Montreal

Russian-Ukrainian couple who fled war brings musical relief to refugees in Montreal

A Russian-Ukrainian couple who fled Russia when the war began are using their musical backgrounds to help support Ukrainians who were forced to leave their lives behind. The pair is offering piano lessons to refugees in Montreal.

The professional musicians offer piano lessons to those who left Ukraine

Music teachers who fled Russia look for the keys to a new life in Montreal

1 month ago
Duration 1:01
Olga Kudriakova and her husband Maxim Shatalkin left behind successful academic and artistic careers. Now they offer lessons to Ukrainian refugees.

Nikolai Kapustin's Variations, Op. 41 fills the small room at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA in Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. Olga Kudriakova's head undulates to the rhythm of the music as she hovers over a piano. 

"[Music], it's like language," said the 37-year-old Ukrainian pianist. "One more language for me." 

Kudriakova shares her passion for music with her husband Maxim Shatalkin, who also takes a seat before the keys. 

A couple pictured together.
The couple now lives in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood and offers piano lessons to Ukrainian refugees. (Submitted by Olga Kudriakova and Maxim Shatalkin)

As soon as the first notes resound through the room, it's clear Shatalkin is also a piano virtuoso.   

"I feel that I teleport to [another] space," said the 40-year-old Russian pianist.

But there was a time when both Shatalkin and Kudriakova's passion came to a halt. That was a few months ago, when the war broke out in Ukraine. 

Living in Moscow at the time, the couple said they did not want to live in a country where they couldn't express their opinion toward the war. Some of their Russian colleagues even took part in protests against the attacks on Ukraine, orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

"We couldn't really express our attitude to the events without risking to be jailed, to be deprived [of] our rights, our professional activities and even citizenship," said Kudriakova.

"It was emotionally and morally impossible for us [to stay in Moscow]." 

Therefore, in mid-August, the couple made the difficult decision to pack up their lives as professional musicians and move to Montreal, where they say the community welcomed them with open arms and "the richness of the culture" gave them a new lease on life. 

"The people who love music are the same for me," said Shatalkin. "[It] doesn't matter where they live."

Piano lessons for refugees

Before the war broke out, the couple never expected to leave Moscow, where together they had founded a private music and art school.

"We were established musicians and teachers," said Shatalkin. "We had a good life. We didn't want to move anywhere because we had a stable job."

The pair had also travelled across the country and Europe to play piano concerts and won several awards and competitions. 

With new ambitions and a new life on the horizon in Montreal, the couple decided to use their skills and passion for good.

They began offering piano lessons to Ukrainian refugees that were forced to flee their homes, such as 14-year-old Elisabeth Kryvonis.

I don't want to stop [playing] just because someone wanted to play [with] guns.- Elisabeth Kryvonis, 14

Her mother, Viktoriia Railianova, remembers looking out her window one morning and seeing a bomb explode at the airport in her city of Dnipro, Ukraine. She would later find out that her country was at war.

Still, Railianova said she would've taken her chances and stayed in Ukraine if it weren't for Elisabeth. 

"I live for my daughter," she said. "I realized that it's irresponsible from my side to stay [in Ukraine] because I want to protect my child and for her to continue a normal life here."

A girl and woman holding hands.
Elisabeth Kryvonis, left, and her mother Viktoriia Railianova fled Ukraine in April 2022. (Hénia Ould-Hammou/CBC News)

And Railianova knew that for her daughter, a normal life involved music. 

"[Music] was always a big part of my life," said Elisabeth. "I don't want to stop [playing] just because someone wanted to play [with] guns." 

'I hope we will have a future after Putin'

Both Kudriakova and Shatalkin hope to continue sharing their cultural and musical backgrounds with their students while furthering their music careers in Montreal.

Shatalkin plays the piano in the Fibonacci music trio while Kudriakova practises for future concerts.

Elisabeth also dreams of packed concert halls in Ukraine. 

"When I will be a pianist, I will go to Ukraine and I will perform in one of our theatres because we have plenty, plenty of theatres in my hometown," she said. 

A woman plays the piano while a man leans on it and looks at her.
The couple hopes to continue sharing their cultural and musical backgrounds with their students while furthering their music careers in Montreal. (Hénia Ould-Hammou/CBC News)

Kudriakova also has wishes for her homeland. 

"After the war is finished, Ukraine will start a new life, new economy, new united society," she said.

"I hope we will have a future after Putin."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hénia Ould-Hammou is a journalist and researcher with CBC Montreal. She previously completed an internship with La Presse after graduating from McGill University with a double major in political science and psychology. Hénia is interested in international and societal issues, soccer, politics and rap music. Send her an email at henia.ould-hammou@cbc.ca

with files from CBC's Kwabena Oduro

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