- Share to or
‘How could a Russian speaker not want to collaborate?’ The Kherson Philharmonic’s conductor is missing. Colleagues say Russian soldiers shot him.
Story by Meduza. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
In late September 2022, Russia held a sham “referendum” in Ukraine’s Kherson region as a precursor to claiming ownership over the territory. Soon after the annexation, it was reported that Russian troops had shot Yury Kerpatenko, the principal conductor of the Kherson Regional Philharmonic. The murder was reported both on the Ukrainian Culture Ministry’s social media and in the independent press. The exact circumstances surrounding Kerpatenko's disappearance, however, and even the date when it happened, are unknown. Meduza lays out what we know about the Ukrainian conductor and his disappearance.
The initial reports
On September 9, 2022, Yury Kerpatenko, the chief conductor of the Kherson Regional Philharmonic, would have turned 46. And it’s possible that he did; his friends and colleagues don’t know for sure. The last post Kerpatenko made on his Facebook profile was on May 29. All of the birthday wishes from his friends and colleagues sit on the page unanswered.
“There are a lot of Internet and cell service outages [in occupied Kherson]. [Plus,] a lot of people have abstained from getting Russian SIM cards simply out of principle, and Russian SIM cards are the only way to get in touch with someone,” said Tamara Lazareva (name changed), a member of the Kherson Philharmonic. Lazareva stayed in the city of Kherson until the end of the summer, when she was able to evacuate to the unoccupied part of the Kherson region.
On the evening of October 12, clarinet player Terenty Shevchenko said in a Facebook post that Kerpatenko had likely been killed by Russian troops. Shevchenko and Kerpatenko had previously worked together for 10 years at Kherson’s Mykola Kulish Music and Drama Theater. The day after Shevchenko's post, Kherson-based journalist Yelena Vanina shared the news on her own Facebook page.
Vanina told Meduza the following:
On October 13, one of Yury’s colleagues wrote to me and asked me to publish this message: “Today, it was revealed that the conductor of the Kherson Philharmonic was shot by the occupiers. He refused to work with them, and they said that they would come [for him]. They went to his home and shot him right there. It’s difficult to find more details than that, because everyone in Kherson is afraid [of the Russian soldiers], but the information is 100 percent true. I would like all of Ukraine to know about this. He was a very talented conductor, especially his arrangement skills.
[According to his colleagues,] nobody has heard from Yury since September. [His] friends started to learn what had happened, learned about this awful murder. But in the occupied territory, people are very scared and have asked not to be quoted.
Tamara Lazareva and Terenty Shevchenko said they both learned about Yury Kerpatenko’s death in the same way: on the same day, they received messages from multiple colleagues who still live in Kherson and who asked not to be named.
Who was Yury Kerpatenko?
All of Yury Kerpatenko’s colleagues mentioned his musical talent. In addition to conducting, he wrote film scores and did arrangements and orchestrations for clients throughout Ukraine and beyond. Four people Meduza spoke to called Kerpatenko both “multi-talented” and “in high demand.”
Terenty Shevchenko, who worked with Yury Kerpatenko for 10 years and witnessed his rise to the directorship of the Mykola Kulish Theater, described him as extremely ambitious. According to Shevchenko, Kerpatenko transformed the theater from a forgotten institution whose musicians did little more than accompany “old shows” to what was effectively a “philharmonic orchestra” capable of playing “big, dramatic, serious” pieces.
Tamara Lazareva, who played in both of Kerpatenko’s orchestras (the Philharmonic and the Mykola Kulish Theater orchestra), stressed that the conductor wasn’t motivated by fame or recognition:
Yury was modest, decent, and proud. He worked so hard in the theater — and did so much for it! Other theater employees were named People’s Artists, but Yury didn’t win any titles or anything like that.
Kerpatenko, she said, wasn’t one to defend his own interests. “[The theater] would use him. He would work quickly and for free — the kind of work they pay good money for abroad.”
According to Shevchenko, Kerpatenko’s compliant nature was inseparable from his integrity. In 2016, when an internal conflict among employees at the Mykola Kulish Theater started heating up, Yury decided to remove himself from the situation. “We [the other employees] were all turning on each other. Yury [eventually] got tired of it and resigned.”
Kherson journalist Yelena Vanina has her own theory for why Russian soldiers allegedly killed Yury Kerpatenko. She told Meduza that the conductor refused to assemble the orchestra for a concert to celebrate International Music Day on October 1 — something the Russian-backed authorities saw as an important part of “creating a picture of peaceful life" in the occupied city.
The conductor’s colleagues say he was very principled and emotional; he could very well have told the [occupiers] to follow the Russian warship in plain language. But unfortunately, we [journalists, Ukrainian prosecutors, and Kerpatenko’s friends] don’t know the details of the murder. The prosecutor’s office is working remotely. It’s very difficult to confirm anything. After the [Ukrainian] victory, there will be a complete investigation.
According to Shevchenko, the occupation authorities were incapable of organizing the concert they envisioned without Kerpatenko’s help: Kerpatenko had always compiled the repertoire and done the arrangements himself for the orchestra’s performances. Shevchenko said there were only a handful of people in Kherson capable of doing that kind of work at the philharmonic level.
In the end, the show did go on — but judging from video footage of the event, it only included five musicians and no conductor.
