Like any story of international intrigue, there’s always a San Francisco angle.
Take the story of Mikhail Baryshnikov. After the ballet legend left the Soviet Union in 1974, the equally legendary Rudolf Nureyev connected Baryshnikov with San Francisco dean 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 more than a decade later. The women, both true bohemians, have befriended dancers, writers and artists in The City, creating a legacy that has shaped our culture.
Baliantz died in 2007 and Etheredge continued the relationship with “Misha”. In fact, that’s how we heard about a letter published by Baryshnikov on the invasion of Ukraine in the French newspaper Le Figaro. He had called Etheredge, which had owned and operated the famous Tosca Cafe in San Francisco for decades, to talk about it.
A translation of Baryshnikov’s letter reveals a man passionate about the tragedy befalling Ukraine. And a hopeful vision for peace.
“Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by the armies of Vladimir Putin, I have felt deep fear and certainty that it will be a bloody and horrible conflict,” writes Baryshnikov, in the submission titled “Ukrainians fight for all of us.” “I understood immediately that this movement of the Russian army was more threatening than the so-called annexation of Crimea and the separatist insurgency in the Donbass region. … I can’t begin to understand why people would trust and follow a leader like Putin, but Russians have always 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 their fight. In fact, they are not only fighting for themselves, but for all of us who believe in free and open societies.
Etheredge had conveyed this inspiring message in a conversation where we revisited some of the legendary nights in Tosca’s back room. One thing leading to another, calls were made and e-mails written. The result is an exclusive interview The Examiner did with the ballet star, choreographer and humanitarian who lives in New York. In it, Latvian-born Baryshnikov shares his thoughts on the war, his own motivations, and the new organization he co-founded to help Ukrainian refugees.
What prompted you to speak so publicly about Putin and Ukraine? What did you hope to achieve? My two friends, Boris Akunin, a Russian émigré writer based in London, and Sergei Guriev, a Russian émigré economist based in Paris, asked me to join them in creating truerussia.org, a fundraising site for Ukrainian refugees. . All proceeds go to the Disasters Emergency Committee, a UK-based group of charities that coordinates emergency relief to 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 have received many warm, encouraging and grateful responses from people around the world, and the response to True Russia has been strong. We’ve raised over $1 million so far and people keep contributing.
With so many Ukrainians fleeing their homeland, can you think back to when you left the Soviet Union? The emotions and anxieties involved must have been immense. I think it is inappropriate for me to compare my experience of leaving the Soviet Union in 1974 with what Ukrainians face today. I was fleeing artistic frustration and a repressive society, but Ukrainian mothers, children and elderly people are fleeing bombs. I never imagined this could be possible in the 21st century.
What is the impact of this war on the ballet dancers of Ukraine and Russia? They must be in a terrible position, as far as their families and friends back home are concerned. At the start of the invasion, my daughter sent me a tweet with a photo of a dancer from the National Opera of Ukraine, Oleksii Potiomkin, placed next to a photo of him in fatigues. I was surprised and told him he was my hero. To my amazement, he replied and said that he was not a hero, but that the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people are heroic. He is right, of course, and there are many other Ukrainian dancers who have now joined the fight. Russian ballerina Olga Smirnova has quit the Bolshoi Ballet in protest against Putin’s war. So… like everyone else caught up in this dastardly invasion, the ballet dancers are doing all they can to fight, protest and help. I am in awe of their bravery and their ethics.
Your trip to the United States had to do with San Francisco. Can you tell us about your relationship with Armen Baliantz and his daughter Jeannette Etheredge? The legendary Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova introduced me to Armen and Jeannette just months after I left the USSR. The extraordinary family story of Armen who escaped from Russia to China during the Armenian Genocide in 1915, spent four years in a Japanese internment camp in Manchuria during the Second Sino-Japanese War, then in a refugee camp in the Philippines and eventually ended up in San Francisco, inspired me.
If she, her husband and their young family could survive multiple violent uprootings, then I knew everything would be fine. When I met them, Armen and his 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 amazing smile was her spiritual weapon and she used it to connect people everywhere. Jeannette continued to do the same at Tosca, a San Franciscan monument. It’s hard to sum up the influence these two women have had on me, but I feel lucky to have known their generosity, care and love.
The Arena, a column by Al Saracevic of The Examiner, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, jokes and quotes to [email protected].