man with just one leg). And they all were proclaimed ready to serve in army. Officer falsified medical commission. This were fully illegal, but during war time there is no possibility to ask for investigation. This may sound wildly. But unfortunately, today it is Ukrainian reality ( although not in every city). We were given postponement and we must came in a month to serve. We were told some ways how we could avoid this and how to get a permission to cross the border. And one point is to show documents that we are students of foreign country.”
Double Bass brother: Dear Stefania, even though you say no to thank you, we are very grateful for everything you do for us. Thank you very much.
Concerning our current situation. Military demand originals with wet seal. But we have consulted with border guard on other border point (about what kind of documents they need) and they advised to make a notarized translation in addition to printed version of the documents you have sent to us. Also we consulted with a notary and she confirmed that it could work .
So we made yesterday those translations and today we took them to the military office. Now we are waiting for the response. Hope everything will be fine.
A wonderful lady, violinist from the Royal Opera house, has welcomed a female opera singers of LPMAM. The student is beyond grateful not only to have found a wonderful family and house to host her, but also to be Abel to go see the dress rehearsals of the Opera house, a dream beyond any dream for a young Opera singer.
The ROH Violinist was also so touched by our stories, that she contacted her neighbours and we arranged for them to host a young girl violinist, so she will be near her friend. Furthermore, this young violinist will turn 17 the same week as the daughters of the host family, so they will be planning an amazing party all together. When they asked the mother of the violinist if she had any question, the mother was just crying of happiness that her daughter has now a wonderful place to go to and a wonderful future in front of her.
Double Bass brother: We just left military office.
Almost everything was done, but only one seal left. And chief who is responsible for this seal is now very busy or just has gone home, no one knows. We were told to come again tomorrow ) Hope that everything will be ok tomorrow!
Now we are in search of hotel. I think we need a couple of hours for that and than we will be ready for a meeting with the UK hosts.
Double Bass brother: Dear Stefania!!!
We managed to cross the border with your enormous help!
We are in Romania. 5 minutes ago we’ve crossed the border.
I then asked the double bass brothers to help me advise our other male students in Ukraine.
They explained me that the military offices allow the students to leave and continue their studies at their partners universities. Also each military office has different ideas on what is acceptable and what is not, including some officials saying the UK is not an official educational partner of Ukraine.
Since LPMAM had a signed partnership with the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire of Kyiv and Kharkiv University (the two biggest music institutions in Ukraine), our invitation letters were accepted, but needed to be original documents with weat seal (not electronic letters).
Of course there is no postal service working properly around Ukraine, and even less any commercial courier to send the physical letters. Thanks to the double bass brothers, we were able to advise all our other male students to print them on a nice paper and get a notarised translation of the letters.
A violinist couple that disappeared for more than a week today sent me an email that they managed to leave Melitopol where we have been during the last month.
“We are very happy about that. Thank you immensely for solving all our problems related to searching accommodation. We look forward to see you and say thank you face to face.”
Two girls in different parts of the occupied territories in Ukraine met with their hosts today and we were able to start the same day their UK Visa application. One of the two is under age, and both will be travelling alone to the UK.
Hearing about the horrible crimes perpetuated by the Russian military in other occupied zones, I am now very busy trying to find male students nearby that could be risking the trip with the girls and travel more safely together!
Another male student received today his “white ticket”! He is a guitarist and met the same day with his sponsors, a wonderful couple of music university professors who will share with him their historical collection of guitars and string instruments. We met in the afternoon (early evening in Ukraine): as it was too dark and we couldn’t see the student, I asked him to switch on his light. He explained that there is the curfew and switching on the light would have made his family at risk to be targeted by the enemy. Although dealing with the war since it began, only then I realised how my mindset was still far from the reality of living in a war zone!
“Hello. The military registration and enlistment office did not approve the postponement. They will not take me away to serve right now (this is what they said), but I can’t leave”. This percussionist student had the same documents as the other students who managed to receive the “white ticket” to continue their studies at LPMAM, he even went to the same military office, but I fear the true reason is that he is too fit and able to go to the front if necessary.
Almost two months of sleepless nights are now taking a toll on my health: I am waking up every night at the same time (2’48am!), thinking about the students, about the letters to be sent, the people to call, the applications to make, and I start to feel a weight on my chest, sometime a pain on that left part of the body…
I met with the head of conducting of LPMAM, and he gave me a very good advise: I need to take care of myself, or I will not be strong enough to continue helping the others.
For the first time in my life, I started taking some valeriana pills before going to bed: it didn’t work at first, but I am now sleeping better and the pain is completely gone!
The guitarist student today started his journey from the Dnipro region to Poland, but was blocked at the border from new military offices that refused to accept the documents provided (and stamped) for his white ticket. They asked for more proof of studies at LPMAM, including talking with me over the phone that evening. Suddenly I had to stop making dinner for my 7 years old daughter, to provide any further documentation needed to save this student. By the end (my daughter already in bed), I received the wonderful vocal message from the student, so full of emotion, of relief, happiness and joy to have passed the border and to be finally safe on the train in Poland.
The Percussion student found a recruiting office that is willing to help, but they need the original document from London. I have to send the original letters, with logo stamp and hand written signature, but today is Easter and the post office won’t be open until Tuesday!