Kerpatenko, Lazareva told Meduza, was a “patriot of Ukraine.” Writing and speaking primarily in Russian, like many Kherson residents, the conductor openly expressed his pro-Ukrainian views on his Facebook page. On May 6, 2021, for example, Kerpatenko wrote the following to a Russian user named Nikita:
Joke all you want, but your President has pulled a gun on our country; he took Crimea and part of the Donbas. He wants to be seen as a great leader by you, Nikita, but that means that I, a Russian-speaking resident of Kherson, have to suffer. You can’t save me from myself by threatening me.
Yury Kerpatenko’s patriotism went beyond words. Terenty Shevchenko recalled a time shortly after the Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Maidan Revolution) when Kerpatenko refused to conduct a comedy show at the Mykola Kulish Theater. “Maybe you’ve heard about the Heavenly Hundred,” said Shevchenko. “People were in mourning. Yury refused to conduct. That story is probably a good example of his views.”
Still, the conductor’s colleagues said, Kerpatenko was never prone to extremes. According to Tamara Lazareva, he maintained a separation between art and politics. “At our concerts, we often played [the music of various] Ukrainian composers or Ukrainian folk music, and he loved it.” At the same time, he regularly had the orchestra play music by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and other Russian composers.
On October 16, Russian propagandist and media manager Alexander Malkevich, who was recently installed as the head of Kherson State University’s journalism department, made a Telegram post denying the reports that Kerpatenko had been murdered. The allegations, he said, were “fake news” being spread by the BBC. In the days after Malkevich’s post, Russian propaganda outlets started actively repeating the same claims.
Malkevich reproached the BBC’s Russian Service and the Ukrainian Culture Ministry for doing too little fact checking, writing, “BBC is spreading a vicious rumor, citing the Ukrainian Culture Ministry, which is incapable of knowing anything about what’s happening in Kherson.” Malkevich then proceeded to make baseless claims of his own: “In all honesty, he [Yury Kerpatenko] simply drank a lot. And was fired from his job for being an alcoholic,” he wrote.
According to Kerpatenko’s colleagues, Malkevich's version of events doesn't make any sense. “If the philharmonic’s leadership decided to collaborate, and we know from reliable sources that it did, then he [Kerpatenko] could have quit because he didn’t want to cooperate [with the occupation authorities],” said Daria Golubeva (name changed), who used to work with Kerpatenko at the Mykola Kulish Theater. “If he were a drunkard, he couldn't be such a workaholic and get so much done,” she added.
When asked whether anyone has seen Yury Kerpatenko’s body or attended his funeral, Tamara Lazareva chuckles: “You have no idea what life in Kherson is like. [...] People there are kidnapped and murdered in large numbers, and there are no funerals. When you see branches [used to cover up bodies] being transported in cars, and Russian soldiers are guarding the vehicles on three sides, it’s obvious what they’re actually transporting. I’ve seen it all myself.”
Terenty Shevchenko gave a similar account of life in the occupied city. “In Kherson, people disappear; they’ve abducted people in front of my very eyes. So this [Kerpatenko’s death] isn’t anything incredible, it’s not something that’s difficult to believe. They came up to my home [in Kherson one time]. Three [Russian] cars came up, broke the gate, and dragged [someone off from the neighboring courtyard]. Just like that. And I watched it happen from the window of my apartment building, my knees shaking. I don’t know if they brought him back home or not. And that story’s not unique.”
* * *
Meduza tried to find relatives of Yury Kerpatenko but was unable. It’s unclear whether they’re lying low to protect their own security or whether Kerpatenko simply had no remaining family.
The conductor’s colleagues know little about his personal life; according to them, he preferred not to talk about it. “He was an orphan; he was raised by his grandmother,” said Darya Golubeva. “His first wife was a violinist from our orchestra [at the theater]. They lived together for several years, then she got cancer and died in 2012. He really took care of her — he stayed with her until the very end. He was committed. And that tragedy hit him hard; it was very traumatic for him. They didn’t have any kids.”
According to Tamara Lazarova, Kerpatenko had since begun living with a woman, but nobody who spoke to Meduza knew anything about her, including her name.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
As long as Kherson remains under Russian occupation, there’s little Kerpatenko’s friends and colleagues can do to find out more about what happened. For example, nobody is sure why he didn’t leave the city earlier. Lazareva believes it may have been a question of money: “Leaving Kherson would have cost at least 5,000 hryvnias (about $134), and not everybody has that. Plus, everybody who leaves does it at their own risk; [after all, since the start of the occupation,] there hasn’t been a single humanitarian corridor.”
It’s also unclear exactly why Russian soldiers would want to kill a philharmonic conductor in the first place. “Maybe it annoyed them that he was a Russian speaker but still refused to work for them? [Apparently] they couldn’t wrap their heads around it: how is it possible that someone would [speak Russian but] not want to collaborate? A Russian-speaking Banderite?” speculated Darya Golubeva.
“We’re all hoping he’s still alive, and that they just took him away somewhere. We’re hoping for a miracle. As soon as I learned that [Russian troops had allegedly killed a musician who] refused to work [with the Russians], I immediately knew it was Yury,” said Tamara Lazareva.
In connection with Yury Kerpatenko’s alleged murder, the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office has opened a criminal case for both violating the laws and customs of war and premeditated murder.
Meduza has reached out to the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office and the Kherson Philharmonic for comment.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or