Across Los Angeles Russian expats fear loss of livelihoods, and friendships, in wake of war in Ukraine
Los Angeles Times March 25, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — In early March, as he was opening his record store Stellar Remnant for the day, proprietor, label owner and DJ Ed Karapetyan picked up a bundle of mail that he’d neglected over the weekend. Included was a notice from his landlord.
The letter informed Karapetyan, who performs as Ed Vertov and opened the shop in the downtown L.A. Fashion District three years ago, that his tenancy had been terminated and he had 30 days to vacate the premises. He was blindsided.
Since opening Stellar Remnant, Vertov, 44, has hosted in-store DJ sessions with successful mixers and producers including Russian DJ Nina Kraviz and Ukrainian DJ Etapp Kyle. Vertov’s 20-year-old techno label, Pro-Tez, has released tracks by artists from across Eastern Europe and Russia.
The merchant, who immigrated from Moscow in the mid-1990s to attend USC, got the notice less than a week after Russia invaded Ukraine. In the interim, Vertov and his romantic and professional partner Katya Tretya, a DJ and Russian citizen, had been bombarded with emails and texts urging them to display alliance with Ukraine by boycotting music produced by Russian artists — including from friends and connections the two have known over the years.
“People are coming in and telling us we need to stop selling and supporting Russian artists,” Vertov says, “without understanding what’s happening to the artists.”
Though his landlord denies it, Vertov and Tretya (born Katya Tretiakova) believe that the abrupt lease termination is linked to their Russian identity in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
“I’ve tried to reach out to [the landlord]. I’ve texted. I’ve called, but there is no answer. It seems like they don’t want to talk to us,” says Vertov, whose Russian passport expired years ago, after he became an American citizen. “We have rent money for him, but it seems like he doesn’t want our money.”
Concert pianist and educator Natalia Kartashova suffered a similar experience. The Los Angeles-based artist owns the Russian Academy of Music in West L.A. In the market for a new space, she went to see a building with the landlord two days before the Russian invasion. “Everything seemed OK. We were preparing the offer and then I was asked the question am I Ukrainian or Russian? and I said, ‘Well, I have relatives from both sides.’”
The landlord then mentioned the name Russian Academy of Music, she says. “He said, ‘OK, maybe you cannot put the sign outside.’ I said, ‘What was the reason for that?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, Russia is too provocative.’” Echoing Vertov’s experience, Kartashova said the owner “did not also tell me directly, but when the war started on February 24th, the building was gone.”
The pianist was looking for property in an area of L.A. dense with immigrants from across the former Soviet Union, many of whom relocated in the 1980s and ‘90s. Though precise numbers are hard to come by, according to the city of West Hollywood, during that influx an estimated 300,000 expats from across the Russian diaspora are living in the region.
“We are absolutely devastated and demoralized,” Vertov wrote on Instagram as news of his business displacement spread online. He stressed that Stellar Remnant would fight the notice to vacate but will nonetheless move out at the end of the month because “we believe beyond this eviction notice it is not safe for me and Kate [Katya] to own and run a business in this environment.”
It wasn’t just the lease termination, though.
The weekend before, he and Tretya had set up a record booth at the annual San Diego electronic music festival CRSSD, normally a supportive environment. But Vertov sensed something off as they interacted with customers.
“We literally had to hide certain records because people said that if we are selling these records, we’re supporting Putin and the invasion of Ukraine,” Vertov says.
The two-day festival began the same day that members of the Ukrainian electronic music scene published an open letter asking that fans, DJs and shops “cancel all cooperation with Russian artists, promoters, clubs, organizations who do not actively resist the actions of their government and do not explicitly take action to stop the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.”
The letter revealed fissures within the community. “We are also observing how our Russian colleagues, including those with the most status and the biggest platforms on an international level, express lack of concern and pretend not to notice the situation.”
Festival attendees took the open letter to heart, Vertov says. “The words they were saying — that’s when we were like, ‘Oh, my God, what is happening? Why do I have to hide records — living in America — of just Russian artists that have nothing to do with this? They’re kids, like here, trying to make music.’”
He understands the open letter is well-intentioned, he stresses, but nonetheless believes “it’s very dangerous because people took it as ‘cancel Russia and anything Russian.’”
Frustrated at being associated with geopolitical horrors that have nothing to do with music or his love of techno, Vertov knew from the war’s start that he needed to make a statement. “Music heals and can help you cope with these dark times on Planet Earth,” he wrote the day after the Russian invasion began. He went further a few days after the Ukrainian musicians’ open letter published.
“We do not support the bloodshed in Ukraine and do not support Putin or any totalitarian warmongering policies of any government. I think we all agree that this war and all wars on this beautiful planet must STOP,” he wrote on Instagram.
Vertov personalized his experience in another post. “I saw the tanks on the streets of Moscow and 1.5 million people raised up in 1991 and 1993 and we built barricades and we were defending democracy. Or so we thought.”
Longtime friends and followers commented with an outpouring of compassion, which heartened them, he says — to a point. “We definitely feel love, but also we know that the cruelty comes from people around us — the same people that we dance with at parties.”
Stellar Remnant was born out of Vertov’s 25-year involvement with the Los Angeles electronic music scene. He started it with his ex-wife, DJ-producer Lena Deen (Bogdanova), after helping to open the influential L.A. record store Mount Analog and a decade as an electronic music buyer at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.
