Young Musician Bucks Russian Musical Culture

The 15-year-old’s frustrating memories of German class do not stem from grammar drills or vocabulary words, but from balloons.

The balloons were from all the celebrations that Olja Voronenko’s school held in lieu of class. All of the celebrations were held to kill time in a school that didn’t have enough classrooms for teaching.

These were no celebrations for Olja, an aspiring violinist. As her teachers sat up front, sipping tea, and the students around her relished the free period, she struggled silently. “I had a lot of unorganized lessons, so I always felt guilty that I couldn’t spend that time on the violin,” she said.

This shy resident of St. Petersburg, Russia, with the piercing gaze is trapped in a school system that is ill-equipped to accommodate, let alone nurture, creativity. It is a system that emphasizes rote memorization and drills. The result is evident in Russia’s low standing in international rankings. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, ranks Russia 43rd in the world. Russian schools make students like Olja, who dream of becoming musicians, novelists or painters, feel like outcasts.

All the same, Olja refuses to give up. She has been studying the violin for seven years and has already won two important competitions. She has the focus of a person twice her age. “I hope to move to France and apply to a good orchestra,” she said, “because I think I have more opportunities away from Russia.”


But this kind of focus meant a childhood full of barraging teachers, bullying peers and bad health. “My first school was an entire waste,” Olja said.

She spent the beginning of her academic career afraid to go to school because of an abusive teacher. By the time she was nine years old, Olja had already suffered through many periods in which she either sat idle or suffered through the rants of teachers who were angry that she spent hours playing violin after school rather than studying.

“I got bad marks and the teachers just kept saying that I have to pay more attention to school,” she said.

“I think they only have one thing on their minds: they are responsible for their subject,” said Dima Voronenko, Olja’s brother, of the teachers. “They didn’t want to have problems because of Olja.”

The 16-year-old remembers teachers often confronting him with comments like, “You study so much, why don’t you make your sister study more?”

Their parents even intervened and tried to explain the situation. Although the instructors said they understood, they continued to push Olja to comply with their unwavering agenda.

Their agenda may be better understood if one knows that Russia’s teachers are underpaid and part of an aging generation. They are trying to live off an average monthly wage of $480 in a place ranked the 29th most expensive city in the world.

Olja soon found herself facing more serious problems.


“I wasn’t getting enough sleep,” she said. “After school I had to do a lot of violin, and then I had to wake several hours before school to do my homework, so it affected my health very badly.”

She became less interested in her academic studies, but her love for violin, music school and her private music teacher grew.

Her parents finally made the bold decision to transfer her to out of school to a “special school.” It offered weekly tutoring sessions that left the other days open for independent study through homework assignments.


Olja’s uncompromising life plan will continue after next year, when she graduates from high school.

While many of her peers settle into a life in Russia, she wants to leave her homeland for somewhere free of the corruption she has already experienced firsthand.

“In many competitions, people who know some people with power can win even if they’re not the most talented,” Olja said. “It really can happen a lot in Russia.”

Recently, she got her first taste of the inequalities that musicians face in Russia. She entered a competition in which the winner would be awarded a small prize: about 2000 rubles, or $70.


Her brother remembers thinking she played immaculately. More importantly, the judges told her how well she had done. But when the results were announced, not only had she not won, but she hadn’t even made it past the first stage of the competition.

It was only afterwards that many music teachers there, who had more experience with Russian competitions, told the family that when it comes to awards of money, even such a small amount, it’s the competitors with connections who go far.

It is not just an unfair competition that has persuaded her to leave the country; Olja feels she must to survive.

“Playing in an orchestra in St. Petersburg would mean a medium salary, which wouldn’t really be enough,” she said.

She and her brother explained that, if she were to get hired to play in a good Russian orchestra, she would earn about $2,000 a month. The daughter of Olja’s violin teacher, who plays in a French orchestra, earns about four times that amount. And St. Petersburg isn’t a cheap place to live, ranking among the most expensive cities in Europe.

Olja hopes that her parents and brother will also be able to move to France, although that may prove difficult. All young men are required to serve in the military and her parents have to care for her aging grandparents.

But for now Olja will just keep developing her skills on an instrument she started to play for a simple reason.

“I was just drawn to it,” she said. “I don’t know why.”