Courtesy of the Yale Russian Chorus

Amidst rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Yale Russian Chorus plans to go ahead with its upcoming Russia tour, drawing criticism from Ukrainian students at Yale.

Founded in 1953 on the principles of fostering understanding between East and West through music, the Yale Russian Chorus, or YRC, plans to embark on an upcoming tour in the U.S. and Russia. The chorus plans to sing at various churches, retirement homes and other venues in the Miami Bay Area in two weeks, and will sing with the children’s choir of Dubna, Russia virtually in late April. Their current plans for the Russian tour, for which they received a State Department grant, include concerts in Petrozavodsk, Saint Petersburg, Yaroslavl and Moscow, where they will sing the liturgy in the largest church in Eastern Christendom.

The group has not yet finalized the tour, as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia continue to deteriorate. Yet the chorus’ tour committee is interested in moving ahead with the plan, but altering the repertoire to emphasize songs that call for peace. Still, Ukrainian students expressed disappointment with the planned tour given Russia’s recent human rights abuses. 

“The mission of the Yale Russian Chorus Alumni Association is to promote intercultural understanding through the music we sing, music from Russia, Central and Eastern Europe (including Ukraine), and elsewhere from Eurasia, as well as from America.” Gabriel Mesa ’23, the musical director of YRC, wrote to the News. “Devoted to intercultural understanding and peace, we have always sung and will continue to sing music of these regions, including the music of Russia and Ukraine, to promote peace throughout the world and foster global understanding.”

YRC will adjust its repertoire to include more Ukrainian songs and avoid promoting Russian patriotism and militarism through Soviet war songs. The chorus will also focus on songs that reflect on the horror of conflicts and war and appeal for peace, according to YRC president Andrew Scott ’23.

“We’ve been trying to be a lot more cognizant of people’s experiences, especially with some of us having friends, and a lot of people have family in Ukraine,” Mesa said. “I felt more of a responsibility to go [to Russia] if we could…we care about spreading peace and understanding through music.”

But Sasha Yankovskaya ’22, a member of YRC, noted that the tour is not yet finalized. Yankovskaya told the News that the chorus has not made a public announcement on whether or not the Russian tour will happen, given the uncertain situation. 

Yankovskaya emphasized that if the tour does take place, she believes it is especially important that YRC builds a cultural bridge and continues to promote cultural dialogue during a time of intense political tension.

Mesa and Scott traveled with YRC to Russia in 2019. During their concerts, they recalled that “there are multiple points where people in the audience would be crying, as they hear the music, because it carries a very emotional aspect.” According to Scott, this forms a part of the choir’s motivation to return to Russia — to connect with audiences on a deep level once again.

According to Mesa, YRC’s tour committee, composed of Yale students and alumni, is still interested in continuing the Russia tour despite diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia. 

“It’s a different kind of diplomatic attitude that we have to take towards engaging with not only Russian audiences, but Russian contacts, and how we’re seen both domestically and abroad.” Mesa said.

YRC business manager Ben Snyder ’23 agreed with Mesa, further adding that YRC will take into consideration how American audiences and Russian audiences will be impacted by their work.

“Our mission is two-fold.” Snyder said. “In the U.S., our mission is to help people avoid generalizing all Russians…[thinking] all Russian culture is destructive. [The way the] Russian government is acting is not representative of all its people. When we go to Russia, we want to build that bridge the other way and show Russians that not all Americans totally dismiss Russian culture.”

Still, several of Yale’s Ukrainian students took issue with the plan to tour through Russia, which they said would financially benefit the Russian government and finance its invasion.

“I think traveling to Russia when there is a war going on is really incorrect,” Oleksii Antoniuk ’24 said.

Antoniuk clarified that he doesn’t see a problem with studying Russian culture or Russian music. However, going to Russia and contributing any money to the Russian state government makes the group “pretty much complicit” with the state’s actions, he said.

According to Antoniuk, traveling to Russia will financially benefit the Russian government. The government collects taxes from people’s accommodations and food expenses, and could use this money to finance the war.

YRC will consider organizing an alternative summer tour to countries like Poland to perform for places hosting Ukrainian refugees, according to Snyder.

Scott said that YRC and its alumni are also considering what they can do for the people of Ukraine in other ways. For example, they are currently helping Ukrainian choral groups and directors to make backup copies of their sheet music collections in the U.S. in case there is interference with infrastructure in Ukraine.

Still, Ukrainian students at Yale expressed their shock at YRC’s plans and were disheartened to hear that it intends to tour in Russia.

“It does feel weird that a group would go there to entertain people while there’s a war going on.” said Yuliia Zhukovets ’23.

Sofiya Bidochko ’24, whose entire extended family lives in Ukraine, echoed Antoniuk’s sentiment. Bidochko said the YRC’s decision is “so insensitive and ignorant” and “anyone that gives money to Russia has the blood of innocent Ukrainians on their hands.”

“It is incredibly disheartening and makes me feel very upset.” Bidochko said. “I highly hope that they actually consider the consequences of their decisions and the disrespect it shows to all the people suffering the terrible consequences of this unjustified war. Some of those people are directly on the Yale campus, fearing every day that Russia will take away the lives of their loved ones. I think it’s a shame on Yale that they are allowing them to go on this tour.”

Antoniuk said that if Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine by the time YRC makes its trip, then he finds no problem with it.

Since its founding, the YRC has made 19 tours of the USSR, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Clarification, March 14: The headline has been updated to clarify that the Chorus hopes to tour Russia in August.

Correction, March 14: The article has been updated with the correct spelling of Ben Snyder’s name.

Clarification, March 16: The headline has been further updated to clarify that the Chorus hopes to tour Russia in August, but is not actively planning to do so given University and State Department travel restrictions. In a March 11 interview with the News, the Chorus did not rule out the possibility of touring and stated that they had spoken to tour organizers in Russia on the day with the hopes of the invasion ending by their planned tour date in August.