Unassuming from the sidewalk, the store occupies a sparse space with a few record racks, a couch and a pair of fridge-size Klipsch speaker cabinets. The heart of the room is a DJ setup connected to those speakers: a mixer and two turntables, with a tripod, ring light and camera aimed at them. Since the pandemic, the store has served not only as a bricks-and-mortar shop but an online hub for DJ sets and mail order.
Searching his phone while a few Remnant customers browse the racks, Vertov pulls up one of the more vitriolic messages he’s received since the war started. “Ur cry for help is pathetic you Russians need every last bit of opposition in continuing to have a home in America,” the email read, in part.
Vertov, who grew up in Moscow and lives in downtown L.A., doesn’t have any relatives to speak of left in Russia. He is half Armenian and half Russian and much of his immediate family is in the L.A. area. “My mom is here; my niece is here; my sister’s here; my brother-in-law is here.” His dad is a Canadian citizen who lived in Toronto for years, Vertov adds. “He lives in Costa Rica now because he’s retired.”
Multiply Vertov’s experiences by a generation of worldly Russian expats and entrepreneurs like him who embraced freedom of travel and studying abroad, and the damage and breadth of Putin’s war becomes clear.
“Everything that they have worked for since the ‘90s has been erased,” says Amy Blackman, an international management consultant and former U.S. State Department cultural ambassador. Blackman characterizes Putin’s war as “30 years of progress erased in three weeks because of the brain drain flight and the mass migration of the educated entrepreneurial class. Everybody who could leave has left.”
“I don’t understand how to cope with it,” says pianist Kartashova, whose family is from St. Petersburg, Russia. A prodigy, she started giving recitals at 6 in Russia and abroad. She relocated to Moscow, where she attended college and won international piano competitions, before moving to Los Angeles in 2006. Sixteen years later, she’s watched as Russian peers have been abruptly dropped from concerts worldwide. “Music is an international language that’s supposed to be everybody’s heart,” she says.
It’s not just artists, though. Since the invasion, her 14-year-old daughter has been called a “Russian terrorist” at her L.A. area high school. “She’s trying to apologize every day, saying, ‘Hey, my uncle is in Ukraine. I have relatives in Ukraine.’ She shouldn’t be begging to not be beaten up.”
Standing near a row of packed record boxes awaiting shipment, Vertov says that he can’t prove that he’s being targeted due to the war. His lease has been up for months and he owes the landlord money.
“I want to be very transparent. We do owe back rent, but that’s not the issue,” Vertov says, adding that an already approved business loan will provide more than enough to pay the debt.
Both Vertov and Tretya claim that a few days before receiving the letter, during what seemed a casual conversation, the landlord’s property manager brought up their nationalities. Says Vertov: “These were his exact words: ‘Let me ask you something. Are you guys Ukrainian?’ I said, ‘No, we’re from Russia.’ He said, ‘I thought so.’”
Both Vertov and Tretya, who also witnessed the conversation, believe it prompted the the termination process.
Vertov adds, “It’s a very serious accusation, I absolutely understand. But this is my feeling. It seems like he stopped this conversation exactly after that day.” Vertov’s attorney has advised him that proving discrimination in court would be difficult.
Reached by phone, the building’s retail property manager, who declined to identify himself, denied that a conversation involving Vertov’s nationality ever took place or that Vertov’s heritage had anything to do with the termination. Vertov’s lease was up. The landlord exercised its rights under the original contract, said the manager. He added that the company is even forgiving Vertov’s back rent. He referred all other questions to ownership, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Throughout the invasion, Vertov has remained in communication with DJs and producers in Ukraine and Russia, but Putin’s government can access encrypted apps such as Telegram with no warning in Russia. “You could be in the subway getting out and a police officer looks at you. ‘Let me check your phone. Let me check your messages.’ If it says anything against the war, you can go to jail.”
Since the war started, Vertov has spoken to Ukrainian DJ Etapp Kyle, whose real name is Sergii Kushnir. One of the most prominent DJs in Ukraine, his rise was enabled after he moved to Moscow a decade ago and landed a residency at the popular techno club Arma17, followed soon thereafter by a residency at the legendary Berlin club Berghain.
Though Ukrainian, Kushnir’s family lived in East Germany before the collapse of the Soviet Union; his father was in the military and they returned to their homeland after the wall came down. The dregs of that same Soviet military are now pressing toward their township.
Kushnir signed the Ukrainian open letter that helped ignite the backlash against businesses such as Stellar Remnant. Two weeks before Russia destroyed his and millions of other Ukrainian lives, though, Kushnir posted a note in honor of his L.A.-based friends at the shop.
Next to a video of him working the turntables inside Stellar Remnant in late 2021, the DJ thanked Vertov for the hospitality. “I had a gig in Mexico the night before so had to rush to the store and picked these records literally just one hour before the session,” he wrote. “But the fact that I managed to select enough records for [a] one hour set so quickly makes the store my absolutely favourite in the US — thank you for having me.”
The clip already feels like a remnant. To the side, Vertov can be seen lost in music, bouncing his head along with a techno track, blissfully unaware of the upheaval to come.
©2022 Los Angeles Times.
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