Our interview with Elena Stenkina, an anti-war accordionist

We know you have played your accordion  around the world. Where have been the most memorable performances?

     I really loved playing in Cambodia. My show was in a huge Casino project called NagaWorld. It has  many great arenas, big stages with LED screens, a NABA Theatre with video on all the walls with excellent sound. I performed with dancers all on PNN TV. It was huge.

     I also remember performing with the Great Russian Circus with an audience of 3300 people. We had ear monitors and I played solo and with a 30  piece  orchestra while the gymnasts performed while we played. The sound man was so professional, as he could put more drums or sax in my monitors. It sounded so perfectly clear.

     I’ve had a few performances in India. In one huge wedding ceremony I was supposed to be situated near the bride who was seated on a huge stretcher. Men all painted in gold were carrying the stretcher with their hands. At that moment I felt like Cleopatra. I will never forget that performance as I can still imagine what it looked like.

   P.S. it is not easy to keep your balance on the stretcher as many people were walking the steps and the stretcher was vibrating. It felt especially dangerous when the marching turned left or right.

     During one performance in India we started playing and a fire started coming from the stage. No one told us that fire was going to be part of the show. It is a major surprise when you start playing your accordion and a fire starts blowing towards you to  the beat of your music!!! We were scared to death.

Who do you like to listen to when listening to accordion music?

    Netta Skog. I am her biggest fan and admire what she can do with the electro accordion.I am guilty. I  don’t have much time  to listen to music. I want to hear more. However, I do learn music that individuals want me to learn and play.(editor’s note; Netta Skog is one of the all time favorites at the Cotati Accordion Festival).

What makes, models and types of accordions do you play and why?

     I have two accordions, acoustic and electro. Each for its own purpose. 

     I don’t say “it” for accordion. They are my friends who I have been with for a very long time. With my Bugari Armando( I call her….Elena) I play French, tango, Latino, classic, and Russian. I really love that             sound. I’ve had Elena for 10 years and have never had a problem with her. For me, Elena is the best accordion ever. I love her so much.

       I call my Roland, Rolly. I use him for my crazy experiments and dancing. I play rock, pop and hip-hop.I love Rolly as he gives me more flexibility. One day I want a new FR-8 model.

When did you start playing the accordion and where did you learn?

     I began playing when I was 8 years old at a musical school in my birthplace which was a small Russian village of 2000 people. I eventually went to the College of Art in Khagarovsk, followed by the Musical State Institute in Lppolitova-lvanova where I received a Masters Degree in Music. 

I have seen where you are very versatile. What style of accordion music do you most love to play?

     I am trying to be versatile. I am an entertainer. I work for the people. I play what people want me to play. I feel that all music is good, but I prefer rock and Latino music.

Is your criticism of the war against Ukraine more well known because you are an accomplished musician?

     Thank you for the compliment. I am lucky, as I have traveled a lot and I’ve experienced many countries and cultures. I know many people from a vast array of countries, and I know that it’s not normal what the Russian government is doing. My criticism of the war is based on what has happened with people I know and the injustices that have occurred  to me and my family. I don’t trust SMI a lot but I trust the people I know. For I have many friends in Ukraine. I have lived with Ukrainian girls in the same room and we all worked together. They text me describing the crazy things that are now happening to them. They do not deserve this. They are women just like me.

   Many of my friends have left Ukraine under gunfire. Some of them texted that they were hiding and could not escape across a bridge because a tank had just destroyed it. These are young girls who I knew personally and who I had done contract work with. It’s so very hard to hear what they are going through. I feel guilty as a Russian even though it is not my fault.

    The second part of my criticism is based on my own experience. When all of my savings  were blocked and I had to go into debt in order to leave the country in a rush I was very distressed. Unknown people were calling and texting all the time promising to shut me up. I had worked hard in my life and it certainly was not for those thieves. I was lucky that I was able to leave Russia. My brother was not so lucky.He is going to trial now. The Russian government filed a criminal case against him because he doesn’t want to be part of their war.They have promised to put him in jail for ten years. We are fighting them as we can. The Russian government is dishonest and very corrupt. I hope they get what they deserve.

How does the Russian government react to criticism from its artists?

    They do not allow them to perform. They cancel their shows. It is unofficial  but there is a blacklist of performers. If any bar, club or arena allows them to perform they end up with huge problems. If you are an artist and you do not support the government’s policies you will not financially survive there.

     Plus, in the last five years there has been a huge increase of war propaganda in music production. The accordion was very popular during WW II. I did play the old war songs like everyone else as its good and sad music. The “war memory” performances started appearing more and more. People were saying that they missed the USSR. Its become a great time for Stalin and Lenin impersonators who dance near you on stage. It has become way too much to bear. I am a normal person and I like to play dance music. I didn’t like having to play the sad, nostalgic war songs. I respect the soldiers from WWII as I understand that there could be no me without them. However, I don’t want to have to relive war times or the USSR. Yet, in the last five years these events are everywhere all the time. 90% of the accordion competitions have included patriotic themes. The Russian people have been living like they were in war time before the Ukraine war started. I was lucky that I was traveling and  playing a lot internationally or I might be the same as the war minded Russians at home.

Does the war in Ukraine have popular support in Russia?

    I am sorry to say that many Russians support it. I don’t communicate with 80% of the people I know because of my anti-war stance. A lot of these people were my friends and people I have collaborated with. Some of them are my relatives. However, I do not want to communicate with these crazy people that claim that all Ukrainian people are fascists and that they deserve to die. I just don’t understand how they can be so ignorant and angry. It is because they believe everything that is being said on Russian TV. Many people say very rude things to me and that they are glad that I am blacklisted. Sadly,  many  of the good people have all left Russia.

Accordion music is known for bringing joy. Do you see that joy ever coming back to Russia?

     For me its suicide to go back to Russia right now. When they took my brother I wanted to go back as I wanted to be near him. I was searching for plane tickets to Russia and I was texting my employer that I was sorry for leaving. However, an intelligent friend told me “they have many reasons to arrest you also, as soon as you cross the border you will go to prison for your printed words”. He brought me to my senses.

    I do know there will be no real joy in Russia until the government changes.Its time for one man to retire and then there will be a chance for joy in Russia.

    As for now, I am trying to adapt to living in New Jersey. Its hard to start from scratch. I am fortunate to be working for Liberty Bellows. They are fine people and they fully support me.

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