The Defection of Mikhail Voskresensky

Why a beloved Russian pianist is living in the Bronx with only a Yamaha electric keyboard

Mikhail Voskresensky at the piano
VCG / Getty

There was no place Mikhail Voskresensky loved more than the Moscow ​​Conservatory. He graduated from the school in 1958. For decades, he was the venerable chair of the piano department, specializing in the masters of 19th-century romanticism. His granddaughter served as his assistant, teaching alongside him. His young wife, a talented pianist from Vietnam, had studied there. In February, two days before Russian troops began flowing across the Ukrainian border, Voskresensky played a concert for hundreds in the Conservatory’s Grand Hall, an exquisite artifact of the imperial age, with soaring walls lined by portraits of the nation’s great composers.

Voskresensky wasn’t ethnically Ukrainian. But, in a story typical of the imposed multiculturalism of Soviet times, he was born in what is now Ukraine, in the city of Berdyansk, on the banks of the Azov Sea. More to the point, his mother was buried there. Whatever the propagandists proclaimed, he couldn’t think of Ukraine as enemy territory. 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.

But he was an outlier. Even in the hallways of the relatively cosmopolitan conservatory, he overheard jingoistic talk. The invasion of Ukraine was commonly described as a defense of Russian territory. “What part of Russian territory was attacked?” he would retort.

One day, a fellow pianist approached him, and the conversation turned to Ukraine. No profound difference of opinion separated them. The pianist agreed that war was folly. But he added, “Since we started it, we have no choice but to win it.”

By the standards of Russian political discourse, this was hardly provocative. Still, it triggered Voskresensky. As he left the conversation, he thought to himself: How can I live with intelligent people who think like this? The idea of fleeing into exile had been stirring in his head for weeks. Now it was becoming more like a conviction.

He couldn’t shake the feeling of his own complicity. “I’m guilty if I live in this society,” he told me, many months later. “I had this feeling that was ethically hard to live with.” Although he was 87 years old, he had a 4-year-old son, and he wanted his youngest child “to grow up free of this feeling.” His wife, who shared his distaste for Moscow’s wartime oppressiveness, agreed.

To put it in the parlance of another time: Voskresensky—a beloved figure who had won many of his nation’s highest honors, including the People’s Artist of Russia—was ready to defect.

The last time Voskresensky engaged in a political act was in 1963. He was a charismatic prodigy, on the cusp of stardom. He had played Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto at the Prague Spring International Music Festival, its first performance outside the Soviet Union, and in the presence of the great composer himself, who overcame his fear of flying to attend. He had medaled at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas.

The Soviet cultural apparatus wanted to show him off to the world. Arrangements were made for a tour of the United States. But before plans were finalized, Voskresensky received a call from a KGB agent who asked him to carry letters to American contacts on the organization’s behalf.

That night, Voskresensky couldn’t sleep. He dreaded the assignment and grasped for a way to avoid it. The next day he called the agent and told him, “I’m a man of art. People of art are extremely emotional and easily agitated. I’m afraid if I accept your offer, I’ll inadvertently make a mistake that will reflect poorly on our state.” Immediately, the line went dead—and so did his international career. The government canceled his tour. It took 13 years for the state to forgive his reticence and permit him a tour of the West.

Being a classical pianist in Moscow in the Soviet era came with cultural cachet, but also limitations. It wasn’t just that Voskresensky couldn’t perform abroad. He would embark on epic projects—such as playing every Chopin piano piece in chronological order—but because the Soviets didn’t have a vibrant recording industry, his greatest performances disappeared as soon as they ended.

Voskresensky never acquired the global reputation he deserved—and many decades later, this fact may have complicated his attempt to defect. When he sent emails to colleagues across the West asking for help leaving, none offered assistance. Many of the West’s cultural institutions hesitated to host Russian performers, no matter their politics. He wanted to take a stand against a horrible war, but he was given the cold shoulder.

Voskresensky received just one warm response, in late May. It came from Veda Kaplinsky, a professor at Juilliard, promising help. Two days later, she 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. And so began a period of painful uncertainty.

Defecting in the time of pandemic and war came with peculiar challenges. The first was the COVID vaccine. Russia had distributed its own vaccine, Sputnik V, which the State Department declared inadequate for the purposes of entering the United States. So Voskresensky started hunting for jabs of Pfizer or Moderna.

Serendipitously, he received an invitation to teach and play at a music festival in Ankara, Turkey, in June. He could travel there without a visa, and he was sure that he and his wife could find shots in the city.