The other guitar student who managed to escape, can’t wait to be able to come to the UK and is asking when he will receive his Visa. This same day one of our UK Host shared an updated he received from the Home Office on the very same subject: although they were not able to comment on your specific applications, they were keen to share some the following stats in relation to the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (USS):
- The government has apologised for the delays, but is hoping to resolve the backlog very soon
- In all, the UK has received 55,600 USS visa applications
- 25,100 visas have been issued so far
- 3,200 people have arrived in the UK
One of the girls in the occupied territory of Kherson was the first student to receive the approval of her UK Visa (she received it in just one week from her application being sent!) By the time I shared the news with the students who applied the week before, another 2 girls received their UK Visa.
I then created a WhatsApp group with the students in Ukraine, so they could share where they are and they could try to reach each other before leaving Ukraine together!
The girl who received the first Visa found out that day that a friend of her mother is driving people to safety to Odessa every three day. Hopefully tomorrow will be the day he can drive her to Odessa, and from Odessa she can reach the other student in Lviv.
Another three students got their Visa today, and by the evening, also the two brothers double bass players! I am so happy, all the students and the hosts so excited, thank you to the Home Office for such a prompt and efficient step up in the Home for Ukraine scheme!
Unfortunately, today the Russian military closed all the streets out of the occupied territories for a week, until the end of the regional referendum. Therefore, even if with her visa ready, our student won’t be able to come to the UK yet.
Another four students received their Visa. This include the couples awaiting the white ticket from the military office, so as soon as this will be approved they will be able to come straight to the UK!
I also regained contact with another 3 male students in Ukraine, and I discovered that one of them is not far from the 17 years old girl in the occupied territory, so he will help getting her to safety as soon they are allowed to travel again.
The 17 years old violinist in the occupied territory sent us a picture of a missile fallen 80meters from her house. She and her father tried to help their neighbors' wounded by the shelling, but the Russians started firing at them. Her parents managed to have her included in the list of the people to be evacuated, she already packed her bag and she is ready to leave as the humanitarian corridors will be reopen.
We are not getting any new visa approved. Only today we discovered that the Home-for-Ukraine cannot apply to under age students: this is very worrying for our 17 years old violinist in the occupied territory as we waited so long for nothing and we need to bring her here to safety as soon as possible! She later wrote us that her electricity is gone, and she is using her last drop of phone battery to tell us this: “Maybe when you perform. Say that I dream of getting a good musical education. And I am eternally grateful to everyone who helped me get this education." And I, for my part, am ready to work day and night. The front line is near my town. I cannot concentrate on studies when I hear artillery cannonade day and night. I am very grateful that there are people in the UK who care about my future studies. Unfortunately my parents cannot accompany me to study in the UK. Because our family has four orphaned children in care, of whom three are on disability. I really hope that there are people who can help me come to study in the UK and make my childhood dream come true”
I bought today the ticket for our guitarist student who managed to pass the border on 15th April after such a fright. The flight is for Monday 2nd May at 6am, so he will be in London just in time for our Channel 5 News interview. This is his first flight ever, so I explain that he will probably need to be at the airport the night before, so he can be ready for the check in by 4am… At 9.40pm I receive a message that he is at the airport and needs to show his ticket to the security but he doesn’t have it yet: he was so excited to finally come to the UK that he went a day too early!!
Our first 3 students have finally arrived in the UK!! What a joy to receive their pictures from the airport with their UK sponsors!!!
The guitarist had a long train trip to my home and when we finally met in person I couldn’t not hug him! When we arrived home we had lunch, he couldn’t stop telling me his incredible journey from the occupied territory of Ukraine until my home, his worries for his friend guitarist who is still waiting for her UK visa despite applying before him and going to the same generous UK host. He asked to practice his guitar before dinner but by the time it was ready he was deeply asleep.
We all met at Drapers Hall for our interview with Channel 5 News.
It was very emotional to see them together for the first time, and we had an amazing day exploring Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Royal Festival Hall. I discovered that they are all super fans of London and the English culture, and in particular of JKRowling for Harry Potter and the latest Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch!
I wish we could invite them to our fundraising event on 17th May: it would be such a dream come true!
The double bass brothers and the wife violinist have arrived in the UK. They have been driving for more than 3000 miles, so I suggest they rest for a day or two at my home in Kent before finishing their journey in Manchester.
At lunch we talked for hours, showing me pictures of the wonderful homes they had to leave, the wonderful parks and monuments in Kharkiv, how they still cannot understand why there is a war in their country, destroying everything beautiful for no reason at all. Just before the war they had the opportunity to tour extensively in Russia, and they keep questioning how they could be turned from friends to enemies.
The students had their first public performance at the Italian Cultural Institute in London. After the rehearsals I introduced them to the LPMAM Deans of Classical and Opera and we had a lovely walk to the nearby Buckingham Palace. The 18 years old double bass brother commented how everything was exactly like in “Alice in Wonderland”, with the bunnies and the squirrels in my garden, the birds singing and the beautiful parks, castles, and royal palace, and everyone was able to forget war for a moment.
I have been so privileged to celebrate the birthday of the older double bass brother today. But our conversation doesn’t fail to go back every time to the war, to the people left behind and the students awaiting to join us here as soon as possible. The violinist wife, who is more shy, today whispered to me that she cannot sleep, having nightmares to be still in Kharkiv or on their crazy trip to escape the war, and thinking about her family and friends all the time.
Find out more about what BPI and its members are doing to help during the ongoing situation in Ukraine here.