They’ve been protesting pro-Putin artists for years. Now Signerbusters are finally being heard.

Vladimir Davidenko
Signerbusters protest pianist Denis Matsuev at Carnegie Hall in New York in February 2022.

When Igor and Sasha Yarmak set out for Carnegie Hall on Father’s Day 2014, they expected to spend the evening listening to Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. They were regulars at New York’s major music venues and bought tickets without thinking much about who was performing.

But that night, they noticed about 20 people gathered outside the concert hall with Ukrainian flags. In the 1980s, the Yarmaks, who are Jewish and originally from Kyiv, were some of the final “refuseniks” – people barred from leaving the Soviet Union, typically because of antisemitism. In 1990, along with their young daughter Olga, they finally managed to flee.

Before heading inside the hall, they approached the group and read their leaflets, which explained that Matsuev openly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin and had signed a letter in favor of the annexation of Crimea. Igor and his wife were shocked. They hadn’t even heard of such a letter. Posted in Russian on the Cultural Ministry’s website, the March 11, 2014, missive had signatures from 511 Russian cultural figures “firmly” declaring support for Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine.

The couple didn’t hesitate. They threw out their tickets and, dressed in their concert clothes, joined the protesters outside. For Igor, who doesn’t have much of an artistic background himself, music is all about emotion. While some might be able to appreciate the technical skill of a musician separate from their morality, “for me, it’s the feeling, and the feeling is the whole thing,” he says. “You cannot split it.”

Nearly a decade later, the Yarmaks are still standing with the protesters, who call themselves Signerbusters (a play on “Ghostbusters”), making it their mission to rally against the Russian artists who signed the March 2014 letter. When Matsuev, conductor Valery Gergiev, jazz musician Igor Butman or another signer performs in New York, they write letters to the host venue and protest outside the show. Signerbusters is based in New York, but protests targeting the same performers have appeared elsewhere, with similar groups in cities including Chicago, Boston and even Bordeaux, France.

Even as the annexation of Crimea faded from the media, Signerbusters kept showing up to concerts, draped in Ukrainian flags, equipped with signs and spirit. Sometimes there were just two or three of them present. Often, they were harassed by concertgoers, even attacked. Still, for eight years, Signerbusters say they have never missed a show.

Now, as Russia’s war in Ukraine escalates, the performers they’ve long protested are facing consequences. In February, Carnegie Hall removed Gergiev and Matsuev from several scheduled shows. Later, Gergiev was fired from his posts at the Munich and Rotterdam philharmonics for not speaking out against the war. Performances from the Bolshoi ballet, which is led by Vladimir Urin (another signer, who recently signed an antiwar letter), were canceled across the United States. And other musicians Signerbusters has protested – pro-war pianist Boris Berezovsky and opera singer Anna Netrebko, who refused to renounce Putin – have been dropped by their agents. In a time of tragedy, it’s a small victory – but one many Signerbusters say is too late.

With a few dozen active participants, Signerbusters includes engineers, health-care workers, scholars, artists and musicians – many of them immigrants from Ukraine, Russia and other former Soviet states. They mobilize around specific events to protest signers they say serve Russian state interests both abroad, where they distract from Russian aggression and present themselves as messengers of peace, and at home, where they bolster the government’s image.

Critics of the March 2014 letter say it harks back to Soviet times, when artists had to publicly support the Kremlin. But if, back then, an artist’s livelihood – and even life – depended on fidelity to the state, today, it is a question of lifestyle – the perks that come with being pro-Putin. “They can be used as tools of soft power and propaganda, and they’re willing to do it,” says Valentina Bardakova, a native of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine who helped start Signerbusters. “This is their decision, and it’s immoral.”

Bardakova recalls their first protest in 2014. Gergiev had led the Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, and after the show they stuck around outside the venue for hours. Gergiev, a close friend of Putin’s who even conducted a propaganda concert in Syria in 2016, remained inside, seemingly hiding from them. When he suddenly sprinted out, “it was honestly funny,” says Bardakova. She recalls shouting, “You’re a good runner!”

When asked what keeps Signerbusters going, Elena Larchenko, a 52-year-old nurse who came to the United States from Kyiv in 1989 and has been with the group since the beginning, says, with a laugh, “We’re just extremely stubborn.”

While protesting, Larchenko has met several concertgoers who think the war in Donbas is a civil war, a false theory peddled by the Russian government. Most know nothing about the ties between these artists and the Kremlin. She sees their protests as an effort to curb Russian disinformation, one concertgoer at a time.

Like other Signerbusters, Larchenko is inspired by the 2013 and 2014 Euromaidan protests, which successfully removed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych but left more than 100 people dead. “I can’t quit,” she says of protesting. “It’s my war I took upon myself in 2014, in memory of those people who fought for freedom.”

For artists in Signerbusters who fled the Soviet Union, the cause can feel personal. New York-based actress Irina Brovina emigrated from Moscow in 1990, leaving an artistic environment she describes as “too tight” for the “free spirit inside of me.” She stumbled upon the letter and a single name stuck out: Evgeniy Knyazev, her former theater teacher at Vakhtangov Theatre School.

“It’s a very small community, so you’re very close to your teachers. They actually become like family for the rest of your life,” Brovina says. “That really killed me when I saw his name.”

She imagined hunting him down and obsessed over what she’d say to him. In Signerbusters, she found people who could share in her rage about the letter. It was a relief.

Vladimir Davidenko, a visual artist and early Signerbuster, worked at an animation company in Kyiv during the Soviet era. He faced regular censorship from Moscow for things like using too much of the blue and yellow associated with Ukraine, or depicting a girl praying. “You could make money, but there was no way you could produce art,” he says. “And I wasn’t a fighter in those days. I was just an artist, a sensitive artist, that’s all, loving beautiful things.”

Davidenko eventually moved to the United States, seeking creative freedom. “The artists who signed the letter in support of Putinism and Putin’s war in Ukraine are a part of exactly what I was trying to escape,” he says.

When these pro-Putin performers come to the United States, they’re part of a long history. “Cultural diplomacy goes back even before the Soviet period,” says Peter Rutland, a professor at Wesleyan University who studies “soft power” and the Soviet Union,”when the czar state was trying to cover up its atrocities at home by spending lavishly on high art and culture to show, ‘We are leaders of European civilization.’ ” Later, culture became an important weapon in the Cold War with controversial cultural exchanges that brought jazz and rock musicians to the U.S.S.R. and Soviet dance groups and symphonies to the United States.

Amy Nelson, a professor of Soviet history at Virginia Tech and author of “Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia,” describes Russia’s 19th-century classical music canon as “bound up with nationalism, national identity and loyalty.” Russian culture, she says, has always had “this distinguishing gap between incredible brilliance, fertility, innovation on the one hand and suffering, misery, exploitation on the other.”

Over the past few years, whether those extremes – moral failings and good art – can coexist in one institution or one person has been a heated debate in the arts, including museums and movies. For Signerbusters, the answer is obvious.

Larchenko sees a direct tie between what is happening in her home country and these pro-Putin performers. “I would like [concertgoers] to know that the hundred dollars that they spent on tickets is now falling in the form of bombs on the children and women of Ukraine,” she says.

Ukraine-born pianist Pavel Gintov, who studied in Moscow and now lives in New York, dismisses ideas about separating art from the artist. In his view, an immoral person simply cannot be a good artist.

“Music is a reflection of the human soul,” he says. “Some people think I participate in these protests because I’m Ukrainian. But I would say, first of all, it’s because I’m a musician.”