But that only half-solved his problem, because they needed two shots, separated by at least three weeks. He told the conservatory that he would take a family vacation in Turkey a month before he attended the music festival there, and then would return for the event. Voskresensky worried that his plans sounded suspiciously improbable—and that authorities might take notice. But he wouldn't discover that until he reached passport control, when he tried to leave his motherland.

In the meantime, it was best that he kept his intentions to himself. He told the conservatory that his trip to Turkey was going to be the start of a long sabbatical, and that he would return in a year’s time. He took his “vacation” and got the shot, and waited. It pained him that he couldn’t reveal his plans to his granddaughter, the child of his son from his first marriage. And he dreaded that his departure from Russia, when it eventually became public, might somehow prove catastrophic for his family members who remained.

As he plotted his escape, he could see that this whole adventure would quickly exhaust his savings, so he and his wife arranged to sell an apartment that she owned in Moscow. Sanctions prevented them from transferring the proceeds of the sale to the West, so she deposited the cash in Vietnam, where it would theoretically remain accessible to him in exile.

Next, he needed a visa—and he needed it to materialize by the end of July. But at the onset of the war, the U.S. State Department had largely shut down its operations in Russia. To get a visa, he would need to travel to another country. He learned that there were massive backlogs of visa applications in each of Russia’s neighboring countries. The shortest wait was supposedly in Naples, Italy. That was useful intelligence—but also another obstacle in his path. The visa in his passport allowing him to travel to Europe had just expired.

He now needed to apply for a visa to the European Union so that he could apply for a visa to the U.S. Everything about his escape felt precarious. But on the last business day before he left for Turkey, the Italian embassy told him that his visa was ready.

As Alan Fletcher, the president of the Aspen Music Festival, tracked Voskresensky’s progress from afar, 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 Senator 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.

Their efforts worked. Voskresensky spent a week teaching in Ankara, then flew to Naples, where he swam in the Mediterranean with his son and stalked the American consulate until his paperwork arrived. Nearly two months after he’d left Moscow, Voskresensky, his wife, and their son boarded a plane to Aspen, which he prayed would become his sanctuary.

Earlier this month, I met Voskresensky and his wife for coffee at an apartment in the Bronx, just off West Kingsbridge Road. When I arrived, he bounded down the stairs with an athleticism that seemed improbable for a near-nonagenarian.

I noticed that he liked to tout his vigor. He mentioned that he could still play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a famously technical piece that required energy and precision. “I should be in the Guinness Book,” he joked. None of the greats, he noted, could play it at his age—the virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz hadn’t even lived that long. (Horowitz, I remembered, was also from Ukraine; born in Kyiv, he died in New York City.)

Voskresensky offered me a seat at a small round table flush against an open window, and his wife presented me with a plate piled high with cream-filled pastries that she had baked. As he waved his arm at the bare white walls, he told me, “I found out that Aspen was not within my budget.”

Searching for a home in New York City, Voskresensky had visited seven different apartments, but was rejected at each stop because he lacked a Social Security number and didn’t have a reliable paycheck. The unit in the Bronx only tumbled into his hands thanks to a friend in Moscow, who knew someone who knew someone who owned a building and smiled kindly at his plight.

Voskresensky wanted to be in New York because of its density of musical conservatories. Indeed, Juilliard had already offered its students the chance to take a master class with him. Forty-nine students signed up in three hours. But his immigration paperwork hadn’t fully arrived—and his lawyer couldn’t get anyone on the phone in the office in Nebraska that was supposed to deliver his promised work permit—which meant he didn’t have permission to teach.

He laughed at this plot point in his picaresque escape from authoritarianism, which he called “my Mark Twain story.”

A week earlier, he had visited the Steinway factory, where he put on an unscheduled recital. At the end of his tour, the president of Steinway made an appearance and offered to loan him one of the company’s finest instruments. But when the piano movers arrived with it in the Bronx, they discovered that the stairway in the building was too narrow.

This was the one fact about his new American life that caused him palpable pain. Back in his Moscow apartment, he had three pianos. Here he had only a Yamaha electric keyboard, loaned to him by the mother of one of his former students. “It feels like my arm has been cut off,” he told me.

As he began to recount the comforts of the life he loved in Moscow, he paused, as if he needed to remind himself of why he left. “If I meet a person who supports murder, I can’t talk to that person,” he said. But then he seemed a little taken aback by his own fervor. He leaned toward me, his reading glasses jangling around his neck. “I never wanted to be a political person. I’m a man of the arts.”