“This time I’m angrier than the last time” – Oxxxymiron

Lines of concert goers streamed around London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire as the war in Ukraine entered its fifth week. Many were cloaked in Ukrainian and anti-war white-blue-white flags, (a new flag birthed from the conflict) for the second sold-out anti-war charity concert and rally hosted by one of Russia’s most prominent rappers and hip-hop artists, Oxxxymiron. 

After a one-and-a-half-hour wait, with the fervent crowd leading their own “нет войне” (no to war) chants, Oxxxymiron (Miron Yanovich Fyodorov) took to the stage. “My songs serve only as a tool to raise money and to show that Russians are against this war in huge numbers”, the rapper told the crowd. Soon after the outbreak of war, Oxxxymiron cancelled six sold-out concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg – explaining to his fans on Instagram, “I cannot entertain you when Russian missiles are falling on Ukraine”. Roughly 3.7 million Ukrainians have fled the country and 10 million have left their homes, including those who are internally displaced. All proceeds from Oxxxymiron’s series of charity concerts will go towards funding NGOs that provide aid for Ukrainian refugees exiting through the Polish border.

Oxxxymiron has been one of Russia’s most outspoken popular culture, anti-establishment figures for years, and is one of the few high-profile Russian figures to publicly denounce the war. “I’ve understood for a long time that I’m a foreign agent, traitor to the motherland”, he tells the audience. The UK is home to around 73,000 Russian nationals. Though not everyone in the 2,000 capacity venue was Russian, almost everyone spoke Russian. Many had simply come to support the cause; others, like 32-year-old Sabine from Azerbaijan, are Oxxxymiron’s fans and know every word of every song. “The cause is an added reason to come, I have colleagues in the cities under fire, they won’t leave, it’s their homeland,” she says.

Oxxxymiron staged his first anti-war rally two weeks earlier in Istanbul – Turkey being a hub for fleeing Russians, in part due to the current lack of air-transit routes out of the country and visa requirements for Russians across much of the west. Some 200,000 Russians have left the country since the war began, fearing an uncertain future. “I imagined my next concert in London a bit differently”, says Oxxxymiron who recently released a new album. Some 150,000 households in the UK have signed up to offer to share their homes with Ukrainian refugees and a large-scale march of solidarity for Ukraine, organised by Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, saw tens of thousands gather in central London on Saturday. Many have felt frustrated with the UK’s seemingly slow response to the refugee crisis, with relatively few Ukrainians having arrived thus far, despite the Home Office granting 18,600 visas to Ukrainians with family who are UK citizens. Oxxxymiron has close ties to the UK, where he graduated from Oxford University. He credits the country as the place where he honed his musical lyricism with the Green Park Gang, making London a logical place to host the second Russians Against War concert.

“We don’t want to be ashamed to be Russian, that’s why we’re here tonight – not for the music”, explains married couple Vasily, 27, and Yelena, 24. The couple have attended several peaceful anti-war meetings in London since the war in Ukraine began. Like many Russians living abroad, Vasily says he would be fearful to return home to Krasnoyarsk before a seismic change takes place – “It seems that the company I work for is now an “extremist organisation” in Russia, so I don’t know if I would be arrested”. The couple have many friends who left Russia for Turkey or Georgia in recent weeks because they don’t want to support the war and worry that soon the option to leave will disappear. When surrounded by like-minded people at the event, it is easy for Vasily to forget that support for the war at home does exist. “In the East of Russia it’s not as open, politically – Moscow and St Petersburg are like different countries, but for the older generation, after 20 years or more of propaganda, it makes sense that they support this war”. Yelena adds, “The propaganda is even in the schools now”. Oxxxymiron made a point of singing the song “Non-Fiction” at the concert, in fear that “the whole world has become one big conspiracy theory”.

Oxxxymiron’s gigs unite not only Russians against war, but Russian speakers against war – many of whom, in their own lifetime, have felt Russia’s influence in their own home country. Some Ukrainians at the event had come with their Russian friends. “This whole event is about Russians against war, so I’m completely comfortable here, they think the same as me”, said Uliana – a 19-year-old student from Ukraine. Like all Ukranians living abroad, she has no idea when she will ever return home. “I haven’t heard from some of my Ukrainian family in two weeks”, she says.

“I respect Oxxxymiron as a character, for what he stands for”, says Konstantin, a 30-year-old IT specialist from Belarus. “The economic situation in Belarus is so bad now, I don’t see myself going back for a long time”. There have been reports of Russian speakers experiencing increased fear of hatred abroad. Konstantin has heard of one Russian man being refused restaurant service in London, but says: “London is very cosmopolitan and I haven’t experienced any hate as a Russian speaker before or since the war started”.

With only 30 minutes left, a special guest, the USSR’s rock star “godfather”, Boris Grebenshchikov, walked out to an astounded, screaming crowd. A household name in Russia, from the band Aquarium, Grebenshchikov began his performance with “Fighter”. He stayed seated with his guitar and fostered hope that there are better days to come: “These lyrics were written many years ago, and yet everything is already in them – this is a great consolation: if all this has already happened, then there is an end for this too”.

The concert in London alone raised $75,000. Oxxxymiron is yet to confirm the location of his third charity concert.

The names of those interviewed have been changed at their request.

Madeleine Cuckson is a UK-based writer focussing on Russia.